Two things I learned from journalism that help me navigate life

If we haven’t known each other for 8 or more years, you might not know that once upon a time I was a journalist–a newspaper reporter (later a copy editor and page designer) for daily publications in small towns in Illinois. I gave all that up when we moved to Pennsylvania and I became a stay-at-home mom, so sometimes it feels like a different life entirely.

A funny thing happened last week–my name and picture made it into the local paper where I live now. It was a brief mention because I’m co-teaching a workshop at a writers conference with a talented writing friend. I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until people started telling me they saw my picture in the paper. I guess I haven’t been as vocal about being a writer as I could have been.

A decade ago, in my hometown, it was normal (and sometimes creepy) for random people to say to me, “Aren’t you that girl that writes for the paper?” or something similar. My picture was in the paper weekly. My name, almost daily. I had forgotten what that was like. (Not that I’m looking for a repeat of that experience!)

Journalism was a difficult career for me. I’m an introvert (though I don’t know that I would have known to call it that at the time). I was fresh out of college and not particularly happy about being back in my hometown. I hated conflict and sometimes had to create it because sources or public officials were not cooperating. There were painful times when something I wrote ticked off an entire community and I became their target for hateful words. (One time I couldn’t answer my phone for a whole day because every time it rang, someone was yelling at me.) There was also one embarrassing time when I misidentified a girl as a boy. (It’s a long story but one I’ll never forget.)

Yet when I look back on my somewhat brief career in journalism (Is 8 years brief? I don’t know. It was longer than I expected to stay in the business.) I’m almost nostalgic. (But I could not do the same job today in our social media saturated world. No, thank you.) I can see how beneficial it was for me, not only as a writer but as a person living life.

Alejandro Escamilla | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Alejandro Escamilla | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Two things stand out to me, especially on days when all I see is an overwhelmingly long list of things to do in a variety of life’s arenas. (P.S. Not my real workstation pictured. I would love to return to my Mac ways.)

The first is that there is always work to do, so do something.

I can’t ever remember a time I was bored while working in journalism. Well, maybe once or twice. It was not a large city, after all. But my work was almost never done. There was always another call to make, another story to write, another idea to pursue. I hated Mondays because all I could see was the long list of unfinished work, and by Friday, I might have accomplished most of it but I could always get a jump on the next thing. Breaking news happens fast but follow-ups take longer. Feature articles are always planned ahead of time so the designers can work their magic. “Done” was a dirty word because then an editor would find something else for you to do.

It could have been so overwhelming that I just did nothing until I needed to. But I was constantly switching from one activity to the next. I would write a bit of this story then answer a phone call from a source for another story before leaving my desk to go to an interview with a source for yet a third story. Maybe I’d get back to that first story later, but I might have to take a few hours off before heading to a government meeting later that night.

Yes, I got paid and it was part of the job, but it was still stressful. I couldn’t afford to waste five minutes doing nothing if I could use that five minutes to make a call or send an e-mail.

Now, I’m not saying that being constantly busy is a good thing. It’s not. But too often I think something like this: “Well, I don’t have time to finish the dishes or do all the laundry, so I’ll just do that later.” In truth, I generally have time to start the dishes or laundry, even if I can’t finish it. And then I feel better about taking time for leisure later.

As a stay-at-home mom who also blogs and does freelance writing and serves in leadership at church, there is always work to be done. This week’s to-do list includes housework, grocery shopping, writing, buying supplies for the church kitchen, catching up on book club reading so I can lead the discussion while our pastor’s wife is out of the country and I don’t even know what else! (I recently heard this called a portfolio life. It’s an interesting concept.)

Which brings me to my second lesson from journalism: expect the unexpected.

Oh, how I hate this one! I’m a planner, and I like when things go according to (my) plan. I’m not sure how I survived journalism. Even in a small town, news breaks at the most inconvenient of times.

Like at 5 p.m. on a Friday when a fax comes into the office announcing the closure of the town’s steel mill, the major employer in town, and practically no one is available for comment but you can’t go home because you have to try everyone and the story will run the next day.

Or when you’re just doing your usual police rounds on a Saturday afternoon weekend duty and you discover a news release about a family of four who drowned when their van went into the river and you have to spend the rest of the day talking to people who are grieving.

Or on another Saturday when the president who grew up in your hometown (Ronald Reagan) finally succumbs to Alzheimer’s and the stories you’ve been holding and writing and planning for months finally see the light of day.

