The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the newspaper where I’ve worked for over 17 years, runs a weekly column called “Saturday Diary” for which staff members are encouraged to write personal essays on topics they choose. Over the past few years I’ve become one of the more prolific contributors, tackling issues such as patriotism, sports fandom and online dating, and publishing three this year alone.
When I first came to the PG, I received this guideline from an editor: “A Diary takes a current event in your life — from the mundane to the momentous — and makes it interesting to other people. The Diarist aims to describe an inner transformation (which can be microscopic or massive) in a way that engages the reader. Being on the op-ed page, it is in the realm of changing the reader’s mind about something. But being a Diary, it’s more about altering the reader’s perception” [emphasis mine].
While thinking about this recently, I began to understand one of our goals as writers: Making sense of life. People may hear a sound bite or a conversation that may capture their views for a moment, but for my money only on the printed page or a screen can things be truly fleshed out. And it is in the writing in which the magic unfolds — what truly happened and the time it takes to understand and reflect upon it.
It took me a while to learn this, but a personal essay is supposed to have a “takeaway” — that is, what is a reader supposed to learn that he or she didn’t know already? We writers in a sense are supposed to take readers on a journey, to bring something to light they hadn’t thought of.
In 2005 I won a carnival prize for a woman friend in quite dramatic fashion, and after thinking about it just after it happened I realized that the experience was somehow transforming me. I thought it might make for a good story, admittedly shooting for an “Aw … ” factor, so the next year I decided to enter a piece in the “personal experience” category at St. Davids. Apparently the judge agreed, as she gave it a second place, and it was published as a Diary in the PG the year after that.
I realized in 2006 just what the takeaway was. That year on my church’s singles retreat I fell into conversation with a woman who knew the friend for whom I won that prize. We talked about that a bit — she thought it a noble gesture, to which I responded, “But [we men are] supposed to do that.” As the cliché goes, “Some gifts just keep on giving,” and a solid personal essay has the power to do just that.
Contributed by Rick Nowlin, who has covered jazz for the Post-Gazette since 1998, is a SDCWA board member.
I’ve spoken at virtually every writers conference in the US of A, and St. Davids Christian Writers Conference is my absolute favorite conference with the perfect blend of information, faith and fun. (And now the board has asked me to direct the conference. What were they thinking?!)
So, mark your calendars for June 24-28, 2015, in Grove City, Pennsylvania, at the junction of I-80 and I-70.
The full conference will begin with dinner Wednesday and finish with a commissioning service Sunday morning. We’ll also feature a one-day track Saturday, so if you can only attend that day, you’re going to get everything you need to know from concept to contract.
We’re working hard to secure all our faculty and finalize the schedule by the end of October. You can see list of faculty so far.
And we’ll be utilizing Grove City College’s air-conditioned, handicap-accessible apartments this year.
According to our president, Amy Mable, “It’s going to amazing!” So join us this summer for information, inspiration and lots of laughter!
As kids, we act out our favorite action and make-believe characters. We give these ‘imaginary identities’ amazing adventures. When we grow up we usually leave them behind and live responsible lives as accountants, engineers, teachers . . . or we become writers!
SUPPOSE you’re listening to the late TV news: After days of solid rainfall, Missouri has reported devastating flooding. All who watch this broadcast feel sad that people are in danger of losing their property and lives.
But a writer might also say, ‘WHAT IF’. . . Imagine your character in a similar situation. Below is a ‘What if’ for such a scenario—An adventure, romance or suspense mystery possibility . . .?
*Penny Gilotto shivered as she inched her wet, cold body further toward the highest point of the roofline. She chided herself that she’d waited too late to evacuate before the heavy floods came. “Maybe if I’d listened to the TV or hadn’t laid down and gone to sleep!” The truth was she hadn’t believed the situation was as grave as it was. What did I know? I was raised in the city! A small whimper erupted before she could call it back.
Only this morning, her rental house had been pleasantly situated alongside the river. Now, her watch told her it was 8:00 p.m., and her home was floating in the swollen river which flooded the entire valley. It was nearly dark; a thin gray band separated water from sky. From Penny’s roofline perch , her eyes hungrily roamed the muddy, fast-moving waters that raged a few feet below; she searched for help. Where were the rescue boats? Terror filled her heart!
