The Writing Parent

Of all of the parenting decisions my mother made when I was in middle school, perhaps the one I am most grateful for is how she chose to write about me.

My mother spent several years as a professional writer. She pursued that occupation with an energy, resilience, and enthusiasm that was inspirational. She was quite prolific during those years, but there is one piece that was published that I particularly think of as “my book” —  a book of prayers for children transitioning into adolescence called Junior High’s a Jungle, Lord.

The summer after my seventh grade year, I went away to a summer program for several weeks. My mother missed me so much that she wrote a book in a voice that she imagined might be like my own internal voice.

She took experiences of my own and experiences of hers when she was my age and she fictionalized them. She wrote in the first person, from the point of view of a fictional me – she entered imaginatively into what it might feel like to be someone like me in a school like my school. The whole project was arguably an exercise in empathy, which is, after all, what intercessory prayer requires. And if a person is writing prayers for someone to pray for themselves and their peers, then in a sense, that writer first is praying on the reader’s behalf.

In the work, what I saw as a thirteen year old was a mother who thought deeply about me and my experiences, who was making an effort to understand me, and who missed me when I wasn’t around. It was heart-warming.

It helped that I got to read it in manuscript form, so I didn’t get blind-sided by what she had chosen to reveal, as I sometimes did when my Dad would use me or my siblings as a sermon illustration, bless him. And in any case, she wasn’t reporting on facts – she was using my experiences as a jumping off point for an imaginative work. Anything that didn’t scan with my own experience of events I could brush off as artistic license.

Now, as a parent myself, I see my mother’s books as an example of how to parent in public. Writing about one’s parenting struggles may be honest, but parents need to remember that, at some point, their children learn how to read. And (a concern my mother’s generation could not have anticipated when they had children at home) how to use an internet search engine. When we are writing about parenting for other parents, we may, ironically, be forgetting that we are parents – that we have children who are perfectly capable of listening in on the conversation.

When instead we write for children, we are not forgetting that we are parents — and hopefully we are further remembering what it will be like for our own children to read what we have written, and perhaps even to meet people who have also read what we have written. (Though Christopher Milne might have qualified that with the response, “Not necessarily.”)

Of course, it is also possible to write for grown-ups in a way that remembers that our children will grow up – but never forgetting that their relationships with trusted adults (and particularly with their parents) requires a respectful discernment about what information is appropriate to share with any person who could ever come across it. Some things are best reserved to be shared at carefully chosen times within intimate relationships with known people. That isn’t dishonest: it’s setting healthy boundaries.

There are a number of concerns that I have struggled with pertaining to writing for public consumption, and this one is near the top of the list: once something is published, you don’t get to chose who reads it. It is out there for literally anyone, at any time now or in the future to consume and then interpret, without any further mitigating input from the writer.

I have been reading Let the Children Come, by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. I highly recommend it, but not without any reservations. Her central idea is something I have believed for a long time myself, and she puts it extraordinarily well early on in the book: “children must be fully respected as persons, valued as gifts, and viewed as agents.” (from the author’s Introduction)

However, I also have many disagreements with her book. I was going to say, “many small disagreements,” but I think that the implications for some of these ideas of hers that I question may be – at least, let’s say, non-trivial.

For instance, in the very beginning of her introduction, Miller-McLemore articulates the need to which her book responds with an extended reflection on the difference between parenting very small children and parenting older children: “Perhaps that is why [Anne] Lamott and other women have written powerful accounts of early motherhood but seldom delve into experiences of long-term parenting. After the first few years, the waters become incredibly muddy.”

Leaving aside for the moment that this book was written in 2003 and that Lamott has written a great deal since then (not to mention all of the new figures that have risen up to write about parenting in that time), it does seem that there is a lot more written about life with babies (and toddlers and preschoolers) than memoirs about life with older children.

Certainly I wrote a great deal about my daughter earlier in her life, but I have made few blog entries related to her in the past couple of years. (She is now 10.)

Speaking for myself, that is not because parenting a child this age is “muddier” or more complicated, or because I am trying to hide from my inconsistencies as a parent (which are, as I am a human being, positively rife), or because my daughter doesn’t do anything wonderfully inspiring anymore (she inspires me every day!), or because it eludes my abilities to say anything meaningful about this time in our lives.

Instead, I write very little about her because I am trying to be thoughtful about how best to share our stories, in a way that not only respects her privacy and her wishes now, but that respects our relationship into the future.

I wanted to record her earlier experiences, in part because I knew that she would not remember them, and I feared that I might forget, too. As she has gotten older, I have remained interested in writing, especially in writing about children and their integral role in the kingdom of God. But I have been becoming increasingly thoughtful about how to do that in the way that love demands: with a respect for the particular people of all ages that I have been blessed to get to know in person.


Better Late than Never?

