Something I tell students about writing

“This will be written for a generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).

What qualifies me to teach writing is not that I’m all that great of a writer myself.  But I love good writing, I work at learning to do it better, and I know some things on the subject worth passing along.

Consequently, I sometimes get invited to speak at writers’ conferences.  As I did this past weekend in Tuscaloosa. (The Southern Christian Writers Conference, the child of Dr. David and Mrs. Joanne Sloane, has been around for nearly 30 years and each June, the first weekend, enrolls nearly 200 students.  Meeting at Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church, the SCWC brings in editors and publishers and all sorts of successful writers to teach.  Oh, and they also bring me in.  Just goes to show, I suppose.)

The text from Psalm 102:18 is the Scripture that fuels their writings, the Sloanes say.  After all, we’re told, more people of the future will read our stuff than will our contemporaries.  In a sense, we’re writing history.

Writing a journal is like taking a 30-minute slice of your today and sending it ahead into the future.  I’m big on journaling.  Journals, we are told, are not so much for our children–who presumably are living the same life we are and have little curiosity about how we view today–as for our grandchildren and theirs.  In time, my journal will be looked upon as something of a record of “the life of an ordinary Baptist preacher in the 1990s.”  I’ll not be around to know it, but in doing those journals–I’m through with journal-keeping except on this blog, something that I wouldn’t exactly call journaling–it has often been with a view toward the future.  There’s a strong witness for Christ throughout all 56 volumes.

Anyone can write; you don’t even have to know good English.  However, if you want people to read what you’ve written, knowing how to make subjects and verbs agree and the difference in they’re, there, and their will come in handy.  Most of us cannot long abide poor writing, so while we may read a few pages, we soon lay it aside because of the assault on our brains.

Therefore, however (I love to put those two words together!), you can get on with writing, without waiting on a certification in proper English usage or the muse to inspire you.  Just do it.

Writers are almost unanimous in saying that you should not wait for the inspiration to write, but that if you will turn on the laptop and get to work, the ideas will arrive right on time.  Funny how that works.  That’s the reason I tell procrastinating preachers who keep saying, “One of these days I’m going to write a book,” no, you’re not.  All you’re going to do is talk about it.  The only way you will write a book, minister of God, is to make yourself sit down and begin writing.

One wonders how many people who lived fascinating lives–existences the rest of us would have thrilled to read about–went to the grave and took their stories with them.  I used to have such a friend.  Marshall Sehorn kept telling me he wanted to write his life story.  One day I said, “Marshall, start talking into a tape recorder”–remember those?–“and just get something down.  You can do the writing later.”  But this wonderful friend who had signed 16-year-old Gladys Knight (and her cousins the Pips) to her first recording contract, who used to be the only white man on a busload of gospel and rock singers touring the country, who had produced an album with Paul McCartney and Wings, and who had been a partner with legendary musician Allen Toussaint, took his stories to the grave with him.  He left us much earlier than any of us would have wanted or he had planned.

So, get started, writer.

And that’s another thing.  You are a writer.

A dozen years ago, probably, one of the speakers at the Tuscaloosa conference looked out at the sea of faces and said, “Quit saying you plan to be a writer.  Or you hope to be a writer some day.  Say, ‘I am a writer!'” and he had all of us repeat that aloud, several times.

Nowhere is it written that to call oneself a writer, one must make his living at the craft.  Or have published several books. Or sold enough of them.   It’s not exactly a closed guild.  So, I am a writer. You are a writer (if you will get started).

Looking to make big bucks? Keep on looking….

Let’s make this real clear up front: Very few people get rich writing books.  So, if you are unemployed and are telling your family to start making plans for Easy Street because you’ve decided to write a novel, you are probably living in a dream world.  To be sure, there are the stories.  The sister of John Grisham, attorney in Holly Springs, Mississippi, sat in his living room one evening.  “Do you have a few minutes?” he asked her.  And shoved a manila envelope to her. “Read this and tell me what you think.”  She read the opening chapters of “A Time to Kill,” his first novel.  “This is good,” she said. “Who wrote it?”  “You really think it’s good?” he asked.  “Yes, who wrote it?”  “I did.”  “Give me a break,” she said.

John Grisham sells more books and makes more money than you and me combined.  (Okay, a tiny understatement there.)

There are just enough stories of major successes like Grisham’s (or Lee Child’s or Jan Karon’s) to fuel to dream, I suppose.  But most of us are not going to sell umpteen thousands of books.  So, we write for other purposes.

Why most of us write

What “other purposes” (other than making big money) drive people to write books?  I can think of several: To record something important, to teach something we have learned, to bless the next generation, to have in hand tangible proof that we can write (!), to impress an old girl friend or make mama proud, to vent our anger, to indulge our fantasies, and to straighten out some institution that has jumped the tracks.

And so we write.

A final reminder–one that hits it out of the park for my money–which I hope you will long remember.

Nora Profit tells how she began writing.  She was living in New York City and went to an off-Broadway musical where Salome Bey was appearing. She was incredible, the next Sarah Vaughn, Nora thought.  Looking around at all the empty seats in the theater, Nora thought, “She just needs some publicity.  What if I wrote an article for Essence magazine on her?”  Now, the fact that she had never written anything and couldn’t even write a good grocery list didn’t stop her.

The next day she called the theater and told Salome Bey, “I’m writing an article on you for Essence magazine and would like to interview you.”  Miss Bey said, “I’m cutting my fourth album tomorrow.  So meet me there and bring along your photographer.”  Photographer?  Nora didn’t even know anyone with a camera.   But she discovered that her friend Barbara was good with a camera and invited her to come along.  Next day, she got her interview and lots of pictures, and then rushed home to write the article.

She wrote and rewrote the article.  Finally, it was as good as she could make it–typed, double-spaced, and with a self-addressed stamped envelope so the editors could return the manuscript if they didn’t like it.  She mailed it.  And then she waited.

All her fears rose to the top and kept insisting that she was overstepping herself, that they would never accept an article from someone they’d never heard of, and who do you think you are?!

Three weeks later, here came the mail with her envelope.  It was thick, so doubtless containing her full manuscript.  They are rejecting it, Nora thought.  She was so disgusted she tossed it unopened into a closet and got on with her life.

A few years later, she was moving and cleaning out the closets and found that envelope. She’d forgotten what it was.  Why have I written a letter to myself? she wondered.  She opened it and saw her manuscript and this letter from Essence magazine…

Dear Miss Profit.  Your article is fantastic.  We just need a few more quotes.  See the notes we wrote in the margins.  We plan to use this in our next issue.

Nora Profit said, “I could have been published in a national magazine and they’ have paid me $500.  And I would have had the encouragement–except for my fears.”

The fear of rejection is often worse than the rejection itself.

Our Lord asked the disciples, “Why did you fear? Where is your faith?” (Mark 4:40)

So, writer, get to it.  Now.  This minute.  Time’s a-wasting!









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