The last two weeks have hosted a flurry of creative work…during naptimes and on the days my sister-in-law watches Sam (thanks so much, Joanna!). I’m hesitant to publish my high hopes, lest I’m getting too confident…but, of course, here I go.
In the last two weeks, I’ve basically rewritten the last third of my book, or created 80 new pages. This is my first big change since I rewrote the first third of my book last fall. So, now I have a different book from what I had last August. Same story, different book.
I’m not all that sad to have hacked up the first draft. That draft was very repetitious and wallowing. I see it as having cleared the pipes for what really needed to come out. Plus, I’ve saved all that cut material in a word document, and I envision it fueling numerous short articles. This new third, which still needs some organization and editing, focuses much more on Jesus and my healing. It explains the prayer process that changed my life, and shows those changes through new scenes of me reaching out to and praying with other women.
Now that I have the scenes in place that I want in the final draft (meaning I have a reliable outline), I will proceed with writing a book proposal and polishing the first three chapters. I’m not going to set a hard date for sending out the proposal, but I’m hoping for within a month. (I will only be sending to one publisher for now—a press within my faith community which God has laid upon my heart.) While the proposal is being reviewed (or sitting in a slush pile), I will polish up the rest of the book, and possibly get one more edit from my excellent book consultant, Trish Ryan.
I have prayed long over this memoir, and I feel God has delayed its progress so that I could make the recent changes. Now, I believe my book goes beyond telling a sad story women can identify with to showing how Jesus can bring beauty from ashes.
One surefire way to tell you’ve been “reborn” is the desire to share your faith with others. On the other hand, if the idea of “sharing your faith” turns you off or even terrifies you, that’s a good sign you haven’t been reborn. For most of my life, born “Christian” though I was, that was my experience: I didn’t know what to share, and I didn’t know how.
After my “Damascus Road Year” (see part 5), for the first time in my adult life, I had abiding joy and peace, which led to faith. Finally, I had something to share. Now, I just had to figure out how to share it.
In the four years since my conversion, I’ve decided we born-again Christians can share our faith in two ways: implicitly, and explicitly.
Sharing Faith Implicitly
First, we can share our faith implicitly by living out our new identities in Christ. If we’ve truly been reborn, then our daily lives—our habits, our behaviors, our interactions with others—will naturally witness to Jesus Christ, because we will be emulating him. If we are following Jesus, we will not be living like the rest of the world, and people will take notice.
For example, after my conversion, my public high school students started to ask me questions about my faith, even advice about faith-related matters: “Why don’t you drink?” “Why do you go to church on Saturday?” “What do you think about marriage?” “How can I make my boyfriend see that prayer is an important part of the Christian life?” These questions came without me explicitly stating my beliefs—but I didn’t need to, because my behavior showed me to be different from most of the other teachers.
Sharing Faith Explicitly
Second, we can share our faith explicitly in a variety of ways, depending on our personalities. Note: This form of sharing does not come in a “one-size-fits-all” box. Unfortunately, some churches, preachers, and Bible teachers, try to make us feel like witnessing should look the same for everyone, thereby making some of us (i.e., those of us who don’t fit the traditional mold) feel like failures before we’ve even begun.
Two years prior to my conversion, I was the victim of one such discipleship training that was intended to prepare me to give Bible studies at the end of eight weeks. But after eight weeks, I was no more ready to give Bible studies than I’d been at the beginning, for two reasons. One: I hadn’t yet met the Lord personally (though I was active in my church and looked “good” on the outside), and two: the type of ministry wasn’t right for me.
The first fatal flaw of the training was that it didn’t show me how to have a personal experience with Christ before asking me to spread that experience to others. To its credit, the training frontloaded the concept of preparing our hearts for ministry. The speaker said we should deal with our own baggage before we try to minister to others—but she didn’t really explain or model how, exactly, I was supposed to rid myself of that “old man”—AKA my baggage. When I began the training, I was still depressed and self-centered, and it’s pretty hard to testify to Jesus’ redemptive power in that state of mind. Unfortunately, after the first night, it was assumed we were ready to learn how to “share our faith” with others. And that brings me to the second fatal flaw.
This training only presented one way of how to share my faith, as if that were the only way. I don’t want to unduly pick on my religion, but since it’s the one I know, it gets to be the example. In the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, the ol’ standby for sharing faith is knocking on doors and offering Bible studies. For Adventists, and probably a lot of other Christian religions, Bible studies equate to a series of topical handouts that progress through our beliefs by way of Q and A—with plentiful Bible verses listed to help answer the Q’s.
