I'm frequently asked,“What jump started your writing career?” I'll title my answer:
IN THE SHADOW OF PROFESSOR TIFFANY
The year was 1952 and at age 27 I had just returned by ship to the U.S. exhausted from missionary work in tropical Singapore and Hong Kong. I had a five month old baby and two toddlers in tow—our oldest was just over three. I traveled alone since my husband Ted remained overseas to complete a final year of seminary teaching.
As a young mom with no spare time for anything personal beyond my parental responsibilities, I nevertheless began to sense that it was God’s time to move forward in my desire to write more seriously. From childhood I rather clandestinely wrote poems and stories, kept a journal, and was a voracious reader dreaming that some day I would like to be a writer. However, I had no formal training in the writing craft.
Upon entering Wheaton College in 1943 I was disappointed that no Communications major was offered. That seems incredible now, given the prominent place it has in today's Wheaton curriculum. I was an Anthropology major but with an elective to fill I signed up for the only class in writing that I saw listed—a one semester class in “Creative Writing.” It was taught by a stately, energetic, buxom, silver-haired professor, Mrs. Tiffany.
The only thing I remember about the class was that she assigned us to try writing in various genre and then spent an inordinate amount of time teaching us to write proper essays. How boring and irrelevant, I thought! Essays were from another century and not for our modern age. Little did I realize back in 1945 that my brief exposure to creative writing and Professor Tiffany's insistence on perfection in syntax would be the tiny mustard seed from which would grow the next seven decades of my writing life.
How could I begin to hone my skills for writing while juggling baby bottles and diaper changes? In those early years we didn’t have an abundance of Christian writers’ conferences, how-to books, Christian market guides, recordings, or videos. Certainly no computers or online internet instruction. More academic training was out of the question given my circumstances. My old Underwood manual typewriter and I were on our own. So I borrowed stacks of books from the public library and taught myself the writing craft by the seat of my pants between child care duties. I joined the local Iowa chapter of AAUW. There we mercilessly critiqued each other's writing—and some of us survived to write again and better.
I recalled Professor Tiffany's idea of exploring which writing style suited me best. So I determined to try writing seriously in every genre until I succeeded in having one manuscript accepted by a publisher in each category. It seemed like an impossible dream, but after enough rejection slips to paper a wall, I did just that. Most magazines or publications didn't pay anything, but my byline was there! I concluded that the newsy, hurried aspect of journalism didn’t appeal to me, but I liked the reflective nature of creative writing, poetry, and the research process for nonfiction. Of one thing I was certain: I would never be able to write a book. The discipline and length of time involved in that process would be too demanding.
(Update: I have just seen my 37th book roll off the press including more than a dozen foreign language editions of some of my titles and a growing number of my ebooks are available. Never say never!)
I continued freelancing while raising a family of four sons while working full time editing publications with the campus ministry among Chinese university students which my husband and I co-founded. I slipped into book writing quite by accident through opportunities for “ghost writing” for other people who had something significant to say but were not writers. Success as a “friendly ghost” led to writing my own books: historical and missionary biographies, my husband's biography and my own heritage saga with several spiritual autobiographical sequels, anthologies of my free-verse poetry, contemporized classic works, books on mission philosophy, and specialized target readership devotional books. Teaching workshops at Christian writers' conferences led to publishing my books on the craft and ministry of writing.
My books related to China are based on a lifetime of ministry experiences among Chinese people both on North American university campuses and during my14 trips to The People’s Republic of China as tour escort and independent travel with my late husband listening to the stories of courageous underground Christians and churches there.
In recent years many of my books focus on what God is teaching me through the adversities of life, among them my lung cancer surgery and widowhood. Such struggles are not to be wasted but they are an opportunity from God to help readers who encounter similar experiences. Now that I am “calendar challenged,” my books reflect the issues one faces in vintage years. For all of the books I have published, the mustard seed basics about writing and perfection in syntax and wordsmithing that I learned from Professor Tiffany's brief writing class have been my foundation. After all, each book is simply made up of short topics or essays which, when accumulated, morph into chapters.
I am an ardent blogger with many faithful followers. There too I write under Professor Tiffany's shadow—each blog post is essentially what a previous generation would have called an essay.
Most of my earlier books were published through traditional royalty publishers. When I became more prolific in my writing, the submit-to-a-publisher-and-wait-endlessly cycle seemed too slow and burdensome. Speaking in churches and conferences was increasing my visibility and my web site was extending to new horizons. At the same time, my potential for marketing was developing through producing and broadcasting my daily radio program on the Christian station of which I am president. Even there I benefited from Professor Tiffany's essay writing class—each short program I produced was essentially an audio-essay.
Based on those pluses, my eldest son Rick and I established Golden Morning Publishing primarily as an umbrella for my books, although we have published a number of books for others which I have ghost written or edited. We control the entire process from writing through seemingly endless proofreading, ultimately producing camera-ready copy or electronic transmission which we send to a top notch press. I work with graphic artists to design full color covers to follow the themes of my books.
I'm usually writing more than one book at a time so when one book is on the press, I'm already excited about working on the next one. Professor Tiffany's encouragement not to limit my creative writing to one genre has enabled me to write in multiple directions, as God leads. After a lifetime as primarily a non-fiction writer, I'm dipping into fantasy-fiction with my forthcoming book Fables of God's Kingdom for Grown Ups, which will be published first in an electronic version. I think Professor Tiffany would be pleased that I'm still spreading my wings to attempt new genre. In fact, I just might dedicate the book to my long ago, silver-haired writing mentor! But I'm not sure she would remember me from the back row of her class. I was the one whom she consistently graded no higher than C+ for my efforts! I was definitely not the one voted "Most likely to succeed" in her class!
I find creative writing exciting and joyful. Nevertheless, it demands serious commitment and large, continual doses of self-discipline. The finished manuscript doesn’t drop from heaven nor is it dictated word for word by the Holy Spirit. For the writer who is a Christian his work may contain insights of truth, but of course is not “revelation” in the sense that Scripture is inspired. It requires long, lonely hours of writing and rewriting, constantly improving one's craft, if God is to be glorified with the writing gift He has given.
That's what it's all about, isn't it?
Adapted and updated from an article “Meet the Pro in Cross-genre Writing” originally published in the Cross and Quill, The Christian Writers Newsletter.