How finding my authentic self transformed my writing – and my life

 

Today I welcome my good friend James Prescott to the Unmasked: stories of authenticity blog series. He is incredibly honest about his own journey, which also gives real insight into the struggle with authenticity that writers can have, especially when chasing after recognition. Thank you James for your honesty!

Authentic.

It’s a word which gets banded around a lot nowadays. Indeed, it’s been used so much that now it’s become a word associated with jargon, with anyone using it in relation to themselves, often being labelled as inauthentic.

But authenticity is needed more than ever.

LOSING INTEGRITY

As a writer, with the saturation of platform building, the urgent need for all authors to ‘brand’, and build a following, and marketing intruding into the writing world more and more, a writer I need to keep my eyes open to any lack of integrity and honesty in my work.

But there was a time when I lost my authenticity – as a writer, and as a result, as a person. And it came from this need to please, this desperation for success, for followers.

I had been writing for a while, and enjoyed blogging. I toyed with wanting more, but had never pushed for it. Then I did a writing course which challenged me to step up, be more professional, and to write an e-book, a manifesto, and make it public.

 

The promise, the guarantee which was dangled out in front of me, was lots of people subscribing to my blog, and ultimately a book contract. Given I had no followers at the time, it was beyond anything I could imagine.

And it triggered my then fragile ego, and gave it life. In time, I began to lose my soul. My writing lost focus, lost its truth. I was more focused on good graphics, comments and titles than great blog posts – and I didn’t even know what my voice really was.

I look back at that time disappointed in myself. I was more concerned with numbers, with stats, than creating great, honest work. And I’d lost myself in the process too. The whole image I was giving to the world, I knew wasn’t true. This impacted every single area of my life.

When I lost my authenticity, I almost didn’t know who I was anymore.

I was wearing a mask, not even knowing who I was underneath.

TAKING ACTION

And once good friends confirmed this to me, I had to take action. It couldn’t go on this way. So I made an ultimately life-changing decision.

I decided to stop writing publicly. For as long as it took for me to find my voice.

For as long as it took to find my integrity.

For as long as it took to find myself again.

So I wrote for myself on a private blog, every day for 15 minutes. Free-writing. No agenda, no plan, no structure, no editing. As time went on, it was something I began to look forward to. It saved me so much energy I’d used worrying about promoting work, or publishing blog posts.

Slowly, but surely, I began to notice many of these posts were all pointing to a particular direction. Similar themes were emerging. Themes around creativity, identity, calling, and being true to yourself. What it meant to be an authentic writer.

Suddenly, words were pouring out of me. I wrote about 10 ‘proper’ blog posts in a short space of time, all unpublished of course. It became the most creative, most enjoyable period I’ve had as a writer.

And I felt more alive, more myself than I’d ever felt in my life.

I felt like me again. In fact, I knew I’d connected with my true self.

RECONNECTED

When the time came to publish publicly again, I was reluctant. But I now knew I had something worthwhile to share. And I was going to share it, not for anyone else, but for me. Because it was who I was.

This material poured out into an e-book. I launched and promoted it, not expecting anything back and not even needing any major response anymore. I didn’t care. And strangely, it ended up being my most successful piece of work.

But the point of it all was – I was myself again. I’d connected with my true self. I’d taken off the mask and found who I really was.

And that’s what being authentic is all about. It’s about connecting with your truest self. Having integrity in how you live your life.

When you find that, it impacts every area of your life. Work. Faith. Relationships. Health.

So today, have the courage to take off your masks and be who you truly are. Tell the truth of your story.

From my experience, you’ll never have any cause to regret it.

James Prescott is a writer, podcaster and writing coach from Sutton, near London. He is the author of numerous books including Dance Of The Writer – The Beginners Guide To Authentic Writing, and Mosaic Of Grace. He has written for the Huffington Post and is a ‘Top Writer’ on creativity and writing on Medium, as well as hosting the weekly Poema Podcast. You can access all his work at jamesprescott.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at @JamesPrescott77

Embracing the broken

I am delighted to welcome Liz Carter to my blog, as she continues the ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ series. This will be the last post before I take a little break for the holidays – but will be continuing with this series in the New Year. Liz is incredibly honest here and I resonated with a  lot of what she shared, including the pressure felt as a pastor’s wife and also feeling the need to learn to lament well…

‘How do you feel now?’

I stand there, my head bowed, my body stiff as I contain the pain raging inside. What do I say?

‘Are you feeling better?’

I bite down on my lip. ‘A little, yes, thank you.’