My father was the sort of man who found the sentiment “better late than never” to be at least inconsiderate, if not downright heretical. Though more recent friends of mine might not be able to imagine it, anyone who knew me in high school knew me to be early as a rule. As a new driver, never quite sure exactly how much time to allow, it was not uncommon for me to show up ludicrously early – sometimes two to three hours early. When I drove myself to school, I would often be the first to arrive after the custodians.

When it comes to my writing, though, I am learning that when I am running late on a deadline, it is often because I persisted too long in pursuing a fruitless idea. Some ideas should never make it past the brainstorming stage, but when I am feeling a time crunch, I might pick an idea from a thin field and slowly slog my way through the unpromising terrain.  Instead, my time would have been better spent lingering in the idea generation stage: my best ideas inspire me to spend more time at the keyboard, as well as to write more quickly – not least because good ideas lead to more good ideas.  But a bad idea? I can spend weeks trying to build on a bad idea – a half hour at a time of scratching my head, writing a sentence, and then deleting it.

Nothing instills panic in the heart of some writers more than a blank page

Nothing instills panic in the heart of some writers more than a blank page

Most recently, this happened when trying to write a sermon series for the General Board of Discipleship for November. This was a particularly bad summer for me: I was sick all summer long, and ended August with surgery to remove my gall bladder. I had been hoping to write a sermon series for GBOD every month, but getting something written for August and September proved impossible, and by the time I was well enough to write in September, there was not enough time to get something posted for October.  I turned my attention to November.

November is an interesting month for a sermon series.  Most churches have finished their finance campaigns, and are settling back into a worship routine in this last month of Ordinary Time. The month begins and ends with special Sundays: All Saints’ and Christ the King. And November also ends with the civil holiday of Thanksgiving – the day after which has become another civil holiday of sorts: “Black Friday” – the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. During the month of November, often the pastor’s attention is focused on the month ahead. Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) is one of the a pastor’s two busiest seasons of the church year. A sermon series is just the thing to give pastors new focus to their November worship planning.

As October approached, I found myself with no ideas for November. So when I got my first idea, I ran with it. But guess what? Once I had actually read the scriptural texts (pro-tip: when writing sermons, actually read the scriptural texts), it turned out that the book of Judges does not fit so well as I had supposed into a pat All Saints’ to Christ the King narrative arc.  I had the scriptures selected, and the titles, and the themes, and it was September 30!  So I plowed ahead doggedly, sentence by sentence. Clearly the only thing to do, right?

Wrong. September 30 became October 4 became October 8, and still I had no more than 300 words out of my hoped for 5000+. I was running late – all because I was so scared of being late that I couldn’t let go of my one bad idea.

My turning point came when I realized that sometimes never was better. Maybe I wouldn’t get a November sermon series published. My editor hadn’t shown any anxiety about this, but I can come up with all sorts of nightmare scenarios that may not have any basis in reality. Like: maybe I would lose my contract and never write another sermon series for GBOD… and then maybe word would get around that I was unreliable, and I would not get invited to publish for other United Methodist agencies… maybe all of my best days of writing were behind me!!!

But none of that was worse than wasting time writing something so bad as to be unpreachable. “The whole point of this is to help pastors, remember?” I heard in the silence as I prayed. “Not to get a paycheck or a by-line.”

That is how, when I sat back down at my computer that morning, I realized that everything I had written needed to be laid aside. Maybe there was a good idea somewhere in there, but it wasn’t apparent at the moment, and it certainly wasn’t even the kernel of a decent sermon series.

Looking at the blank page of my “New Document,” I was filled with a profound sense of gratitude. I had been spared more painful hours of writing, as well as sending some truly bad writing to my editor. I was so happy to NOT be writing that sermon series on Judges that I almost posted about it on Facebook.

The light bulb went on. Almost two years ago, a friend had posted something he was grateful for as his Facebook status every day in November. The next year, three other friends were doing it, too. All Saints’ Sunday is all about giving thanks for the people who serve as beacons of God’s love to us.  On Christ the King Sunday, we give thanks to God that Jesus is the good ruler – that the one to whom we owe our highest allegiance is the one who loves us beyond measure. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be just one day – we can celebrate it all month long!!

After three hours of thinking, research, and writing, I had an introduction to a brand new November sermon series, complete with titles, texts, and themes. I had written half of the first sermon help, and picked out at least one suggested hymn for each of the five worship services. I only stopped writing because it was time to pack the car for a weekend road trip.

One day, I will write a sermon or two or three on that neglected book of Judges. But I will honor the text, and I will not hammer-fit them into an inappropriate structure. Meanwhile, I sure am thankful to have had the opportunity to write about giving thanks!

Check out my latest sermon series on the GBOD website!

Becoming a (paid) writer

This week, I have signed two different contracts: one to write 13 weeks of adult Sunday school lessons, and another to write a number of sermon series helps.  And about a week before that, I received news that a book that I contributed an essay to is going to be coming out in October.

