Point to Ponder

Not all writing is political or revolutionary, but the very act of giving yourself permission to write, to speak, to share the truth no matter whether the truth you understand is the truth others want to acknowledge, is brave, powerful, and important.

Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life

Snow on Snow

by Randy Petersen

One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is kind of a downer. The first stanza of “In the Bleak Mid-winter” paints a vivid picture of the cold, hard world that Jesus enters.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

As a writer, I love the bold simplicity of “snow on snow, snow on snow.” That is exactly how snow falls, isn’t it? “Water like a stone” is the common phenomenon of freezing, but here it’s a life-giving substance turned lifeless. With the most basic words, the poet puts us in a bleak world.

Christina Rossetti was already a well-known poet when she wrote this for an American magazine in 1872. (Nice to know, for this blog, that she was a “Christian Freelance Writer,” like us.) Her parents, emigres from Italy, had hobnobbed with England’s literati, until her father took sick. The family then struggled financially. Despite her own health problems—including a nervous breakdown at age 14—Christina was a prodigious poet in her teens. She regained the attention of the arts crowd, eventually publishing several books of poetry.

So, while she had some success, she also experienced a few “bleak mid-winters” along the way.

At this point, the fact-checkers among us are crying out, “But it wasn’t mid-winter! The fact that shepherds were tending their flocks by night suggests the spring season, before Passover. In the foothills of Judea at that time, there would be no snow on snow, snow on snow!”

Right. And the Bible never mentions a stable (just a manger) and the word for “inn” probably refers to the guest room in a house, so there was no innkeeper, and we don’t know how many magi showed up—maybe two, maybe twelve. Every December, we quibble with the Christmas story as it has been told through the centuries. Every generation seems to add a detail to fill out the biblical story. Early on, the magi got names and ethnic identities. One of the earliest English dramas we have, from medieval times, is “The Second Shepherds’ Play,” a clever farce about doubt and devotion. Later we got Good King Wenceslas, Santa, Rudolph, the Little Drummer Boy, an angel named Clarence, and poor Grandma getting run over.

Snow on snow. Snow on snow.

Despite our quibbles, Rossetti’s lyrics do what preachers have always done, applying essential truth to the current culture. It’s what poets do too. So maybe it wasn’t snowing on the shepherds, maybe it wasn’t a frozen world—physically. But is there any better way to describe humanity’s need for a Savior, then or now?

After the first stanza, the “bleak mid-winter” thaws out. Slowly. Gently. Rossetti keeps contrasting the angel throngs in heaven with the simple scene on earth, a mother cradling her child, kissing him. The water, once hard as stone, begins to trickle, bringing life to a needy world.

And the final verse brings it home, simply but powerfully.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Don’t Burn Your Cargo

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A couple of my writer friends were recently discussing the works of Anne Lamott and one of them commented: “I’m not that crazy about her fiction, which sometimes veers to the Jesus-y, but Bird by Bird is one of the best books on writing ever written.” The reference to Lamott’s fiction piqued my interest because I’m a “Jesus-y” kind of girl, but it may have had the opposite effect on others. Lamott must know that not everyone appreciates it when she weaves her faith into her writing, but she’s made a choice between sticking to her principles and pleasing the masses.

All Christian writers face this decision at some point.

Clovis Chappell used to tell the story of two paddleboats in his home state of Tennessee. The boats left Memphis about the same time, traveling down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Along the way, sailors from one boat began commenting on how slowly the other boat was moving. Words were exchanged, and soon the teasing escalated into a full-on challenge to out-sail each other. The competition didn’t last long, however. One of the boats began to run out of fuel because the coal that should have been enough for the trip wasn’t enough for a race. Thinking himself clever, one sailor threw some of the ship’s cargo into the ovens, which worked well as fuel and, eventually, that boat won the race. Unfortunately, the cargo they were transporting was all burned up.

