Do You Want to Change The World?

signing declarationWriters can be agents of social change.

I was reminded of that truth after hearing a keynote address at a conference for animal humane workers. The speaker, Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, discussed the importance of social change to transform communities in order to improve our treatment of animals. But her words could also be applied to what traits writers need to cultivate to do their job well; in fact, I felt that Amy’s characteristics of social change makers accurately described many of the writers I know. Here are Amy’s six key traits; do you see yourself in any of them?

Social change makers:

  1. Collaborate across sectors. In my own writing, be it the fiction of the Birder Murder Mysteries or my best-selling memoir Saved by Gracie, I draw from many fields of expertise. My sources are birders, dog owners, psychologists, trainers, sociologists, scientific researchers, conservationists, biologists and historians, to name just a few. To be effective, writing has to draw from the world of knowledge.
  2. Are inclusive. Writers want their message to reach wide audiences. To do that, we keep an open mind about who might benefit from our work, and we rejoice when a new market presents itself as one that we might engage productively.
  3. Build empathy. For any piece of writing to succeed, it has to appeal to the heart of the reader. Having something meaningful to share is the first step of the writing process.
  4. Choose curiosity over judgment. The best writers try to see the world with fresh eyes to uncover what is true. Judgment can shut down avenues of investigation that might just lead to new revelations that will transform myself and my readers.
  5. Check assumptions. Writers make careers out of questioning assumptions. Sometimes, we even turn them upside down in the course of our creative process and/or production. The result is new perspectives and new ideas that can often improve readers’ personal or public lives.
  6. Learn from those they serve. Whether it’s hearing about new conservation efforts to protect bird habitat, or effective approaches to increasing animal adoption, or the need for more transparency about mental illness, every bit of research I’ve done for my books has not only taught me more about the world and the people and creatures in it, but how I myself can better connect with and serve my readers by passing along what I have learned. On a regular basis, I hear from readers about the ways my writing has affected them, and it guides me as I plan my next project. Without that feedback, my writing lacks focus, not to mention effectiveness.

Given these shared characteristics of writers and social change makers, I find myself considering my own work as a potential agent for change in the world; I won’t be the first author to do so, nor the last. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” may have come from the pen of English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, but it expresses a timeless truth.

What will your pen accomplish today?  

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (conclusion)

(Continued from Part I, Part II and Part III) Image, pink binder

I will never forget the feeling that day when I collated thirty chapters, punched holes, and neatly stacked all 330 pages of my first draft into a pink, soft-cover binder. I wasn’t Rocky at the stop of the stairs with pumped fists, but rather felt a peaceful satisfaction unlike any I’d ever experienced. It was a book in my hands, and I’d written it.

At the prescribed time, I emailed a digital copy to Jim Lund, the editor who had agreed to help me. His feedback arrived about three weeks later.

Jim’s comments were mostly about structural issues. The timeline was chaotic and he had trouble following what happened when. We shuffled chapters and paragraphs, and “trimmed” unnecessary copy. For example, when describing the time Annie broke into our upstairs bedroom, I’d “squirreled” a three-page tangent about the bats that flew into our house throughout that entire summer. “Kind of interesting,” Jim said, “in a creepy sort of way. I’d trim this.” “Trim” being the kind word for “chuck it.”

Over a period of months, I integrated Jim’s recommendations into a cleaner draft. I read and re-read that manuscript dozens of times, sometimes aloud, and fine-tuned the cadence and the prose into a finished product that sounded like me. It was then ready for beta readers.

I paid Office Max $110 to print eleven copies of the manuscript. I then assembled the pages into inexpensive binders and began to share my work with friends and family. Copies went to my brother, Paul; to Annie, of course; my son, Jeff; a couple of dear friends; my pastor’s wife, Kari; plus my therapist and the four women in our long-standing support group. My husband, Pete, continued to show little interest in reading, remaining insistent that it took me 330 pages to say what he likely would have said in 11.

I can’t remember a time when I ever felt so vulnerable… and I was terrified.

It’s a huge commitment to read someone’s work, especially 330 pages of it, and comments began to trickle in over a period of weeks. “This is good, Barb. This is really, really good. I read tons of books and frankly could not put this down.”

