How Many Words Are Left?

The other morning, while I was toiling through my regular routine on the treadmill and struggling with arthritis-pained knees, toes, and wrists, I found myself looking at the bookcase on the opposite wall. There, on the top shelf, were several anthologies and other books that include some of my own writings.

That set me to thinking of how many articles I’ve written. Those thoughts made me realize that I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words over the years since the first article I ever submitted was published back in 1981. One thought led to another.

Behind me, I remembered the huge notebook filled with tear sheets of my published articles. (I say remembered because I didn’t turn to look at it. I once learned a painful lesson about trying to turn around and run backwards on a moving treadmill, and I’m not fool enough to repeat that session!)

As I continued my morning run, warm (very warm!) and dry on a cool, rainy day, I wondered how many words I still have in me. Because we are each given a set amount of time in this life, and, knowing that we, like David, should pray that God would “teach us to number our days” (Psa. 90:12), it seems only natural that we should also ask Him to teach us to calculate our production in whatever our field of service might be. In my own case, it was first in teaching and now in writing and editing. So I wonder how many more words I have left in me to write.

Do I have another book left in me? Perhaps a couple? None? How many more articles are in me?

The question is not how many more writing ideas I have left in me. Those are a dime a dozen; they’re in every direction I look and in everything I read, see, and do. (And even if my idea well did happen to run dry, myriad people are more than happy to volunteer their ideas that they think I should write about!) The issue is how many of my  ideas I will actually be able to express in words fit for public consumption. Correction: it’s actually how many of those words will editors find acceptable to share with their readers. Without editors willing to buy and publish my words, no number of written words will amount to anything. To make a difference, there must be willing editors and willing readers. And that is the rub.

My mind was racing faster than my feet. The pace of the treadmill decreased, but the incline increased dramatically. As I huffed, puffed, and perspired, I asked myself the next logical questions: What will my last written words be? And will anything I’ve written have made any difference?

I know how I read. Whenever I pick up a magazine or newspaper, I skim and scan. Seeing an interesting title or headline, I might read the lead paragraph. If my attention is not immediately arrested, however, I move on to something else. I don’t have time to waste. As the librarian’s t-shirt read, “So many books, so little time.”

I probably read more than the average person, but I rarely read a complete article unless it really grabs me. If it does, I might even print or photocopy it for possible later use.

But most readers skim and scan even more loosely than I do. And we all forget so quickly. Someone once said that yesterday’s newspaper is good only for wrapping fish or lining a birdcage. Today, we don’t even wrap fish in newspaper, so its value is even less.

Can you name even one article that has made a lasting difference in your life? On the spur of the moment, I can think of only one, an article titled “The Tyranny of the Urgent” (about how we allow urgent demands to crowd out the truly important things of life), but I can’t remember its author’s name or which publication it was in.

Today, we suffer information overload, and we forget so much more quickly and easily. Can any words really take root in our lives to the point of making a lasting difference? Will any of the words that I write make any difference to anyone else?

Only one author’s words have the infallible promise that they will live eternally and make a lasting impression and difference in their readers’ lives, and those are God’s. He said, “My word . . . shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

If written, my words might not get published. If published, they might not be read. If read, they might not be remembered or make any difference in anyone’s life. But it’s nonetheless my responsibility to write them, whether many or few. What happens to them after that is beyond my control. As Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson said, “Duty is mine; consequences are God’s.”

Jesse Stuart, another writer-teacher, encouraged fellow writers to persevere:

And if men thwart you, take no heed.

If men hate you, have no care.

Sing your song.

Dream your Dream.

Hope your hope.

Pray your prayer.

So I write. I don’t know how many words I have left in me, just as I don’t know how much longer my life will last. But I simply do what God has called me to do and leave the results with Him.