Let me be clear: I don’t think these studies are bad. I think they definitely have their place, especially for those who are completely new to the Bible. But when it comes to sharing my faith, these studies do not appeal to me. That’s because I did not personally or experientially come to know Jesus through these types of studies, and I find it hard to believe that others could, either (though I’m sure it’s happened).
When it comes to explicitly sharing our faith, we should choose a method we can be passionate about; it’s important that we honor our personalities, choosing and using a method that speaks to us. If you’ve found the Lord and are excited to share him, yet you’re still not sure how to do that explicitly, learn from my experience. Perhaps you just haven’t stumbled upon the right method yet.
Bible Study Bummer
When it came time to start my “explicit” phase of ministry, I knew who I wanted to reach out to—my friends and peers from church—but I didn’t know how. After a lifetime in the Adventist church, the only thing I could think was traditional Bible studies…so that’s basically what I did.
Now, I didn’t start with our prefabricated lesson studies, which usually progress through a series of doctrines. I wanted to focus more on the heart, because I believed that, more than head knowledge, my friends and peers needed a heart experience with the Lord—or what I’d recently found. So, I picked a book about having a heart experience, John Dybdahl’s Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul, and made study guides for our meetings. My heart was in the right place, but my approach was wrong.
I had designed the studies similar to my high school handouts, complete with fill-in-the-blank answers. That’s a good way to short circuit good discussion and sometimes independent thought. As for prayer? By now I had somewhat of a vibrant personal prayer life (it involved a lot of writing to God in my journal), but I didn’t know how to facilitate really effective public prayer. So I duplicated the format we used at church: I asked for praises and then prayer requests. We went around the circle, said our praises and prayer requests, and then one person prayed, thanking God for the praises, listing the requests, and asking God to guide the study. It was a fine prayer, but it wasn’t going to result in hearts being transformed.
Despite my ineptitude, our Bible study consistently drew a crowd. I could tell my friends enjoyed coming (was it because I fed them?); and I even made some new, dear friends. I wasn’t running a particularly great study, but God brought blessings out of it (and therein is a lesson). However, after a year and half, I wanted something better. I’d read Trish Ryan’s Christian memoir, He Loves Me, He Love Me Not, and her small group was, as I read it, much more effective than mine. She wrote of things like group intercessory prayer that resulted in many heart conversions. It was then that I began to feel like a failure in ministry—and had my “Unexpected Breakdown” (check out what happened in this post that got me freshly pressed).
After two years of being on fire for the Lord, I burned out. After giving so much to my friends and to the church, I felt bankrupt myself.
Now about to finish a master’s degree and no longer sure I wanted to pursue a doctorate (would spending so much time in grad school be to bypass another calling the Lord had for me?) I needed to find strength again. I also needed (but didn’t know it) more healing for the roots of my former depression.
In the conclusion, learn about the prayer ministry that not only helped me heal, decide to have children, and decide to change career courses, but also taught me how to witness “straight to the heart.” It is the same prayer ministry that laid the groundwork for Writing to my Roots.
It’s a lesson I’ve been hearing and trying to apply for years: Don’t underestimate the power of good words. Today I’m not talking about skillful writing (per se), but uplifting words, written or spoken. I hear this advice as a wife, when my husband entreats me to stop nagging him for his shortcomings. “Positive reinforcement,” he says, “Is what will get me to change.”
I heard this advice at graduate school when learning best practices for teaching writing: “If you only criticize students, you will freeze their writing process. You must encourage what they are doing well so they can gain confidence to keep writing.” And, “Wait until later to correct their grammar and punctuation. If they only see red marks on the page, they will be so scared of screwing up, they won’t take any risks.”
The Bible says, “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Prov. 15:4), and, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (Prov. 16:24).
Putting Wisdom into Practice
I’ve tried to put this advice in practice this semester as a college writing instructor. This doesn’t mean I never comment on what’s bad in an essay, but I give as many compliments, if not more, as criticisms. And I waited until about halfway through the semester to significantly address punctuation or grammar. I’m not sure if it was this approach, or my sequence of assignments, or the natural improvement that comes over time, but by essay four, all my students were writing their best papers yet. I think it has something to do with all of the above, plus the fact that the fourth assignment, modeled on a magazine article submission, was a true story of their choosing written for teens. They seemed to care more about this task, given the topic and the clear audience, and it showed in their writing.