Sometimes all my plans got pushed aside for something else that was going on. It was the nature of the business and it’s the nature of life.

I still have a hard time with this. I look at the week ahead and think about how calm and peaceful it will be and then 3 out of 4 us end up sick or there are two snow days and three school delays and everything I thought I would get done gets pushed back another week.

Some weeks will go as planned and some won’t. Sometimes I’ll get through my to-do list and sometimes I won’t. What I’m (slowly) learning is that I can trust the Spirit to lead me through the day. As I’m writing this blog post, I could also be cleaning the house, but at this moment, blogging is helping to clear my head for the rest of the day, which will certainly have its stressful moments. Another day might lead me to tackle the organizing projects I need.

I’m good at procrastinating the work I don’t want to do but I’m learning that if I take small steps or knock off a few smaller items on my list, then I’m less overwhelmed. (I also probably need a few less hats, but I’m working on that, too.)

How do you do it? Are you able to find balance in all the tasks of your life? Have you learned something from a job or a role that was surprising to you?

A peek inside my head: The My Writing Process blog tour

Occasionally, I get invited to participate in these chain-letter-type of blog tour things where you’re nominated by someone to answer a bunch of questions and then pass it on. I was a glutton for chain letters as a kid, though don’t ask me why my parents let me mail off a bunch of handwritten letters (and use stamps!) to avoid some kind of curse.

That’s not at all what this is about.

my-writing-processThe My Writing Process blog tour aims to direct readers and writers towards new books and friends. When you are invited to participate, you simply answer the four questions below and then pass the torch on to three fellow writers.

The lovely Lisa Betz nominated me for this tour, and I’m happy to oblige because sometimes it’s fun to answer questions about writing. (Sometimes. Not always.)

I’m finally getting more comfortable talking about myself as a writer and not feeling like some kind of slacker with a pseudo-job. So, here’s a bit about my writing right now.

1. What am I working on?

Well, I’ve been writing a novel for the last, like, three years. Yep. Three. Years. Maybe longer. I’m hoping the next one won’t take me that long, but sheesh, that sounds like a long time. I finished the first draft this summer. So, now I’m reading it through again, editing, polishing, answering questions I didn’t think about answering the first time through. I’ve learned a lot about writing in the last three years, so I’m excited for this re-writing process. Earlier this year, I learned from a published author that another term for a first draft is a discovery draft, and that has changed my entire outlook on what I’ve been doing for the last three years.

And it explains why after I wrote “the end,” I went back to the beginning and changed many of the character names, as well as the title of the novel. My current working title is “The Dawn of Hope.” It’s a mostly contemporary story about a girl named Hope who doesn’t have much hope for her future, and some things she learns about her family’s past that help her move forward with her life. There are some historical scenes, too.

2. How does my book differ from others in its genre?

I’m not even sure what genre I’d put it in right now! I recently learned about frame stories, which intertwine historical and contemporary storylines, and while that’s close to what I’m working on, it’s not exactly what I’ve accomplished so far. So … I’m sure this will sell really well to an agent or editor because I can’t even answer my own questions!

3. Why do I write what I write?

I love stories of all kinds, and I’m especially drawn to those stories that combine historical and contemporary storylines. I love the link between past and present, and I have more story ideas along these lines. I think it’s fairly common for writers to write what they like to read, so count me among that group!

4. How does my writing process work?

Sporadically and frantically. Because I also blog and do freelance writing, I don’t always give my novel the attention it deserves. So, when I make the time to write, often in the evening, I write until I can’t write anymore or until it’s time to sleep. I don’t aim for a set number of words or a chapter or anything, but I do like to get to a point where I can continue the story the next time I sit down to write. It’s like if I think I know what’s going to happen but haven’t written it yet, then I’m more excited to get back to it.

When I started the novel, I just started writing. I didn’t plot or sketch characters or think up backstories–all work that I have to do now that I already have a skeleton of a story. Next time, I’ll spend more time thinking through some of these questions before I start writing. I think it will make things easier.

Also, these things help. Gifts from a writing friend.

writer survival

So, how’s that? Not a lot of earth-shattering revelation, but a little peek into my brain and my computer.

Now the part where I’m curious about what people are working on but know how valuable writing time can be. So, I pass the torch (with no strings attached!) to:

Kelly F. Barr

Rachel L. Haas

Greg Smith

Have fun writing friends!

