Friday, October 26, 2012

This is the Way ...

Julie Cantrell's interview on Monday and Debbie's post on Wednesday got me thinking about what was potentially some of the worst advice I've received as a writer over the years. I'm going with Debbie, hoping the teacher's negative advice came from her own frustrating experience as a would-be author, and not that she was that mean of a teacher. Debbie said, "Perhaps she truly thought she was giving Julie practical advice. But it may have simply been wisdom distilled from her own struggles to see her work in print, culled from a dark place of disillusionment. You never know."

Well, let's hope.

I began to seriously write in the mid 80s, when I started my first novel -- one that will never be published, but that got the creative juices flowing in the (hopefully) right direction. I spent two years writing it. At the time, my husband Rick and I had our three children at home. They ranged in age from 10-13. Rick was a busy pastor, I worked almost full-time at a Christian school. So life was hectic to say the least. Writing that novel in two years was a huge accomplishment for me. Even though my time is much freer these days, it still takes me upwards of 15 months to write my books, but I'd like to get it to under a year. That's my goal for my next manuscript.

Feeling as vulnerable as I'd ever felt, I showed that first manuscript to my husband, then one or two close, close friends with fear and trepidation. I know many of you completely understand when I say it felt as if I stood before them naked, with nothing at all to boast about. Not a good feeling. My palms still get moist when I think about the level of vulnerability I experienced in the early days of writing. I still get nervous when I release a novel to anyone's eyes but my own, but not like I did back then.

During the two years I worked on my first novel, I also wrote non-fiction articles, mostly for my denomination's weekly magazine, which goes into a large number of countries besides the US. I also worked on three non-fiction books with another writer. It was exhilarating to sell those articles, and see them and the books in print. But from day one, fiction has been my passion when it comes to writing.

A very good friend -- one of the two or three I showed my first manuscript to (and she remains a very close friend to this day) -- was the leader of Women's Ministries in our church. She's an excellent Bible teacher and a woman I have long respected. She was reserved in her compliments about the novel, which made me feel even more naked and vulnerable, if such a thing is possible. Her comment was, "Why aren't you writing non-fiction? That's what you should be writing."

That comment, which she repeated numerous times over the years, as well as my inability to sell my fiction, shook me for the longest time. Why don't you stick with non-fiction? I would ask myself. After all, it's the only thing you're selling. Am I out of God's will by writing fiction? That was a question I asked myself for years, because the last thing I want is to be out of God's will. I'd have this debate with myself, over and over, with sincere tears. I'd talk to Rick about it, and I'd pray about it. And always Philippians 2:13 would come to mind: "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose," or as it says in King James, "his good pleasure."

It was God who gave me the desire and ability to write fiction. Wasn't it? Wasn't it? I was like a dog chasing its tail, going round and round in my mind, answering "Yes" one minute, then asking the question all over again the next minute. And then one day it hit me: when Jesus wanted to get an important truth across, he told a story. He told a story! He. Told. A. Story! That reality finally sunk in, and I didn't battle with that question ever again.

Finally, I had an answer for my friend, straight from the Bible. By the way, it was more than two years after Every Good & Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday were released before she read them, and only because I gave her the books. While she enjoyed them, and laughed and cried at all the right places, she could take or leave them.

I know what you're thinking: Some friend. But there's a moral to this story.

My friend is not a reader of fiction. She's a Bible teacher, mostly of Old Testament stories, always in King James version. Believe me, she makes those stories come alive when she teaches them, the way a good novelist makes a story come alive. But I reiterate, she's not a reader of fiction. So my first mistake was seeking her advice and approval. My second was nearly letting it derail me.

Not everyone is going to "get" us as writers. Not everyone will view our gifts the way we do. We alone are answerable to God for how we use the talents he gives us. So I urge you to be careful who you seek affirmation from. And I urge you to go with that still, small voice that tells you, "This is the way, walk ye therein."

What have you learned from and about the advice you've received as a writer, whether good or bad? We'd like to know.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'll be thinking about this today. Whenever I get advice about my craft I end up doing a lot of sifting, measuring it with what God's already planted inside me and what's been affirmed by others.