I think older, more experienced writers, can handle criticism without letting it derail them. Same goes for older people in any context, if they are well adjusted adults who have learned to let adversity lead to growth. Still, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings…” (Isa. 52:7). As one who has just received some good news, I am reminded just how life giving good news can be.
My Own Good News
This weekend I received the edit letter on the second (partial) draft of my memoir. I sent Trish 130 new pages thinking, “These suck,” but I sent them anyway, because I had done what she suggested. As I awaited her letter, I expected to read, “You were right; I see why you didn’t put these things in the book originally; they don’t work, they aren’t well written.” I thought she would confirm my self-diagnosis, and I would be stuck at square one, trying to figure out a book structure that’s been problematic from the beginning.
Guess what? I was wrong. Her letter positively glowed. Here are some of the good words she gave me:
I am so, so proud of you for digging deep.
It was a vivid, powerful reading experience.
I didn’t do much line editing, mostly because I was really caught up in the story.
These are great scenes. There are lots of pages where I don’t note anything because the story was carrying me along. That means you’ve done it right.
Overall, you have raised your writing level so much with these new pages. I know this is taking longer than you thought it would. But you will be glad you took this time and wrestled out these scenes. The end result will be a book that you will be really proud of, and will entertain and bless your readers.
You’re a fun, talented writer to work with.
The Results of Good News
After the second time I read through the six-page letter, I felt light, like a weight had been lifted. A week ago when I sent in my pages, I felt heavy, lost in my writing process, and unsure what I was going to do after she told me to try again. I resisted working on my memoir for the entire week, figuring it would do no good until I knew what she would say.
Now I am re-energized. Last night around bedtime, I even felt compelled to sit down and outline some new scenes that will finish the book. The outline poured out and suddenly clarified the structure of my book. I saw how the new pages would circle back to and unify this new, as yet unwritten, ending. I realized I could not have conceived of this ending until now, because the events have just happened within the last month.
One lesson for me to learn was, again, God’s timing. Though I tried to set a date on this book project from my very first blog post, I couldn’t, because I didn’t know what all needed to be in the book.
The other lesson was good news. How lovely was this good news to me! Would I have seen the vision for completing my memoir without Trish’s good words? God used her words to revitalize my writing, and now I can’t wait to get back to work!
“Pause for a minute…that word order is confusing. Instead of ‘my spiritual life post thirteen,’ how about ‘my post-thirteen spiritual life’?”
I was reading chapter 2 of my memoir to my writers’ group, which, this week, was only one other person. She was stopping me every couple of paragraphs to suggest a syntax change or a modifier deletion.
“The action ‘I put my head in my hands’ makes pretty clear that you dreaded what was coming next. I know you’ve heard it before, but this is a case where you show and tell. You don’t need the telling.”
Putting It into Practice
Two days later as I sit at my keyboard trying to jump back into my memoir, I’m glad for the prose tightening advice. It will be really helpful later…but it’s not what I need right now. Since adding more than ten new chapters, I’m just trying to figure out if the scenes I’ve extracted from my reluctant psyche even belong in my book.
Show, Don’t Tell
“And tell us what you were wearing. I can’t see you as an eleven-year-old. Show the makeup or lack thereof. How did you know it was snowing outside? Show us how you are seeing this. Are you looking out a picture window?”
This writer, an excellent writer, by the way, is a visual person. Her prose overflows with color, texture, and shape. She lent me a memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, by another fellow Minnesotan (my critique-er and I are both Minnesota girls who ended up in Texas), and I wonder if she modeled her writing on Nicole Lea Helget’s style. Helget writes with beautiful imagery that places readers right in the scene.
For example, here’s an excerpt where she’s describing watching/hearing her father “pitchfork” a cow:
A sound snapped the thick air.
Like eggs dropped on the wooden floor of the chicken coop. Or metal bats whacking leather-covered baseballs. There was something of a wooden ruler slapping naughty palms. Something of thunder breaking against the sky. Only more primal, more rooted. I recognized it immediately… It was the sound of girls splitting wish-bones, of Mom dividing chicken breasts, and of shovels crushing black rats breeding in the granary… It was the sound of field stones hitting the loader bucket or hay wagon or rock box….It was bone.
I don’t write like this. At least, I don’t write like this about my early years. These years feel like a cold case. I can’t remember. Or is it that I don’t want to?
