Wisdom From My Dad

One of God’s greatest blessings to me was to give me a wise, intelligent, hilarious man of integrity as my dad.  So, in honor of Father’s Day, I thought I’d tell you a bit about him.

My dad is one of the smartest people I know, though, due to boredom, his grades in school did not reflect this. He filled the time with pranks and mischief, which he (sort of) outgrew thanks to the influence of my wonderful mother. After a stint in the US Air Force and a long career in the aviation industry, he is now enjoying retirement. Fortunately for all of us, they only live a few minutes away, so he is able to be an integral part of the Wenlets’ everyday lives as well.

My dad is a lover of books and music, a decided introvert, and the DIY champion of the known universe. He loves anything mechanical, a good NASCAR race, goosebery pie, and a strong cup of coffee. There is nothing he doesn’t want to learn, especially about nature or history, and there is very little he can’t fix.

My dad is the one who introduced me to Dave Barry. The one who took off work to be at every school event he possibly could, because he wanted us to know that we were his priority. The one who modeled for me what I should look for in a husband and father for my kids.

Through the years, he’s impressed several things upon me. Here are three of them, and how I’ve applied them to my writing.

1. "You can learn from good examples and bad examples."

We’re often told to analyze our favorite books. Why do we love them so much? What specific thing does the author do to reach through the page and grab our hearts? How can we do this in our own work?

But I’ve found that the opposite is also true. When I find a book with which I have trouble connecting, I analyze that, too. What specific characteristics about the book don’t work for me? Is it something to do with craft? With characterization? With pacing? Analyzing what doesn’t work about a book can often be just as instructive as analyzing what does work.

2.  "There are only two good places to be stationed: where you’ve been, and where you’re going."

This is a variation of the old “grass is always greener” adage. The past becomes rosy with nostalgia, and the future gleams golden with possibility, but typically where you are always seems gray and drab. I’ve found this to be true on my writing journey. I can look back fondly on the past, when I was just discovering writing, when I did it completely for fun without the pressures of a platform, of trying for publication. When I was totally ignorant of what POV and WIP stood for, when I didn’t know what a literary agent even was or that they needed to be queried. When ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘passive voice’ were completely meaningless concepts.

Similarly, the future seems bright. Sometimes I allow myself to daydream about what my life might look like if I were a multi-published, best-selling, award-winning, spiritually impactful author. Of course, even if that actually happens (a rather large ‘if,’), there’s no way my life will look like the rosy picture my imagination paints. The future will have flaws, I just have no way of knowing what they are yet.

But here in the present,  I can see clearly all the warts and bumps in the road. The disappointments, the rejections, the daily frustration of never having enough time to do all the writing, reading, and studying I want to do. If only I could go back! If only I could move forward! This is the trap all of us fall into if we’re not careful. Instead, I pray to be content where I am, to learn the lessons God has for me, and to see His hand at work even when circumstances are frustrating.

3. "We can do that!"

My mother has been tracing our family history for about forty years now. (Some of that family history has woven its way into my WIP, in fact!) Back in the days before everything was online, the only way to conduct research was to go to the places where one’s ancestors had lived. So while everyone else in my class growing up would vacation somewhere cool like Hawaii or New York City, my vacation destinations were places like Bean Blossom, Indiana. (Yes, that is a real place. Ask me how I know!). Many of my childhood vacation memories consist of my brother and me camped out in some dusty, un-air conditioned library in Podunkville, USA, with a pile of Calvin and Hobbes books, trying to quiet the growls of our neglected stomachs, because sometimes, in her frenzy, my mother would completely forget about the Need for Lunch.

It was on these vacations that my father’s optimism would surface. My mother would hatch some crazy plan, usually involving a library, a courthouse, and/or cemetery near the aforementioned Podunkville, with a quick jaunt over to Nowhere County because her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s first cousin twice removed is buried there, and besides, it’s only this far on the map.

My dad would look at her, smile, and say, “We can do that.”

And we always could.

