There’s nothing quite like putting words down on paper — words that spill from our hearts and expose our innermost being. It’s scary. And it’s wonderful. It’s exciting and it’s terrifying. It’s lonely, and it just might be the most loving thing we as humans can do. I’d like to share with you 12 life lessons I’ve learned since I began sharing my words with the world.
1. If you never want to be bored with life, figure out what you’re passionate about, and do that. I keep writing because I love telling people about my great God. That’s my passion. So it’s easy for me to keep at it. And, when your subject is as big as God, there’s always something to write about.
2. If you want to do something, just do it. Don’t wait until you think you’re good enough. I’ve purchased a lot of books about grammar and punctuation — they aren’t always helpful. I usually quit reading about halfway through. I know proper grammar and correct punctuation are important. But if I thought I had to get it right every time, I would give up writing.
3. If you want to keep someone’s attention, don’t use 50 words when just a few will do. The editor of “Quiet Hour” sent me my first writing assignment in 2006. He told me to write seven anecdotal pieces that would help readers apply specific portions of the Bible to their lives. Each devotion needed to be 150 words or fewer. I learned quickly how much of what we say and write is unnecessary and can be deleted.
4. If you want people to understand you, don’t use big words. The writer’s guidelines for “Quiet Hour” say: “Gear your writing to about an eighth-grade reading level. Use familiar words and mostly short sentences and paragraphs.” That sounds good to me!
5. If something doesn’t seem right, change it. It doesn’t take long to write a first draft. That’s because most first drafts are bad. Author Anne Lamott says, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” Jeff Goins, in his blog post titled “How to Write a First Draft that is Crappy but Usable,” says, “Your goal, any time you sit down to write, should never be to write something good. It should always be to write something usable.” I usually spend a lot more time revising than I do writing.
6. You’ll never know, if you don’t try. In June 2009, I attended a writer’s conference. Every speaker in every class said, “If you want to be a writer, you must blog!” Six months later, those words still rang in my ears. So I decided to write a blog people would have time to read.I named it “One Minute with God.” After posting every day for a year, I realized it would make a great perpetual calendar. So I wrote a proposal and searched my writer’s market guide.
DaySpring is well known for its Christian greeting cards and gifts. I almost didn’t send them my proposal because I figured it would get rejected. But I sent it, and two weeks later I received an email saying they wanted to purchase “One Minute with God.”
7. Don’t think so highly of yourself. I remember sitting in a class at a writer’s conference many years ago. Attendees were encouraged to share with the group something they had written. Then the group would discuss it. I looked around the room and noticed a quiet little older woman who didn’t seem to fit in. I thought, surely I can write better than she does. When it came her turn to read, I was shocked. And ashamed. Her words were beautiful, much better than anything I had ever written. I’ll never forget that lady. And I remind myself often, there will always be people who do what I do better than I do it.
8. If you want to make a difference in people’s lives, be vulnerable. Vulnerable means capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, or open to attack, damage or criticism.
The most difficult thing I have ever written was a column about having an abortion. I wrote it in 2001, when I was on The Write Team. I’ll never forget how I began that column: “It was the darkest day of her life.” It truly was, and it still is.
I remember every detail about that day. I remember the cream-colored sweater I wore. I remember the large upstairs waiting room, and the smaller one downstairs, where I sat with the other women who were there to abort their babies. I remember the faces. I remember the fear. And I remember the silence.
I wrote about the horrible guilt and shame I had felt for years afterwards. I wrote about the thousands of times I cried out to God, begging Him to forgive me. And then I wrote about the joy I experienced when I finally realized that Jesus’ death was a sufficient sacrifice for all my sin, even the abortion. I was forgiven!
A couple of days after that column appeared in the paper, I received a note that said: “Dear Kathy, Red Smith of the New York Times used to say, ‘To write a good article, lean over the typewriter, open a vein, and bleed.’ You sure did. It was compelling, convincing and enlightening.’ ”
It’s pretty scary putting ourselves out there, being completely open to the world, but if we want to make a difference in people’s lives, we have to take the risk of being criticized or wounded — we need to be vulnerable.
9. If you want to be your best, always welcome criticism. In the writing world, it’s called critique. Carole Ledbetter and I have come to know each other pretty well. For many years, we’ve critiqued each other’s writing. Most of what I write goes through her careful consideration. When I send her a manuscript, I always say, PLEASE BE PICKY! She usually catches things I’ve missed. If something is unclear, she lets me know before it goes public. If there’s a better word, or a better way to say something, she tells me. I’ve learned to value all kinds of criticism, because I know it makes me a better person and a better writer.
10. If you want to go places, follow a good leader. Most of the things Carole has done, I hope to do. So I follow her example. She has taught me to say yes more than I say no. She has taught me how to be a better writer and how not to use passive voice. She has shown me how to be a good leader, a good listener, a good teacher and a good friend.
11. If you want something, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Every time Mark MacKay’s wife, Jan, posted one of his drawings on Facebook, I’d dream about him doing the illustrations for my book. This went on for a couple of years! Until one day, I decided to ask him. I figured, if God wanted us to do this book, Mark would say yes.
I messaged Jan, who asked Mark. A few days later, Mark emailed me the first illustration —a little boy with outstretched arms, who looked exactly the way I had hoped he would look. It was perfect. We published “God Made That for Me!” in December 2018.
I learned this lesson well! I’m working on my second picture book with Susie Rogers, a high school senior who lives in Vancouver, Wash. “The Color of Us” will be released soon.
12. Everybody needs at least one fan. While searching for a publisher, I came across something quite interesting. An author is expected to have 1,000 fans. But not just regular fans — they must be true fans. That means authors need 1,000 people who will buy anything and everything they publish.
I don’t have a thousand fans. But I know I have one. She’s been my best friend for many years. There’s only one thing I cannot trust her to do, and that’s critique my writing. I already know what she’d say, “It’s perfect, just the way it is.” When my book was released, she bought six. When I tell her I feel funny about promoting my writing, she says, “Kath, you have to tell people about it! You have to get it out there.” She reads everything I write, and she encourages me to keep writing. And most important of all, she prays for me every day.
Writers might need a thousand fans to sell a lot of books. But, to get through the ups and downs of the writing life, we really only need one true fan.
• KATHY HARDEE, of Mendota and formerly of Ottawa, is a former Write Team member who recently published the picture book "God Made That for Me!" in collaboration with Utica artist Mark MacKay. To contact Hardee, email Assistant Editor Julie Barichello at firstname.lastname@example.org.