The Backstory to the Book

“Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion quite in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life—in understanding as in work.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”


That moment in yesterday’s post led me to a deeper relationship with Jesus. Several devotional books grew out of the seed that was planted in me that afternoon at the office. And several years later, the book I quoted from in yesterday’s post grew out of it.

The process seemed so organic, one growing out of the other, growing out of still another.

“Centurion” was different. I felt drawn to the story years ago—perhaps 15 years ago. I hadn’t thought about it a great deal, though, when my agent and I met with a vice president from Tyndale Publishing House. The meeting was about 40 minutes or so, as I recall. I had a number of projects I pitched, and, as it turned out, he wanted three of them—“The Divine Embrace” . . . “The North Face of God” . . . and “Centurion.”

“Centurion” at that time was just an overview of a story, a little over a page long; not a detailed outline and three sample chapters as is the standard practice. So, by the time I got around to that one (the other two preceded it), I wasn’t really ready to write it.

I wasn’t ready on a number of levels. I wasn’t ready with the research. I wasn’t ready with the character development. And, most importantly, “I” wasn’t ready.

The soil of my heart, so to speak, wasn’t prepared. Between freshly fallen leaves and soil is a transitional stage—compost—a stage when all that has died and fallen to the ground decays, gets a little rained on, a little moldy, gets the dung of passing animals dropped on it, and the burrowing of insects to mix it. Not a very appealing process, but a necessary one.

Before gestation could take place, the broken-down matter of my life with all its failures and regrets needed a season of moldering before it could nourish any life other than its own.

The beginning of that process began one day when I was working on the book. I took a break and skimmed the newspaper. The sidebar on the right-hand side of the paper announced that Mel Gibson was in production for a film, titled, “The Passion of the Christ.” My heart sunk.

A big part of the reason I wanted to write my book is that I didn’t think the crucifixion of Jesus had ever been shown in a feature film in a realistic way. Most reenactments were little more than Easter pageants, I felt. My entire first act was going to show the crucifixion the way you would have seen it if you were on that hill the day of the executions.

By the time I had finished the first act, the film came out. It was a wonderful piece of film-making—accurate, compelling, and for many, life-changing.

For me, though, it was a crisis of faith. I had wanted to be involved in the film industry since I first became a writer. And this was the story I felt sure would be what opened the door to that dream.

My dilemma was that my book would come out after the film, and so it would appear derivative. When I explained this to my publisher, he wanted me to hurry up and finish it so they could get it out as soon as possible. I couldn’t do that, I said. Then he said he could find a writer to finish it for me. And I said I couldn’t do that either.

The only way I felt the dilemma could be resolved was if I were to buy the book back. It took me four years of monthly installments, but I finally paid it off.

The years that followed were compost years, in every area of my life. I threw away most of what I had written. What little remained I put in a box. It felt like a cold-case file to me now.

I felt alone, rejected, and hurt so deeply. It almost seemed a cruel joke. I prayed. I called out to God. But nothing. I felt forsaken. A horrible feeling but a necessary one, at least for this project.

Years later, I picked it up again, and figured out a way to tell the story without focusing too much on the crucifixion (I’ll talk about that in another post).

What l learned about writing was that every project has its own gestation period. Some take months; others, years. My job as a writer was to tend the growth, not to force the growth.

Rilke was right. Here is what he went on to say . . .


“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”



November 17, 2013 · 11:50 pm

3 responses to “The Backstory to the Book

  1. What a great post Ken. It takes a lot of courage to trust the need to gestate as you have. Thanks for the eloquently written peek into your heart. I recently posted about the distinction between feeling stuck and the need to incubate.

    Can’t wait to see Centurion on the big screen.

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