I started my writing career with both a major advantage as well as a serious handicap. I grew up in the Netherlands while it was under Nazi occupation. Television and You-Tube didn’t exist, and enemy soldiers had confiscated all radios. This meant that as a child I could read stories without distraction. Since Dutch is written phonetically, I easily learned to read while very young. I can’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t know how to read. So by the time I was twelve years old and my family emigrated to Canada, I had read hundreds of books, including classics translated into Dutch by such authors as, Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, and Daniel Defoe. My head was filled with stories, both ones I read, and those I made up. What an advantage!
The handicap was that when it came to writing, the educational system in the Netherlands focused not on the art of story telling, but only on the skill of cursive handwriting. Since I suffered from poor hand-eye coordination, I could never satisfy my teachers, even though they forced me to practice for hours at a time as homework—an odious task I loathed with all my young heart.
Our first house in Canada was an old farmhouse that hadn’t been lived in for some years. Discarded under my cot in the attic I found a handwritten sheet of paper. I didn’t know much English yet, having been in Canada only a few months, but I figured out that it was written by a girl as a grade six homework assignment.
I was astonished to see that it was about fingernails! She explained why we have fingernails, and how awful it would be if we didn’t have them. I was fascinated. The only thing I had ever heard about that subject was, “Stop biting your fingernails!” shouted at me by my parents and teachers. After a few more months, I started reading the newspaper, especially the columnists who wrote in an interesting way about all sorts of topics. “Someday,” I promised myself, “I, too, will write, not just stories, but my thoughts and ideas.”
By the time I was thirteen, I appreciated good writing and read at least one book a week in English. My mind was filled with story plots, character descriptions, conversations and arguments. That part of my writer’s apprenticeship was well on the way.
I remember a grade nine English class where we were given half an hour to write a personal letter. As long as my writing was legible the teachers didn’t care how I shaped each letter. I felt liberated to focus on writing the right words without worrying about their shape. I finished my letter in ten minutes, then opened a book and read while the rest of the class frowned at their paper, their pencils bobbing up and down as they wrote, erased, and wrote again. The next day the teacher pinned my letter to the bulletin board as an example of what a good creative letter should look like. It was the first time in my life that a teacher liked what I had written!
The next turning point was learning to touch type in high school and in college buying a portable typewriter. I also started keeping a daily diary of events, thoughts, and feelings which I kept up with increasing faithfulness over the next six decades.
As a young pastor, I approached the local newspaper editor, and offered to write a regular column. He accepted. More encouragement! Years later, as a missionary, I wrote stories for our quarterly illustrated newsletters, sometimes wondering if anyone read those six pages. A note from a friend encouraged me more than she realized.
“Coming into the house with the groceries I saw your newsletter in our mailbox. I intended to open and just glance at it, but got started reading, standing by the kitchen counter. Suddenly I noticed something milky dripping off the counter onto the floor. I’d been reading so long the brick of ice cream was starting to melt.”
I took it as a graduation from my apprenticeship training.
Jack Popjes, affectionately known as the 'Word Man' has at least 27 published books. To quote Jack, "That is if I count the 750-pge Bible translation I did in the Canela language, the learn to read booklets, the linguistic descriptions, and orthography book in Portuguese. These were all published by either Wycliffe Brazil or the government, or the Bible Society. I self-published two children’s books for my kids and grandkids, and self published two ebooks. Wycliffe also published the three printed books I still sell at speaking engagements. So I guess it’s okay to call myself a writer."
Yes, Jack, I think it is safe to say so!
Check out his website for more great stories.