For several years, I was in what we called a creative workshop. Just a handful of folks discussing the creative process, led by my pastor Kyle Gott. I came to see the creative part of us as very childlike. Eager to experiment. Fed by instant gratification. Fragile to criticism.
Here’s the thing. We wouldn’t nag a child into painting a picture. We wouldn’t berate a child if they didn’t build a lego project when they had all day. We wouldn’t tell a child that their painting isn’t very good.
If you get stuck while writing – or painting or playing the guitar – try treating the creative part of you as a child. Be understanding and encouraging. Try to make things fun and exciting. Be complimentary. Give your child a new journal and ask it to tell a story.
There is no denying that discipline is a part of this whole writing thing. A big part. But so is letting our creative side play.
Gatekeepers. The term came up on a Facebook post about self-published books. Someone suggested that since self-publishing bypasses gatekeepers, it is populated by mediocrity – poorly written, poorly edited, poorly conceived novels. Now, I will not deny that there are a lot of mediocre books out there. Some are downright bad.
But I had a job in radio for many years, working closely with record labels on Music Row. Before the digital age, I had accumulated a very large box of CDs (probably 150 at least) by folks you’ve never heard of. They were all professionally produced. All the artists had made it through several gatekeepers – managers, A&R people, heads of labels, producers, etc. – gatekeepers who said they were willing to invest hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars into their career. Each of the CDs in that box of unknowns represented how wrong the gatekeepers had been.
Sure, gatekeepers are pros. They know things. They’ve been around the block a few times. But they cannot predict who will connect with an audience and who will not. Who has that special something that will inspire a following and who doesn’t. Who will create something that people will lay down their hard-earned money for and who won’t.
Gatekeepers are not a bad thing. But they are not and should not be the arbiters of art. They don’t guarantee greatness over mediocrity.
Take a chance on an indie musician. And an indie author. Be your own gatekeeper.
I learned the lesson when my husband was in law school. But I do admit that I have to relearn it from time to time.
When my husband and I got married, he had two children from a previous marriage who lived with their mother outside of Nashville. I had a house in Nashville, and a decent job. Plus, Nashville was where we wanted to live.
But, he had a dream of going back to school, and he was accepted to the University of Memphis Law School. So less than a year after we married, he moved in with his parents in Millington, TN, (north of Memphis) while I remained in Nashville.
As you can imagine, it was not ideal. We saw each other during the summer, and on weekends, every other of those with two hyper boys in the mix. We really hadn’t even had the chance to figure out how to live with each other, much less not live with each other and still remain close. Fights lasted weeks. Communication was by phone, which we neither one really care to use. My stepkids were challenging. I spent a lot of those three years telling myself I just had to hang on until he graduated and came home.
And then he did. And it was “better”. But it wasn’t “all better”. In between learning how to live with each other again, one of his sons moved in with us. Mike had the stress of studying for the bar and then launching his own practice. It was better having him close, but life did not suddenly become easy. And it was then that I learned the lesson.
I wished away three years of my life instead of appreciating what I had.
I had wished away three years of my life instead of appreciating what I had. When I drove to Millington to spend the weekend with Mike, without the kids, it was almost like we were dating again. We went out to eat. We might catch a movie. I didn’t feel obligated to clean his parents’ house (though I did sometimes.) When he came home and his son moved in with us, we struggled for money and the demands of work and launching a business and dealing with an aging house were often overwhelming. I found myself longing for those weekends spent in Millington when times were “simpler”. Go figure.
So that was my lesson. We shouldn’t wish away time. We shouldn’t think that when this thing happens or this point is reached, then we can start living. Because, this is life. Every second of it. We don’t get time back. And what we are longing for more than likely won’t be all that we think it will be. When we look back, we’ll realize we failed to appreciate the moments we let slip by.
In this pandemic, time is weird. Of course, we all long to feel normal again. Of course, we want to get back to socializing, to shopping, to eating out. To getting on with things. But… this is life too. These months are a part of our allotted time on this earth. Let’s find the good in them — the time to ourselves, the chance to slow down, the time to reflect and ask ourselves the big questions. Let’s not wish away time.
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
“… your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
That enlightening passage is from Stephen King’s “On Writing”. It was the advice passed on to him by a newspaper editor. And it’s the big lesson I walked away with. Take out what’s not the story. It helped me tremendously while writing my first novel BUKU.