This spirit of optimism has stayed with me through the years, and especially as I’ve launched into this whole writing thing. It’s caused me to remember that, rather than focus on the odds, I need to keep my eyes on the One who makes all things possible. The one who gives us the strength to do anything and everything He has called us to do. Since I believe God has called me and gifted me as a writer, I know that whatever He has for me, I will be able to do it. Not in my strength, but in His.

I love you, Dad! Thanks for all you have taught me in the past, and for all you continue to teach me in the present. I am beyond grateful to be your daughter.

 

Use Your Words

Any of us who have survived the toddler phase with our little darlings have undoubtedly told those darlings, more times than we care to count, to “use your words.” Sometimes I still have to say this to mine, despite the fact that all three of them have long since graduated from toddlerhood. If I’m feeling especially obnoxious, I sing the Daniel Tiger song. Any of you with kids the same ages as mine can sing along with me. “Use your wo-o-o-ords, use your words!” (You will now have that song stuck in your head the rest of the day. You’re welcome).

 

For those of us who are called to be Christian writers, this is the essence of that calling: to use our words. Use them to glorify God and give hope to those mired in a messy world. Use them to point the way to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ Himself. Use them to uplift. Inspire. Encourage. Leave everyone who reads your writing slightly better for having read it.

But what if you’re not yet published? What if your words are stuck in the slush pile, or tied up in committee, or still on your hard drive, not yet released even to your critique partners? What then?

The cool thing about God is that this calling doesn’t require a published novel, an impressive platform, or a public ministry. Any time we write anything that anyone else sees, we can use our words to live out our mission. Here are just a few examples:

1. Do you have a Facebook page? A Twitter account? A blog? Whether these are slick, polished, professional pages or personal ones where you mainly talk about your kids’ shenanigans (not that I would know anything about this, ahem ahem), if you’re on social media, you have a spot where your words can be seen by however many friends or followers you have. Use this to your advantage! Rather than getting mired in the latest mommy war or political controversy, use your words on social media to encourage whoever reads them. Come alongside your friends and reassure them that they’re not alone.

My early years of motherhood were, to put it mildly, difficult. My oldest (Yakko, for purposes of this blog) was colicky as a baby, and he’d just barely grown out of this when I learned I was unexpectedly pregnant again with his little brother, Wakko. In addition, Wakko was born with cleft palate, which meant that feeding him, in any form, was a messy and time-consuming proposition for the first year of his life. That part of my life was without a doubt the most difficult time I’ve had so far. But having gone through that, I am blessed to be able to encourage young moms I know on social media who are where I was. By using my words, I am able to reassure them that this, too, shall pass, and that life is about to get a whole lot better.

2. ‘Tis the season for end-of-year teacher gifts, at least in these parts. Many of the other moms will painstakingly produce clever, hand-crafted gifts that would do Pinterest proud. Other moms will let their money do the talking. Please know that I am in no way criticizing these moms! I envied them, to be quite honest…until I realized that I, too, have something to offer. Because God has given me the gift of writing, I can put into words exactly how much I appreciate these teachers, and how grateful I am for their influence in my children’s lives.
 

3. Do you text? I’m old enough to remember when texting was clunky, awkward, and time-consuming; when you had to press the phone keys a specific number of times to get the letter you wanted. Using the phone to actually talk was so much easier. But now, with keypads and all the other technological advances, it is an admittedly rare thing for me to use my phone as an actual phone. As an introvert, I am more than okay with this. Texting and emailing gives me time to think about my responses and craft them into something clever. (It also helps me avoid putting my foot in my mouth when I speak without thinking, which is something I am sadly prone to do).

These are just a few of the ways we can live out our calling and use our words, without ever hitting the bestseller list or even having a buy link for our book yet.  In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that not a single word that goes out from His mouth will return to Him empty, “…but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” While the verse refers to God’s own words, I believe that He won’t waste a single word we offer for His glory and the good of His people, either. Whether it’s an email, text, Tweet, Facebook post, greeting card, or simply a word of encouragement to a stranger on the street, we can use the gift God has given us, even if that manuscript never sees the shelves of a store.

How can you use your words today?