Thanks for inspiring me to think about this.
~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sharon, for a timely and spot on reminder. I have battled the same question in the same way, and sought approval from the same folk, those who don't lean toward fiction. I LOVE your epiphanal moment of truth, straight from Jesus himself. Not only is this freeing and affirming, but a good reminder to me that I HAVE A STORY to tell. God not only gave me the story, but also the desire & ability to tell it (or the continual drive to become the best I can at telling it and yet only feel legit depending on who you talk to) It CANT be about the approval of other. Yet that's often our ONLY source of affirmation/confirmation. So basically, we're all nuts. But I suppose this should be a given. :)

Thank you, Sharon.

(btw, I had a copy of Into The Free which I had not yet read and am now enjoying, thanks to the inspiring interview with Julie C. I too was inspired as a teen by Stephen King, and don't even like horror.)

Sharon K. Souza said...

Wendy, I'm glad you've had the wisdom to measure any and all advice. It took me a very long time to get there.

Camille, you're so right. It can't be about the approval of others. We're responsible for the talents God gives us, knowing that he enables and equips us. It's nice to finally get to the place where you can walk in that in confidence, yes?

I too am looking forward to reading Into the Free. Julie's interview was inspiring in many ways.

Camille Eide said...

Ha! I'll let you know when I arrive. (I'm still straddling the approval fence, only tip-toeing in confidence sometimes...) Answerable to, directed by, & affirmed by God. Heading to the chalkboard to write that a few thousand times. :)

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I've learned that I simply cannot share anything about my work in progress. People have too many opinions that can derail my process. Also, when in the middle of a project, I'm still figuring out certain things.

S. F. Foxfire said...

Wow. I've had a lot to think about these past few weeks, but this blog is always a refreshing thing for me to read. (Patti's post on kindle stuff nearly popped my head, though, my mind was so full at the moment.)

Sharon, I've had little advice to sort through because I've been too darn shy to really put out my real work to anyone but my family. One good thing, though, is that my little brother loves the series I'm working on right now, and he's the pickiest reader in the world.

My mom has always been my biggest supporter. When my cousin told me to "take off my rose-colored glasses and stop writing," I COULDN'T listen! I couldn't! And I still can't! Writing is so deeply ingrained into my blood and bones, my marrow produces words. You know? As writers, we've been encoded to produce story. Our biggest example? :) Jesus Himself!

Megan Sayer said...

Heavens, Forxfire, your cousin needs a good slap with an overcooked herring. How RUDE!

I've been lucky in some ways, I've always had people around me who encourage me in writing. On the negative side for a lot of years it was the ONLY thing I thought I was good at. When people smile politely at other things you do and say gently "stick to writing" you tend to feel about as bad, especially facing the reality that I'm hardly going to walk into a well-paid career in the field. But I have a deep empathy for those who are told they can't do stuff because of it. I am slowly and gradually realising that I CAN, and although, yes, I will always stick to writing, it's not the only thing I can do.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Oh Sharon, thank you so much. I have lived and thought every line of what you wrote. There are two women in my life with whom I feel safe or desperate enough to share everything. One is a friend who has been close for over 30 years. The other is my best ever cousin for my entire life. When my friend read my first completed draft of a novel she basically said, "Yes, it is perfect, it needs to be heard, publish it!"
"Do you think it reveals too much; are the characters obvious (even though I changed all the names to protect the guilty)?" I queried. "So what, publish it anyway," she said.
My cousin, on the other hand, advised me to be conservative, private, to keep my writings to myself like a journal. Though we share half the genes of the same bolt of cloth, she is an analytical and pragmatic genius and I tend toward analytical creative intellect. She can execute the notes of a difficult piano piece, but I can play by ear.
So I have learned that I can trust her with any secret and discuss the moral implications of any issue, but she will never bet on a horse until there is no risk. Creative writing is a risk.
On the other hand, she too is a lifelong lover of great fiction, so she will recognize it if I ever produce something blindingly stellar.
Meantime, I have no choice but to follow the Spirit's urging to "write." Fortunately both these women concur, though they might be doubtful at times as to whether I am hearing the still small voice correctly.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Susie: I completely understand.

SF: I know what you mean about being too shy to put yourself out there. It's such a vulnerable thing to do.

Megan, you said what I was thinking: slapped with an overcooked herring.

Cherry: I'm glad for the two women who are your sounding boards. It sounds like they offer a good balance. In the end, you have to go with your own instincts and follow the Spirit.