It kinda applies to life too, doesn’t it?
In this unprecedented time, in the midst of a pandemic in which our commitments are canceled and we are forced to isolate, many of us have been given the chance to rethink the story. Our story. Maybe our lives need a little editing to get down to what our story really is. And should be. And can be.
When I was a kid, my family spent a lot of time at a lake called Pounds Hollow in the hills of Southern Illinois. We had picnics there. We swam there. We fished there. For a few years, my father held church services for the campers there. We would drive down on a Saturday night and hand out flyers, then drive back early Sunday morning for dad’s church service.
To this day, my best notion of church is sitting on a stump in a little clearing, tall trees overhead, pine needles underfoot, people sauntering up with lawn chairs. My father wasn’t a pastor. He was a shoe repairman. But during the summer for a couple of years, he held church in the wide open. He would share a message and we would sing familiar hymns with only the accompaniment of birds. Nothing compares to singing “Blessed Assurance” with the smell of bacon in the air.
Driving home from Pounds Hollow, there was this moment when we topped a hill and rounded a curve and in front of us was this stunning vista. We could see for miles — rolling hills, groves of trees, rich farmland. My mother and I always made a point to watch for that moment and take in the incredible view.
Until they started strip-mining it. One day, we topped the hill and rounded the curve and saw that they had laid waste to all that beauty. It was ugly. Vulgar. And the thing about strip mining is that they don’t fix it. They take what they can get and then walk away. It’s destroyed forever.
“… Giant shovels dug up the earth and left it for dead.”
I tell you that story, so I can tell you about a song that has always hit me in the gut. It’s called “Paradise” and it’s by John Prine. The song is actually set in Kentucky. But to me, John was singing about that once beautiful scene near Pounds Hollow, where giant shovels dug up the earth and left it for dead.
“Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, Down by the Green River where Paradise lay. Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking. Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
I am on quite a few Facebook pages with other authors, and I have read several posts by autistic writers. So maybe creativity is not just tied up in emotion the way most of us experience it, though it feels that way sometimes. These writers confess to not knowing how their characters would feel in given situations, and when they post, they are often asking others to help them determine that.
What a challenge to have the compulsion to tell stories but have such a handicap! And how awesome to do it anyway.
I remember one woman in particular. She said that when people would ask her to tell a little about herself, she would say “I am beautiful.” And indeed she is. She’s worked as a model and she is striking. But, in the absence of knowing what to say about herself, she used the words other people most often said to her. “You are beautiful.” She didn’t realize it’s not really the way one describes oneself. This struck me in another way though. She is a writer, so she is talented and she came across as smart. She is strong and has obviously overcome many challenges. And yet, the most common thing people say to her is that she’s beautiful. It has become the most common way she thinks of herself.
It made me think of my granddaughters. They are pretty girls. I’m not going to say otherwise. But, I don’t want the loudest, the most frequent thing they hear to be that they are beautiful. Because beauty changes. It’s in the eye of the beholder. And it can be altered in a heartbeat, heaven forbid. I want them to know… to hear… that they are smart, fierce, funny, charming, creative, good. The kinds of things that are more than skin deep. The kinds of things that are permanent and aren’t affected by make-up and weight and time.
Words are important. We need to examine how other people’s words have affected our image of ourselves, perhaps in negative ways. And we need to be deliberate with the words we say to others, especially young people. Because we could be defining them in ways that will affect them for life.
I am something of a do-it-yourselfer. Not the kind of do-it-yourselfer who confidently steps up, assesses the situation, and whips together a solution out of twist ties and electrical tape. I’m more the kind who grunts and groans getting down on the floor, stares at what’s broken for at least ten minutes, spends half the afternoon looking at youtube videos, wastes 30 minutes searching for the right tool somewhere in the garage, and gets it wrong at least five times before success.
Still, I did fix my leaking refrigerator last week by replacing the valve that feeds the water to the icemaker. This only happened after I forgot a few steps, found out the first part I ordered was defective, got soaked because I forgot to turn off the water, had to mess with the new valve to get it to quit leaking, and got up and down from the floor about twenty times. In the end, the refrigerator is fixed and I saved at least a hundred dollars.
It occurs to me that being a do-it-yourselfer around the house is similar to becoming an indie author.
And interestingly, some of the same rules apply.