5 on Friday: Good stuff from bloggers you need to be reading

Sometimes it’s hard to wade through all the words on the Web and find the treasures among the trash.

Let me help you.

I’ve read some great posts lately that challenge and encourage and inspire me. My hope is that they’d do the same for you.

Here are five posts (and some excerpts from their posts) you should take time to read this weekend.

1. When Love is the Last Thing You Feel by Alison McLennan. I was touched by these words that challenged me to keep loving when it’s hard.

“Which is the greater sacrifice: to keep a vow when keeping it is a pleasure, or to keep a vow when keeping it takes everything you have?”

I don’t know, in God’s economy, if one is greater than the other. Certainly it is a divine gift to love with ease, to take pleasure in our work, to pour ourselves out for others and find joy in serving.

But what about when we don’t? Is it any less of a gift to labor in those things?

2. #scotus and other stuff by Erika Morrison. (the life artist) Ever disagreed with someone about a controversial issue? Yeah, here’s a good guideline for how to survive that as friends.

So this is my guideline for myself, take it or leave it; adjust and tweak if you so desire: Pray down low. Don’t move until you’ve changed. Suspend your assumptions and walk yourself to the inside of someone else’s skin and story. See that everyone is carrying the weight of their own history; an entire world riding piggy on their backs and everyone is fighting their own battles, wearing their own scars, bleeding from their own wounds, pushing through their own struggles. And move those real live people from the coldness of your cranium to the beating place between your ribs bones and share food and communion there. Look into each other’s soul-windows and watch the Messiah materialize in the image they bear. Hold hands and hug for dear life – all we’ve got is each other. And maybe from this place of kindness and safety, thoughts and convictions can be mutually shared without scathe or savagery or “you’re stupid” words.

3. I hate this day by J.J. Landis. Written in the wake of a local tragedy, J.J. is frank about how our efforts to comfort fall short.

I know in my head what I believe about how the world works. I know we’re fallen and sin screws us up. I know people die, but seriously, it really sucks.

4. Why I Don’t Believe in Grace Anymore by Dr. Kelly Flanagan. Hands-down, when Kelly writes something, I want to read it. This is one of two he wrote recently that I could have recommended.

This is the brilliance of grace: it welcomes our darkness into the light and does nothing to it, knowing that it doesn’t have to, because darkness thrives on hiddenness, and it’s at the mercy of the light. Light drives out darkness, not the other way around.

When we no longer have to push our darkness back down beneath layers of shame our darkness doesn’t stand a chance.

5. Independence by Heather B. Armstrong (dooce). (Warning: This post contains pictures taken inside brothels in Southeast Asia. They are appropriately shocking, but I don’t want them to come as a surprise.) Yes, it’s an uncomfortable subject and it’s hard to talk about and look at, but that’s one reason I’m so glad there are bloggers out there like her who do their part to shine a light on this perverse evil.

Often when we think of that freedom we immediately go to thoughts of our right to free speech, to peaceably assemble, the free exercise of religion and the right to bear arms. I would guess that rarely do we seriously reflect on some of the very basic privileges afforded to us as well: the ability to leave our rooms and homes, the ability to live with our families and the years spent watching them grow, freedom from having to sell our bodies for sex.

Read more: http://dooce.com/2014/07/02/independence/#ixzz37ftn0ZCF

What would you add to this list?

When the end is only the beginning

I did something this week that I’ve only dreamed of. I wrote “the end” on a story I’ve been crafting for years now.

The End fancy

I knew it was coming soon; I just wasn’t sure how soon. And I know that might sound weird but if I’ve learned anything from this process of writing a novel, it’s that it’s nothing like I expected. I can’t explain how it happens, that even though I’m the one writing the story, I still didn’t know when it would end.

What has surprised me most is the outpouring of support and enthusiasm I’ve received from family and friends and Facebook acquaintances. I have written a book that needs a lot of work and is far from finished and yet people tell me they can’t wait to read it.

That’s frightening. And humbling. And encouraging. But mostly frightening.

They are cheering me on and I’m not even sure the game has started. I still feel like a spectator sometimes, watching other people pursue their dreams, or if not a spectator then a benchwarmer. I’m observing, learning and waiting my turn.