Yeah… that’s what friends are supposed to say.

I continued to edit and trim, ultimately heeding the advice of others and slashed/reworked/condensed the first few chapters. I couldn’t read a paragraph without reworking it, and wondered if I’d ever know when the book was done.

In the meantime, I bought hundreds of dollars worth of books on self-publishing. Jim taught me that only famous people received publishing deals these days, or people who had developed strong national platforms. He thought my story was powerful, but I was unknown. Completely unfamous.

Nevertheless, after two years of hard writing, I thought it would be fun to query some agents and see how the process worked. Maybe I’d get some helpful feedback. I’d already drafted a query letter in a “How to get your book published” class up at our community college. Next I needed to write a proposal, and Jim provided some templates.

Writing the proposal was miserable. While my business background proved helpful, I found this part of the process a chore. The manuscript was written first-person past tense, yet Jim instructed me to write the proposal in third-person present tense. So each of the thirty plus chapters needed to be condensed and translated into a different form of speech. It was a grind, and I shelved the book for months. This just wasn’t going to happen.

Until… until, I felt the nudge again. “It’s time,” said the voice within my own.

Two days later I sent a query letter to two agents, and both responded within a week. Requests for the proposal followed, and the manuscript followed after that. My brain could scarcely take in the enormity of what was happening.

One of the agents was the wonderful Alice Crider and she signed me with WordServe Literary. Within a few weeks, Alice had secured two publishing offers.

grunge image of a field

The rest is history, as they say. I’m not a famous author by any means, but I am an author nonetheless. It was four years after I received that first nudge from God to “write a book about the gifts you were given,” that Zondervan released A Very Fine House: A Mother’s Story of Love, Faith and Crystal Meth. They even retained my working title.

Miracles can and do happen. First was my daughter’s return from the abyss of drug addiction. Then a book followed about the gifts, the lessons learned. Whew. Both experiences have strengthened a simple faith, and changed me forever.

Paying It Forward — It’s Never Too Late to Start Writing

It’s my birthday as this publishes, so I think today is a great time to tap into a subject many aspiring and experienced writers wrestle with. Am I getting too old to publish?

Colorful Birthday Cake

A Colorful Life Makes Colorful Prose

This week, I met a fabulous ninety-two-year-old woman named, Gloria. Before arriving in America, Gloria, along with many of her friends and family, falsely believed the streets in the United States were made of gold. I think they had us confused with Heaven — which America definitely is not.

Gloria’s first husband brought her to the United States when she was a young woman. The only English words the onyx-haired beauty with raven colored eyes knew were, “Hello,” “Thanks,” and “Goodbye.” Yet, with her baby son, she braved a storm-tossed sea on an ocean liner bound for her land flowing with milk and honey. However, as often happens in life, her milk curdled and her honey soured.

Shortly after their arrival, Gloria found out she was pregnant a second time. Her husband panicked and left. She and her family never saw him again, and her sons grew up not knowing their father.

For several years, the single mother raised her sons as best she could in abject poverty. But Gloria, not a woman easily beaten down, learned English, got a job in a local bank, and worked her way up the ranks. By the time she retired more than forty years later, through hard work along with savings and investments, Gloria was a wealthy and influential woman in her Iowa community.

This ninety-two-year-old powerhouse is still impacting others, and will again this December, when she goes on a mission trip to Africa. She knows it’s never too late to make a difference.

I learned most of her story by devouring Gloria’s self-published memoir. Talk about a fascinating and motivating read. I found myself speaking out loud to some of the pages.

“You poor thing.”

“Spot on, Gloria.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“How did you survive?”

“So that’s your secret.”

I laughed, I teared up, and I thought: If Gloria could make it through her situations, then I can face my fears and do the things I’m compelled to pursue.

But then another thought niggled my brain. What if Gloria hadn’t written her book? If she hadn’t shared her story, her family and the world at large would miss out on ninety-two years of revelation, inspiration, and motivation.

Getting Through What You Can't Get Over

My Way of Paying It Forward

Like a fine wine, writers get better with age — let’s face it, the more life we’ve lived, the more we have to offer. Deeper insights, decisions tempered with wisdom, balanced viewpoints, lessons learned, and the list goes on.