Fulfilling Resolutions One Step at a Time

img_0823Someone once said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Well, I’ve taken that first step (actually several steps) on that long journey of fulfilling one of my perennial resolutions: to read several books that will improve (1) my spiritual condition, (2) my historical knowledge, and (3) my writing abilities.

For the first of the three categories, I’ve been studying the section of Alexander Maclaren’s book Expositions of Holy Scripture dealing with the epistles of Peter. In the second category, I finally got around to reading–and finishing–David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, a book that had long been on my to-read-when-I-get-around-to-it list. (What struck me most about their quest to fly is that whereas other aeronauts expected the government to foot their bills for experimentation, the Wrights paid for everything from their own pockets and were therefore frugal in their expenditures.)

As for the third category, I’ve completed both Writers on Writing (Mynhardt, ed.) and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. And I’ve begun a book that has surprised me because I actually am enjoying it despite the fact that I began it thinking that I wouldn’t. It is Writing for the Soul by Jerry Jenkins (he of Left Behind fame). It’s as much the story of his own development as a writer as it is a self-help for writers. Jenkins has written more than 150 books (many people have never even read that many), the first 90 of them without the benefit of an agent, so I think he knows how it’s done. Therefore, what he says about writing is worth serious consideration.

Here are ten gems that I’ve uncovered so far. I know they’ll help me; perhaps you’ll find them helpful too.

  • “The only way to write a book is with seat in chair.”
  • “Maintain your priorities and your writing will benefit.”
  • “[N]o writer ever arrives.”
  • “[P]ublishing has to be a byproduct of your writing, not the end goal.”
  • “Neither author nor publisher has much say or control over how many books sell. What you can control is how you write your next book. Work to your potential and let the results go.”
  • “[I]f you plan to make a life of writing, you must stand for something, have a carefully considered and lived-out worldview.”
  • “Write because you believe in something.”
  • “Allow yourself to be moved, and write what moves you.”
  • “We can’t write for other people’s souls unless ours are healthy.”
  • “[B]e your own toughest critic.”

It’s important to begin well. But it’s also important to persevere throughout the race and to finish well. That journey of a thousand miles that I’ve begun with those first few steps won’t end well unless I keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’m hoping and praying that I’ll do so throughout this year. But right now that next step is to put my seat into the chair and resume my writing!

Catch Me If You Can!

img_0823Those of us who read a lot (and maybe even some of you who don’t) tend to be critical of writers and editors whose products contain typos or other errors. We sometimes get a chuckle (or maybe even a full belly laugh) at their expense from the unintentional humorous things that sometimes result from such errors.

For example, perhaps you’ve heard about the hapless headline writer and his (or her) editor who allowed the following blooper to slip through and get onto the front page of the newspaper: MAN HELPS DOG BITE VICTIM. (The missing hyphen between dog and bite gave the headline an unintended and, though humorous, misleading twist.)

I’ve been on all three sides of such editorial oopsies, having read such mistakes, having written some of them, and having missed them as an editor. So I can both laugh at and enjoy them and yet commiserate and empathize with those who make them.

When I was an author for a major Christian textbook publisher, I was amazed by how often “obvious” errors slipped through the various editorial sentries that we had in place and got printed. We had a virtual army of watchful pickets and guards against such intruders’ attacking the quality of our products–authors, editors, proofreaders, etc.–and yet the buggers still got through.

It happens because we’re all human. Try as we might to be detail oriented and to catch errors both big and small, we’re still sometimes their victims. As an author, I had read and reread the same material so much during the research, writing, editing, and proofing stages of the publication process that my mind automatically and subconsciously supplied missing letters, words, punctuation, etc. It refused to acknowledge repeated words. When my work went to the editors, all of whom were meticulous, detail-conscious, and well-qualified professionals, even they missed some things. Similarly with the proofreaders. Sometimes compositors or even illustrators caught some errors, although that wasn’t even their responsibility, because they had a distance from the text that allowed them to spot such things.

