Words from my heart
Sometimes, I forget why I want to write. Often, I’m too afraid to write—do I really want to let you see the truth of me? It’s easier, safer to hide. But something inside me says WRITE. Why? An assignment I wrote for Composition Theory and Writing (Spring 2013) answers that question. Our assignment was to write a Composition Autobiography, a reflection of how we had developed as writers. I needed this reminder today.
Crashing Waves and Resting Spots
Oh, to be a writer! How lovely to be sipping a steamy latte in a quaint little seaside cafe, pen flowing freely on crisp, clean journal pages. So many stories to tell, so many life-changing epiphanies to share, all expressed effortlessly through beautifully written prose. Oh, to be a writer! But wait. Something smells fishy about this seaside scenario. Stories and epiphanies expressed effortlessly? I don’t think so. I used to think so, but not anymore.
My dreamy, romantic notion of being a writer recently came crashing in like a frothy wave on the Pacific Ocean shore. Writing is hard! So why do I want to be a writer? That answer is simple . . . to help transform lives through the power of words. I have been transformed because brave people have shared their words, their stories of perseverance, triumph, and hope. Courageous voices have encouraged me through my darkest days, and now something deep inside me burns to pass on this gift of encouragement. Ironically, I can’t say that I love to write. But one thing is clear. My passion to encourage—“to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope”—through words grows stronger every day (merriam-webster.com).
To better understand how my passion developed, I decided to do a little investigating. To begin, I had to rummage through my garage, climb over a bag of dirty soccer balls, and unearth a plastic file box stuffed with assignments from my kindergarten through high school years (thanks for saving my stuff, mom!). I dusted off the lid and carried my treasure chest into the house. The first assignment I pulled out was on familiar brown grade-school paper and had uppercase and lowercase Ws written in pencil, line after line—such fond memories. I loved practicing the alphabet, eager to make my teacher proud of my neat penmanship. Gradually, ABCs grew into words, words into sentences, and sentences into stories.
Moving along through my files, I found a short story I wrote in fourth grade. It was about a turtle (story typed exactly as written):
Once upon a time there was a very slow turtel. He crawled inside his house and sat at the table. Suddenly he heard a friendly noise at six o’clock. Every week on Wednesday he heard that friendly sound. When he saw the thing that made the queer sound he was surprised! VERY SURPRISED! There was a miniture two headed Cyclops. The Cyclops wasn’t much bigger than the turtle. The Cyclops was very nice. So the turtel asked him to dinner.
This sweet little story remains a favorite of mine and reminds me that I enjoyed writing during my elementary years. It also reminds me that I loved to read. I have a distinct memory of sitting cross-legged in the library’s biography aisle, entranced by the lives of adventurous women. Annie Oakley and Lotta Crabtree were my first heroines. Reading their stories began my love affair with biographies. Unfortunately, writing did not stay on my “favorites” list.
A downhill slide with my English grades began in Junior High. I remember my 7th grade teacher only because she talked about football all the time, and my 8th grade teacher because she looked like she belonged on the Adams Family TV show. My high school report cards prove that language arts was not a priority. If I remember correctly, boys were to blame. I much preferred chatting with Tom, Greg, and Keith. My As and Bs nosedived into Cs and Ds. A love of writing did not look promising. Fortunately, a glimmer of hope would soon appear.
Mr. Lawrence—good ol’ Mr. Lawrence—introduced me to poetry writing during seventh period Lit class my sophomore year at Immanuel High school. Poetry provided a way for me to share my deeper thoughts and feelings. Were my poems sappy? Sure, but something awakened in me as I started expressing myself, and I began to ask questions.
So many people. What do they feel? What do they think?
Are they like me? Do they have the same feelings as I?
If only I could find out.
But I keep myself in my own little world.
Dreams I have, thoughts of mine
They belong to me, me alone.
How will I ever know what’s behind those eyes?
There’s so many people.
This may not have been the best written poem, but the questions revealed a concern for my world and my place in it. According to Wayne C. Booth’s article, The Rhetorical Stance, students need to ask questions that they feel are worth answering in order to have “rhetorical purpose” (167). In retrospect, I believe these questions helped set a foundation of rhetorical purpose in my life—to encourage others.
During this same period of time, I discovered a little book called hi! i’m ann: one girl’s witness by Ann Kiemel. The book had only sixty-three pages, used only lowercase letters, and had very few words per page. But those words had power. Ann’s simple, childlike voice gripped my heart! I wanted to write like her, be bold like her.
i’m a young girl
with a simple, young heart
in the middle of a . . . very . . .
very . . . big . . . world.
but i’m going to change my world.
you’ll see . . . because
i have a giant of a God inside me
and i’m not scared (5-6).
Ann’s words were the first to spark my passion for transforming lives through writing, yet it would be years before those sparks were fanned. Instead, marriage and motherhood took center stage in my life.
The roles of wife and mom brought new, exciting experiences. However, with the joy came pain. I laughed often, and cried often, too. I struggled in the day-to-day responsibilities of being a domestic engineer. How was I going to survive? In desperation I turned to countless Christian authors for help, devouring their every word. Stormie Omartian inspired me to be a praying wife through her book The Power of a Praying Wife. Tricia McCary Rhodes’s book Sacred Chaos challenged me to practice spiritual disciplines, reassuring me that I could find sacred moments in the midst of chaos. In A Mother’s Time, Elise Arndt lovingly reminded me that, “in our quest for becoming more disciplined, we must seek God above all else” (60).
