CONTEXT: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?

rear view of a boy sitting on grassland

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A well-known piece of advice for authors is “Write what you know.”  In a culture in which so many people have suffered as legitimate victims due to the actions or choices of someone else, is there room for writers whose personal suffering is more like personal discomfort, because it pales in comparison to that of so many others? I’ve noticed that many of the highest-profile Christian bloggers have endured heart-wrenching pain from the death of a spouse, child, or marriage and openly share their grief, pain, and struggles.

I have had few experiences with deep grief, very little physical pain, and few struggles. I was one of the 5% of white students in a historically black university in the late ’60s. In my speech class, other students were brave young (!) Vietnam combat veterans, brave young adults who had participated in civil rights marches, and brave students whose homes were in the toughest parts of big cities where crime was the usual backdrop. I had experienced none of that. Enrolling there as a white minority student was the bravest thing I had ever done, and that didn’t seem brave at all at the time–it was just the most convenient place to get a particular degree I wanted.

In the required speech class, I got B after B on my speeches, and I wanted A’s. I had won a state qualifier, then a national public speaking competition, and I believed I could address an audience well. I didn’t think the professor was prejudiced against me because of my race, but I did think that he was grading at least partly on the inherent significant drama of the topics presented in the other students’ first-person speeches, rather than the presentation criteria of the speeches themselves. I could not compete with those experiences as topics, but I did think I could compete on presentation; so I talked to him about it. He was surprised and receptive when I respectfully asked him if the dramatic experiences the other students were relating might be negatively impacting his impression–and my grades–by comparison, and he agreed to consider the possibility. After that, the speeches I carefully planned and presented well did earn A’s.

As an author of fiction, however, I can’t go to the reader and say, “I couldn’t make this more compelling because I haven’t experienced anything like it, either as a victim or a perpetrator.” Readers WILL compare my prose to that of others, with no consideration at all of where the knowledge originated. I am awed by those in my own family who  minister to victims AND to perpetrators of crimes on a daily basis, but I can only understand sympathetically, not empathetically.  I tend to avoid having anyone in my stories experience excruciating pain, physical or emotional, because I have to fight feeling like an impostor when I do write about it.  By the grace of God, I have had no experiences like that.

What do YOU think?  Do authors who write about tough topics they haven’t personally experienced have the same level of credibility as those who have lived through them?

CONTEXT: THE TIME TO WRITE—OR NOT

Have you had a strange winter? I have! My writing was pounded out almost exclusively in my head and heart, instead of on a keyboard, and often painfully. The little blips that make life interesting and the deeply emotional experiences that drive us to our knees are supposed to motivate writers to WRITE, right?  It hasn’t worked that way for me.

I had unsuccessful eye surgery followed by an unwelcome prognosis in November, and now I must make accommodations for that. Writers observe and read and write. We tend to take seeing for granted. I don’t anymore.

The new laptop I ordered in November (with the newly needed giant screen and lighted keyboard) came in December without the components I’d paid to have. A great deal of time and stress were expended getting it replaced. Then by February the new one was crashing several times a day, and it had to be returned for repair. That took longer than promised, then it came back “stripped.” I’m two weeks into getting everything reinstalled and working. A phone is not an efficient instrument for writing!

This winter, out of vindictive spite, someone very dear to me was falsely accused of a ridiculous misdemeanor, and arrested. My mind almost couldn’t comprehend it. Legal proceedings drag on toward having the case thrown out or taken to trial. Will the judge (or jury?) believe the truth or the lie? It occupies my thoughts and prayers and steals my energy. I can hardly stand to think about it, much less write about it.

A former student, one whose last response to my January blog post included a challenging comment about the “paradox of terminal illness,” has gone on to heaven. So have my husband’s last surviving aunt (his mom had 11 sisters) and the husband of a young friend with three young children. All within a month. Too many losses in such a short time. Time for introspection, contemplation,  grieving, and journaling, but for me, not time for public writing.

In February we traveled to Tennessee and spent a delightful evening with old friends. One has more than 60 non-fiction Christian books in print but cannot get an agent or a publisher to even consider her newest one. The Christian publishing world is very different from the way it was even a few years ago! That disappointing news did not motivate me to write for the public, or even my blog follower friends, either.

Then we spent a week with kids and grandkids in North Carolina and were encouraged by their church work there. Then we visited my brother and his extended family in Ohio. The unfailing grace with which he deals with his chronic debilitating illness was a good reminder of how God works in mysterious ways that are sometimes deeply challenging but result in our growth and His glory. A week after that trip, we headed to Arkansas to meet our newest grandchild (#10) and spend a week with kids and grandkids there. Another time of encouragement seeing God at work in our son’s vocational ministry field–incarceration chaplaincy. It was GOOD time–time for doting, observation and participation, but not for public writing.