What amazes me about the publishing world is not so much the fact that errors often slip through unnoticed until the readers point them out, but rather that we are able to catch so many of them. But readers don’t call or write to tell us how many errors we didn’t allow to get past our watchful eyes.

find-editors-mistake-1I said all of that to preface an error that I recently found in the November 2016 issue of Editor & Publisher. It was in the accompanying quarter-page advertisement. See if you can find it.

In case you didn’t catch it (the print is a little small), I’ve circled it in the second photo.

find-editors-mistake-2

This editorial oversight is no big deal in the vast scheme of universal history, but it does matter because quality matters. And if we writers and editors expect quality anywhere, it’s in publications that focus on publishing, writing, and editing.

No, I won’t call or write to E&P to point out their oversight or cancel my subscription in self-righteous protest of editorial laxness, but this example is a reminder to me that even the “big guys,” the movers and shakers in our industry, sometimes make mistakes. Some of the mistakes, like this one, are no big deal, but others can cost big bucks and perhaps even jobs.

It is also a reminder that I, as a professing Christian, should be even more vigilant about the quality of my own work. The Bible teaches me that I should do my best in everything I do, that I should do it heartily, as unto my Lord and not only for fellow humans who might read what I write. I am to “give of my best to the Master.” He gave His best, His own Son, for me; giving Him my best in return should be a given.

Yet, even the best that I do will still fall short of perfection because I am only human. That awareness should make me less hasty in condemning the mistakes of others. Whenever I point my index finger at an editorial oopsie made by someone else, whether writer or editor, I should remember that my other three fingers are pointing back at the errors of omission and commission in my own work.

So let’s get a good laugh together at the honest but inadvertent mistakes that we and others make. But let’s also learn from them and be sure to examine ourselves and the quality of our own work to ensure that it’s the very best we can make it for our Master.

[Now I will sit back and wait for all of you eagle-eyed editor types to email me with a list of all the mistakes you’ve found in this blog post!]

 

Watch for It!

emperornortonBe on the lookout for the December 2016 issue of True West when it hits the newsstands. It includes an article about a little-known fact about the government of the United States. Titled “Emperor of the United States,” it’s by yours truly.

 

 

Writers and Instant Gratification

IMG_0823If you are a writer–or aspire to become a writer–you should not expect any instant gratification. Writing is a long-haul proposition.

In this age of “instantness,” however, we’re all tempted to expect things, well, instantly. We have instant coffee, instant tea, instant mashed potatoes, etc., so why not instant writing success? Because it just doesn’t happen that way. That’s the writing life.

That said, however, there is something that we writers should be able to expect, and that’s prompt responses from editors. I was looking at my history of article submissions the other day, and something suddenly occurred to me. I am today seeing longer response times to queries and submissions than I did back in the “old days,” and by that I mean the days before e-mail. (Yes, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m that old!) Back in the days when every query and every submission had to be sent by snail mail, I was getting responses from editors more quickly than I do today in spite of the fact that we have communications media that allow near-instant response times.

I realize that editors are busy. Reduction in publishing staff only makes their work harder and more time consuming. But there’s something called common courtesy that is missing in publishing today. Why is it so difficult for an editor, upon receiving a query or a submission, to hit “Reply” and quickly type, “Got your query/submission. Will get back to you”? Or, if it’s obviously something he or she can’t use in that publication, saying, “Thanks. But it won’t work for us”? It doesn’t have to be a long explanation. Just the facts, ma’am (or sir). But we writers today should be able to expect some kind of response more quickly than we got when the pony express was delivering messages.

neighbors-helped-neighborsI must pause to say, however, that a few publications are superb in their response times. The editorial staff at Good Old Days, especially, has replied promptly to my queries and submissions. Thumbs up or thumbs down, they let me know. Quickly. And, what’s more, they return photos in good condition without having to be prodded for them. What impresses me most is that if they accept an article submission, they also return my SASE! That’s the first publication I’ve dealt with that did that, and I appreciate it because it saves me time and money. The next time I want to submit a manuscript to them, I already have a SASE available. No time wasted addressing and stamping another.