If we inspire or motivate one soul, if we can help someone face their pain and cry healing tears, or laugh out loud when they’re experiencing difficult moments, I think we should at least try. It’s the ultimate example of paying it forward. This is the very reason I wrote, Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over.

If we justify not putting words on the page or excuse ourselves due to age, then we hoard our gifts and steal from others. No matter how old we are, if we are writers, we should write. It’s never too late to start writing…whether for the first time, or for the first time on a new project. No matter how many birthdays we celebrate, we have something to offer.

Honesty is the Best Policy

SavedbyGracieReaders often thank me for sharing my personal story of battling an anxiety disorder in my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God.

“You’re so brave to have written this,” they say. “I’d be embarrassed to share something so personal.”

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was being brave in recounting my experience with anxiety. I lost all my privacy boundaries when I gave birth to my third child in a room crowded with medical personnel. Once you’ve had an audience of strangers watch you push a child down the birth canal, there’s not much left that can embarrass you.

Another reason it surprises me to be described as “brave” is that all I’ve done is tell a true story about the ways my head, body, and spirit responded to taking a shelter dog into our home. It’s also true that I didn’t want the dog, but when I realized how the dog was helping me change my life for the better, I immediately wanted to tell that good news to other women who might be suffering with anxiety as I had.

First and foremost, I wanted to share my story to help others. I’d learned something new and valuable, and even though the therapeutic value of animals has been a popular research topic in recent years, I wanted to frame that information in a fresh way that would encourage readers to make that information work for them, too. Basically, I used myself as the proof in the research pudding.

And here’s where a true story encounters craft: it is the writer’s challenge to make the story simultaneously personal AND universal .

We all have experiences that are common to the human condition, yet people relate most deeply to the universal when it becomes intensely personal. Over the years of my writing career, I’ve learned that it’s the writer’s intimate voice and transparency (I’m talking about total honesty here!) that are key to combining the universal and personal. For example, if you tell me you’ve had a traumatic experience, I can nod and say “so have I,” but unless you give me the details of how it personally impacted you, I won’t be looking for similarities in our stories. That means you, as a writer, have to seek out and name the personal aspects of the universal that will engage your readers. You have to dig up the reality – expose the heart and soul – of the experience you want to share.

Make no mistake – digging in your life can be painful for you and those around you. With luck, though, it will be ultimately illuminating and healing, too.

And when you do that with your own story, you give your readers the permission, and hopefully, the courage, they might need to be honest with themselves in their lives. Honesty really is the best policy for a writer, because it’s the key to connecting compellingly with your audience as you make the universal very personal.

How do you approach the universal in your writing?

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (Part II)

(Continued from Part I)

I began writing my memoir by starting near the end. That first night, while sitting in front of a blank computer screen, I tapped out the images closest to memory, and likely closest to my heart. It was the account of a remarkable day… the day I delivered my daughter, Annie, to a drug treatment center in California.

 “It wasn’t at all the institutional setting I’d expected for detox… At that late hour, the street was quiet and still. A woman emerged from the far side of the darkened house, brushing by a wall of hydrangeas that cast an eerie glow of amethyst and silver in partial moonlight. Her hushed tones made it seem a clandestine transfer as she took hold of the pull handle on Annie’s bag and turned to escort her inside… Just before both disappeared into the darkness of an open gate, Annie turned around to me and mouthed the words, ‘Thanks Mom.’ I thought I might burst. “

Within a week, I had one, full chapter completed. “Not bad,” my college-aged son reported after a quick read. He showed all the enthusiasm of dry cement. My husband refused to read it at all.Image, post-its and pens

My brother, Paul, on the other hand, provided terrific support for my intentions with the book. He had been the smart one, the accomplished student. While I was sunbathing and reading Cliff Notes during our college years, Paul studied Comparative Literature as a graduate fellow at a top university. “So Goose,” he asked (yes, he calls me Goose), “are you going to write this sequentially or thematically? You also need to pay close attention to your voice. My what? I struggled with how to continue. What was a “voice” and where could I get one? Was I really capable of writing a book? What initially had seemed nothing more than a quick chronicle of a story I already knew, the magnitude of the task ahead started to overwhelm me.