But inside I am berating myself. That’s not true, is it? I don’t feel a little better at all. If anything, I feel worse, the pain made somehow more obvious by the prayer. I feel just that bit smaller, that bit more invisible, the real me hiding behind the reality that once again, I am not healed. Once again, I have let somebody down, someone who wanted to pray with me, to see me set free from the pain which holds me in fierce bonds.

You see, this is my mask. This is the face I put on. It’s the face I have put on all my life, growing up with a degenerative lung disease. And it’s the face I sometimes put on with God, too.

It’s the ‘I’m fine’ face. It’s the words I say when folk ask me if I am better yet, the smile I smile when people tell me I look so well. It’s the false mask of pretence; a way to escape being too real, because sometimes it’s just too hard. Too exhausting to reveal my inner self with all its pain and loneliness, enclosed in a body which keeps me caged from the world for so much of the time. So instead of sharing my unmasked self, I nod. I smile. I’m fine, thank you.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to hide my feelings. Growing up with this disease meant that I had to put a mask on every day, to face the world, to be a person who deserved a place in the world. If I took my mask off, I thought I was showing that I wasn’t good enough, after all. That I was too weak and helpless. Too pathetic to be of use, because my body always let me down. The easiest way was to hide the fact that I was in pain. To pretend that all was well.

I started doing this in church, as well. I thought that people didn’t want to hear that I had another infection or felt too exhausted to go out of my house or that pleurisy was racking me yet again. I thought that I wasn’t displaying God’s power at work in my life if I was sick. I thought people wanted to hear bright and positive stuff.

But I was wrong.

People long to see authenticity

They yearn to see people being more honest, more open about their struggles. And when I share what I am really feeling, how I am struggling, then that brings me to a better place, as well. A place where I don’t have to pretend, anymore, a place where I don’t have to be lonely in my pain, because others have taken some of it and held it along with me.

Unmasking is scary. It’s risky. It doesn’t always go down so well, either. There have been the times I’ve tried to be more real with folk and they haven’t wanted to know. The shutters have come down, the glances over my shoulder more marked, the barriers erected. The platitudes start: ‘I’m sure you’ll be better soon.’ ‘You just need a bit of fresh air/exercise/aloe vera.’ Some people don’t want to be faced with the reality of my pain.

But there are actually far fewer of these people than I once told myself. Once upon a time, I felt I could only be open with my closest friends and family. Now, I’ve found that saying how I really feel can open conversations in the most wonderful way. I was talking to a lovely lady the other day – I don’t know her very well, so was all ready to say ‘fine, thanks,’ when the question came. But I caught myself, and told her that I was feeling fairly broken, actually, and that this year had been really bad for me, with multiple infections and a hospital admission. Instead of the conversation continuing on the superficial level it had started with, it got deep quickly, because this lady was released to speak about stuff going on for her, too. My decision to be real meant a much more profound connection. A healing conversation.

The perfect parson’s wife

I’m especially aware of this as a vicar’s wife. Perhaps there’s a script running somewhere in my mind telling me what a vicar’s wife should look like and act like, something which says that a vicar’s wife is always impeccably presented, and coolly calm and confident. I couldn’t possibly show folk who I really am, because that wouldn’t be appropriate.

I know that script is really a load of rubbish. It’s an archaic leftover of old novels I’ve read featuring distant and collected parson’s wives (we’re talking Austen and Bronte here.) It’s nothing like the reality of living life with honesty and integrity – which leads to messiness.

But messy is good. Messy is important, and real. Standing in coffee time after church with tears running down my cheeks means an unmasking which gives others permission to give of themselves, too. It means a sharing of lives marred with brokenness, an honesty about suffering which still crushes us, an authenticity about those times we just don’t get it.

Because a life lived with God does not mean a life lived without pain. And if we can learn to be honest about the pain then we can reach out to each other so much more. We can listen to one another and make the world a less lonely place, even if for only a moment or two. We can reach out and catch hold of the work of the Spirit among us as God brings healing through our willingness to open ourselves up. Even when it hurts.

We’re allowed to shout at God

I’ve had to go through a journey of being real with God, as well as with others. I got too good at pretending that everything was fine. That I didn’t mind when others were healed and I wasn’t, that I was good with it, that it was okay because I wanted those people to be happy. I told God that I was fine with my sick body if that was who I was supposed to be. I plastered a grin on my face and carried on.

Some of this was authentic. I found joy in worship, and felt that I had come to a place of acceptance of where I was. I’d lived with it forever, after all, so had known no other way, so perhaps it was easier for me than for others who suddenly get sick or become disabled. God was so much more than my feelings, and I found that I could take hold of contentment in God’s presence rather than in my circumstances.

But in all of this, I forgot to actually acknowledge my feelings.