1. Just try. Sure, appliance repairmen and publishers are experts at what they do. But they are just people with a very particular set of skills, skills they have acquired over a very long career… okay, sorry. Got carried away with my Liam Neeson impersonation there. Sure, experts know more than you, but they had to learn what they know. You can learn it too. I’m not saying there aren’t times when it would be wise to hire an expert. It’s almost always easier and more expedient. Sometimes it’s most definitely the best course of action. However, it also is oftentimes way more expensive, and you give up a lot of control. Why not examine your situation and look into doing it yourself?
The first thing to consider…
2. No matter how simple someone else makes it look, it’s not. Whether you’re replacing a part on your fridge or trying to learn how to format the interior of your first novel, remember that the people who are instructing you have done it before. Probably lots of times. Even if you follow their directions to the “t”, you will do it more slowly, you’ll probably do it wrong at least once, and your end result may not look as slick. That’s alright. No one expects a newbie to look like a pro on the first outing. You can still be good. You can still get the job done. Don’t worry if you take a while to do it, you get dirty in the process, and your results aren’t perfect.
The fact is…
3. The internet contains a whole world of teachers. Whether you’re a handyman or you’re writing a post-apocalyptic romance about space alien zombies, someone has already done what you’re trying to do. And they’ve made a video about it. Or written a blog. Or developed a course. You do not have to start from scratch. The things people used to have to learn in college or as an apprentice can be found online.
A good tip…
4. Always read the comments. Or join the student Facebook group. It is true that you will learn from the teacher. But you will learn just as much if not more from your fellow students. Someone else has already tried it and failed, and then bless their hearts, they shared their failure with the world so you can learn from it. On the video about how to change the valve, one of the commenters pointed out that you had to push down the collar surrounding the tube to pull it out. He said he spent 30 minutes fighting with it and finally found the answer on someone else’s video. I read his comment and saved myself all of that time. While working on my first novel, I took an online course from a guy who makes tons of money as an indie author. The course was great, but the most valuable thing he offers is an exclusive Facebook group made up of all the other authors who have taken his course. If I have a question, I post it or just use the search feature to find the dozens of times it has been asked and answered.
Speaking of the search function…
5. The right tools are vital. The difference between an easy job and a difficult one often comes down to using the right tool. I have found that out as a do-it-yourselfer, and it directly translates to creating a book. Invest in your tools. You can remove a nut with pliers, but a socket will do it much quicker and with less potential damage. You can meticulously format a book in Word, but programs like Scrivener and Vellum make the work a hundred times easier and produce predictable results.
Which brings me to…
6. Know when it’s worth it. Sometimes you just need to hire someone to do what you need done, or at least part of it. My husband used to change the oil on our cars. He probably saved us 10-15 bucks every few months. At the time, he had more time than money, so it was sensible. Eventually, the savings didn’t justify the time he had to put into it. When I got ready to self-publish, I looked into formatting my first novel myself. I researched on the Facebook groups I mentioned above. I played around with the various free programs. Then I decided I was spending way too much time trying to figure it out. So I found a guy on Fiverr who did it really inexpensively. What I might have saved in money I would have overspent in time.
I think the key is…
7. Know your abilities and your limitations. My father was a handy guy. We never had much money, so he was the one who fixed our cars and appliances and lawn mowers. He even built an addition on our house. It was while watching him work that I became familiar with tools and saw how things are put together. When it comes to being an author, I have written for a living. I have a degree in advertising. I worked on websites and social media in my jobs. My skillset is well-suited to becoming an indie author. If it wasn’t, maybe I would have been better off seeking a publishing deal. (Maybe one of these days, I still will.) But I knew, for the most part, I had the skills to handle the many tasks that are required. Just like I knew I could probably change that valve.
8. Be fearless. That is… without fear. Because there’s nothing to be scared of here. What’s the worst that could happen? Yes, I failed the first time I tried to change the valve. Turns out, the part was defective. Yes, I did get sprayed in the face with water, but that was worth the laugh! Yes, I did spend quite a bit of time on it. But, because I learned from youtube and the comments, because I had tools and was familiar with them, because I understood this was a repair I could probably do… I was out $25 on a part and expedited shipping. Pretty sure if I had called a repairman, it would have been $150+.