Yes, above all else, I wanted to seek God. I knew it was his voice encouraging me through these authors. He had given their authentic, honest voices the power to transform my heart and mind. And it was their voices that fanned the flame within me to write, and to pass on the gift of encouragement.
With renewed purpose, I signed up for an eight week writing course at Clovis Adult School. We reviewed basic writing skills, vocabulary, and the importance of the five Ws. This class gave me just enough courage to enter the 1991 Fresno Bee Mother’s Day Essay Contest. I had joked with my mom that I would win the grand prize for her, a shopping spree at Macy’s and a makeover. Fortunately, it was no joke when Bonnie Hearn Hill, a local author and newspaper editor called to tell me I had won! I will never forget what she said: “There were almost 200 entries and yours rose to the top.” What a thrilling surprise! And how special to know that I was able to honor my mom in this way.
Dear Mom, From the very beginning, your hands were there to change my dirty diapers, feed me tapioca pudding, dress me in new Easter outfits and comb my often too-short hair. Tears were also gently wiped away, tears caused from minor bumps and tumbles and from a few broken hearts (you always said I had too many boyfriends).
It felt good, really good to have someone with writing credibility affirm that I could write. This motivated me to keep learning.
In 1994 I audited Written Communication at Fresno Pacific College. The instructor, Rhoda Janzen, marked up my papers quite nicely with her red pen to point out my many past perfect tense errors and misplaced modifiers. No problem. I was there to learn, and I found her comments constructive and encouraging. I especially appreciated her comment on one of my papers: “You’ve a writing advantage in that your experience and practice has resulted in a distinct voice—clear and fresh and mild, it gets directly at your meaning and uses simple syntax.”
The positive feedback I had received inspired me, and during the next few years, I dabbled in writing short stories, songs, poetry, and newsletters. I even produced a nine-chapter book called Sapo based on my husband’s life growing up in Mexico. Sadly, Sapo and my other creations got tucked away, hidden in a monstrous black file cabinet that looks more like a coffin than a treasure chest. The busyness of life silenced my voice. But not God’s. He kept whispering, Laura Beth, write . . . your words matter.
A turning point in my writing journey occurred in the spring of 2012. After reading and loving Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir written by Susan E. Issacs, I learned that she would be speaking at a conference called the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. God whispered again, this time saying, Go! So off I went, 2400 miles away and experienced the world of writing at a whole new level. God opened my eyes and ears to the challenges of being a writer. With great wisdom, he was the one who had allowed my dreamy notion of being a writer to crash and lovingly replaced it with a deeper understanding of words. In Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s presentation, based on her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, she so gracefully explained:
So our task as stewards of the word begins and ends in love. Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal. And it means using words as instruments of love (23).
And in the final session, Paula Huston confirmed that writing is hard work, but that if a person believes God is calling them to write, then “with conviction, you need to have faith in that calling.” With these words in mind, I boarded the plane home to Fresno, and prayerfully contemplated my response to God’s call.
Several months after my trip to Grand Rapids, I made a big change. In faith, I stepped out of full-time employment and into the rigorous world of academia. I have declared myself an English major at Fresno Pacific University! Within the first month of Com 345, I have learned that the writing process is in fact, quite complex and paradoxical. However, Mike Rose assures us that students can learn strategies that will enhance instead of impede the writing process (149) and that there is treatment for writer’s block (160). What a relief! But by far, the article that has had the most profound impact on me is Peter Elbow’s Freewriting. Elbow’s voice—the power of his words—brought me to tears . . . IN class, ON the first day!
The habit of compulsive, premature editing doesn’t just make writing hard. It also makes writing dead. Your voice is damped out by all the interruptions, changes, and hesitations between the consciousness and the page. In your natural way of producing words there is a sound, a texture, a rhythm—a voice—which is the main source of power in your writing. I don’t know how it works, but this voice is the force that will make a reader listen to you, the energy that drives the meanings through his thick skull. Maybe you don’t like your voice; maybe people have made fun of it. But it’s the only voice you’ve got. It’s your only source of power. You better get back into it, no matter what you think of it. If you keep writing in it, it may change into something you like better. But if you abandon it, you’ll likely never have a voice and never be heard. (Elbow 11, emphasis added)
No, I do not want my voice to be damped out. I want to be heard, so let the threatening waves of compulsive, premature editing crash, just like my dreamy notions! The harder the better! A new wave is swelling within me, a wave filled with sound, texture, and rhythm. And the wave—my voice—is growing stronger every day along with my passion to encourage. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say that I love to write, but I can say that I love words!
In Katie Funk Wiebe’s autobiography You Never Gave Me a Name, she writes, “It is a wonderful privilege to have been given the gift of words and ideas and the opportunity to send them out to find a resting spot in someone’s life” (225). I pray that my words, sent out in love, will find a resting spot in someone’s life. And who knows? Maybe that someone will be sipping a steamy latte in a quaint little seaside cafe while reading my words, and maybe that someone will be encouraged—transformed even—because I chose not to abandon my voice. What a privilege that would be. Oh, to be a writer!
Lord, raise me to my feet to spread the news
that you love . . . and give . . . and care
that you desire to hold each one of us
in arms that are warm
arms that ache to have us close to your heart
Lord, help me stand for you
even if it means just me
one woman standing
with hands lifted high in uninhibited celebration
so that you may receive honor and glory and praise
forever and ever
(excerpt from One Woman Standing, Laura Beth Ramirez © 1994)