Household items, tree limbs and indiscernible objects all floated by . . . yet she was the only life form in view—except for the pathetic, black, white and orange cat that clung to the far side of her roof. The big-eyed cat made no attempt to move toward her, and Penny was too frightened to move as well. After the last high surge of water had rocked the house top, Penny was surprised to discover the cat was still holding on tenaciously—a brave animal.
Am I brave? Facing the question straight on, Penny experienced her own inadequacy. I can do nothing, Lord, but rely upon Your mercy. She drew her drenched sweatshirt tight to her chest and prayed with her whole being. Looking at the feline, Penny felt a strange kinship with this animal who fought to stay alive, and softly called out, giving him a name, “Hang on, Rocky, don’t let go!” Her eyes lifted to the moody, swirling clouds above. Keep this little cat safe, Jesus.
“Hey, you on the roof! Get ready to jump when I pull up close.We’ve only got one chance. Don’t mess it up!”
The sharp voice came from the river. Penny squinted into the bleak dusk. There in a small motorboat was a tall man wearing a black hooded jacket. She waved, indicating that she’d heard him and motioned him in. There was so much debris in the churning waters, she knew it would be difficult to maneuver his boat close enough for her to jump safely. There was also the danger the boat might tip over. Penny’s line of focus moved toward the end of the roof and the wet cat with sympathetic longing. The man hadn’t sounded very patient.
. . . . .
Will Penny save the cat? Will she land safely in the boat? Is the man a good man or bad man? Where will he take her—then what? ‘WHAT IF’? . . . The story could go anywhere from here!
Patricia L. Stebelton: author of six Romantic Suspense Mysteries through Oaktara Publishing/Amazon.com/Barnesandnoble.com
Short stories in compiled books “Whispering in God’s Ear”, “Angeles, Miracles & Heavenly Encounters 1”, and “Falling in Love With You” as well as stories in Guidepost Book stories and a devotional in “Love is A Verb”, Gary Chapman & James Stuart Bell. Patricia and her husband live in a picturesque town in the heart of Michigan. Patricia enjoys family activities, her writing and commissioned art projects.
I was given the delightful assignment of interviewing Joyce Ellis. SDCWC is blessed to have her on our faculty this year to teach nonfiction writing. I’m looking forward to meeting her and learning from her. If you check out her website, joycekellis.com, you will discover the breadth of her writing and teaching. She is a consummate professional but above all else, she is personable and approachable.
Despite the fact that she is in the middle of packing up her house, which she and her husband recently sold, she graciously took the time to answer my questions. Sit back and enjoy the conversation Joyce and I had via email. Then, I think you’ll feel like I do, that you’ll arrive at conference, ready to meet your new friend, Joyce!
1. I see that in addition to writing nonfiction, you’ve written a novel, Tiffany, and your website mentions other fiction. Which do you enjoy writing more, fiction or nonfiction, and why?
Actually, I’ve written a lot of fiction over the years. I published numerous fiction stories for take-home papers early in my career, have published two juvenile novels—one of which I’m updating now for possible republication—and then Tiffany, a mystery/romance set in a hospital and loosely based on my sister’s love story.
I enjoy writing (OK, I enjoy having written) both fiction and nonfiction. I often say, I like the balance because I believe writing nonfiction brings a concreteness and logical order to my fiction, and writing fiction brings creativity and life to my nonfiction. But I must confess there’s something magical, and freeing, to me about writing fiction, and I do enjoy the writing process more in that of nonfiction. I enjoy what I call the “leg-work research” and the joy of seeing plot elements come together. I’m actually working on two fiction projects now—the revision I mentioned earlier and a new project that’s been brewing in my brain for a long time, “waiting to be served.”
2. What do you hope to both give to us and receive from us at St. Davids?
The Lord has taught me so much and given me so much during my more than 40 years in this business—both writing and editing—and I enjoy passing along what I can to others. I love to work with writers and help them develop their craft, to see light bulbs go off above their heads, and to hear their excitement when they see that although writing isn’t easy, they now have tools to help them keep growing in their writing.
I’m always energized by being around other writers—beginners and veterans—and I’m continually trying to keep learning and developing my craft. So I’m looking forward to that aspect of the conference when I’m there.
3. I read that you aspire is to live in an RV and travel the country. Have you camped before? If so, will you share an interesting camping story? (Is that what you’re moving into now?)