As an indie author publishing on Amazon (and probably other platforms one of these days), I make 70% on every ebook I sell. If I had found an agent who would represent me, if she/he had found a publishing company willing to take a chance on a 50+ newbie author (and those are really big ifs and would have taken years), I would be getting pennies… pennies per copy. I may never make a lot of money at this. But there are indie authors who are. And many of them are making a lot more than they would if they had gone the traditional route. The cost/benefit analysis is in their favor. Maybe it will be in mine. I’ll never know unless I try.
Doing it yourself can save you money. And sometimes it can mean the difference between having something – whether it be a working fridge or a novel for sale in the largest bookstore in the world – and never having it at all. So why not just try?
Okay, hopefully we’re not hearing real voices. I’m talking about those subtle voices. The fearful, doubting, negative words, perhaps once spoken to us and about us, that we still carry around.
I had a conversation with a woman who had been divorced for over twenty years. She sat there crying, talking about the awful things her ex had once said to her. He had wounded her, and shame on him for that. But it occurred to me that he said those things two decades ago, and yet she still allowed them to have power over her. She was the one who repeated them, who let them echo in her head, dragging her down.
I had someone who meant a lot to me, who tended to be critical. She has since passed away, and I miss her greatly. However, I sometimes wonder if I would have written my novel if she was still around. I have to admit her negativity was a weight on me.
Here’s the thing though. I know that her critical nature was not because of who I am, but because of who she was. So allowing her words to stifle me… is on me. She wasn’t the one who held me back. I was. I was the one who let her voice – my perception of her voice – echo in my head. I was the one who anticipated her negativity… and adopted it. She may have planted the seed – quite unintentionally – but I gave it room to grow, watered it, nurtured it. Her words would have been buried long ago if I hadn’t given them fertile soil to blossom into something they were never intended to be. I did that. Not her.
Now I’m not beating myself up about this, and I don’t expect you to either. What I’m saying is we all need to examine those voices – the fears, the doubts, the criticism — and understand where they come from. And then choose to release them. Or bury them. Or whatever metaphor you want to use. Let’s silence them. In their place, let’s put our voice. Our true voice. The voice that has something to say and wondrous things to create.
Disprove the naysayer. Convince the doubter. Drown out the whispers. Shut down the shouter. Create what you love, no matter what’s said. Silence the critics who live in your head.
When I was a child, before I started giggling on the back row with friends, I sat with my parents in church. Because kids spend those long hours trying to entertain themselves, I have several images locked in my mind. Like my dad’s arm resting on the back of the pew, encircling my mother’s shoulders. Every once in a while, he would rub her arm or run his hand across her back. They didn’t look at each other when he did it. It wasn’t a big moment of public affection, it was just an acknowledgment that while they were intent on the sermon, he was also thinking of her. Every now and then as we sit in church, my husband will do the same, and it makes me feel secure, protected somehow. I feel like a wife, in all the best of ways.
I also remember sitting beside my father, playing with his hand. The one that wasn’t wrapped around mom. Dad’s hands were strong. He ran a shoe repair shop, so his hands were often knicked and calloused, and permanently stained by the dyes he used on the leather. And while he concentrated on what was being said from the pulpit, I would hold his hand in mine, trying to hold onto his moving fingers or dodging his thumb as he tried to pin my little fingers against his palm. My dad worked a lot, and he wasn’t into playing games with my brother and me. But when I sat quietly in church with his hand in mine, I felt like I had him to myself for a while.
I drew on those memories to write a scene for my upcoming novel. I thought I’d share it with you.
“The image that leaped into her brain was the same one that always did when she thought of Ralph. It was before cancer had stolen his strength, before Mayor had stolen their freedom. He was sitting by the fire outside their tent in Camp Three. She was beside him, leaning against him, her small hands cradling one of his, tracing its creases and scars. She had seen those hands wield everything from pencils to axes to guns, keeping her and the rest of the village safe while he built the systems for food and sewage and oil and shelter.
She liked his hands most when they were hers to hold. Even while he spoke with the men and women around the fire, his fingers played with hers, escaping her attempts to hold them still, trapping hers against his palm. Every once in a while, a giggle would break free of her lips, and he would glance down at her and smile, sharing the fun of their private game. He was hers in that moment, despite the weight of all he carried.”
I miss my mom and my dad. But I live daily with the lessons I gained from their abiding commitment to each other and the many ways they modeled family for me. And I thank my father for his neverending labor, for his sacrifices, for his intellect that was always exploring God, and for taking me to church to idle the time away while learning about love.