So it’s hard not to feel like a writing failure–or at least a lazy slacker. But I’m trying to internalize Solomon’s reminder that to everything there is a season. This winter has not been my season to write for public reading, and in spite of the demands to blog and post and just WRITE that I heard in my head and read in my writing magazines and other writers’ blogs, it just wasn’t the season. But SPRING is coming!!! That’s a NEW season!

Are you glad spring is a time of beginnings?  I am!  I’m ready to leave the disappointments, grieve, heal, take stock in the past, and plan for the future. We had baby chicks in our bathtub overnight before they went to grandchildren’s home on Easter–soft, fluffy, cute, (messy) baby chicks. They’re GROWING. And the hopeful little crocuses blooming in my gardens got blanketed with several inches of snow on Easter Sunday, but rain is driving away the snow, and they are virtually shouting “Spring is coming!” We expect they’ll get snowed upon again this weekend, but they WILL burst through again, and with them, hope and optimism.

I choose growth. I choose hope. I choose optimism. I choose to write again.

CONTEXT: PLANS

Trucks in dining roomI had a big deal “milestone” birthday in 2016–you know, one that ends in 0. I decided to take that year to refocus. I resigned from responsibilities outside my home in order to catch up and regroup and prepare to do more things that really mattered to me.  I would repair and renovate and bring order to our house. I would give attention to the abilities I have in art and music. I would continue to write and edit for publication in the local newspaper, and consult for doctoral scholars’ dissertations, but my writing  focus would be writing blogs and trying to publish the books I’ve written. I got bids from contractors, bought art supplies, and bought Blogging for Dummies. But then–LIFE happened.

My husband and I have four adult children and nine grandchildren who were then all between the ages of 1 and 10. One family lived in a city 5-1/2 hours’ drive away, the others each lived at least 9 hours away.  I always had them in my prayers and heart and often on my mind, but they weren’t part of my daily life in person. Then, within 2 months of my milestone birthday, two of the three families, including six of the nine grandchildren, relocated to within 20 miles of our house,  one just a mile away–you know, within walking distance. Suddenly my priorities and well-laid plans changed. A normal weekday might include an art class and/or home-school lessons around the dining room table, a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, an excursion to a museum or fair, or cleaning and re-filling a wading pool in the back yard. Sandwiches were now in the shape of train engines–I actually bought a cutter that would do that!  The dining room contained a truck depot, a blocks bin, and a game shelf. I bought six extra swimsuits just to keep at Grammie’s house, and kept bedding in the den in case a child suddenly wanted to sleep over. Sunday afternoons were filled with family instead of the internet. 

The wise king, Solomon, wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” James wrote, “…you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'” Having our plans interrupted, or our purposes delayed, ought to be just fine with us. Every day I need to be as intentional about joyfully believing that God is at work in my life and accepting changes as I was about making the plans in the first place. I have an incredible treasure house of unexpected memories from that year, and they’re especially cherished because four of the six grandchildren have now  moved a two-days’ drive away. A contractor is rebuilding a porch next week. I can read Blogging for Dummies now. My milestone year has come and gone.  It was used really, really well!

What was the best interruption of one of your plans? Use the Reply at the top of the page.

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CONTEXT: JOB DESCRIPTION

Desk image for online After many years of teaching at the college level, I earned a doctorate in teaching and learning, then took early retirement and started a second career.  I coach doctoral scholars as they design their research, then serve as their teacher and editor while they write the dissertation. Completing years of doctoral course work makes scholars experts in their fields, but it doesn’t guarantee skill in writing a dissertation. Some clients realize that and take full advantage of all the expertise I can give them. Others hire me, then argue with me, doubt my recommendations, question my corrections, ignore my instructions, and essentially go through the whole process kicking and screaming, figuratively speaking, resisting me all the way.

I try to be gracious, and I’m probably close to paranoid about being honest. I work diligently every minute of every hour I bill.  I don’t spend work time writing flowery praise, or gently hinting about what is wrong and needs to be fixed.  I tell new clients they should expect concise, targeted advice. I ask for mutual trust, the assumption that whatever we type to the other was written in kindness, and a promise to reveal hurt feelings if they happen anyway, so I can apologize and ask forgiveness.

Sometimes communication still breaks down. I asked a client to send me a list of the interview questions he used, and waited, and he sent me the answers he got. So I asked again, and waited, and got another set of answers instead of questions. So I asked a third time, and waited, and got a summary of the first answers.  I got exasperated, and typed, “Please send me exactly the questions you asked your participants and no answers.”