So, how about it all you other editors? How about showing us writers–the ones who make your publication possible to begin with–a little common courtesy by responding more promptly? If it’s a rejection, we can take it–after all, we’re writers, and part of writing is getting rejections. A prompt rejection also allows us time to submit our work elsewhere, and for a story that is linked to a specific date or holiday, a prompt reply is critical. If it’s an acceptance, we can handle that, too.  We certainly can use the encouragement it provides. Don’t leave us hanging; hit us with it.

Replying promptly to any communication is just a matter of common courtesy. It’s especially important in the writing and publishing trade. And courtesy is something that can’t be replaced by all the high-speed technology in the world if those tools aren’t used.

Random Sage Advice from Famous Writers

One learns to write by writing. But it never hurts to have guidance from someone who has already proven themselves successful at the task. Following are some random bits of advice by some of those people. I don’t necessarily agree with their political or economic opinions or condone everything they wrote, but they were successful and prolific writers, so they knew how to write and were successful at it. Their advice is instructing me; maybe it will help you, too.

IMG_0823Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Richard Bach: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

W. Somerset Maugham: “Writing is a whole-time job: no professional writer can afford only to write when he feels like it.”

T.S. Eliot: “Writing every day is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.”

James Michener: “Many people who want to be writers don’t really want to be writers. They want to have been writers. They wish they had a book in print.”

J.J. Rousseau: “However great a man’s natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once.”

Lewis Carroll: “I don’t want to take up literature in a money-making spirit, or be very anxious about making large profits, but selling it at a loss is another thing altogether, and an amusement I cannot well afford.”

John Steinbeck: “Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person, and write to that one.”

Alfred Kazin: “In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratifications, is a curious anticlimax.”

Montesquieu: “A man who writes well writes not as others write, but as he himself writes. . . .”

John Kenneth Galbraith: “There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.”

Burton Rascoe: “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”

What’s Our Excuse? (Part 5)

By now, you know the point that I’ve been driving at in the previous four posts. Others overcame great obstacles and wrote in spite of them. Why don’t we? Why do we offer excuses ad infinitum rather than just doing what we’ve been called to do–write?

Today we look at one more example, this time an American from the twentieth century and one of my favorite authors: Jesse Stuart.

JesseStuartStuart’s problem seems to have been who he was and where he was from–and those two things were inseparable. He was a poor country boy born to poor, hard-scrabble farmers in the hills and mountains of a generally forgettable backwater placed called Greenup County in eastern Kentucky. His parents were uneducated, illiterate. But they had aspirations of better things for their children. They insisted that they go to school, even if it was a one-room schoolhouse. Jesse did go to school, and he graduated–the first member of his family to do so.

Whereas many of his classmates did not finish high school or finished but went no farther with their education, Stuart and his teachers would not let poverty and the immediate need for jobs stop him from reaching his potential. They encouraged him to go to college. So with his few earthly belongings and less than $30 in his pocket, Stuart hitchhiked to Berea College and tried to gain acceptance into their program. They were unable to admit him but suggested that he try Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. They enrolled him and gave him jobs so he could pay his way.

Stuart worked hard and carried a full academic load and attended summer school–and graduated in three years. While at LMU, he had a creative writing teacher named Harry Kroll who convinced Stuart that he could write, and he taught him to believe in himself and his God-given abilities.

After graduation, Stuart returned to Greenup to teach in that one-room schoolhouse, but he knew that he needed to learn more. So he enrolled in the master’s program at Vanderbilt University. There, he came under the influence of a group of writers called the Agrarians. He struggled academically, but he could write. Boy, could he write! Dr. Edward Mims assigned in one class an 18-page autobiographical essay, due in 11 days. Stuart wrote feverishly and turned in 322 pages. Mims gave him an F. Stuart left school without his master’s degree, but he took with him some great advice from another professor, Donald Davidson.

