Writing chose me.
I think that’s probably the case with any artistic profession – be it painting or acting or singing. Then again, I could just be trying to make myself feel better about the fact that I’ll probably never make any money. But, if I only wrote because I wanted to make money, I would have never finished my book or gotten two degrees on the subject or be writing this article right now.
Like I said, writing chose me.
I taught myself how to read when I was 4, mostly because I didn’t want to be the only one in my family who couldn’t understand all those squiggly lines. My parents sat patiently with me while I sounded out words from my children’s bible – a pretty little book with a floral cotton cover – and tried to understand them. I remember trying to read about the Tower of Babel and, with great enthusiasm, recognizing the word “building”. I practically shouted it at my parents. The irony that my love of stories began with one where language and words are suddenly rendered useless is not lost on me. As a writer, it’s my job to take things that seem illogical or uncertain and make sense of them. It’s also my job to make readers care.
This is where Anne Frank comes in.
In fifth grade, I was walking through my school’s library when I turned a corner and saw her face. Her diary was on the shelf and her picture was on the cover. I didn’t know who she was; I only knew she looked to be about my age. And I wondered: “How did a girl like her get on the cover of a book like that?”When my older sister brought home the book for a reading assignment months later, I found out the answer to my question. And it was then, as I sobbed my way through her diary, that I realized how stories could change lives. My parents bought me a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank for Christmas that year, and, as the saying goes, “that was all she wrote”. I would become a writer. I would say something to make others think about the world. I would leave something behind that would matter long after I was gone.
I started a journal and kept up with it from middle school all the way through college. It was my prayer book, my consolation, and my best friend. It saw me through first loves and last loves, through graduation and new friendships, through doubt and faith. And somewhere along the line, I stopped thinking about what writing could do for me – what kind of success I might have as a writer or how my work might be remembered – and started thinking of writing as simply an extension of who I was. My work was just another part of me. It was my way of connecting with a world that is too often disconnected. And it helped me process my relationship with God in a whole new way. It seemed like everywhere I went, God was present – even, and perhaps especially, on the pages of my journal.
So when my university launched a Writing & Linguistics program, I jumped on board. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In that program, I learned a simple truth that has stayed with me throughout my career: “Writers write”. It’s what we do. Anyone who has a pen and knows basic language skills can put together a sentence or even a story. But a writer is someone who makes writing a priority. A writer is someone who writes because she cannot help herself.
After I graduated college, I wrote a novel loosely based on my experiences there. It’s still gathering dust in a binder on my bookshelf. To be honest, it was really just an exercise in truth. Could I be committed enough to do this forever? Or was I just looking for affirmation? So I started writing another novel called Paper Flowers. I wrote it while working full-time, taking graduate classes, and also writing a coffee table book celebrating the 100th anniversary of Mayfield Dairy Farms (yes, that Mayfield) during an internship with a publisher in Atlanta. My goal was to finish the novel by the time I turned 25. And I did, on August 19th, 2010, less than 24 hours before my 25th birthday. I had written three books so far, and one of them was going to be published. I had also started a blog, which became another journal of sorts. And it was during that time, when I was still newly-married and busier than I had ever been, that I realized – with the same kind of enthusiasm I had at age 4 – that this was the real deal. I would never be anything other than a writer, even if I tried.
When I say that “Writing chose me”what I’m really saying is “God did this”. Like any other area of life, be it marriage or having children, or moving across the country, God has an ideal plan for us. And we are free to choose that plan or not. But when we take the time to listen, to pay attention, and to cultivate the gifts God has given us, we put ourselves in the position to do the most good. At first, writing was a way for me to make myself more important. And then I discovered God had already made me important. I was beautiful and talented and really, really awesome because God made me that way. And writing was the way I could tell the world more about him.
Three years ago, after I had queried as many agents as I could possibly think of in hopes that someone would request a copy of Paper Flowers, I started writing a third novel. It started out as a short story. But before that, it started as a response to the terrible tragedy of teen suicide. My younger sister had recently lost two schoolmates to suicide. One of them had been bullied for a number of years because of his sexual orientation. And, at the tender age of 16, he hanged himself in his bedroom closet.
I was broken-hearted about these young men. What had happened to make them feel so desperate that ending their lives was the only option? I live with mental illness every day, so I’m well aware of what that dark place looks like. But, I am blessed with a community of compassion and support. Where was that community in their stories? How could these tragedies have been avoided? What were the days and weeks and months like prior to their deaths, when the smallest change could have shifted their futures? When a simple gesture could have saved a life?
At the urging of my husband, I turned my short story into a novel called The Best Kept Secret. I finished it in the fall of 2012 and took it to a writer’s conference. (If you’re hoping to get published one day, get your butt to a conference! They are the best thing you can do to gain feedback and exposure.) At the conference, the agent I’d been most excited to meet requested to see the rest of my book. She also gave me the Best Manuscript Submission Award. Two months later, after finishing my book, she turned it down, but not before giving me some really helpful suggestions. She ended her letter to me with this:
“Publishing is a very subjective business. But you’ve got the talent and I hope one day I’ll see The Best Kept Secret in stores. All it takes is one ‘yes’.”
Last October, I got that yes. And on June 2nd of this year, The Best Kept Secret was released to very positive reviews, decent sales numbers, and a happy dance or two (or 50).
What strikes me most when I look back at this whole process is how God has used my work to connect me with others. It should be no surprise, really, considering it was the diary of a young girl hiding from abject terror – and still finding the courage to write her story – that urged me to use my voice. Anne Frank had died more than 70 years before I read her diary and, yet, she was as real to me as any of my friends. I mourned for her when I found out that she hadn’t survived the war. And, at times, I wished I could have been there with her, if only so she wouldn’t have felt so alone. That is the power of storytelling.
My books might never sell more than a thousand copies, and that’s okay, because the numbers don’t (always) matter to me. What matters is that I speak and I say something true. What matters is that I ask God questions and listen when he answers. What matters is that someone can look and what I’ve written and, hopefully, say, “Me too”.
What matters is that I write.