It’s what you do that defines you

How often I think of thanking the people who have been helpful. But then, I don’t act on it. Sometimes it’s because I feel like that might make that person uncomfortable (what if they think I’m asking them for something and the gratitude is just a setup?). Or, I worry I won’t find the right words, so then I’ll “do it wrong” so better not to do it at all. Or, since I don’t know that person in real life, why does it actually matter that they know if little-old-me got value from their work?

I’ll admit that … like a lot of people… Rather than fail, I’d often rather not try. This, despite knowing that it’s in the trying that we get to move towards who we aim to be.

For example, there’s a writer I’ve never met. Yet this strange had a huge impact on my work. By her putting her work out there for me to find, it really helped me to finish The Power of Onlyness. 

I found Theo Nester when surfing the web in December 2015, while trying to distract myself from the sounds of sirens filling my local 7eme arrondissement, in the city of Paris. You see, the terrorists attacks at the Bataclan / Stade had been the month before, and the city was still dealing with bomb scares and such. Despite my local church a street over, Sainte-Clotilde (pictured in this post), ringing its bells over and over again, nothing could drown out the sirens and the underlying fear. So, instead of doing focused work, I found myself sitting near an open window, wandering the web looking for something unnameable. I found a blog post and interview of Theo talking with author Cheryl Strayed. And from that interview and post, I wrote down what I learned in my journal: “writing requires trust; trust the words will find you, and you the words.”

At the time, I was working on the manuscript of Onlyness, and the idea formation was feeling off, yet the submission deadline was about 3 months away. And there, in the background, was the auditory reminder of how short life can be, how unpredictable, how unplannable. My husband had long believed this idea of Onlyness was the idea I was born to write; he is, in fact, the one who got me to my agent’s house a few years prior to get me to work on the book proposal. And yet, in its current form anyways, it was no where close to what hopes I had for it.

I ended up buying Theo’s book, which arrived in time to take with me to an already-planned family Christmas vacation to South Africa. I also brought along a paper version of the manuscript, lest I have any inspirations. After reading her book, I wrote a note to myself… “give voice to the story ONLY you can tell”. Odd that I was struggling to communicate myself what I was trying to showcase with other people’s stories; That each ONLY has a strength based on one’s own meaning. On one very hot 26-hour train ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town, I wrote one clear and heart-filled paragraph. One. It had lines scribbled out, words scribbled in, and looked like a mess. But, when I read it aloud to my hubster, he teared up. And that paragraph showed me what was missing from the other 120,000 words I had already written. I came back to Paris, wrote to an author friend, then my agent, and finally my editor, to realize what I needed, which was to ask for six more months. Then, I started completely over. With fountain pens and piles of blank printer paper, and some dark-chocolate-covered-orange peels (for fortitude!), I worked to find what I imagined could be there. Until it was.

If I were writing an email to express this, I’d want to apologize about 1000 times over, for taking this long to share this simple thing. So here’s the point … the book releases with Viking/Penguin soon, and wouldn’t be what it became if I hadn’t heard that message that day. So, Theo, I hope you read this. Know how grateful I am for everyone on this journey but at this moment focusing on you, Theo. Thank you for putting your ideas out in the world. You couldn’t possibly know how much it mattered in that dark moment I was experiencing, and having your little thread to pull on let me find my way to my own work.

I share this publicly not knowing how to reach Theo, but also as a reminder to close that gap between intent and action because that’s how we manifest ourselves into being. Or, in the words of Batman, what matters is not who we are underneath, but we do that defines us.

What is it you want to do but don’t yet act on?
Can you name 1 thing that you could act on, even if it’s small?
If you did act, how would this serve your future-self?


  1. What I’m Digging Right Now #6 | Writing Is My Drink - August 25, 2017

    […] your book pops up on a list almost a decade after publication. This month I was so touched to read Nilofer Merchant’s post about how Writing Is My Drink inspired her when she was writing her book The Power of Onlyness. And […]

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