I Told You So

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Some of the most well meaning people told me to wait to write until I get older. No way a twenty-something can write what people want to read. You don’t have enough real world experience. This is a pipe dream.

The reality of writing a book is that this is a tough job, tough business, and not everyone succeeds. So often the people in our lives have the best intentions as they quietly attempt to redirect us. They don’t want us to be disappointed, experience the sting of failure, or struggle through pain induced by rejection.

Thank goodness the Lord has different plans. I’m thankful for those who attempted to redirect me. I’m thankful for the countless friends and family members who consistently encouraged me. Both groups helped me trust the Lord more. I imagine Him smiling down with a little chuckle and saying, “I told you so.”

I am under qualified in life experience, but I serve a big God. If fisherman can become world changers, so can I. I love what the apostles say in Acts 4:20, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” So let’s turn that into writing advice:

1)   Write what you know.

I know the heart of young adults to make a difference and dream big. I know the pitfalls that come with learning this adult life. I know the struggles of my parents to raise kids and find a new dynamic with adult children. I know my grandparents’ joy as they pour into us and take the “friend and counselor” role because they’ve already done the parent thing.

I know the south. I know Texas. I understand different personality dynamics. I know how girls think. With a younger brother, I’ve been around guys enough to know how they react and respond.

Bam. I can take all that and craft characters, scenes, problems, and story lines. Imagination takes care of the rest.

2)   Write what you want to learn.

In the course of writing my first book, I wanted to learn more about the SEALs, Haiti, and living in the deep south. (Yep, my brain is random.) So I set my book in Alabama with a trip to Haiti and a Navy SEAL love interest. I might recommend starting out with something slightly more familiar for a first novel, but I rarely pick the easy avenue when I start a project. So here we are!

I traveled to Haiti, made friends with a SEAL, and peppered my Alabama friend with questions and requests for pictures. I worked to become an expert. I’m still a long way from perfection, but I can now speak with a working knowledge on these topics.

3)   Write from your passions.

Three things impact my writing heavily:

– Characters that dream big

– Life as an adventure

– Hope that is found in Christ

I believe we serve a big God who loves to do big things with everyday people. I believe every day is an adventure crafted by the Master Storyteller. And I believe every story ends with hope because of Christ. Forget this post-modern idea that you live and die and that’s it. We were created for something more, and my stories wrestle through hard issues that don’t always end perfectly but always end with Christ. With that fueling me, passion informs every word I write.

I don’t have to understand life, the universe, and everything. I understand my world and snapshots of the world around me. I write what I know. I write what I want to learn, and in doing so, my world expands to fuel my next novel. I write what I’m passionate about, which changes and grows constantly.

Now, I’m telling you that you can do it. You can achieve your writing dream. There were many moments when I doubted this dream would come true. But if the Lord has called, He will bring it to pass. Keep writing. Keep growing. Keep networking.

One of these days, when you get that first contract in the mail, know that you heard it here first: I told you so!

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Advising New Writers Lovingly

Today I received an email from a freshly graduated student about a blog he’d been writing for the past two years that he wants to get published as a book. It was about being an only child—a topic I recommended he consider transforming into a memoir after he turned in a wonderful English 101 essay about growing up alone. Ever since, he said, he’d been writing. He included a link to the blog, clearly hoping—despite assurances to the contrary—that I would read it and somehow singlehandedly applaud it onto bookstore shelves.

This is the first of several such emails that I’ll likely receive this summer, in addition to similar requests I get from faraway former students, colleagues, and even total strangers during the school year. Would be writers email me. They show up in my office door, boxed manuscript in hand. They bribe me with lunch. But something about graduating—commencing Real Life, I guess—translates especially as the supreme opportunity to magically turn what have thus far only been vague dreams—of writing their memoir, of publishing a collection of devotions, of becoming a children’s author—into reality.

For me, though, summer is my big work-time as a writer. As soon as I get my grades in, I’m frantically writing away toward midsummer deadlines. In a little over a week, my college daughters will be coming home, and I’m embarrassed to say—though I love them both dreadfully and have been missing them ever since they returned to school after Christmas break—I’m dreading their return. The summer seems, for me, already used up, with all the things I need to get done during it, and I resent everything—even things I love best, like daughters and gardening—that takes me away from the computer.