Image, Book binder

I decided equipment would help. A lover of bins and boxes and anything organizational, I ventured into Office Max and filled my cart with a large black binder, numbered dividers, a year’s supply of yellow sticky notes, white 3×5 cards, and multi-colored mechanical pencils.

Once home, I affixed a sticker to the spine of the binder with the word “Book” written on it in blue felt tip marker. I placed my new materials throughout the house: at my desk, on the coffee table in the great room, at my bedside table, near the bathroom sink, and in both cars. Ultimately finding it perilous to jot notes while driving, I purchased a small recording device. “Don’t forget to tell them what happened in the garage,” I recorded into the mic.

Each night before I sat to write, I filed the day’s sticky note inspirations onto the dividers throughout the binder. Then I prayed. “This was your idea, God. Help, please!” Six months later I had an outline and about six chapters written. This feat coincided with the weekend visit of a close friend, and one of the smartest people I know. Bright, articulate, and extremely well read, my friend-who-shares-the-same-name-as-me, demanded to read what I’d written. She in fact seemed hurt that I hadn’t yet asked for her input and advice.

I knew better than to share my work so early in the process, and especially with someone who tends to be critical, but I yielded to her insistence. I really hoped for some encouragement. You see it coming, don’t you? My friend emerged from our guest room the next morning, with the “Book” binder in hand, avoiding eye contact as she headed to the coffee pot. Oh boy, I thought.

“So Barb,” she finally said, once settled in at the breakfast bar, “I, uh, think, uh, this is an important story for, uh, people to read. It’s not, uhhhhh, gonna be a best seller or anything, but it’s, uh, good.” She then looked up at me and added enthusiastically, “You sure have a great memory!” I laughed. Kind of.

“Memory isn’t exactly what I was going for. But I guess that’s something. Thanks for reading.” Unable to leave well enough alone, she added, “You sure didn’t use many big words, did you?”

At that point my heart went “thunk”… and I stopped writing. (Stay tuned for Part III when I share how the Jordan River helped me start writing again….)

Three Lessons From The Abyss

We hear people say that true faith stands regardless of circumstances. It’s easy to love God when life is going well, but what about sustained faith when life is hard? Really hard. What does faith look like when our child is out of control, a parent is dying, we receive a difficult medical diagnosis, or experience betrayal by someone we trust? How do we move forward?

When my daughter fell into active drug addiction, and lived on the streets of our community as a meth addict, I was furious with God. Everything I held dear, and had come to believe in, came into question. The daily uncertainty, not to mention gigantic hole in my heart, were almost more than I could bear.

It was a painful time, and this journey of suffering taught me more than I ever wanted to learn. I’d like to share three key discoveries that helped me cope: Image, woman on beach

1. Seeking God

Even though I was angry with God, I knew I was hopeless without him. James tells us to “draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you.” (James 4:8) My drawing nigh became angry, desperate wails in the garage. I all but dared God to account for himself! But I soon discovered he could take it… so I kept wailing.

In desperate times we often think, when is God gonna show up and handle this? We wait for this to happen. But maybe he’s already here and just waiting for us? I discovered that drawing nigh was about me showing up… wails and all.

It was in my garage, at the end of myself and at the point of true surrender, when it became clear to me that God was already there. He spoke into my spirit and said, “Give her to me.” I frankly had to think about that for a while. I found surrender to God’s will a terrifying prospect. Yet it was freeing at the same time. Turning my daughter over to the will of God meant the outcome would not be up to me. But the truth of the matter is, it never was up to me.

2. Choosing joy

Joy is something we often think of as happening to us. You know, a passive event, some blissful occurrence or special blessing. We also sometimes think of joy, or happiness, as something we can attain when “x” happens. I’ll be happy when my child gets her act together, when my spouse shows me more attention, when the front door gets painted or that leaky faucet is fixed… when my book sales soar. I’ll be happy when.

In the darkest time of my life, I discovered I could actually choose joy. Joy came when I took my focus off of problems, off trying to change my daughter, and I set my sights on blessings. It came when I realized my life was so much bigger than any one problem in it. There is a Power, and a purpose, at work in the world that is greater than I am. It’s bigger than my pain, and bigger than my own wants and needs.

I may experience loss, grief, I may even experience suffering. But I always have God, which means I always have hope. For that I can choose joy.