So these people, the ones who encourage and cheer like I’m actually already in the game, they scare me with their unconditional belief in me. Or maybe they can see something I can’t. I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it because then I might turn in my uniform altogether and try to forget I ever thought I could do this.

Because I don’t want to disappoint people. It’s okay if I disappoint myself. I’m used to that. But those cheerleaders? Bless them. I don’t want to let them down. And I’m afraid that I’ve written a big pile of stinky manure and the cheerleaders will hold their noses and turn away when they realize what it is.

Or that they’ll give up cheering because it might be a while before these words go public.

Writing is a marathon sport. Even if the novel was ready today, I couldn’t publish it tomorrow. Even if I had a contract from a publisher that I signed today, it might be a year or more before the book became something I could hold in my hands.

So, I’m afraid these dear people trust me too much and expect too much and will give up when the journey is long. I’m afraid of the same things for myself: that I put too much pressure on me, that I expect too much too soon, that I will give up when the waiting is long.

Please don’t stop encouraging me. Having written the two most important words of the novel–the end–is really just the beginning. A lot of hard work is behind me but a lot of hard work is yet to come.

I wish I could tell you that this book will be published and give you a date. I wish I could show it to you in all its edited, cleaned up glory. I wish writing “the end” meant it was truly over.

But it’s not.

So just hang on with me? Wherever this writing journey takes me, if you’re willing to stick it out and come along, I’m glad to have you. I can’t promise it’ll always be exciting. Some days it might be downright depressing. But it won’t be boring.

It means the world to me to have people in my corner. If that’s you, then thank you. I’ll keep you updated when I know what’s next. In the meantime, you can pray that I would see where God is leading and be faithful with the time and words He gives me to write.

Again, thank you. We’re in this together, and I couldn’t do it without you.

10 years a writer

It’s been a decade since an unbelievable opportunity fell in my lap. A gift that changed my life forever.

It just so happens to be the same amount of time since I became an “us” with my husband. In 2004, we started dating. In a few days, we celebrate seven years of marriage. But the life-changing opportunity happened a week before he made his move to start dating me.

This week, 10 years ago, God made his move in the mountains of North Carolina.

I’ve been seeing on social media posts and pictures and plans for the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference. It’s a conference near and dear to my heart because it was there that God showed me the possibilities. It was there that He planted the seed of what writing could mean in my life.

But that’s getting a little bit ahead of things.

I’ve been reading Restless by Jennie Allen these past few months, and in that book, she talks about threads in your life and experiences that shape those threads. And in looking back over all of my 36 years, the times I’ve been most fulfilled are related to writing. So, whether I knew it or not, I think I’ve always been a writer. I remember filling notebooks with handwritten stories and forcing those notebooks on unsuspecting guests at our house, silently begging them to read what I’d written and to tell me it was good. (I think I’m still doing that sometimes.)

And when I worked as a journalist all those years after college, I was most satisfied by stories that made a difference. Some won awards, some didn’t, but always, always, I was filled by telling other people’s stories.

It was during those journalistic years that I was approached by a generous couple with an offer to attend the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference, all expenses paid by them, to further my writing career. Even typing those words a decade later I’m still in shock at the offer. (P.S. I lived in Illinois at the time, so it’s not like it was close.) I had no clue what a writers conference was or why I should go but when someone offers to pay your way to spend some days in North Carolina, you say “yes.”

It was scary and thrilling and overwhelming all at the same time, and I wish I could go back and appreciate the experience for what it was.

Because in truth I had no idea there were so many Christian authors and because I was clueless and didn’t know any of the authors or what they’d written, I had no episodes of being starstruck. (Though I’m sure if I went back and looked over the names, I would smack myself on the head for not being more in tune with Christian publishing.)

See, at the time, I was a journalist. I’d been a journalist for four years and I had no plans to stop being a journalist or any energy to do more writing in my “free” time. I’d dreamed of maybe writing books someday, but that’s all it was: a dream. One writer asked me why I was there and my answer was an emphatic: I have no idea.

Sometimes I think I wasted that chance, but when I look at the experience as part of the whole journey, it really was just the beginning of something bigger.

I would love to go back someday but now I’m worried I have too much information and would still squander the opportunity. Now, I know more and I’m intimidated by conferences and expectations and meetings with authors and agents and the like. Now, I have words I’d like to see published and the risk of rejection is greater. When you have nothing in the way of goals, you risk nothing, and that’s what my first experience with the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference was for me: low-risk.

