"Have you ever picked up a book on writing, exhilarated
to discover that the author has written just what you need to
stimulate and encourage you? Philip Yancey called these
writing masters "shadow mentors" who urge us to improve our
writing style, our thinking, and our vision."
As writers, we know just how often we need encouragement to bolster our crumbling nerve. Especially in those early days when we are still so unsure of ourselves, unsure of our talent—wondering if we even have any—and whether we indeed have a call on our lives and, therefore, a right to write. And, yes, Sandi, how often I have picked up a book to discover the perfect something I needed to stimulate and encourage me. Here, in this longish blog post, I have gathered six authors who have been writing mentors to me. I want to give a glimpse of how the writings of these good people have encouraged and inspired me, albeit in the shadow of a bookshelf, throughout my writing journey. There are so many more I could include.
"Read all the good books you can..."
Long before I dreamed of being a writer, I read C.S. Lewis. I was drawn to this man's gentle approach to life. I was drawn to the fact that he lived in Oxford, was a scholar, a Christian believer, and an author. I read everything I could find of his work, including his volumes of published letters. My now vintage commonplace notebook is filled with words of wisdom from this man, including the advice he freely gave aspiring writers who wrote to him. One such word stood out for me: read all the good books you can. It was a seed planted and amazingly watered over the years by many other successful authors advising young writers to read, read, read. I embraced this advice wholeheartedly; my path was set.
"Don't be led away by those howls of realism. Remember—pine woods
are just as real as pigsties and a darn sight pleasanter to be in."
There are so many things I could share here about what I have learned from L.M. Montgomery. Looking back, she was a shining star—a mentor from afar—for most of my life. She taught me to appreciate the joy and beauty of the world around me, regardless of happy or unhappy circumstances. I shall always remember sitting with pen and paper in hand, trying to capture something of the twilight beauty of a long-ago summer evening. I had hoped to emulate Ms. Montgomery, for by then I was captivated with her ability to bring something of the beautiful to everything she wrote.
We live in an upside-down world where beauty and goodness are often forgotten, hidden behind misery and meanness, tragedy and trauma. Some people say, well that's life, that's the reality. Of course, we know sadness, cruelty and ugliness are real, but I have so often pondered why these should carry more weight than the reality of love and beauty and kindness. Mr. Carpenter, Emily's schoolteacher in one of the Emily novels by Ms Montgomery, entreated the aspiring authoress not to heed her critics but to press forward and continue to write from that place of beauty she saw in her own mind. He told Emily, "Don't be led away by those howls of realism. Remember—pine woods are just as real as pigsties and a darn sight pleasanter to be in."
The essence of those words became a touchstone. No matter what was going on in the world around me, Mr. Carpenter's wise words, through the pen of L.M. Montgomery, fixed my focus on how I wanted to write. You see, they matched those lines I love in Philippians: whatever is lovely and of good report, think (write) on these things.
"Today, in a world where we pride ourselves on our efficiency
and practicality, there is still precious time to cherish quality
and savor the splendor and charm of the more enduring things
in our lives—a return to loveliness, if you will."
THE EDITORS, VICTORIA, PREMIER ISSUE, 1987
I cannot write about shadow mentors and not mention, not so much an author, but rather an influence that has also overshadowed everything I have ever written: the original Victoria magazine under the direction of former editor Nancy Lindemeyer. From the premier issue in 1987, I knew my heart found what it had been longing for in my young life. Here was a magazine that spoke to the softer, gentler side of life. It celebrated the creativity of women who followed their dreams. It recognized the intrinsic value of and need for beauty in our lives.
Two lovely blog followers recently contacted me to say that my style of writing happily reminds them of the Victoria magazine. Seriously? Oh, my goodness! "Reading your blog this morning made me realize that you have become my gentle moments of Victoria magazine. I spent many cherished moments with Victoria magazine and have missed the peace and grace it brought. I'm grateful to have you in my life to take me back to those treasured memories." I am in awe and deep gratitude. In the early days of my writing, I had so longed to be able to make words sing beautifully—just like the women who wrote those lovely articles in the magazine—never ever dreaming I might one day find some measure of success. I am so grateful to the Lord for the privilege to follow my heart in this way.
My husband's aunt introduced me years ago to The Right to Write by Julia Cameron. A godsend. What a stroke of genius to have those words right in the title. You see, for whatever odd reason, I needed permission to write; I needed to know that I had a right to write. That it wasn’t just for folks who knew they were destined to write since they were five years old....being the late bloomer that I am. I loved Julia’s words of affirmation when she said that as humans, we all have the right to make art. We all have the right to write. And with those words ringing in my ear, I had the courage to step out into my destiny.
This book introduced me to Julia's personal writing tools, tools I found helpful in my early writing days: Morning Pages (three pages of stream of consciousness writing first thing every morning); Narrative Time Line (writing out the story of your life in five-year intervals, from birth to present); and Artist Dates (making dates with yourself as a way to devote time to your creative self, such as walking in nature or visiting an art supply store or museum—anything you find creative and enjoyable.)
"At last I understood that writing was this: an impulse to share
with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had."
I knew from the outset that Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want to Write was another godsend to me. It came into my life in 2008, around the same time I started blogging, and it was a book I would reach for over and over. Because Ms. Ueland was so confident in her belief that "everyone is talented, original and has something important to say", I felt compelled to believe her for myself.
Brenda Ueland realized writing was, for her, an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that she herself had experienced. She used a little story about Vincent Van Gogh to illustrate, and it resonated with me. As a young man in his early twenties, Van Gogh was
"in London studying to be a clergyman. He had no thought of being an artist at all. He sat in his cheap little room writing a letter to his younger brother in Holland, whom he loved very much. He looked out his window at a watery twilight, a thin lamp post, a star, and he said in his letter something like this: It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks. And then on his cheap ruled notepaper, he made the most beautiful, tender, little drawing of it."Like the artist himself, I yearned to share the beauty I experienced with those around me. While the artist took up his brush to express what he saw, I took up my pen. And so I write to inspire, to encourage, and give joy. All with the hopeful desire that my readers will look around, see the beauty, and learn to live with a measure of joy because they, too, have caught glimpses of heaven in unexpected places here on earth.
"If God has given you a dream, you'd better get cracking
because He wants you to use it. That's why He gives
them to us in the first place."
I cannot close without mentioning Jan Karon, creator of the beloved Mitford novels. Years ago, I found her photo online and downloaded it to my desktop. Whenever I turned on my computer, there she'd be smiling at me, this woman who dared to believe a dream God had given her.
Not only have I delighted in her novels, but I have taken courage from her own story of how she, at age 50, left a successful career in advertising and moved to a small town, so she could finally be a novelist. Not that I left a job to take up writing, not that I had any dream to write a novel, but I felt something of her courage as she stepped out later in life, trusting God, to follow her dream. Today we see Jan as a successful New York Times bestselling novelist, but her writing journey to get there had many discouraging setbacks. For two years, she struggled to find a suitable idea for a novel, and then when she had that breakthrough at last, it took a couple years to find a willing publisher. Through it all, she'd learned to lean into God, trusting that He was there in the midst. Seeing this beautiful author on my screen every morning during those early years of my own writing journey helped me to keep the faith, just as she had done.
* * *
I am grateful for these authors, just a few who have been a part of my personal mentoring team on a bookshelf, ever reminding me that I am not alone, cheering me on, offering their expertise, and always inviting me to join them in sharing the gift of beautiful words with our world.
Photo credit for top: Image by 9883074 from Pixabay
Photo credits for C.S. Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, Jan Karon: Unknown