The Heart of the Writer
Understanding your emotions on your literary journey is
just as important as knowing how to write
In ninth grade, one of my teachers, Mrs. Hentges, came up to me and told me that she was entering me in a statewide fiction writing contest. Only one person from each school was allowed to enter. Every participant would get to go to the university and have a fiction professor review our work. All I needed to do then was write a story.
I didn’t write fiction at that time. She chose me simply because of my grades. We didn’t even own a typewriter. All I really knew about literature was the King James Bible — it was the only book in the house and I used to hide in the upstairs bathroom to read it, just to have something to fulfill my voracious reading appetite. So, in my 14-year-old wisdom, I thought I’d write a story about Jesus. I borrowed a typewriter from my aunt. I’d never typed a manuscript. I decided to use all caps. I had no idea what I was doing. To give my young self credit, I am proud of how willing I am to do new things, even when I have no clue.
Two weeks later, I presented Mrs. Hentges with a story about Jesus in all caps.
The university was in Columbia, Missouri, a 30-minute drive from our Catholic high school. I would later learn that it has a reputable fiction program, with graduates like Tennessee Williams. I’d never been to a university before. No one in my family had gone to college. I knew I would attend school here in a few years, but at the time it felt like I was in God’s waiting room, sitting on that difficult bench in that narrow hallway, in the old high ceilinged building with hard echoes.
The professor’s office was cluttered and musty. He was a 30-something guy with a writer’s curved back. I sat on my hands in a chair next to him, sweating. He had my story, with red marks all over it. He wouldn’t look at me. He said: “I don’t even know what this is? Why all caps? A story about Jesus? Why would you pick such a subject?”
I was so moved to be in an office lined with books. I was so moved to be sitting by a man whose entire life was about writing. We were working class, and such a lifestyle was as alien to me as a foreign country. I knew he didn’t like my story. That was alright. I’ll show him someday, I thought, I’ll write lots of books. I just need guidance.
He looked sideways at me, and I didn’t have a voice, so I said nothing. He said: “For example, right here you talk about infinity. That doesn’t work. Nothing goes on for infinity.”
I knew what he was saying. He wanted me to talk about normal life. But I also I knew that I did believe in infinity. My beliefs weren’t Christian even as a child — even though I thought Jesus was a cool dude. Even as a girl, I was more mystical than religious. I saw in that interaction with the professor the same problems I’d had my whole 14 years with people who only believed in the mundane.
Afterward, as OK and clear as I was with the professor’s feedback, I was still shaky. There was my soul that knew the truth on one hand, and my poor ego that felt like it just took a bruising. I was used to being good at things. I was used to winning awards.
We went to an auditorium where they were handing out awards. The best of show winner was a girl sitting right in front of me. She was called: “Ahead of her time.”
I asked “Jesus” why he felt it necessary to put me in the seat behind the girl.
Fill your paper with
the breathings of your heart.
We all have stories like this. Things that have happened on our creative path, the events we cannot get out of our minds, situations that shaped us, for good or ill. As a coach, I have learned that telling these stories are essential to a healthy book-writing process. Even in writing my story for this newsletter, I feel a relief, a release. We all need to unpack the baggage that may be blocking us. Often emotions are wrapped around these events, shame or anger or hopelessness. These emotions affect the writing of our books. Airing them releases and redefines. Sometimes airing such a story creates a profound shift not only in your writing path, but in your purpose, your relationships, and the rest of your life.
And the joy of this one told story is this: I now realize this is why I became a book coach. When I started this newsletter, I didn’t expect this epiphany. I realize that not only did my need for guidance lead me to a life committed to guiding people, but also the university setting’s lack of interest in the mystical means that as a coach I’m often guiding mystical people who have found it hard to find home in a more conservative setting like a university.
What are your stories? What pops into your mind? Even unearthing small stories can make a big difference. I’ve noticed with clients that telling these stories not only heals us, it makes us better and more prolific writers.