I love spring. The warmer temperatures are wonderful. Walking out without a jacket is liberating. But it’s the colors that truly delight me. Right now, it’s all about variations of purple. My lilac bushes are blooming. The redbuds are in bloom. I have a few grape hyacinths in my garden and my overgrown vinca is dotted with little flowers. Soon, my iris will begin showing off.
Even the weeds are dressing themselves in this most majestic of colors. For my first mow of the season, I didn’t trim close to the trees in my backyard because of the profusion of wild violet. And before I mowed through a part of my lawn where the weeds are thriving, I stopped to take note of the eye-catching purples of deadnettle and ground ivy.
If you don’t know what those are, neither did I. I had to look them up because I have always just known them as weeds. And I guess come summer, that’s what they’ll be. Right now, they are intricate, purple flowers.
It occurs to me that God made them all – the flowers that we carefully cultivate and the weeds we curse. He made them all appealing in their own way. We’re the ones who decided that we will nurture these while mowing down those. We’re the ones who define some as flowers and some as weeds when in fact, they are all beautiful blooms. How many other things of beauty… of delight… do we overlook because of the names we’ve assigned them?
Words are important. Words shape our perception. Words help us define our world. Let’s question the words we use sometimes. And maybe in so doing, we’ll stop and notice the wonder of weeds.
I started writing a blog post about the Oscars and just kinda quit on it. Then today, I became aware of a controversy over a literary award I didn’t even know existed. It’s the Hugo Award for science fiction and fantasy books, and evidently a few years ago, it was undermined by a few bloggers who encouraged their readers to vote for a specific slate of books. Seems they had some sort of political motivation. In the end, the ballot and therefore the awards were compromised by people picking books for reasons other than because they thought they were the best. So I decided to return to my thoughts on the Oscars.
Here’s the thing. I didn’t watch the Academy Awards. In fact, I rarely watch any award shows. After having worked around the music business for years, I have come to understand award shows (and other awards) for what they are. Or at least, for what they’re not.
They certainly aren’t any sort of valid ranking of what’s “best”. Because, first and foremost, we’re talking about art. Which is entirely subjective. Awards give us an opportunity to applaud greatness, but the choosing of a “best” is really about what and who’s most popular at the moment. And in the case of the Academy Awards, the voters are all in the industry, and they look at movies in entirely different ways than we do. They also push for slate voting, trade favors and pick movies for reasons other than because they think they are the best.
Furthermore, they aren’t ultimately who the movies are made for. What pleases a movie-going audience isn’t necessarily what pleases the Academy. The Nashville Songwriters Association International has a list every year of the top ten songs their songwriting members wished they had written. I love that! What songwriter wouldn’t love to see their song on that list?
However, very little art is created for our peers. We wouldn’t sell
much if those who do what we do were our only audience. Charts and rankings and
sales and box office stats are a much better indicator of how well the makers
of entertainment did their true job. Of course, those don’t measure quality.
I produced a country music radio program for years. It was a countdown, tracking the radio charts. I can tell you that the songs that reached #1 were not the “best” songs. Their airplay was related to the artist, to the label, and to the relation those two had with radio stations. It was affected by the producer, by current trends, by radio stations desire for tempo, by what other songs were out at the time, by the season. By the favors bestowed on radio program directors. I can’t list, nor do I even know, the many factors that go into how a song gets to #1. But trust me, it’s not because that song is the “best”. It is simply the most played song on a certain number of radio stations that week.
Now, right here, I’m going to tell you that I don’t have a problem with charts. (I had a good job for a number of years because of them!) Nor do I have a problem with awards. I won a local award as radio producer a few years back. It was nice. It’s doubtful, but maybe someday I’ll be up for an award for another creative effort. It would be nice.
My point is just that trophies and accolades and #1 rankings are a measure of a lot of things, including effective marketing, popularity, and good timing. And yes, even quality. But none of them are a measure of what’s best.
Because you can’t rank art.
There’s a small part of me that thinks we shouldn’t. Of course, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have chart-topping songs and award-winning movies and wonderful, shiny trophies. What fun would that be? Those designations help sales. They help us document art through the years. They remind us to celebrate greatness. They inspire others. They decorate mantels. I like my local Best Producer award. So, no, I don’t think we should do away with them.
So what am I saying? Yeah, you’re right. I need to get to a point.