I forgot that it is important to tell God how we feel.

I forgot about lament.

The Bible is an incredible model of how to be authentic. Right through all the books, we see broken people responding to God from out of their brokenness. We see people shouting at God, moaning, weeping, screaming. We see people battering their fists into God’s chest.

We even see Jesus in the deepest grief, sweating drops of blood as He asks God to take this great burden away from him. We see in Jesus’ desperation the most profound authenticity, an honesty not afraid to express His fears and His pain, while always saying Yet not my will. Yet not my will, but yours be done. Jesus had no need to put on a mask before His Father, no need to say that He was fine thank you, that He was really okay with what He knew He had to do.

Because He really wasn’t okay. He was sweating blood.

In the psalms, the writers so often share their brokenness in the most raw words, ragged and haunting poetry which expresses their pain. How long, O Lord, how long?… Why, my soul, are you so downcast?… Do not hide your face from me! The writers don’t hold back from God, because they know that God can take their grief and their shame, their agony and their hatred. They give us a model for how we can be genuine in our prayers. How we can share the depths of our hearts with God, even when those depths are so very dark, because there is no darkness that cannot be lit up with God’s dazzling light. Those psalmists always move on from laying out their brokenness to trusting in God, even when things look bleak. And it’s in their active decisions to remember God’s work in their life and to praise God anyway that they find their healing, that they find their mourning turned to dancing and their lives lifted from the pit.

Their unmasking leads to their healing.

This is my experience, too. Pretending does nothing, before God and before people, because pretending leads to superficiality, and there is little point to that. Honesty – even in all its raw brutality – does so much more. It lays bare truth and its vulnerability speaks to battered hearts and crushed lives.

‘Are you feeling better, now?’ the person praying asks of me.

I begin to speak, but stop myself for a second.

‘I’m still in pain. So much pain. Why can’t God take my pain away?’

And we weep together. We weep in the waiting and in the brokenness, but our weeping is seasoned with hope, the hope we both know, the reason we keep on asking.

The hope that will never let us go.

Liz lives in Shropshire with her Rev. other half and two teens. She loves writing more than most other things and blogs here. Her Bible study book about Beauty and the Beast is available here or you can get an e-copy for free on her blog. Liz’s first book is about contentment living in a broken world and will be published by IVP in 2018.

Publication day!

I was quiet during the whole #MeToo viral campaign – mainly because I had just started a new job and life was incredibly busy. But I was really struck by something that Reese Witherspoon said about things needing to come out into the open in order to be healed.

That, I think, is so true – and can be related to our spiritual walk too. It wasn’t until I had been completely exposed and the big issues in my marriage and in my own walk with God had been dealt with, that I could begin to take those first steps of walking as a leader with real integrity and honesty.

I really feel God redeemed my worst mistakes and has actually turned the fruit into my main ministry – being vulnerable and open in order to encourage others to be too.

My book, Taking Off the Mask, is out today. In it, I am incredibly honest about my somewhat shameful past – although it holds no shame for me today. He allowed me to be exposed, brought everything out into the light, in order to bring His healing. I know God has forgiven me and has also called me to share my own journey and what I have learned along the way in order to encourage and challenge others.

I do hope that that is what my book does for those of you who read it. It is a straightforward, honest book. It does contain questions in order for you to dig deeper, to look at how you respond to some of the issues I’ve faced and raise in the book.

If you would like to buy it from me, those of you in the UK can do so here at the reduced price of £8.99 (with free postage).

Thanks for your continued support – and if you are on Facebook do come to my Facebook live event at 7.30pm GMT.

How I found my voice

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Today I am delighted to welcome James Prescott to my blog. I have known James for quite a while; we conversed on social media for months before discovering that we live in the same town! We are also both part of the Association of Christian Writers, which provides great support.

 I was privileged to be a part of James’ book launch group and can honestly say I have found his new book invaluable; challenging yet full of grace. So many of the lessons God had been teaching him were ones that He had been speaking to me about too, so the book resonated with me a lot. So I was keen to get James to write a guest blog for me. Here he describes the process of writing his book, and how it helped him to find his voice…

For most writers, the writing of their first book is the culmination of them finding their voice. It comes at the end of that process. But for me, it was completely the opposite.

My first trade book Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives was published in February. But the first draft was written in the summer of 2013. At that point I’d been writing for a long time – but I’d still not found my own unique creative voice. The idea for a book about grace had come along in the previous nine months, from reading, reflecting, listening to sermons and talking with friends.

In the process I realised there was a message about grace that hadn’t been shared. A new perspective that needed to be given voice. I’d written two e-books by then, so was ready to explore writing a book.