The first draft of the memoir I sent off for editing begins with me at age twenty—and I believe that draft was more descriptive than the chapters my writing group has seen in the last month. I can deal with those more recent scenes.
The early scenes? I’ve been writing them, but they kind of suck right now. I feel something about my early life is important, but I’m not sure if I’m capturing it.
I always had the idea I’d save my early life for another book. It deserves a whole book, and, in fact, was going to be my first book. I prepared the manuscript as a series of journal entries, and to this day, the scenes are preserved in my memory as the journal entries. I fear I’ve forgotten the actual scenes—I just remember the journal entries. The scenes I’ve written for draft 2 of my memoir feel fabricated—or at least really detached from my feelings and memories.
Moving Forward, Nonetheless
This week I’m going to send off my new part 1 to Trish. Because I’ve had more time to talk to Trish, and because she’s seen the rest of the manuscript (or where I am going with it all), she will understand that, more than prose tightening, I need help deciding what to include about my early years. Maybe I even need help unlocking memory.
I doubt memory will come back in full color like it seems to for Helget and my fellow Minnesotan, and maybe that’s okay. In my daily life, I don’t often notice what’s around me (I know, I know—as a writer, I should work on this). I don’t think I’m going for a full-color memoir, though. I’m not sure. This is a style question I can work out later. But first things first: figuring out content, order of events, and narrative thread.
Wait a Minute…
Right before I hit “post,” a thought occurs: is writing in “full color” a way to actually unlock memory? What do you think, readers? Have I got the process wrong?
At first I thought I was writing a book about recovery from depression, the love story that brought my husband and me together, and finding a relationship with the Lord. Now that I am revising for my book consultant, Christian memoirist Trish Ryan, I feel the topics expanding. She wanted me to set a greater context for why I ever got to the point of suicide and bulimia and all the other struggles I write about in the first place. She wanted to know more about my faith in God as a child and my family. In short, she asked me to venture into places I realized I didn’t want to go (which is why I originally did not go there).
Now that I’ve been trying to write scenes from childhood for the last several weeks (and they are coming out messy and muddled and badly), I’m finding that my story might be bigger than I thought, and it all has to do with being honest about how the church has failed me.
The more I write, the greater anger I uncover at a church culture that would not let me speak up and share what kind of help I needed. This theme also shows up when it comes to my relationships with friends and relatives—people you’d think it should be okay to share with! The revisions I am working on now are slowly bringing me to new conclusions about why I became suicidal in the first place. Maybe I will never totally understand why or how it happened, and maybe it’s not a problem that is specific to me or my family or my church. But through the messy, ugly, painful writing coming out in the last few weeks, I know it has something to do with speaking up, and the fact that I felt I couldn’t for so many years.
Sometimes it’s discouraging to think that after a year of working on this memoir, I’m only just keying in to the real point of it all—and maybe I’ll decide next month that I need to backtrack yet again. But maybe it all goes back to this blog and why I started writing it: I needed to share with people.
I’m working on a series of blog posts about my ugly, messy rebirth experience, and these posts, more than anything I’ve yet written on Writing to my Roots, have given me pause: Do I want to publish them? Do I want to share how I feel my church failed me, how it failed my parents, and how that resulted in a family’s demise and a girl’s death wish?
I feel a need for Christians to be honest about their struggles; it’s just hard to be one of the leaders in this “genre” of witnessing. I told Trish I felt like there were very few memoirs on the market like the one I’m trying write: that is, Christians seem to write really simplified accounts of how they found Christ (and what a difference he made to the before and after of their lives), which leave me hungry for the real details. Show me a life story I can relate to! Conversely, the writers who are willing to divulge the messy details of their lives are, for the most part, those who haven’t really emerged from the mess—so the story is real and raw and often literarily well executed, but not uplifting. I want my story to be all of the above.
Trish agreed with my assessment of the market, saying that when we writers undertake a project like she’s done and like I’m trying to do, we put ourselves out there as screwed up Christians, saying, “Okay, I’ll go first.” Not easy, but necessary if we hope to change the climate of things.
So if I publish some things that put my church or my religion in a bad light, it’s not that I’m denouncing my faith. It’s that I want us to take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, so we can fix it! Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free, and I just want to help the church see how we can help fulfill his mission. Sometimes, that means being brutally honest with where we’ve failed.
If you feel the same way, please pray for this writing project as it moves forward—that it would tell a story the world (and maybe just the Christian world) needs to hear, and that God would give me the wisdom and discernment to tell it.