Author Talk (Part 2)

At the recent authors forum in which I participated, the moderator asked us several thought-provoking questions. I summarized my responses to two of those questions (What influenced you to write? and What has been your greatest joy in writing?). In today’s post, I’ll answer two more of those questions.

1. Where do you get ideas for writing?

In a word, LIFE. Experience. What happens to or around me. That’s a virtual–no, an actual–cornucopia of possibilities. I might overhear a piece of conversation, someone’s observation, a quip, etc., and it sets me to thinking about and developing it into an article. Or perhaps there’s a subject I know nothing or little about, and I begin to research it. And then I develop an urge to share what I’ve learned with others. Since I’m not a big talker, the natural medium for such sharing is the written word. One of my daughters gave me a mug on which is printed a summary of my idea mill: “I am a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.”

2. Why have you not entered genres like drama, fiction, or poetry?

A rule of thumb is that one tends to write what he most often reads. I read primarily nonfiction. Within nonfiction, I read mostly historical, educational, or biblical topics, so that’s what I tend to write. Knowing the need to read widely, I do try to read fiction occasionally. In fact, I have an annual goal of reading at least one novel–not that I always achieve that goal!

Truth be told, I have dabbled at fiction and poetry, and the results have been dismal. I also dreamed of playing major league baseball but got no farther than being a cow-pasture pitcher. (I didn’t even have a sandlot to play ball on when I was a kid.) I’ll stick to what I know and continue to work at improving what little talent I have in that area of writing.

If you weren’t able to attend the author’s forum and be one of the people who asked questions from the floor, perhaps you have one you’d like me to answer. If so, contact me, and I’ll try to answer it in a future post.

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson


Author Talk (Part 1)

Last Friday, I participated in an authors forum, or “talk,” during which the moderator asked seven or eight questions of the three of us who were on the platform. For the benefit of any readers who were unable to attend and might be interested in knowing my responses, I’m summarizing two of them here and will address two others in a later post.

  1. What influenced you to write?

The initial impetus was my frustration as a second-year teacher with students who were unwilling to exert an effort to learn. As a form of therapy, I vented my frustrations on paper. After getting home from a particularly trying day in the classroom, I wrote of the problems I faced and then read the results to my wife. After I had done that repeatedly for several weeks, my wife tired of hearing it. She said, “Either submit it to someone for publication or–whatever! Just don’t read it to me again!” That hurt my pride and challenged me to submit it to The Freeman, the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education. Much to my surprise, the editor accepted and published it as “Help Wanted: Laborers.” More recently, my first book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, was the result of a desire to know about the subject and the inaccessibility of information on it. The most recently published book on the subject was written more than 70 years ago, and I thought that it was time that more recent findings were pubLished in one source. The publisher, McFarland, agreed. (I wish that more readers would, too!)

2. What has been your greatest joy in writing?

It’s always good to find a check in the mail and to see one’s byline on a book cover or magazine article. But I must admit that my greatest joy in writing has been learning that something I have written has been a blessing or help to someone. To hear someone say, “I really enjoyed that article” or “I learned something from your work” or “That really encouraged me just when I needed it most” makes all the research and writing efforts worthwhile. One particular incident especially encouraged me. I was walking back to my office when I was a textbook author, and I happened past a young Korean college student who was eating her lunch al fresco. Just as I passed her, she glanced up and said, “Hello, Mr. Peterson.” Surprised that she knew my name, I stopped, turned around, and returned her greeting. “How do you know my name?” I asked. She explained that she long had wanted to be a teacher, and one of her high school teachers had read all of my articles that had been in Journal for Christian Educators, translating them for her until she could read them in English for herself. Such encouragement, and the prospect of helping some other young teachers, led to another of my books, Teacher.

Next time: Answers to the questions Where do you get ideas? and Why have you not entered genres like drama, fiction, or poetry?

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Announcement: Author Forum and Book Signing

I have been invited to participate in the Author Forum and Book Signing activity during the 2017 Homecoming and Family Weekend, October 12-14, at Bob Jones University. The Author Forum will be held on Friday, October 13, at 2:00 p.m. in Levinson Hall on campus.

The Author Forum will be moderated by Dr. Ray St. John of the English Department. (I am not sure which other authors will be participating in the forum, but I will post that information as soon as it becomes available to me.) From 3:00-5:00 following the forum, authors will be at their respective book tables to interact with visitors. I would like to invite any friends, fans, or blog followers who are in or will be visiting the Upstate of South Carolina during that time to stop by and say hello. I will be featuring two of my books: Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (McFarland, 2016) and Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught (2017). They will be available at special Homecoming prices.

I look forward to seeing many of you there.

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.

Freelance Writers Appreciation Week

Someone recently brought to my attention the fact that this week was Freelance Writers Appreciation Week. I use the word was because the week is now almost over; another weekend is upon us.

My first thought was that some poor, struggling freelance writer, feeling sorely underappreciated by editors who persist in rejecting his or her work, had come up with the idea for the special week, no doubt in collaboration with other wannabes in his or her writers critique group.

dsc_0508I actually don’t know who came up with the idea for the week-long commemoration or what the underlying motivation was. It did, however, set me to thinking.

Every freelance writer, at some point, feels unappreciated or underappreciated. No one but another writer knows what goes into their business. Other people–nonwriters–seem to think that precise, mind-enlightening, soul-stirring, and emotion-laden writing just flows effortlessly from the writer’s pen (or, to be technologically correct in this twenty-first century world, computer).

