When I was a kid, we had this big oak tree in our front yard that my brother and I would climb. I spent hours up in that big tree, and I loved everything about it – the earthly smell of the leaves, the rough feel of the bark, the wind rustling the branches – it was a place of refuge from the problems of my 1980’s adolescent world – such as which parachute pants I should wear, or which air guitar move I’d make at the sock hop, or how I could approach that girl I secretly liked. They may not seem like big problems now, but at the time, they were huge. Up in the tree, they didn’t concern me.
There was a certain place in the tree where a big branch split off into a Y shape, and it made a perfect place to sit. It was about as high up as I would dare to go, because at that point the branches started to get smaller as top of the trunk of the tree ended. I would stare up at the small branches and leaves above, wishing that I could make it all the way to the top and poke my head out of the top of the tree like Bilbo in the forest of Mirkwood. I was certain that the air was fresher up there, that the view would be the most fantastic view around (even though it was about on the same level as the view from the window of my second floor bedroom), and that it might even be a thin place where God would give me the special epiphany I needed to solve all my problems.
It was a magical place, and now that I’m an adult, I find that I long for the magic of it.
The decision to self-publish my book, Thimblerig’s Ark, on Amazon put me right back up in that tree.
What does that mean? It means that I’m proud that I finally finished the story that I started fourteen years ago. It was a struggle, sort of like getting started up the tree, where once I cleared that first hurtle of the lowest hanging branch, I felt free to continue climbing. I’d go up and up, climbing like a squirrel. It was the same with the book; once I got past the halfway point of the first draft, I took off and wrote and wrote. Like a squirrel. But one who knows how to use a laptop and can write quickly.
There were some difficult sections, like the branches that seem just a bit too high, but I forced myself to continue. Sometimes it was exhilarating, reminding me of the times I would grab a branch that was not as sturdy as I thought, and I’d slip off. The first time I gave my manuscript to a group of friends to read was such a moment. As I waited for them to finish my draft, my heart was in a constant state of beating faster.
And then, when I pressed “Submit” to upload the book onto Amazon, I felt it again. Sending Thimblerig’s Ark whizzing across China, past schools of tuna in the Pacific Ocean, to the Amazon servers in California, it dawned on me that now my soul was opened up for anyone to see. That seems a bit drastic to say, but it feels true. I’d invested so much of myself into this story that knowing others would be reading it brought on intense feelings of vulnerability. Once the free downloads started moving this past weekend, and the numbers started growing as friends and family spread the word, it struck me that all kinds of people were now going to be reading what I wrote. And once more I was up in the tree, heading for the open breezes of the top leaves, and it felt exhilarating and terrifying all the same time.
In self-publishing, the treetops are exclusive and elusive, and the promises they hold are almost mythical to those of us who have not arrived. What’s up there? All I have to go on is what I’ve heard whispered in the company of other authors seeking to finish the climb.
“The winds of success blow up there,” they say. I try to imagine what those winds feel like, and I find it extremely difficult, but they must feel refreshing, right? They also say that the view from up top is unbeatable, making all the risks of the climb worthwhile.
Meanwhile, I’m down here, in the middle of the thick branches, gazing up and seeing glimpses of light through leaves overhead, wondering if I’ll ever get up there.
But the thought occurs to me: will it really be better up there? After all, this place where I find myself now, in the middle of the tree, has never failed me before. This is where I worked out the problems of getting my story’s hero from inciting incident to resolution. This is where I was struck by such inspiration, that it seemed be coming from somewhere outside of myself. This is the place where I accomplished my goal of writing and completing a novel, a novel that my eleven year old daughter was reading last night, and discussing the characters with me, asking me questions, and ending the conversation with “I love it, Daddy!”
I think that what I’m learning as I sit here in the tree, listening to the breezes blow through the branches, is that I need to be content where I am in the middle of the tree, but open to the possibility that I could move up to the treetops if the circumstances are right. I need to realize that the odds are against my reaching the top, but that anything is possible. I need to accept that if I reach the top without having learned contentment in the middle, it is doubtful I will be content at the top.
It’s perfectly fine (and maybe even necessary) to dream about getting up there, but it’s perfectly fine to be happy in the middle, too.
Both places are good. It’s up to me to enjoy being where I am.