On Writing My First Book

A few weeks ago, I turned in the manuscript for my first book to my publisher, Finding Holy in the Suburbs. I suppose there had been others — scrawled words in composition notebooks and spiral notebooks, abandoned stories where I gave up writing and thought I could only write about writing, and a PhD that approximately 4 people in the entire universe will ever read all the way through (2 of which examined me on it, 1 was my supervisor, and 1 was, of course, me). 

It’s an odd sort of pleasure and pain to write a book. I began with pretty words and sentences, intoxicated by the blank page, by all the stories that needed telling. By the very art of stringing words together to affect transformation. But morning after morning, at 5 a.m., I’d wake, drink my tea, and stare off into the middle distance for awhile. I’d plop down on my green couch, curl my legs under a blanket, and begin the writing. It didn’t dazzle, not usually anyway. But I showed up, day after day, when the world was dark to write. 

Somewhere along the way, it became less about crafting sentences and more about utility. Less about beauty, more about substance. After all, I just wanted to be helpful to my reader. I imagined my readers sitting in their granite-countertopped kitchens, eating takeout and drinking a glass of wine after circling the suburbs in their SUVs. They’d stare at their noodles, slurp them up with a fork and bemoan their children’s chaos in the other room, the latest headline on the TV, take a big breath, and get to helping with homework. They were ragged, worn, busy, supposedly full, but empty. It’s the sort of discontent I felt from moving from place to place — from trading mountain vistas for ocean ones, for trading city for suburb, for trading a long-standing community for a new one. I understood it. 

My 5 a.m. writing sessions were an effort to really see an imagined other, because when it came down to it, my reader is real. I wanted to hold out an answer for a better life than frenetic rush and hurry, a better story than consumerism, a better way to live than one of navel-gazing in suburban tract homes. I wanted to point people to the kingdom of God, to show the meaning, beauty, and glory present right in our streets, if only we’ll have eyes to see. 

It wasn’t so much my prose that I wanted to draw attention to, but to the grander story of a God who calls us his beloved, who encircles us and calls us outward toward the ordinary acts of love: vulnerability, hospitality, shalom. 

By April I handed the book off to three trusted writer friends, who clapped and cheered, who pushed back, and asked hard questions, and helped me take apart all the words, like an open body on an operating table. I wrestled with those words then, trying to coax them to behave, but knowing most of them needed to die — all the pretty stories just a way to get to the heart. I axed a beloved chapter. I re-wrote chapters. I found new stories to tell. I sewed it up. In the end, in June, I passed it off to my editors knowing they will help me take the book to the next level. I’d taken it as far as I could go. 

There will be more edits, but for now there is rest. There is also the silence that I imagine I feel when my children leave home. It’s the tremendous let-down when the project is out of my hands — not because my skin’s too thin to re-write and edit — but because the book had become a part of me, and a way to commune with God in those silent, dark hours. Now that the largest part is done, it feels a bit like postpartum depression, where my feet shuffle across our wood floors, as if I’ve entered a room to get something and then now can’t remember what it was. 

This is the way the writing goes. It is the great letting go of one’s words into the world. 

For graciously and mysteriously, books have lives that live and move and have their being apart from their births and gestations. Special ones wrap around our hearts with the grace of a sentence, or the truth of the human condition, or how it helps us reframe ourselves.

At the heart of the universe is the word. 

If my words get to be one small little offering to the Word made flesh, if one sentence helps one person, it will all have been a glorious gift. 

Ashley Hales

16 thoughts on “On Writing My First Book

  1. “At the heart of the universe is the word.” Yes. Thankful for The Word, your words, all of the words that turn my heart to hope and grace, to life.

  2. Thinking about all sorts of projects… I’m thankful for that piece of rest before more editing & reworking. I’m learning to look for those pauses and spaces and to sit there, accepting a place to recharge before reworking.

  3. Ashley, you’ve captured this process so beautifully well–the topic is timely and needed…. all the best to you on the rest of the journey!

  4. I feel a bit weepy about this book, your offering of words, and I’m just so proud that you finished, that you obeyed!

  5. I am in awe of people who wrestle their way through the conflicting priorities and come through it all with beautiful words that become a book. And “utility!” What a gift to your readers this will be.

    • Thank you, Michele. I do hope utility can coexist quite well with beauty. Thanks for your encouragement along the way!

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