So, I’m faced, as most writers are, with a difficult task I’ll probably never get exactly right: How to convey the reality of my summer (indeed, of my life as a writer)—that I have neither the time to read a single post, not to mention four years’ worth of blogging or a manuscript two reams thick, nor the power to circumvent for them or myself the arduous tasks of revising to make a book readable and securing an agent to get the thing sold—while simultaneously heartening and supporting those who, inspired by my own modest successes as a writer, want to follow in my footsteps?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke models my ideal response in his Letters to a Young Poet. I would like to embody his kind voice and take time away from my own writing to compose letter upon letter of encouragement and advice to those who approach me for writerly advice. But Rilke was writing back before the internet made it possible for would be writers to readily locate and assault him with salvos of manuscripts and queries. And Rilke didn’t seem to have to do any other work in his life besides write poems. And poets write, after all, poems. Short pieces—shorter, quite often, than a single blog post.

I was also much impressed when, after a reading from her memoir, Ellen Gilchrist took on question after question from the would be memoirists in her audience, somehow validating every asker as a writer and spurring each one to keep at it, keep writing, keep sending things out, keep doing—or start doing—the hard, often fruitless but always rewarding work of getting one’s thoughts and stories onto the page and into others’ hands.

My advice, finally, is canned, as were perhaps Gilchrist’s comments at readings and maybe even Rilke’s advice—which was, after all, published in book-form for every wannabe poet to read. I have an email in which I detail the steps I myself took in seeking publication for the first time, and I send it out, slightly personalized, to each asker. I have a spoken version for office door and phone conversations. It’s easier to be kind and encouraging, I find, when I plan it out.

“No breakfast?”

Now, if I could just figure out a loving way to tell Lulu and Charlotte I’m too busy to make them the fantasy breakfast they’ve been dreaming of all semester…

What do you tell aspiring writers who come across your path or your email in box?

My First Rejection: the Twenty Year Ache

I received my first manuscript request in fourth grade.

My teacher invited me and another student to write a short story. The prize for the winning submission was breathtaking: a trip to a young writer’s workshop, where we would learn from real writers and hobnob with kids who, like me, dreamed secret stories deep in our young hearts.

For a ten year old, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I poured myself into my story, sparing no imaginative fancy. I don’t remember many details, only that it featured talking animals, a charging knight, and puppy love romance. I thought it was spectacular, one of a kind. I submitted my story and waited for the happy news.

A few days later, the teacher called me to her desk. Her soft, sympathetic voice set my knees to trembling. Why did she sound sad? Didn’t she have good news to deliver? “I’m sorry,” she said.  She’d chosen the other student’s story, a vignette about a visit to grandma’s house.

Oh, that rejection hurt. I cast green eyes at the winner and felt sick the day he attended the workshop. While he worked with grown-up writers, I solved math problems and filled out worksheets, just like every other school day.

If I’d been a stronger, more self-assured child, I might have pondered that grandma story. I might have learned the first adage of beginning writers: “write what you know”. I might have considered the fact that readers can relate to a visit to grandma’s, but no one can relate to talking ducks, fanciful knights, and puppy love. . .all in a single-page story.

I might have, but I didn’t. Instead, my young writer’s heart sported a big, throbbing bruise. But I didn’t talk about my writing, not to anyone.  So I came to my own conclusion: I wasn’t good enough. And that was that.

I couldn’t stop writing, though. I wrote poems and journal entries, short stories and personal narratives. I wrote frantically, then tore my words to shreds. Sometime I tucked my writing under my bed or in pages of childhood books, never to be seen again, even by me.

Meanwhile, I learned to deliver what my teachers wanted. An essay with a topic sentence and three paragraphs? Done. A summary of The Grapes of Wrath? Done. I earned good grades, but protected my writer’s heart with layers of bricks and barbed wire constructed from that fourth grade rejection.

I protected too dearly, and finally stopped writing all together. For twenty years I wrote nothing but grocery lists until, a few years ago, the writing exploded out of me with all the force of a long-dormant volcano.

Predictably, I still face rejection on this road to publication. But I don’t hide my words or tear them up anymore. I expect the hurt of rejection. I even embrace it, if I can. Because I understand now: the best stories come from bruised and throbbing hearts that don’t hide, don’t shred, and refuse to give up.