They don’t see the inner struggles to discover the precise words, research the subject matter, gain inspiration for one’s own soul, or get one’s emotions stirred to the point of being willing to share those most intimate feelings with readers, risking opposing arguments and even outright rejection for the slight chance that their work might actually be published. I think it was Hemingway who quipped that writing was easy (as many people seem to think); you just sit down and open a vein.

neighbors-helped-neighborsNonwriters see only the author’s published article or short story or book. They don’t see the struggle to find an appropriate venue for the work. They don’t see the efforts exerted, once that venue is discovered, to impress the editor or publisher enough to risk his firm’s money to publish the work. They don’t see the countless rejections that come between completion of the work and an eventual acceptance. Nor do they see the inner struggles of the author as he rereads the rejections time and time again to see if they contain hidden somewhere a faint ray of hope for his or her writing.

“The editor addressed it to me by name; it wasn’t just a form rejection. But, then again, mail merge can do a lot with form letters to make them look personal!”

“She said that it was a promising theme, a good concept. Does that mean that with a little tweaking it will be acceptable, maybe even publishable? Or was she just trying to let me down kindly?”

“The letter said, ‘Try us again.’ Does that mean what it says? Do they really like my writing and want to see more of it? Or are they just being nice, really hoping that they never see another thing from me?”

Neither do nonwriters see the frustrations that result when editors don’t respond to queries, proposals, or completed manuscripts. They don’t reply by the response time stated in Writer’s Market. They don’t respond to follow-up queries after that time frame. They don’t even acknowledge having received the submission or query. They leave the poor writer hanging.

And the writer’s imagination is left to produce innumerable reasons for the lack of response. Some of them are reasonable (e.g., “The editor is on vacation–had a baby–was fired”). Some of them are downright conspiratorial (e.g., “The editor is bigoted against Christians or conservatives or polka-dotted people”).

Nonwriters don’t see the long wait that often follows all the work that is involved in producing the finished piece, submitting it, and receiving an acceptance before finally getting paid for it. Hoping for “on acceptance,” the freelancer generally must accept “on publication.” And that, in practical terms, usually means some unstated time after–often well after–publication. And when it does come, it’s about the same amount that Mark Twain was making back in the nineteenth century.

Yes, I’ve been there. Many times. Often.

So what keeps a frustrated, struggling freelancer going, returning to his or her writing in spite of the frustrations and disappointments? Are we gluttons for punishment or masochists with some strange affinity for getting hurt, disappointed, rejected, and being unappreciated?

underwood-typewriterNo, it’s “The Call.” One who is called does it because of that call–regardless of the outcome. Check what some of the greatest writers have said about writing. Many of them said that they would keep on writing even if no one bought or read their work. Because it’s a calling. Those who quit apparently either weren’t called or didn’t obey the call.

Inevitably, every time I begin to feel discouraged with the results of my writing, frustrated with editors who don’t recognize masterful writing when they see it or who refuse to send a simple e-mail acknowledging receipt of a submission (“Got it. Will get back to you.”), or unappreciated by the reading population, God has a way of reminding me of His calling for me.

Just this morning, in fact, while reading Psalm 37, He spoke these words:

“Trust in the Lord . . . and verily thou shalt be fed” (v. 3)

“Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass” (v. 5).

“Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (v. 7).

“The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. . . . Though he fall [have his work rejected by publishers?], he shall not be utterly cast down” (v. 24).

“Wait on the Lord, and keep His way, and He shall exalt thee . . .” (v. 34).

Such patient waiting and resting and trusting is definitely not easy. Neither does it condone sloth or laziness. I must do my part–all the work involved in the writing and marketing process that others never see–and then trust Him to do what I cannot. The work is my job; the results are His.

Freelance writer appreciation begins with the writer’s appreciation of his or her calling and faithfulness to it. God will take care of any other appreciation, so we don’t need to worry about it!

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.”

A Productive Writer’s Retreat

Last week, I accompanied my wife to Myrtle Beach for her teachers convention. While she attended various workshops, I had my own writer’s retreat, conducting research for some writing projects, catching up on some writing-related reading, and otherwise working to improve my writing.

During my wife’s free time one afternoon, we walked the beach between showers. (I’m sorry, Myrtle Beach, but once you’ve experienced the white sands of the Gulf beaches of Southwest Florida, you’re ruined for the Atlantic beaches!) I also made a stop to promote my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries while visiting one of the most impressive private museums of the War Between the States that I’ve ever seen.

img_1391The South Carolina Civil War Museum, Inc., at 4857 Hwy 17 Bypass South is located on the south side of Myrtle Beach. It’s on an access road beside the main highway and is in the same building as a gun shop and shooting range, so it is easy to miss, especially if traffic is heavy. But to overlook it would be your loss.

img_1402The museum interprets various aspects of the war from beginning to end. It is divided into two sections, the first part focusing on the weapons, uniforms, medicine, money, food, flags, utensils, living quarters, and much more. It also contains several wall murals painted by a Russian artist that are img_1394admirable. The second section focuses on the end of the war, the veterans’ groups and their reunions, and memorabilia from movies made about the war, including North and South, Gettysburg, and Glory.

I am including a few snapshots from the museum displays. If you are ever in the vicinity of the Grand Strand of South Carolina, I would highly recommend taking an hour or so to visit the museum. Admission is $4 ($3 for those over 65), and it’s well worth the price. (If you want photos, be sure to take a flash. The lighting is a bit dim, as my phone photos reveal.)










I just had to include the most beautiful state flag in the nation–Tennessee’s Tri-Star, representing the three Grand Divisions of the state! img_1424



















I just had to include a picture of the most beautiful state flag in the collection!

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?