A Chat with Joyce Ellis

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by Susan Reith Swan

 

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:

  1. Never go without something to read.
  2. 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.