First, I’m saying that we should recognize awards for what they are. Fun and glamorous and cool and totally biased and manipulated by countless factors other than “greatness”.
Second, we should remember that our opinion of a movie or a song or a book is just as important as anyone else’s. Experiencing art is very personal, just as creating it is. Even though we don’t get to hand out awards, we get to make our own determination of what great is. The lack of a number one ranking doesn’t affect our memory of a song that was playing at an important time in our life. The lack of an Oscar shouldn’t negate the way a movie makes us feel.
I have written my first novel, so I have become a part of the entertainment industry, where a creative endeavor is put out into the world and is judged. I have a ranking on Amazon. I have reviews that have “stars” attached to them telling me how well I did.
Why did I go through the agony of writing a book and publishing it? I thought a lot about this today, and I think bottom line, I wanted to write a book, that I was proud of, that people would read and be entertained by. Sure, I’d like to make money at it, but there are lots of easier ways to make money! I’d like to earn a Best Seller badge one of these days. I wouldn’t turn down an award. Still, I understand how flawed those things are in determining how well I did.
So, here’s my final point. When you stop me in church or send me a text or call me on the phone while you’re reading or leave a comment or write a glowing review or share a post or offer me any sort of feedback – it reminds me why I did it. Sometimes Hollywood and Music Row and solitary authors forget that. We become blinded by the glitter. In the end, art is created for you. Not the collective you, but the individual you. You get to choose what you like, what you think is great.
In my case, when you are entertained by my book, I fulfilled my purpose. And when you let me know, that’s my applause. My award. My ranking on the chart. It’s my trophy on the mantel. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
It took me a very long time to decide to fulfill my childhood dream of being an author. Part of that was because of life. Life needs tending to, always. But when I started attending a Creative Workshop headed up by my pastor at the time, Kyle Gott, I slowly came to realize that my real problem wasn’t about time, or lack of ability, or not knowing how to do what I wanted to do — all of my excuses. My real problem was fear.
I was fearful that I wasn’t really capable of accomplishing it. Fearful I wasn’t a good enough writer to write what I wanted to write. Fearful of putting something out into the world that was so very personal. Fearful of the response I would get and how I would react. Fearful that my childhood dream — that this dream I had held onto for so long — was not going to end well.
As I told a group of people during a talk at my church last night, once I faced my fears, I was able to study them. Understand them. And I decided that the only thing that made me more fearful than attempting to write a novel, was not writing one. I became more scared of not taking a stab at my dream than I did of doing it. Not writing a book would have been a regret. A deep one. And aside from a few cringe-worthy moments that still float around in my memories, I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life. Not doing this would have been a monumental one.
So I wrote a book. And I’m writing another one. I haven’t sold a lot of copies. I can’t claim to be successful yet. But, this was never about becoming rich and world famous. This was about becoming a writer. A novelist. Just like I dreamed of when I was a kid. I did it. The world hasn’t changed. But my life has.
I encourage you – make room for your dreams and your passions. Make time for them. Become more fearful of not doing something you should do than you are of doing it. Give yourself nothing to regret.
I was fired from my first “career” job a year out of college. I was also fired from my third. I won’t tell you I didn’t spend some time feeling sorry for myself, because I did. But now, looking back years later, I’m thankful for it. What I learned taught me how to succeed. More importantly, I think, it taught me how to survive.
It’s why I’m an indie author. I have no intention of failing. But when I have setbacks, I know I’ll recover. I learned how a long time ago.
I was thinking about the story of Jesus… and Peter… walking on water. I looked at the reasons why Peter was able to walk on water, however short-lived the experience was. The obvious reasons are because he had faith… and Jesus was on hand to command him to do it. But beyond that… before that… he first imagined that he could do it… he dared to think that he should do it… and then he asked Jesus to allow him do it. I thought it was a good thing to think about as we look ahead at the things we want to accomplish in the new year. We always focus on the things we want to change about ourselves… to work on our faults. What would the year look like if we imagined something big… dared to think we should do it… turned to God for the approval and the assistance… and had the faith to do the seemingly impossible. That’s my resolution. Happy New Year, everyone.
I am looking through my 7th grade yearbook. Back in my day, we called it junior high. That awkward, life-altering time when we were all transitioning from children to teenagers. I have fleeting memories of those days. Sitting in the gym cheering on our basketball team. Playing softball and kickball on the fields outside. I have images in my mind from science class and social studies and math.