“Go back to your country, Jesse,” he said. “Go back there and write of your people. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.”

Stuart took that advice. He returned to eastern Kentucky and wrote. Boy, did he write! In the next 11 months, he wrote 703 sonnets, 42 of them in one day, and they became his first published book–Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow (1934). And he turned that 322-page paper with an F at the top into a book, Beyond Dark Hills (1938).

DSC_0111The titles of his books reveal that he heeded Davidson’s advice in his choice of subject matter: Men of the Mountains (1941), Tales from the Plum Grove Hills (1946), Hie to the Hunters (1950), Kentucky Is My Land (1952), My Land Has a Voice (1966), Strength from the Hills (1968), and others. He also wrote about his teaching experiences in The Thread that Runs So True (1949) and To Teach, To Love (1970). And I could mention many, many others.

But he also wrote for children: The Beatinest Boy (1953), A Penny’s Worth of Character (1954), Red Mule (1955), The Rightful Owner (1960), Andy Finds a Way (1961), and many others.

And he kept on writing throughout the rest of his life, publishing more than 60 volumes, more than 2,000 poems, 460 short stories, and innumerable articles and essays. Many of his writings earned him prestigious awards, including a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, the Thomas Jefferson Southern Book Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and more.

“Oh,” one might argue, “but he was a full-time writer. I don’t have that much time. I have to work a job!”

No, Stuart wrote while holding down full-time jobs. As a farmer, he wrote while he was plowing behind a mule in the corn fields. He wrote when he wasn’t teaching. He wrote even when he was a school principal and a county school superintendent. And no one could accuse him of short-changing his wife or daughter or any of his employers. He found or made the time to write, and he used that time wisely.

And one final time I ask myself–and you–the perennial question: What’s my excuse? What’s your excuse?

Let’s get busy and do what we say God has called us to do. Let’s write!

What’s Our Excuse? (Part 4)

IMG_0823In previous posts, we’ve considered how several famous authors–Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and John Bunyan–managed to write in spite of problems and hindrances of all sorts and without using their circumstances as excuses not to write. Today, let’s consider a couple of biblical exemplars.

The Bible tells us that the apostle Paul was arrested, tried, and punished multiple times for the sake of the gospel. He was whipped five times, enduring thirty-nine lashes each time. But that was not the end of his tortures. He was beaten with rods three times, stoned by an angry mob and left for dead, and shipwrecked three times. In his travels, he faced the perils presented by robbers, barbarians, and wild animals. He was also imprisoned for years by the Romans, suffering hunger, thirst, cold, dampness, and nakedness. In prison in Rome, he was chained to his guard and had no privacy.

Yet, he managed to write a good part of the New Testament while suffering all those things. In fact, he wrote while in prison the epistles of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon–now appropriately known as his Prison Epistles.

Then there was the apostle John. He lived longer than any of the other apostles but did not write the Gospel bearing his name until he was an old man. His deepest writing, however, occurred even later, toward the end of his life, when he was involuntarily exiled to a rocky little island called Patmos in the Grecian archipelago. Yet, in the midst of the forced labors and problems of old age, he wrote there the book of the apocalypse, Revelation.

These two apostles faced unimaginable trials and problems that would have stopped lesser people. Yet, they wrote a combined 18 (19 if you think that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews) of the 27 books in the New Testament. They never offered any excuses for not writing. They just did what God had called them to do–they wrote. And how much richer the world has been for their efforts. The influence of their writings are inestimable.

What’s our excuse?

(In the next post, we will finish this consideration of excuses, looking at one of the authors who most influenced both my teaching and my writing. I hope you’ll follow.