3. Taking care of myself

My pastor’s wife shared not long ago in our women’s Bible study, that she has a wooden plaque in her kitchen which says, “I am here to serve with joy.” I jokingly screeched, “Get rid of that thing!”

Like I said earlier, I’m all for joy. And we are indeed called to serve. But what is often left out of the equation is self-care.

Women, especially Christian women, are notorious for poor self-care. And that was certainly true for me. We are the chief “fixer,” organizer and problem solver, prayer warrior, food preparer, and angel-to-others. Yet we often lose ourselves in the process. Therapist’s offices are filled with well-intentioned women like us who are simply overwhelmed trying to hold up the world.

Most mothers are codependent to at least some extent, and I was no exception. I was motivated by the belief that if I could just try hard enough, I could control everything and everyone, force outcomes, and then life would be ship-shape. I sometimes became so enmeshed in other people’s problems, and in “doing,” that I nearly lost myself.

I learned that self-care begins with solid boundaries, asking for help when needed, and allowing others to be responsible for their own stuff. It means saying “yes” when I want to, and probably saying “no” more often. It means my life is as important as the ones I serve.

Please share how you seek God, choose joy, and care for yourself during tough times.

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (Part I)

I never aspired to be a writer. Truly. In fact, Mr. Johsen, my high school senior English teacher, once said to me, “Cofer, you will never graduate from college because you can’t write!”

grunge image of a fieldI also never really aspired to write a book. Seems most everyone who survives trying times hears from well-wishers the old adage, “You ought to write a book.” And many of us believe that we could… but never do.

Writing didn’t become a consideration in my life until, uh, well, God and Oprah suggested it. This happened during the height of the recession when my physician recruitment business of twenty years was struggling to pay the bills. Exasperated, I turned the computer off early one business day and shifted my attention to the Oprah show. A discussion was underway about women who had founded new businesses, many starting in a basement or garage. Mrs. Fields was among those featured, as was the creator of Spanx.

I was surprisingly inspired and then on my knees. “Lord, please show me a new way to be in the world. I’m likely too old to start a new business, and the garage is already full, but please weigh in if you have any ideas. What can I possibly do at this age to augment the business I already have?”

I was unprepared for the answer I received about ten days later. It was mid-morning on a Friday and I was alone in the house. The stillness was unnerving. I leaned on the door jam of my office and faced the darkened expanse of the room. I dreaded entering. The only thought in my head was the ever-present drone, get to work. And then it happened. I heard The Voice. It was that commanding “voice within my own” that William P. Young so beautifully describes in his book, The Shack. I’d heard it before.

“Write a book about the gifts you were given.”

Huh? God, is that you? Write a book… really?

I’d never written anything more than a decent consumer complaint letter, and yet I just heard God tell me to write a book. Like I knew how to do that.

But the nudge was unmistakable.

I knew too what He meant by “gifts.” I often thought of as gifts the lessons learned through my daughter’s addiction and recovery. Even at the moment when Annie broke into our house and literally stole the family jewels, the opportunity that event provided for intervention seemed a gift. Maybe the judicial system would stop her from killing herself with drugs.

If I was indeed to write a book, I first needed my daughter’s permission to share our story. Then in sustained recovery from drug addiction, Annie would be both antagonist and heroine in my memoir. Telling an authentic story would require vulnerability on both our parts, as well as a willingness to reveal some very private details from our lives. Were we ready for that kind of exposure?

Annie’s response was wholehearted. “Go for it, Mom!” I didn’t know at the time she was secretly musing, isn’t that precious? Mom thinks she’s going to write a book.

So the new entry on my daily To Do list became “write a book.” I mean, how hard could it be, right? I already knew the story, so I figured I could crank something out in a couple of months. Uh-huh. I really was that clueless.

My writing began one night at 10:00. I’d promised my husband not to take valuable time away from our business day in order to pursue my newest folly, plus late night hours also provided a peaceful quiet. The time was guilt free. Settled in with a cup of tea, I faced the blank Word document on the computer screen before me…and silently prayed.

Okay, God. Now what?

(Stay tuned for Part II about finding a voice, and the will to keep going.)

Was there something that happened to you that got you on the writing path?