I am no longer a person who sits at her kitchen table and writes stuff – I am now a person who is paid to sit at her kitchen table and write stuff.  Wow.  I am a writer, y’all!  Wow wow wow.

While I agree with Anne Lamott that “if you write, you are a writer,” it helps for someone to like your stuff enough to read it.  And it helps, too, if they like it well enough to pay to read it.

I started blogging because I needed a creative and intellectual outlet for my preacher turned stay-at-home mom self. I didn’t really have any thoughts of becoming a writer per se – I intended to get my PhD, or return to the parish.  I knew that some people who blog had gotten publishing deals that way, but I also was aware that those people were generally more disciplined bloggers than I had been – they wrote at regular intervals, or had a gimmick or at least a theme that they hewed to closely.  They had not simply written about whatever occurred to them whenever it was convenient to do so.

On the other hand, I had known people who had tried to take the “conventional” route to becoming a writer – sending one unsolicited manuscript after another to publisher after publisher, collecting a hundred or more rejections on their way to (maybe) getting something published. Did I have the discipline for that? The conviction?

I spent a lot of time thinking about “what next?” but “become a writer” didn’t even make the list most of the time.

Then, a little more than a year ago, I stopped trying to look ahead and instead took a look around. I was doing or had done everything that my five year old self had wanted to do or be as a grown up. (Admittedly with the single exception of being married to Greg Brady, which could never happen, given that he was a fictional character.  And in any case, my husband is way cooler than Greg Brady.) I had been a pastor, I was a mom, I was married, I could cook and sew and drive a car. I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without anyone telling me any different. Life was good.

Context matters.  “What’s next?” became a different question when it arose out of contentment with where I was rather than out of anxiety about not being where I “ought” to have been.

“Life is good – what next?”  Write.  I wanted to write.

Now, it is only fair to mention here that I was scared to say so. I am an American, and Americans are supposed to produce stuff.  Graduate school produces a degree, and a job produces money, but writing might only produce a bunch of ugly drafts that nobody wants to see.  I was scared to tell my husband what I wanted, even though he is super supportive, and even though we didn’t need for me to make money.  And that’s the other thing to mention:  if you need to make money (and most people do, given that money is good for buying things like food and electricity and a place to stay and so on) then writing is not a particularly reliable way to do it.  Certainly not at first.  Writing is for people who are well off enough to not have to work, or who are young and don’t have children and could always crash on a friend’s sofa if it came to it. And writing is for other people too, but only squeezed in those hours when they are not doing their paying job(s). I owe it to my less-well-bankrolled writer friends to fess up to this.  It was scary for me to admit that I wanted to write, and I didn’t even have my own or anyone else’s ability to live comfortably riding on the enterprise.

But my husband was all for it, and so I came up with a plan: I would give it a year and see what happened.  The year would start with my daughter entering kindergarten, in September 2012 – which would give me a lot more time for uninterrupted reading and thinking and writing and editing.  I would consider myself a writer starting in September, and I would see how it felt and if anything came out of it.

Great plan, but things started happening long before September rolled around.  On 22 May 2012 I wrote an entry entitled The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children, and it went viral – or as viral as these things go when you are writing something that is really only of interest to Protestant worship leaders.  Within less than 24 hours, it had caught the eye of Jessica Kelley, the editor of Ministry Matters, who asked if she could blend that entry with another entry of mine into one article, and publish it on her site. Sure, I said, as long as she linked to my blog, and she did.

That was pretty exciting, but then she invited me to write more for their website.  So I did. And then, when talking to her about a book idea about sermon helps, she asked if I would be interested in writing an article for the Circuit Rider sermon series issue (Feb/March/April 2013).  Yes I was interested! And so I got my first paying gig.

This gave me confidence enough to query after other opportunities, which led to a bunch of rejections that hurt my confidence a little, but not enough to keep me from trying again and again.  And the trying again led to me landing a contract to write for a popular Sunday school series, and also to me writing an essay for the book I mentioned above (Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, White Cloud Press, October 2013.)

But the Circuit Rider job led to still another job – this time another job that came to me, much as the Ministry Matters work had come to me.  The Circuit Rider is a publication of the United Methodist church with a wide professional readership – it is sent to the pastors and former pastors and employees of boards and agencies and so on… and one of these readers was looking through the sermon series issue hoping to find a writer who could write sermon series helps while still having respect for the liturgical year. And she found me. After a couple of months of talking with one another, I am on board to start contributing sermon series helps in the next couple of weeks!!

As time goes on, I will share more about each of the three upcoming projects: the Sunday school lessons, the sermons series helps, and the book of essays.  But for now, I am feeling really grateful for having the opportunity to give writing a go.  And I am looking around me, thinking that I have done or been everything my 17 year old self wanted to be and do, including being a writer and being married to Brian McGiverin.  Admittedly with the exception of being a singer-songwriter, and knowing how to play the guitar.  But there is still time. 🙂