On Writing… and Living


“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.

Maybe we need to edit out what’s not our story.

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Words That Define Us

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.

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The Wonder of Weeds

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.

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Let’s Walk On Water

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.

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Mr. Rhine

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.

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The World Needs You To Be An Artist

A family member just passed away. I have two friends recently diagnosed with cancer. I know people who are dealing with depression, addiction, chronic pain, and the inevitable march of time.

Some of the people in my circle are lonely, sad, overwhelmed, grieving, depressed, broke, jobless, friendless, faithless. So when I post on Facebook that I’m excited about releasing my first book, a part of me feels… guilty. Frivolous. Shallow. What I’ve done will not cure sickness. It will not feed the hungry. It will in no way change the world.

I’ve written a book about monsters chasing people through the mountains. And yes, there is a love story in the book. And a tale of good vs. evil. And a touch of spirituality. But it is, after all, entertainment.

Except to me, it’s more than that. I accomplished a dream I’ve had since childhood. I started a new career in my fifties. I figured out how to do something that I had absolutely no idea how to do. (And am still trying to figure out a lot of it!) I faced the fear of rejection and self-doubt and worked past it. I set myself a huge goal and (eventually) met it.

More so than that, I tapped into that awesome creative spirit that seems such a mystery to those fortunate enough to experience it. I can’t really tell you how I thought of the story of BUKU. I can’t really tell you how I came up with multiple characters and a storyline that seems to tie together. I can’t really tell you where the melody to “Iris’ Lullaby” came from. Creativity remains somewhat magical to me.

Which brings me to my point. In a world filled with heartbreaking things like death and cancer and pain and depression, creating can be essential. It reminds us that there are things far more fascinating than the everyday world. That there are things far more mystical, far more meaningful, far more enjoyable. It reminds us that there is something beyond us that we can connect to as we delve within.

I don’t say these things because I wrote a book. I say these things to encourage you to write a book. Or paint a picture. Or make a quilt. Or sing a song. Or take a photo. Or plant a flower. Or color with your granddaughter. Or whatever it is that is inside you, longing to be let out. We can’t stop the sorrowful inevitabilities of life. But we can interlace them with things we create with our hands and our minds and our hearts. We can bring beauty and peace and passion and godliness into this cold world.

I hope you create something today. Or this week. Or this year. Not because the world needs more entertainment. But because it needs more hope.

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Making Dreams Come True

When Lee Ann Womack won Female Vocalist of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards, it was a dream come true. Literally. Lee Ann used to watch the awards show as a child and dream of winning the coveted trophy. She worked hard, with single-minded conviction, until she actually did it. She was named the top female singer in country music in 2001.

But Lee Ann said that after the euphoria died down, she was left with a big question. What next? What do you do when you achieve what you’ve worked for for so long? Well, I am about to find out!

No, I’m not up for an award. And probably never will be. But I am about to release my debut novel to the world. Of course, my dream doesn’t center around one book. I hope to write many more. But here at the top of a hill I’ve been climbing for several years, I find myself contemplating the path behind me. It extends all the way back to childhood when I read books that transported me to other places and times. That’s when I told myself I could do that too. The adult me took a long time to get around to it, and I can tell you that path has been long and steep and even torturous at times. But hey, young Jenny. Look at the hill we have climbed.

There’s lots more to do. I’m self-published, so stuff like covers and formatting and marketing and websites is all in my hands. And of course, it’s time to start on the next book. It’s just that, right now, I want to acknowledge that I did it. Whether it sells or not, I have fulfilled a childhood dream.

And folks, I can tell you. It feels good.

I hope you remember your dreams. I hope you can do something that helps you accomplish them in some way. Maybe you can’t become an astronaut, but you can still explore the stars by studying about them. Maybe you can’t be a superstar, but you can still sing or act or paint or pick out a tune on a guitar.

What hill did you want to climb as a child? Have you tried climbing it lately?

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It Needs To Be Fun

I head up a ministry in which we invite the at-risk students of an after-school program to our church once a week for classes in art, music, sewing, crafts, cooking — whatever I can find teachers for. It’s a lot of work, as you can imagine.

This semester, we are doing a music video. With the help of some of the kids a few years ago, I wrote a rap. (Yep, I wrote a rap.) A great guy in town who has a video company is going to shoot and edit it for us. What I planned to work on today with the kids was practicing the song.

Except they weren’t into it. Shyness, young teen “coolness”, the lack of a music leader — all of that resulted in a bunch of kids staring at me like I was asking them to eat rotten apples. I got frustrated and told them none of us had to be there. Their teacher stood up and read them the riot act. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next.

And then our star music student played a beat on the keyboard. Some of the kids started singing. The other kids joined in in loud boisterous voices. It certainly wasn’t pretty. It is still a long way from good. But all the sudden, we were having fun. And almost everyone was joining in. Even some of the girls who have been “too cool for the room” all year did the rap.

The lesson for me was, the kids weren’t at fault. I was. Because I was failing to make it fun. It wasn’t intentional. I always want them to have fun, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t accomplishing that. Once it became fun, they participated.

I think the same applies to ourselves. If we want to create, to be truly inspired in what we do, we have to include play. I’m not saying work won’t enter into it. Because it will. But first, it has to be fun.

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Just Write

In my quest to learn what I need to know about writing and publishing a book, I have subscribed to a dozen or more different blogs/email lists/Facebook pages/etc, all with instructions on how I should write, why I should write, what I should not do while I write. There seems to be a lot of advice and rules and suggestions and no-no’s. I find that some apply to me. Some I disagree with. Some are talking about the kind of writer I will never be. The only thing I know for sure… the one rule that I will state applies unequivocally to every writer, in every genre, for all time… all of my knowledge and wisdom summed up in one sentence is: If you don’t write, it won’t get written.

And by the way, I think this applies to all creatives. (And we are all creative.) What we have inside of us, the part that is unique to us… if we don’t express it in some way, we stop it from ever being revealed to the world. Or at least our world. Or maybe even, just to us.

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