)

What’s Our Excuse (Part III)

th[10]John Bunyan. You’ve heard of him, right? No, not the legendary lumberjack with the blue ox named Babe. I’m referring to the author of the timeless classic The Pilgrim’s Progress.

At first, back in seventeenth-century England, Bunyan was just a tinker, an itinerant small businessman who sold and repaired metal utensils. He joined a nonconformist religious group in the town of Bedford, met Christ, and sensed the call to preach the gospel. He had no formal religious education and no license to preach, which the law required, but he didn’t let that stop him. He preached anyway. And he was arrested and imprisoned for it.

For twelve years, Bunyan languished in Bedford Jail, refusing either to be licensed or to stop preaching whenever he was released. Prisons in that day were notorious for their lack of concern for prisoners’ health or well-being. People believed that jail was a place of punishment and suffering, not rehabilitation, and Bunyan certainly suffered.

But Bunyan was not idle in jail; he was busy writing. During his imprisonment, he wrote A Discourse Touching Prayer (1662); Christian Behavior (1663); One Thing Is Needful (1664); and The Holy City, The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Judgment, and a poem “Prison Meditations” (1665, a very productive year!). He capped his imprisonment with his best-known publication from that period, Grace Abounding (1666).

Released in 1671, Bunyan returned immediately to preaching. He managed to avoid arrest, though, until 1675, when he was again arrested and imprisoned for another six months. It was during that time that he wrote his masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1675). Look at a copy sometime, and remind yourself that Bunyan wrote it all in only six months!

John Bunyan produced all of these works in spite of his imprisonment and terrible conditions in a cold, dark, damp jail cell. He didn’t make excuses. He just wrote, and God blessed his efforts.

What’s our excuse?

What’s Our Excuse? (Part 2)

Continuing our survey of some famous writers who refused to use their circumstances as an excuse not to write, today we consider another Russian. (We considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn last time.) Today, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Fyodor_Dostoyevsky_1876Since he was born to a father who was a medical doctor and a mother who used the Bible to teach her four-year-old Fyodor to read and write, one would think that he had everything going for him materially and spiritually. However, he was a sickly child (and adult), and both of his parents died before he was twenty years old. Besides, they had sent him off to a military boarding school during his formative years, so he had limited influence from his parents.

Dostoyevsky hated the military school and his engineering studies. His foray into literary pursuits began with his translation of a novel by Balzac and some other materials, none of which proved successful. His own first novel was titled Poor Folk, and it was published (1846) only because someone showed the manuscript to critic Vissarion Balinsky, who liked it and put in a good word for it. If Balinsky said it was good, no editor would dare argue otherwise.

Dostoyevsky’s connection with Balinsky, however, led to trouble when Dostoyevsky and other “conspirators” were arrested in 1849 for reading Balinsky’s writings, which promoted socialism and were therefore banned by the czar. The czarist government of Russia feared that such writings would lead to revolution. Only twenty-seven years old at the time of his arrest, Dostoyevsky was imprisoned in the maximum-security Peter and Paul Fortress, where the only book he was allowed to have was a New Testament (not a bad book to have if you’re allowed to have only one book!). He slept on a filthy straw bed in a damp, dark, cold cell. With him were hardened criminals.

After months of deliberations by government officials, the accused were sentenced to death by firing squad. They were taken to the execution location in St. Petersburg, divided into three-man groups, and readied for execution. At the last moment, a commutation order arrived from the czar. Instead of being shot, Dostoyevsky was exiled and put to hard labor in a prison camp in Siberia. When he finished serving the sentence in 1854, he was forced to serve in the army.

After completing his military service, he was allowed to publish, but he was kept under police surveillance for the rest of his life. Yet, he used what he had seen and heard and experienced during his prison time to produce his most influential works: Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). He wrote 15 novels, 17 short stories, and 5 translations. His works themselves have been translated into more than 170 languages.

Dostoyevsky did it all in spite of unbelievable hindrances. What’s your excuse? What’s my excuse?