The RV is just a pipe dream, I think. But lately I’ve begun to think we may be closer to that than we think. We’ve sold our house and at this point we feel like Abraham, waiting for the Lord to lead us to a “land” He hasn’t shown us yet. But we’ll probably have to find an apartment until then—or maybe an RV—what a riot that would be! As I’ve been sorting, packing, and “pitching,” my defining question has been, “Will this fit in an RV?”
When we talked about touring the country in an RV, our grown son said, “It’d never work, Mom. You’d have to pull U-haul with all your sample magazines.” So I’ve also been going through my files and sample magazines, scanning some things, and filling my recycling barrel with as much as I can get rid of from my office. But early in the process, I decided to weigh everything I was tossing. And I’m proud to announce that I have now thrown away more than half a ton of “excess baggage” from my office. Yikes!
And—oh, yes, a camping story. When I was a child, growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, my family did a lot of tent camping. We didn’t have much money, so I can only remember staying in a motel/lodge once—when we were in Yellowstone and my mom was afraid of the bears. But my dad wanted to take us to as many states as possible, visiting the state capitol buildings, if feasible. One night, when we arrived at our campsite, it was already dark. Dad and my older sister took the lead, putting up our big old heavy canvas tent while we younger ones unpacked the essentials for our one night in that location. We couldn’t see where the boundaries of our campsite were. Then it started to rain, so we all hopped into fast-forward mode. When we finally settled into our sleeping bags and said good night, we were exhausted. About 2 AM, the unmistakable sound of a freight train startled us awake. We held onto each other for dear life as it sounded like the train would run right through our tent. The next morning, we discovered we had pitched our tent only about 25 feet away from the railroad tracks! Way too close for comfort!
4. You mention having had some difficult situations in your life that you’ve overcome. So much of being a writer involves “overcoming”–rejections, publishing houses shutting down or being absorbed by others, many submission doors closing, the turmoil and change our whole industry is undergoing, etc. How can we as writers be overcomers in the face of all this?
I’m still working on this, to be honest, and will address some of this in my talk, “Persistent Perseverance,” at the conference. It can be discouraging for even seasoned writers to experience how much more difficult it is to get their work published today. Fear of rejection and fear of failure are things I think we all struggle with. Many of us are perfectionists as well, so sometimes we won’t submit our writing because we fear it’s not good enough. I recently asked a group of about 50 writers how many of them struggled with insecurity regarding their work, and they all raised their hands. I’m ashamed to admit that I, myself, have shelved one partially finished novel just because one editor I spoke with at a conference panned it. And I think even when a project dies because of editorial changes or publishing houses closing, we somehow take it personally, and it can take a toll on us emotionally.
A couple of nuggets from respected authors help me at times like this: I have a quote from Brennan Manning framed on my wall. It says, “We cannot use failure as an excuse to quit trying.” And I’ve read and reread Luci Shaw’s book, The Crime of Living Cautiously, because it speaks so well to the writer’s life—though it’s not written specifically to writers. One of the most memorable lines in that book is this: “Are you feeding your fears or fueling your faith?”
That question has also propelled me to faithfully participate in a local critique group. I’m a big proponent of critique groups. And I made two rules for myself when I joined the one I’ve been part of for more than 35 years now:
Never go without something to read.
Never stay home because I didn’t have something to read.
That, of course, left only one other option: I had to write something for each time we met. And my critique group often helped me think of markets I didn’t know about that might be a perfect fit for what I wrote. Then I could, indeed, mail, or in today’s world, email them, and report back to the group what happened when I sent my “babies” out.
Honestly, bottom line: I think it all comes down to being faithful stewards of what God has given us.
5. What is your favorite or the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
There have been many, but two things specifically jump to mind. One piece of advice came from Dr. Dennis Hensley, who’s a prolific author and masterful writing teacher—he’s also head of the writing program at Taylor University. Early in my career I heard him say, “If someone asks you if you write a certain type of piece, say yes, and then learn how.” That advice has given me a great deal of versatility in my writing.
The second thing that came to mind wasn’t really advice, as such, but it was a fragment of a prayer. At one of our local Christian writers group meetings, Roger Palms, who was the editor ofDecision magazine at that time, closed in prayer, and he asked God to help us write well-written manuscripts for His glory—and to mail them. Oh, how that stuck with me!
I hope this is an encouragement to those reading this as well. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.