God has entrusted Christian writers with precious cargo, too: the truth of the gospel, His Word. Sometimes we feel like our progress is too slow. It seems to be taking a frustratingly long time to build the audience or platform we desire. When we feel that way, we may look for ways to speed things up and get ahead, rationalizing that we want to be more effective in our writing ministry. But if we’re making sacrifices along the way that compromise the truth we are called to communicate, we end up effectively burning our cargo and becoming ineffective—if not a detriment—in God’s kingdom.

Suppose you poured your heart and soul into a devotional or memoir that testified to God’s transformative power in your life and a publisher agreed that it was a beautifully written piece with the potential to reach thousands, if not millions, of readers. There’s just one catch: The editor says your piece is too Jesus-y. “You talk too much about being born again and that’ll push some readers away. Can you tone down the Bible-speak?” (We once had a family leave our church because they thought our pastor referred to John 3:16 too often, so this scenario is not far fetched.)

You can absolutely take the shortcut to success and wealth by diluting biblical truths in the interest of selling more articles and books. The opportunities are there. The market for wishy washy messages is there. If you have mastered the craft of writing, the sky’s the limit. But I plead with you to not take this path.

Abraham thought he’d take a shortcut to producing an heir and there was a high price for that foolish decision. Esau, too, looked for a way to quickly curb his hunger, and he lost his inheritance and the blessings reserved for him. There are many other examples in the Bible of people who yielded to temptation because they took their eyes off the Lord.

But Jesus did not. Jesus faced gruelling temptations, yet He rejected the easy path to take the right one.

I’m not suggesting a Christian writer can’t make a living from his or her craft. Writing can be our ministry and our work at the same time. Yet we must never lose sight of why we write, which will influence what we write, even as we work on how we write. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the servants who multiplied the resources they were given didn’t do it for their own gain or glory. They worked hard because they were faithful to their master; they did it for his gain. Still, their diligence was rewarded, and their master was pleased.

When that is our motivation, we will also succeed in our work. We may not become wealthy, we may not become household names, but the Lord will be pleased, and He will bless and multiply the talents we have used and invested wisely.

The Love of Language

submitted by Randy Petersen

This maverick Episcopal priest has been a favorite author of mine for many years. In a section on the love of language, Robert Farrar Capon wrote:

This is the era of talks, of reports, of analyses that are unbearable because the talkers and the writers are insufferably bad lovers. And, to throw a stone at my own trade, it is the era of sermons—words about the Word!—that have no taste at all, because the preachers do not see that words themselves are lovely.

An Offering of Uncles, 1967

Fear of the Blank Page

The mind has plenty of ways of preventing you from writing, and paralysing self-consciousness is a good one. The only thing to do is ignore it, and remember what Vincent van Gogh said in one of his letters about the painter’s fear of the blank canvas—the canvas, he said, is far more afraid of the painter.

— Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling

Words of Wisdom

by William J. Petersen

When I was 20 years old, I decided to give freelance writing a try. Why not? I had been reading Sunday  school literature since I was six years old, and I understood that editors were crying out for children’s stories.

So I hastily compiled a list of six Sunday school papers aimed at kids 9 to 12 years old. Then I went to my typewriter (computers hadn’t been invented yet) and pounded out a story about a wanna-be baseball player named Herbie, who was afraid of getting hit by a baseball every time he came up to bat.

The story ended with Herbie coming up to bat in the last inning with the bases loaded. He got hit by a pitch to force in the winning run.

I decided to send the story to Scripture Press, because my church used Scripture Press materials. It was returned to me—rejected—within a week. I was disappointed, of course, and I thought the editor was stupid for turning down such a classic story for junior aged boys, but I had five other Sunday school papers on my list. If Scripture Press decided to turn down a classic, I would send it to one of their competitors!

I got my second rejection within a week, from the Free Methodists in Winona Lake, Indiana. So I sent my masterpiece to the Assemblies of   God in Springfield, Missouri—another rejection—and then on to the Nazarenes in Kansas City, and then to David C. Cook, at that time in Elgin, Illinois, and finally to a Baptist publisher.

Within six weeks, believe it or not, I had collected six rejection slips.