Jesus had the same problem. He gave the apostles a clear, blunt, seven-point list of what was about to happen in Jerusalem, “but they understood none of these things” (Luke 18:34 ESV).  He kept them going toward Jerusalem anyway.  His own brothers didn’t believe He was the Christ, and mocked Him (Luke 7:3-5), but He stayed there in Galilee where they lived, anyway (v. 9). When his disciples didn’t have enough faith to heal a boy, he got exasperated: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?  How long am I to bear with you?” Then He did the work others should have been able to do, but couldn’t, anyway (Mark 9:19).

I get paid to help scholars achieve their goals, but my ultimate job is to become more like Christ. No matter how much He was misunderstood or disbelieved, or how frustrated He became about that in any given moment, He pressed on and got the job done in a way that demonstrated love for those who had misunderstood and disbelieved. That needs to be my job description, too.

How about you?  What are YOUR job descriptions?

 

 

CONTEXT: A WRITER’S PRIORITIES

Brian Coaxing Llamas 8-28-11I have read reams of text, some comical, some cautionary, written by deft writer-jugglers who wrote while also doing something else–working as a chef, caring for small children, teaching all day and writing half the night. The greatest challenge in keeping everything going at once was prioritizing.  
Tonight I’m wondering if even well-known full-time writers sometimes find that life gets in the way of writing, and all the props being coordinated in the air are intentionally allowed to fall to the floor except one. I hope they do.
Two weeks ago I received an invitation from a well-known and highly respected literary agent to submit a proposal for the last book I wrote. I was excited–and thrilled! I thanked her for the opportunity and expressed my intention to submit it asap. Within the next week, however, my dear husband–the big, strong, fearless, llama-wrangling, tractor-driving, retired Christian school administrator-turned farmer, had three doctor’s appointments in our city and two surgeries in another city. Instant priority change! I let the agent know what was happening, and that my submission would be delayed. She was gracious and even prayed for him. (That’s the kind of agent I want!)
Both surgeries and most of the post-op visits are over now, and my husband doing even better than expected, so now I can start thinking about the proposal. But I’ve noticed a subtle shift. I’m more grateful than thrilled about the opportunity: I’m much happier that the surgeries were successful than that I received the invitation to submit the proposal. I hope that means that if I soon have the opportunity to juggle writing published books with the other things in my life, my priorities will be in order.

What are your greatest challenges in juggling priorities?

CONTEXT: Nine Months

14th St. Side of       Our House        10-15-12In July our older daughter and her family moved 850 miles from our city to Charlotte, NC, and she was invited to speak at the farewell dinner for them at our church.  She used the theme of 9 months.  She and her husband got their daughter nine months after they committed to adopt their first child; she carried each of the other three children for nine months (more or less); and the short stay they expected here in Quincy, Illinois, between her husband’s previous ministry in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago and his next pastorate became–yes, 9 months.

Imagine my surprise when I returned to my blog today and discovered that it has been 9 months since I posted!  And what changes the 9 months have brought!  I’m adding this particular photo from last fall to illustrate and symbolize those changes–NONE of our big, beautiful maple trees in the 2016 photo are left in 2017.

Future blogs will fill in some of the blanks of those months, but today that very particular time length seems like a promise of greater things to come!  I’m imagining a new design for my blog, more frequent but shorter posts, conversations with readers–a fresh start.  Please come along!

CONTEXT: Confused Seasons

14925278_10207742623219613_5201381353102620222_n  Today is November 14, and I considered mowing the lawn–it needs it. My vegetable garden is still producing peppers, and my zinnias are still blooming.  This is Central Illinois!  The trees are so confused that some are still green, some are bright colors, and some have shed their leaves.  Some are doing all three at once. I’ve felt like that myself–not quite sure what stage of life I’m in. Having one of those landmark birthdays last month didn’t help.

When I was young and single, the priority was the present.  Stage 1. When our children were young, caring for them was our highest priority and obedience to God, and that present priority had great impact on the future. Stage 2. Then they grew up and I went into Stage 3–work, study, earn a doctorate, retire, write articles and books.

And now there’s a new stage that wasn’t expected and I’m as disoriented as the trees.   One son was diagnosed with a chronic illness and is moving his family near us.  One son-in-law was brutally assaulted in a park, is still recovering, and that family has also moved near us. Instead of seeing our grandchildren a few times a year, I see them most days. I’m prioritizing the present to build the future. There is little time for writing.

But through the awful election campaign that just ended, I wrote on Facebook. It was my small way of trying to use WRITING as a tool for truth, integrity, and civility. When I posted a plea for fairness and critics castigated me for supporting one candidate, it gave me great pleasure to let them know that I wasn’t supporting either candidate, but was simply making a plea for truthful, fair, balanced information–opinions based on facts instead of innuendos. Civility instead of crassness. I think that’s a valid role for a writer–my one small step for mankind at any season of the year, or of my life. And now, I need to go prepare a meal. Our daughter is very ill and her four children are at my house for the day.