But there I met people like me. People who had worked as journalists and now wrote books. People with stories bubbling inside of them. People who’d traveled the publishing path and were passing on knowledge. I still remember some of the tips from the workshops and encouragement from other writers.

It was the beginning of a journey, but I didn’t know it at the time.

But do we ever know when the journey starts?

In the last year, I’ve begun taking my writing more seriously. Yes, I’ve blogged for years but that’s always been for me first. An outlet I needed in the midst of  the early years of motherhood. If no one had ever read a word, I still would have written because I needed it.

But for years I’ve also been working on a novel. A very part-time effort that at times seemed to have no end. That’s changing, and it’s scary sometimes. I’m writing and pursuing ideas and making intentional efforts to connect with other writers and share my progress and learn about storytelling. A published novel is still very much a dream. Attending a conference has been almost impossible these past few years but it’s no longer completely out of reach.

Which is why I’ve been thinking back on that first conference.

Ten years seems like a really long time. And sometimes I wonder if I could have done more sooner. If I should have done more sooner. If I’ve missed my chance or if my chance is still out there.

I don’t know if God made me a writer at birth or not, but He has birthed something in me.

And for years He’s been building the writer in me, one brick at a time.

I’m sad and hopeful, frustrated and excited, discouraged and giddy about this crazy writing journey. I have no map or destination. I’m unfamiliar with the route. But I know where I’ve been, and I don’t think I’m lost. Not anymore. I’m seeing signs that I’m on the right path, wherever it might lead.

I have wanted to give up on it. I have wanted to call it a silly little dream. I have wanted my calling to be anything else because certainly anything else would be easier.

But I can’t. And it isn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

Sometimes, to keep moving forward, you need to look back and see where you’ve been.

That’s where I’m at this week. Looking back so I remember to keep moving forward.

(And trying not to be jealous of anyone spending the week in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mountains+writing=bliss.)

How are your dreams coming along these days?

The one thing you don’t need to do to call yourself a writer {and 3 things you do!}

I’m honored to be a guest at Ritty’s Adventures in Writing today.

“When do you put ‘writer’ on your business card?”

I was about to teach a workshop at a writers conference when a woman in the front row asked me this question. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, so I asked her to repeat it.

It seemed an easy question to answer, and I gave her an easy response. But the question is more complicated than I made it. My own writing journey testifies to this. I’ve had business cards that say “writer, editor and speaker” on them for years, but that doesn’t mean I always believe I’m any of those things.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

In college, I was a mass communication major. We liked to joke that we were getting a B.S. in B.S. (For the record, I have a B.A.) I didn’t put a lot of thought into my major. I just knew that I liked to write. I took my first creative writing classes in college (and received my first soul-crushing critiques). But college is also where I began to see myself as a writer. And try as I might, I couldn’t deny it.

College is also where I heard a statement about writing that has stuck with me for more than a decade. Jane Friedman, a colleague at my college newspaper who has gone on to be an influential voice in the publishing and writing world offering countless words of wisdom to writers, spoke to a group about her self-discovery as a writer.

She said, “I don’t want to be a writer. I am a writer.”

Powerful stuff.

Read the rest here.

5 on Friday: Best nonfiction I’ve read this year

I’m trying to read more nonfiction. I love stories and I can read fiction fast, but there’s a lot to learn and be challenged by in the nonfiction world, too.

Here are five nonfiction books I’ve read this year that top my list of best of 2013, so far.

1. 7 by Jen Hatmaker. Turned my world upside-down and introduced me to one of my favorite writers out in the book world and the Internet world. Great principles for simplifying your life.

7 cover

2. Wrecked by Jeff Goins. My world was already wrecked when I read this, but it confirmed that God is up to something with us. If you’ve had a life-changing encounter with poverty or justice issues or on a mission trip, this is a good follow-up book for incorporating that experience into the whole of your life.

wrecked cover

3. Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton. It’s a book not just to be read but experienced. It’s a guide for establishing rhythms and disciplines into your spiritual practices and living a balanced life.

4. On Writing by Stephen King. I can’t believe it took me till now to read this book. His writing advice and experience is invaluable.

5. Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist. I know I just reviewed it this week, but her writing style is unique and I’ve never read a book that blends personal experiences, cooking and spirituality so well.

bread and wine cover

What’s on your list of favorites so far this year?