I was discouraged, yes, but I wasn’t quitting, though I had reached the end of my list. I thought of trying a few more denominational houses, but since I had written Herbie specifically  for the Scripture Press publication called My Counselor, I decided to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe the  editor had a quarrel with the boss the first time. Or maybe he had an upset stomach, or maybe . . .

Well, within another ten days I received a letter from the editor of My Counselor. When I saw the envelope, I was sure it was another rejection.

I was wrong.

The editors had accepted “Herbie, the Ball-shy Wildcat”  for publication. It appeared in print the following year. And amazingly, every three   years during the next dozen years, the publication reprinted Herbie, and of course each time they sent me a little check as well ($15 for the first publication and $10 for each reprint).

Word of Wisdom Number One: It’s always too soon to quit.

Years later, when I was editorial director of a book publisher, a very discouraged lawyer and wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript that had been rejected 27 times. We accepted it and A Time to Kill  became a bestseller. Its author, John Grisham, became one of the best-known novelists of the past 50 years.

It’s always too soon to quit.

Branch Out

I’m not especially gifted in any particular area of writing. The flip-side of that is, I never knew what I couldn’t do until I tried. So I have tried a lot of different things: Gospel tracts, movie scripts, TV commercials, missionary biographies, Bible study curricula, quizzes, fiction, personality sketches, how-to’s, poetry, interviews, radio writing, daily devotionals, fund-raising letters, humor, writing for kids, you name it.

I am no Bible scholar, but I have written some very successful books on the lives of biblical characters, as well as curriculum for adult Bible study classes.

By trial and error I’ve learned that, despite my success with “Herbie,” I  don’t do fiction very well. But I’ve been trying to learn that craft, and managed to self-publish several unpublishable novels in my eighties.

While serving as a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild, I introduced students to all genres of writing. One writer was especially interested in fiction, but she had to go through the lessons on writing newspaper articles, how-to articles, devotionals and all kinds of things. She finally got the chance to develop her novel, but by then she’d had two non-fiction articles accepted by national publications and one magazine had invited her to do a regular column.

So you never know what doors the Lord might open for you.

Word of Wisdom Number Two: Take some risks. Branch out into new areas. Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t limit yourself to one writing genre.

Edit yourself

I’ll never forget Miss Fackler. She was my freshman writing teacher in college, and I was scared to death of her. No frog had ever  been dissected the way she cut apart my writing.

Oh, I had been accustomed to seeing red marks on my papers, showing  me where I had misspelled a word or used the wrong punctuation. But she asked questions: Why did you say this? Is that the best word to use?  Do you really need that paragraph? Can’t you say this in fewer words?

I dreaded her favorite expression: Superfluous.

But before long, I was asking some of those questions myself before I turned in my paper. In the process, I learned the importance of self-editing.

Now writing and editing are two different skills. I doubt if Miss Fackler ever had anything published, but in her role as teacher, she was a fine editor. And she taught me both skills.

You will be a better writer if you learn to edit your own work effectively.

Don’t edit as you write. Get your first draft down on paper or on the computer, and then you can edit.

Sometimes it helps to wait a few days before editing. Then, does it still make sense? Can you outline it now? One of the first things I do in self-editing is to look at the verbs and eliminate all the forms of “to be” that I can, replacing those dead verbs with action verbs. Then I look at sentences beginning with “There” and “It.”

Then I look at word-length, sentence length, paragraph length. I look at “ly” adverbs, impersonal pronouns. Use Anglo-Saxon words, not Latin compounds, wherever possible.

These cautions might paralyze you during the writing process. Write freely. But then go back later and prune your work to make it stronger.

Word of Wisdom Number three: Learn to be self-critical, to be your own editor. When you write, be warmly involved in your story. When you edit, be coolly detached.

William J. Petersen, father of CFWN editor Randy Petersen, passed away in January, 2021, at the age of 91. An editor at Eternity Magazine for thirty years, he also authored more than twenty books. These were notes for a talk at a writer’s conference a few years ago.

Aim for the Stars

Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991