I lived in a small town, so I remember most of the classmates I see in these pictures. I attended school with many of them from elementary through our senior year. I keep in touch with several of them to this day. But the person I want to tell you about presided over a room along the long back hall downstairs. My friends and I first had him as a teacher when we were in sixth grade. It was language arts, and it lasted two periods. By a stroke of luck, he was moved up a grade the same year we were, so we had him again in seventh grade.
His name was (and still is) Mr. Rhine. Actually, his first name is Gene, but he will forever be Mr. Rhine in my mind. And Mr. Rhine changed my life.
I’m sure we were all a bit gawky and graceless back then, but I was all of that and more. Daunted by the world, simultaneously bossy and intimidated, I had more than my share of the immaturity and insecurities of a 13-year-old girl in a developing body.
My family was relatively poor, so that was an embarrassment to me. (I was 13 after all. Everything was embarrassing.) I was overweight (though I’d kill to be that “fat” again now!) I remember in Sunday School, they’d always have us draw pictures, but I couldn’t draw. I played softball some, but I was definitely not good at it. I made good grades, but I worked for them more out of anxiety than drive. I found my haven in Mr. Rhine’s class.
Mr. Rhine treated us as if we were smart. And in his class, it was fun to be smart. I remember we would play “baseball”, where a “hit” was a right answer. Mr. Rhine had us writing research papers with footnotes and bibliographies in sixth grade. We would head to the library and spend hours looking up information in encyclopedias and resolutely writing it all down. I remember creative writing assignments in which he encouraged us to make up elaborate stories.
To this day, I remember his look of approval when he read something I wrote. Maybe he gave that look to everyone. I hope so. Because that look, that little smile, that pat on the shoulder told me that I had found what I was good at. I believed him, and it transformed me. Not overnight. I still had to make it through junior high. I was still awkward and insecure at times, and still can be! But I had a foundation to rest on, to stand on, to work from. I wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t draw. Or play sports. And I’d never be popular. But I could write. Mr. Rhine said so.
I went on to become an advertising copywriter. Then I wrote scripts for broadcast radio. I’ve written songs all my life, and after three years of effort, I finally completed my first novel. The entire time I was writing it, I thought of handing Mr. Rhine a copy and thanking him for spurring the dream so many years ago. I was afraid he would pass on before I got it written, but I would ask friends back home and they said he was still around.
When I did a book signing at my hometown library a few months ago, I tracked down Mr. Rhine. He was in an assisted living place in the next town over. When I walked into his little apartment, he was sitting in a recliner, covered with a blanket, his tv at full volume. I couldn’t find the right remote to turn it down, and I think I was making him nervous messing with his things. So I shouted at him who I was and why I was there. He didn’t remember me, but I didn’t really expect him to. I shouted that way back in the 70’s, my friends and I were in his class for two years in a row. He joked that we must have gotten tired of him.
No way, Mr. Rhine. You molded us. You inspired us. You challenged us. And I will forever be grateful. I gave him a signed book and told him it was because of him that I had been able to write it. He was touched and thanked me for taking the time. Then I left him, sitting in his chair, covered up to his chin, his tv blaring, holding my book.
I don’t know if he’ll read it. Or if he can. It doesn’t matter. I just wanted to give it to him and to tell him how much his encouragement meant to the timid, anxious, fearful little girl I was way back when. I am so glad I was able to do so.
It doesn’t matter that Mr. Rhine doesn’t remember me. Because I remember him.
“Do you quilt?” asked the electrician, as I moved piles of stuff around in my laundry/sewing/craft area so he could get to the breaker box.
“No,” I was forced to admit.
Nor do I use 95% of the fabric and various and sundry other things I have in bins and drawers and piles. Much of it was inherited from my late mother, who loved the idea of sewing much more than she did the actual activity.
But I can’t blame her for all of my stacks. And I think I owe her an apology for the eye rolls over the years. Mom, turns out I’m a lot like you. While I don’t generally buy fabric that I’ll never use (at least not nearly as often), I’m still hanging on to some of what you bought. And I’ve kept all of the buttons and lace and tools and notions.
I think, more than the actual fabric and trim and fringe, it’s about the possibilities. It’s about what they could be, were we to invest the time. What we could be, if we took the time to invest. That’s much harder to let go of, I think.
You know what they say about home. They say you can’t go back.
