In the Arena
Have you seen the meme from Gladiator where Russell Crowe, in the middle of a combat arena, shouts to the crowd “are you not entertained?”
The image of a Roman arena—full of noise, blood, threat, and spectacle—is an interesting one and a rather personal one now to me as a full-time author. When I entered an arena of sorts, the arena of publishing, I came across one of my all-time favorite quotes. This quote was given by Brené Brown in a 99U talk in December 2013, a video which I saw right around the time my fifth novel (Dryad-Born) was published by 47North. The quote comes from Theodore Roosevelt and is dubbed “the man in the arena” speech:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
First of all, plenty of women are in the arena too. Many of my author friends are women and they have to put up with a lot of crap that I don’t. Just wanted to make that point. For me, Brené’s talk couldn’t have come at a better time in my life and it’s helped me for years since.
When I heard that speech, I was a new guy in the arena. Now, I feel a little more like Russell Crowe’s character. I’m a bit more bruised, weary, and jaded by the experience of being a full-time author. I know things now I didn’t know then. I always want to help others who are coming into the arena for the first time themselves. To give another perspective of what it’s like and what to expect. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned so far:
- It is a tough mental game. I used to think that writing was just a craft, like laying tile or building a cabinet. But it is not just the skills of sword and shield, or the exhaustion of physical training. It is the relentless mental worrying about how readers are going to react, how some fellow authors are going to treat you, how long people will keep reading before giving up on you. I’ve always read my reviews. Most are so generous and kind. A few are total zingers that go for the jugular (this one is so harsh it’s one of my favorites: “If you enjoy sliding knives into your guts or piercing your eyes with poison needles you will love this book…killing your favorite puppy might be more fun than reading this book”). Some are just critical and dismissive. It takes a lot of mental resilience to keep going in the face of the roar of the crowd, some good, some bad, some indifferent. And then there’s the nagging worry that your best story is already behind you and that it’s only downhill from here on. That’s called Imposter Syndrome. We all have it.
- It takes a toll on family life. This is probably the one that scares me the most. I’ve always loved reading biographies since I like to learn from the experiences of others. I’m motivated by those who have accomplished incredible things. But there’s a downside to researching about successful authors. So many of the ones I’ve admired didn’t have so great of a home life. Most of my favorite authors have all been divorced. I don’t know all the reasons why but biographies offer clues. There is a primal need for attention inside everyone. And maybe movie stars, musicians, writers, and others who entertain us have a stronger need than others. I don’t know. Or maybe when the praise comes from outside the home more than inside, it creates a false impression that the grass is greener on the other side. I told my wife recently that if I had to pick between my family and my writing, I’d choose them.
- Worrying about supporting a family. When I left the consistency of my career at Intel, I knew I was taking a risk to live my dream. Expenses like healthcare doubled overnight. The inconsistency of royalty payments also became a new normal. I’m a spreadsheet guy because of Intel, so I track my sales and forecast what I think my royalties are going to be one to two months out. I’m grateful my publisher provides us with real-time sales info. That’s rare in this industry. But 1-2 months out is all the visibility that I have. It’s stressful. When Covid struck in 2020, I watched my royalties drop in half. With so many people who lost their jobs, their health, I really can’t complain. Few writers can make this a full-time gig like I’ve been blessed with. I’ve watched many need to get other jobs to keep food on the table or pay bills.
- Writing for passion or writing for money. Wow, this is another lesson I’ve come face to face with in the years following my debut. I’ve witnessed other authors I admire keep cranking the handle on their familiar series, even though the readers keep dropping off the farther on it goes. I’ve always wanted to write in a variety of worlds, but the quantity of sales in those different series are very different. For example, I loved writing The Grave Kingdom series, but it hasn’t done as well as some of my others. Do I go back and finish it because I left a door open to tell more? I still love that world even though I’m disappointed it didn’t do as well. Or do I build onto an established world? Or take a risk and try something else new? I am so grateful that my publisher encourages risk taking, that they urge me to keep trying new things. And no, I’m not going to write more Landmoor novels. Sorry.
