A Note to Young Writers: Honor Your Obscurity


Leslie's picRecently, I spent time with two younger women, both of whom had just released their first book. Sarah and Andrea are both fine writers whom I expect will continue to write and publish books. In the short time I had with each of them, I dumped all my writing and marketing advice, talking about websites, blogging, Facebook, twitter. But I forgot to say the most important thing of all: honor your obscurity.

We know if we’re to be published in any form, we need a sizeable audience. And that most of the time, we have to find that audience before the first book contract lands on our desk. Once it does, and the book is out, we’re tasked to keep racking up bigger numbers.

But how do we catch the eye and ear of a world that so often chooses the flippant, the crude, the gaudy spectacle over the good, the authentic, and the true?  We may pray as Jabez did:

woman-praying-parodic“O, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” (I Chronicles 4:10).

The artists’ version would go something like, “O, that you would bless me and enlarge my platform, increase my followers, expand my twitter peeps and keep me from publishing harm so I will be famous, free from the pain of falling out-of-print.”

I know these desires. An hour ago I was on a nationally syndicated radio show, and now, against my better will, I’m glued to numbers, trying to measure “impact.” A stranger writes to me immediately after the broadcast and asks how to become a writer and speaker. Another writes to ask how to build a fan base for her blog.

If you want others to read and listen to you, you must listen to others.

Do for others what you want them to do for you. That will not make you famous; but will make you better informed and more humble.

Fame is not what you think.

Admittedly, I am not the best source. My moments of “fame” are modest and sporadic. Fame is often over in a moment and brings more responsibility than freedom. It can pollute or paralyze your writing. I have a friend whose first book shot to the New York Times bestseller list. His agent, readers, and global fan base now hold their collective breath for his next book. “How do I write under this weight?” he asks, with so many others to heed and please.

Honor your obscurity.

This is another way of echoing Bill Roorhbach’s charge to “honor your apprenticeship.”  Value this time of laboring toward your best work with few listeners. This quiet is your wilderness, your blessing. Here you will sharpen your art. Lean closer to the sounds around you, for the fragile people who haunt the forests you watch, for the small voice that whispers names you didn’t know.

man reading

Enjoy the purity of your efforts.

Make art, worlds, and essays out of the sheer love of words, theatre, longing, and hope. Enjoy it now before a publisher fills your notebook with a thousand necessary tasks, few of which have much to do with why you began writing in the first place.

What do you imagine fame will bring?

For me (and for many writers I know) I hope mostly to be able to keep on writing, to keep using “that talent which is death in me to hide,” as John Milton writes. If you’re doing this now, pouring life into the truest sentences you can make, you’re already famous.


Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of 8 books, including The Spirit of Food, Surviving the Island of Grace, and her forthcoming book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. She lives in Kodiak, Alaska and is a national speaker and a contributing editor for Christianity Today magazine.

Click here to visit Leslie’s website.

4 thoughts on “A Note to Young Writers: Honor Your Obscurity

  1. Yes, yes, and yes. My second book is coming out this fall, and delusions of grandeur compete with nightmares of remaindering. I used to yearn for fame, for the NYT bestseller thing. Now, I just want to sell enough copies to be able to keep writing…and few enough that I can keep writing what I feel compelled to write, not what a marketer or publisher tells me to write.

    Thank you for the reminder that the words are what matter most and for affirming the goodness of obscurity. I am so glad to be able to say that I’m enjoying my obscurity. Finally! 🙂


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