Even though she’d lived through the horrors of war and the Nazi occupation, by her teens Audrey Hepburn was an accomplished ballerina. Her family had moved her to Holland in hopes of keeping her safe, but the Germans had overrun the country, destroying villages and exacting horrific and sadistic executions.
Not yet an adult, young Audrey made the brave choice to join the Dutch Resistance. She used one of the only things she had at her disposal—her talent—to help fund it. She and her fellow students would perform for this very purpose. Even as they danced, they could hear the Nazi patrols nearby, roaming the streets. Still, she and her fellow students would not be deterred and went on with their secret, underground shows to raise money for the resistance.
When they were finished, the young dancers, full of pride for both their performance and their convictions, turned toward the audience and took a bow.
But there was no applause in return.
As a kid and teen, I never got into dance like many of my friends. I spent plenty of time writing in my room, but what took most of my time was sports. I started in gymnastics, then moved to soccer, then moved to what I would eventually end up playing throughout my high school career: basketball.
In small town America, sports were a big deal. And our tiny community came out in droves to support us. By the time I got to high school, a new state-of-the-art gym had been built, and it held hordes of people.
Athletics taught me a lot about life, including how to approach it, how to discipline myself, how to overcome difficulty and many other things for which I am eternally grateful. It also taught me to love applause.
There seemed to be nothing as exhilarating as sinking a shot and hearing the roar of the crowd jumping to their feet. When the buzzer sounded and our team had won, the applause was fierce and fantastic. My sister was a cheerleader, so it was always thrilling to glance down the court and see her under the goal cheering me on with back flips and pom-poms.
But my athletic career ended. And soon I realized how quiet writing was.
I remember the day my first book came out. I was alone in my house. There was really nothing to do but wait and see how well it was received. I called my mom. She was full of mom enthusiasm. I think I might’ve gone out that night to celebrate with my family, though we had a one-year-old at the time so maybe we ordered in.
Otherwise it was business as usual. My dream of being a published author had come true and it was so quiet!
It was dawning on me that I’d rarely be with anyone as they experienced my writing. They’re in their world, reading it. I’m in my world, writing it. Our paths would most likely never cross.
There were certainly some glory days in writing. Many of my great experiences as a writer are put away in scrapbooks now, but no less fun for me to remember. And something told me to never take them for granted. I never did.
But the tides were turning in the book market right at the beginning of my career. First there were whispers, then rumors, then official memos. When I started professionally writing, the Internet was fairly new and the most a writer was expected to have was a decent looking website.
A new device, though, was about to shake the whole world of books up more than anyone could’ve dreamed. They were calling it the e-book.
Some downplayed it, not believing that people would abandon paper books for reading on some kind of computer. But pretty soon the writing was on the digital wall. And life as we knew it in publishing would never be the same.
Along with the slow and painful death of the brick-and-mortar bookstores also came the stock market crash and the housing market crisis. If ever there was an unfortunate time to try to make it as a writer, I was in it.
While publishers and agents tried to figure out new contracts that took into account e-books and the fact that a book could now never go out of print, local bookstores and chains like Barnes and Noble were still hosting book signings, even for midlist authors. It seemed the thing to do.
But even on a Saturday, the bookstore looked emptier, like a shadow of itself.
With the debut of my first book, I’d hustled to make a good relationship with our local B&N, and it had paid off. With every release I had, some not even a year apart, I was invited to sign at their store.
Heather, the community liaison who helped me coordinate the signings, always greeted me with a lot of enthusiasm and a nice looking poster, and seemed genuinely excited to see me. She made sure I had a prominent place in the store. There was always a surge in the first 15 minutes—mostly friends and family—and after that, a trickle, and then it was two hours of pointing people to the bathroom and helping them find the non-fiction aisle.
Heather was fantastic. Desperately trying to make me feel comfortable, she made sure I had a Frappuccino from the Starbucks and slipped me a People Magazine here and there.
But soon that store closed, and now we writers were expected to make noise on the Internet via social media. The word “platform” started being tossed around, then enforced, and a whole new world was birthed. If there ever was any applause to be found in the publishing world, it was now replaced with a “thumbs up.”
Could there be a quieter form of approval?
Through it all, there was always the silence. The lack of applause. I didn’t realize I wanted it until it wasn’t there. Sometimes I’d print out a page and hurry it into the living room for my husband to read. He always encouraged me. But most of the time I was left to wonder how everyone was enjoying my book. Which parts were their favorites? Did they laugh at that great line on page 40? I’d never know.
Writing, I grew to learn, was going to be a place where I would need to understand that even in wild success, there would be little applause.
I had to do what I was doing not because others believed in it, but because I did. And the truth was, even though there were arenas of applause when I played basketball, at the end of the day I played the sport because I loved it. The truth was, applause wasn’t enough to get me to the gym at the crack of dawn. To run suicides. To swallow defeat. Applause alone would never be enough.
Writing had even greater meaning to me than basketball. Here I found a place to play and discover and be who God created me to be. It was on paper that I worked through my questions about life and where I gorged on curiosity. Nobody had to applaud. God was delighted to watch me. And I was delighted to escape to quiet corners and be watched.
Very soon, I got used to the silence and embraced it.
Audrey Hepburn, in a much more harrowing and courageous way, did too.
She danced to no applause for a reason. To keep from being found out, when the dance was over, the audience held their applause.
“The best audience I ever had,” Hepburn recounted, “had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.”
Audrey Hepburn found purpose in dancing beyond the applause. And we must do the same with writing. In all the writing you do, rarely will you meet or hear from those who’ve been touched by your work.
Every once in a while, though, when you’ve grown accustomed to the silence, God may surprise you with unexpected accolades—a letter, or a run-in at the library or something else, like He did for me.
I had only a few books under my belt the year one of my publishers, Tyndale House, invited me to come sign my new book, The Splitting Storm, at the Christian Booksellers Convention. I’d been to the convention before but mostly as an observer. Now I was the writer. It was surreal.
My editor, Jan, escorted me to the convention floor. I felt my breath catch and my stomach roll with nausea. Was I dressed okay? Did I look as nervous as I felt? A thousand stupid questions flooded my mind and I tried to settle myself down.
Don’t miss this moment.
Jan and I chatted on our way to their booth, which was large and impressive. I saw it a little earlier when I was walking around. I had watched with interest as Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye sign their latest bestselling Left Behind book, graciously interacting with the hundreds and hundreds of people who waited to have a chance to meet them.
I followed Jan through the back door of the booth. We stood behind a panel as we waited for it to be my turn. I could see out the front enough to observe a very long line of people snaking around velvet ropes, so long it turned the corner and I couldn’t see the end. I stuck my hands in my pockets and turned toward Jan, happy to wait a little longer for my turn.
“I guess they’re still signing books,” I said. “I saw their line earlier. It was massive!”
“Who?” Jan asked.
“Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye,” I said. I pitched my thumb toward where the line was. “They were signing fast, but there’s still a ton of people out there.”
Jan leaned to the side to look.
“Rene,” she laughed, “those people are here to see you.”
Yeah, those were the moments scrapbooks were made for. But along a twenty-year journey, there has only been a smattering of applause, light at that, and sometimes years between. And that has been okay.
Stephen King put it best, I think: “I have written because it fulfilled me. I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”