Starting the journey
I had no idea about how to plan, structure or write a book. I had no idea about the publishing world whatsoever. I wrote the book, not expecting it to ever be published. I had no reputation, no following and had no chance of a book contract. Self-publishing wasn’t an option financially. So I was writing merely for myself.

By complete chance, I connected with a book editor on social media. They offered to read my book, initially offering advice. This quickly evolved into them editing the whole book. They’d do private edits on their own time, then we’d do Skype calls working through the text together, editing, rewriting, improving.

Learning along the way
Because it was a very rough draft, with no plan, and I’d got no experience, the book needed a lot of work. There were a lot of rewrites and additions to be made. There were large sections to take out. And this all took time.

Even during this process, I had no idea if or how the book would be published. It was still just an idea, a promise, a dream. But the book was taking shape. And, in the meantime, I was getting a masterclass in how to write a book, and indeed, on writing itself, from my editor.

It took time, but, by mid 2016, we had a final draft to work from. And we were talking about her small publishing company putting the book out.

Finally, this thing was going to happen. And, ironically, I was still learning about grace. The truth of the book was being exposed to me all the time. I began seeing it in every area of my life. I came up with ideas for coaching, for other books, all of which began, in some way, with the simple idea that we’re enough, we belong, we’re loved. We’re accepted as we are, for who we are, not for what we do, what we own, our relationship status or social status.

Taking time out
It soon became clear that writing the book was just the beginning of the process. In 2014, about eight months after I wrote the first draft, I got to a point where I needed a break. My blogging had lost focus, direction and joy. I couldn’t go on. So I stopped public writing. I decided I would simply write privately, for myself, every day – for as long as it took. As long as it took to find my voice, to connect again with my true creative spirit.

It was liberating. I felt alive for the first time. And it was the most creative, fresh period of my life. New material and ideas were pouring out of me. It took time to get there, but, once I did, it was like a new spring of water bursting out of the ground…you couldn’t stop it.

And the irony I didn’t see at the time, was that it was by returning to myself, to my true self – the self which grace said was enough – that I found my voice.

I had written this book, and lived it, and, in the process, had found my authentic, honest writing voice. Grace had literally brought me (in particular my creative side) to life.

An increase of momentum
I wrote a short e-book, which is currently available on my blog for free, about this season of my creative journey, and some lessons I learned. This really launched my blog, and my subscriber list and following grew. Suddenly, I had people interested in my work, people who might buy a book I wrote. And I still had the book I was working on, which I really wanted to share with people.

Grace had helped me find my voice.

Mosaic Of Grace New Cover Black EdgeMeasuring success
When Mosaic Of Grace was finally published earlier this year, there was, naturally, a focus on numbers, on sales, on marketing and promoting the book and its ideas. But when I got people’s e-mails and messages with stories about how the book had changed their lives, how it had been healing and life-giving to them that reminded me again of where this all began. With grace. Those stories mattered, and still matter, way more than the sales figures.

The book’s success wasn’t dependent on sales figures – with just one message like that, I knew all those years of work were worth it.

From start to finish, this book, and everything about it – the writing, editing, publishing, promotion – had all been a process, teaching me about grace. It was a process that changed me, before it changed anyone else. A process that helped me find my voice.

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James Prescott is a writer, blogger, podcaster, writing coach and bestselling author of Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives, available on Amazon here. He hosts the weekly ‘Poema Podcast’, and you can read his blog, get free e-books and find out more about his books and coaching at www.jamesprescott.co.uk. You can find him on Facebook and also follow him on Twitter & Instagram.

Book news

me-with-contractI have interrupted my usual weekly devotional to bring you two pieces of exciting news! I can now officially share with you that my book, Taking off the mask: learning to live authentically, will be published in November by Authentic Media. This is the book I have had on my heart to write for a few years now. It starts with my own personal story (which I posted here recently), but then looks at the insights God has been teaching me over the last 12 years or so about why we seem to hide our real selves from those around us. I have learned a huge amount, about myself and others, and hope that it will be a blessing to all of you. I will of course keep you updated on any exclusive book-related news (including the finalised title, as it is a working one for now) in the coming months.

insightintoburnoutAs well as receiving my signed contract for Taking off the mask back, February has also seen the release of my latest co-written book for CWR’s Insight series: Insight into Burnout. Stress leading to burnout is sadly so rife in today’s busy and demanding culture, and this book takes a look at the reasons behind that, what it does to us physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, as well as offering effective ways of overcoming and/or avoiding burnout. We look at how to get more balance in our lives as we seek to serve God and those around us too. To purchase a copy, please click here (it is currently on sale!).