A different version of this post appeared In InScribe’s FellowScript, Winter 2020
In the book, More Than Words, James Calvin Schaap says that each writer locates a moment or series of moments in his or her life when some literary master seemed to be there for them - counseling, guiding, edifying. For most, the work of these masters was the source of their own literary endeavors and continues today. Philip Yancey called these inspiring writers “shadow mentors.” His own shadow mentors included CS Lewis, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
On the Birth of My Writing Vision
Catherine Marshall was the writer
who ignited both my spiritual life and writing. Her books, including Beyond
Ourselves, Something More, and her first novel, Christy, fed into my starved
spirit a deeper intimacy with Jesus and God’s power. Her discussion on themes such
as inner healing, guidance, and the work of the Holy Spirit, challenged me to
believe God in ways I had never before imagined.
At the same time, Marshall’s writing inspired me as she told powerful stories of people and their faith, and I studied how she integrated story with God’s action. I wanted to write just like she did.
On Dreaming of My Own Projects
While I sporadically published some devotionals and professional articles in my early years, my dream projects began as I wrote about my experiences teaching immigrants. More ideas gradually came to mind. However, even today they haven’t come together as books.
Madeleine L’Engle came to my rescue, as she described her future books with the “cooking pot” metaphor.
“When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove….(A)n idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping in of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it.”[i]
I continue to drop finished and unfinished pieces into my cooking pot, and someday I hope to compile my ideas into a book…
On Apprenticing: Shaping My Craft
Many shadow mentors have taught me strategies to enrich my work, but two writers stand out. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, emphasized the importance of concrete details, unity, and simplicity. In Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark examined great writing and provided exercises to hone my craft: economy, originality, organization, and useful habits and routines for productive writing.
Currently, an interesting shadow mentor whispers into my ear as I write each article: “The work will teach you how to do it.” This is the Estonian proverb’s way of saying that God will direct me at each phase of writing. Each work-in-progress is unique, and involves many choices and discoveries: a structure, a focus, drafts, revision, and more. It is my guide to make the work the best it can be.
On Needing Encouragement
There were times I was discouraged or doubted whether I should spend so much effort in writing. Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write, assured me as a gentle grandmother would. “The creative power and imagination is in everyone,” she wrote. “…you are talented and you are original,” and “no writing is a waste of time…With every sentence you write, you have learned something…It has stretched your understanding.”[ii] I also found strength as she acknowledged that this creative power is the Holy Spirit.
On the Spirit’s Anointing
And that leads me to my most important mentor: the Holy Spirit Himself. In The Creative Call, Janice Elsheimer challenged me to make my art a pathway to a deeper relationship with God. “God has given us our talents,” she wrote, “and the Holy Spirit, when called on, will breathe his life into us so that we will know what to do with those talents.”[iii] The Spirit promises to give us words and wisdom (Luke 21:15). As God empowers us, we become what Madeleine L’Engle called “co-creators with God” in communicating to readers what their spirits are aching to know about God, their purpose in life, and their relationship to Jesus.
Our shadow mentors are very personal and individual. Tell us about yours.
How have they helped form you as a writer?
How have they given you insight and encouragement on your writer’s journey?
What deep personal changes was/is God working in you through these writers?
For further reading:
Shirley Tye was an additional inspiration for this month’s theme. In a blog post last year, she wrote: “It’s wonderful to hear about writers’ creative work journeys; their ideas, struggles, and successes…Oh, how I was inspired!” You can read her post here.
[i]Madeleine L’Engle. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art. New York: Convergent Books. 1980, 1998, 2001. Pp. 171-172.
[ii] Brenda Ueland. If You Want to Write. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press. 1938, 1987. Pp. 4, 14.
[iii] Janice Elsheimer The Creative Call. Colorado Springs, CO. Waterbrook Press. 2001. P. 72.