- Remembering why you’re in the arena in the first place. It’s been 10 years since I self-published the Muirwood trilogy and stepped into the arena as an indy author. I couldn’t have foreseen that 47North would seek me out and sign me up. But it helps me remember why I’m doing this to begin with. Writing has always been a desire to share something, to tell a story that makes people feel I want to inspire people. To provide a source of light in a world that can really feel dark sometimes. Back when I had an audience of only a few, knowing that I was making a difference to them helped motivate me to sacrifice the time and squeeze writing into very busy weeks. Having you folks cheering me on now is so wonderful. Thank you.
I felt like sharing this part of myself, although I’m a pretty private person. I’m ready to buckle on my shield, grip my sword, and keep swinging even though it’s not always easy. The words of encouragement that come help me keep going. I try to remember Brené’s warning about the critics who don’t matter and to not let the barbs about killing pets hurt too much. I’ve made so many new friends being in this arena. So I’m going to keep trying to write the best books I’m capable of, ones I’m excited and passionate about, and if hardly anyone is left in the stands to clap, that’s ok. I love telling stories. I am incredibly blessed to even be in the arena. I have the best wife in the world and my kids, when they’re not driving us nuts, are pretty fun to hang out with too and to be there for them when they need us. I don’t know when my life has ever been so busy, so complicated, so discouraging, and so hopeful all at the same time. I’ve no idea what’s coming next or how long this run will last. But I’m going to swing with all my might and take strength from God to stand in the arena for as long as I am able to stay on my feet.
“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31
Brené Brown (Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-JXOnFOXQk <- admit it, you’re curious now and want to watch it…
Some of my all-time favorite comments from fans:
“I will simply state that there is a scene near the end of this book set on a beach, that may just be the most moving thing I have ever read in a fantasy novel, and that’s saying something given the 1000+ books I’ve read. Thank you Jeff, for a fantastic tale, lovable heroes (and heroines) and a story that delivers in every way imaginable” -Dave
“Whatever trials you went through as you were writing these books, I pray they all feel worth it as you share such a uniquely creative and passionate message to your readers. Never, never, never give up.” -Jessica
“My grandfather owned a small beach library in Madras, India. I grew up with the classics – Dickens, Shakespeare… Now, in my own house at 47 years old, I have over 3,000 books. I am an avid reader to say the least and I read everything – the good, the bad, the ugly! BUT… What you created is magic. And I do not think that (yet) people know. But when they do, be ready for the deluge. I hope you stay yourself.” -Nandini
“I just wanted you to know that my house is covered in unfolded laundry and I hold you responsible. I have done nothing this past 48 hours but devour the Muirwood Trilogy. I can’t seem to get Lia out of my head!… There was a point last night as I was finishing the Scourge of Muirwood where Lia believes Colvin is dying in prison of the blight. I couldn’t believe that you were going to end the story in that manner. I had to fight the urge to stomp across the court and ask what you were thinking when you wrote that! Thank goodness it all resolved in so satisfactory a manner! Thanks for one of the most enjoyable reads I have had lately.” -Shannon (when a fan happens to also be your neighbor)
“I’m surrounded by forest fire. My favorite places to explore the forests are aflame. I finished Blight and read the acknowledgements and almost started to cry- you mentioned Rancho San Antonio park- I hiked there almost every third week this winter and spring training to climb Mt Whitney. I love looking down on the climb down from Black Mountain to see Maryknoll. Your account, your story and the concept of religion you use in the series is something I found as a comfort this week – I needed it. The despair of the fires, the pandemic and a hurricane with my name was becoming a lot. Muirwood brought me comfort amongst the unknown. The concept of the Medium is also an idea that brings me comfort among all of this. Anyway. This is an incredibly long winded way of saying THANK YOU. I could see the vision of the world in my mind and it is a salve for my anxiety. I thank you and the Medium for letting me not read this series until this week when I needed it most.” – Laura