The Apostle Paul, Cool Runnings, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders

I have a four-year-old daughter, and like many other four-year-old daughters, she is obsessed with “My Little Pony.” While I rarely sit and watch an episode with her (her TV time is my Responsibility Champion time), the episodes I have seen in full are quickly making me a fan. The writing is great, the characters are superb, and there’s a ton of truth woven into these twenty-three minute episodes.

In the mythical land of Equestria, each pony has what’s called a cutie mark: a special symbol on their rear flank that signifies their special talent. The thing that makes that pony unique. The gift they’ve been given, and which they will use to better the community. To put an evangelical spin on it, it’s their “calling.” To put a Blues Brothers spin on it, it’s their “mission from God.”

Ponies receive their cutie marks somewhere during adolescence, though the timing is different for each pony. Young ponies who have received their marks sometimes tease the ones who haven’t by calling them “blank flanks.” Receiving a cutie mark is a rite of passage in Ponyville. What’s more, it’s a symbol of a pony’s identity.

Throughout the series, three young ponies—Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo—have sought after their special talents so they, too, can receive their cutie marks. So dedicated are they to their quest that they’ve banded together as the Cutie Mark Crusaders. For years, these three ponies have been watching. Wondering. Waiting for that magical moment when their flanks are no longer blank.

Finally, in an episode from last season, the little ponies take a break from searching for their special talents, and in the process, help several other ponies find theirs. They’re so fulfilled, so rewarded by taking their focus off themselves and putting it elsewhere that they gleefully announce that they don’t care if they ever get their cutie marks. They’re having so much fun hanging out and helping others that they no longer need the validation.

And then, because this is a kids’ cartoon, all three ponies finally, finally get their cutie marks. Only in total surrender, in letting go of the thing that has so consumed them, only then do they finally receive it. Their special talent is, in fact, helping others find their calling.

There’s so much truth in this episode it’s almost painful. No matter what we want, no matter how wonderful a thing it is, wanting it, straining for it, striving for it, can choke the life out of us if we’re not careful. If we’re focused on finding a spouse, we get jealous every time a friend announces her engagement. If our heart’s desire is to have a baby, it’s painful every time someone else gets pregnant.

If what we want, more than anything, is to be a published author, then it becomes very difficult to celebrate when someone else’s novel debuts.

When our focus narrows and crowds out everything but that One Thing we want so badly, it costs us our joy. We become anxious. Insecure. Fretful. Frightened. Sometimes even downright nasty. (I’m thinking of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, here, with his preeccccciiiooouuusssss. Guys, don’t be Gollum).

These things we want may not be bad. In fact, most of the time they’re not. Marriage, a family, a career, an opportunity to leverage the gifts God has given us for His kingdom…all of those are good things. It isn’t wrong to want them. But when we get tunnel vision, when we put blinders on and see only the object of our desire, we commit idolatry. That thing we want, no matter how worthy, has pushed God off the throne of our hearts.

In the movie Cool Runnings, the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team says this: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing…but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” If we’re not content with what God has given us right now, if we’re not content, satisfied, enough, without the thing we so desperately want, then we will never be enough with it.

So how can we be enough? How can we let go and live in peace, even without the thing our heart so desperately wants?

God gives us the answer through the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13. This is a famous verse, and one of my favorites, but I think we’re guilty of misinterpreting it. The pop-Christianity translation is, “I can reach my goals, follow my dreams, and overcome all odds, through Christ who strengthens me.”

While it is indeed true that God equips His children to do whatever He has called them to do, no matter how stacked the odds may be, that’s not really what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about contentment. Here’s the verse in context:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13)

Here it is, paraphrased for writers:

 “I know what is is to be unpublished, and I know what it is to be a bestseller. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether swimming in five-star reviews or receiving yet another rejection, whether rolling in a great book contract or still querying agents. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

These dreams you have, these things you want, these deep desires of your heart…chances are very good that God put them there. But you must give them back to Him. Put them in His hands. Don’t allow them to become weeds, choking out the beautiful flowers in your garden. Don’t let them steal your joy and contentment. Rest in the fact that God is enough.

Cutie mark or no, He will always be enough.