I know why they say it. Because home isn’t just a location. Home is also about a time… and about people. So even when you can plant your feet in the same physical space, time has marched on. And people have grown older, or moved away. Or died.
For all intents and purposes, I left my hometown of Eldorado, Illinois back in 1982, the year I moved away to the University of Illinois. Thereafter, I always had a different zip code, and quite a few at that. I was often in Eldorado since that’s where my family was. But I no longer lived there. At the end of the week, or the weekend, I always went back ‘home’, to somewhere else.
For close to three decades now, the Nashville, TN area has been home. I currently live on a quiet street in a town called Gallatin. It’s a pretty good size, compared to Eldorado. I usually don’t run into people I know at the store. Some of my closest ‘local’ friends are still miles away. But it has become home to me. Meanwhile, back in Eldorado, my parents have both passed. Many of my friends are no longer there. I don’t find time to visit very often.
But a couple of weekends ago, I went home again. I stayed with my brother. I shared meals with family and with good friends. And I did a book signing for my debut novel BUKU at the Eldorado Memorial Library. I’ve known the lady who set up the event a good portion of my life. My brother stayed for moral support the whole time. My dear friends Bruce and Julie came and took pictures.
The first guy to walk in the door was Scott. Scott and I never did hang around together. But I’ve known Scott since we were in elementary school. The same with Jeff. And Mark. And Bonnie. I caught up with Chris and Janet and Sally and Mike. My neighbor Kim, who I spent countless hours riding bikes with back on Bramlet Street, was there. As was one of my besties from as far back as I can remember; Valery and I have so many shared memories of camp and school and sitting on the back row at church and giggling so hard the pew shook.
Former neighbors, mothers of friends, the husband of a former teacher. Jerri, who I was on a speech team with when we both attended the local community college. And Gary, my coach from those days. I hadn’t seen either of them since the 90’s, and we talked fast and tried to fill in the years.
There’s something about people who knew you when you were young. Who are a part of your history. Who know your family and have stories on your brother. Who remember your parents and your grandparents.
Eldorado isn’t the town it was when I was growing up. Many of the downtown buildings have collapsed due to age and neglect. My parents are gone; their house sits sad and empty. I can probably walk into the grocery store there and not recognize the faces. But how incredible is it, that thirty-four years after I moved away, I can go back and remember so much? And be remembered by so many. I was afraid I wouldn’t know people. But I did. I may have forgotten people I worked with ten years ago. But I remember the faces of my hometown, the people I knew, and who knew me, when I was young.
So here’s the thing. You can’t turn back the clock. You cannot bring back those you love. But turns out, you can go home again.
I have lived in nine different towns (and parts of Nashville) since I moved away. I now reside in Gallatin. But no matter how long I live, I will always be from Eldorado, Illinois.
I have written a novel. I am proud of myself. I am proud of my writing. I am proud of my book.
And I am delighted that people seem to be enjoying it. It is affirmation of the work I did sitting alone in a room for three years.
But it’s a little weird. It took me a while to come to grips with the idea of signing my book. It felt… pretentious. (I have gotten over that and am happy to sign, by the way.)
I love hearing what people think and am thrilled when someone tells me they like BUKU. But I admit, I also feel a bit vulnerable. (It is my first book, after all.)
I have had friends joke that they “knew me when”. I’ve heard phrases like “now that you’re rich and famous.” Let me assure you. I’m still in the hole financially, and there are 349,846 authors who are more famous than me on Amazon right now. (That’s my sales rank across all books on Amazon at the moment!) I’ve had friends who I haven’t spoken to in thirty years say they’re proud of me. That’s humbling.
So do I have a point? I think I do. And it’s this. Writing and releasing a book has been one of the most fear-inducing yet pride-producing things I’ve ever done. And I think both of those things are good. When we steer away from what scares us, we deny ourselves little moments of glory.
What I have done is small… minuscule in the scheme of things. Kinda like winning a trophy in t-ball. And yet, in my little world, to me and my friends, it’s a big deal. And they’re the people I care most about anyway.
So let me encourage you to do something that scares you. Terrifies you. Makes you feel vulnerable. Sing a solo at church. Post your latest poem on Facebook. Paint a picture of your dog.
Maybe it will go unnoticed. Maybe it won’t be very good. But how else will we ever be all that our Creator created us to be? How else will we open ourselves up to a moment of glory, no matter how small it is?