Dreams Coming True is a Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10, NLT).
Welcome Elizabeth Sherrill, author of Surprised By Grace, to Dreams Coming True! Leave a comment on this post to enter to win a copy of Elizabeth’s memoir!
Tell us a little about yourself, Elizabeth:
I’m a wife—66 years on Dec. 20, 2013—mother of three, grandmother of eight, great-grandmother of three (so far!). For over 60 years I’ve been a writer of Christian non-fiction articles and books (sales in excess of 70 million). I’ve also taught writing on five continents.
When did this creative dream begin?
Actually, Suzanne, for many years the idea of writing my own story was more of a nightmare than a dream! I’ve loved telling other people’s stories—Corrie ten Boom, David Wilkerson, Brother Andrew, etc.—keeping my own experience safely out of sight, excusing myself that I’m a “private person.”
How did this book get started?
For years various editors had urged me to stop hiding. Why don’t I copy the preface to Surprised by Grace, because it asks the very question you have:
Never say never!
“Never” is what I said, many years ago, when Guideposts editor Van Varner suggested a book “telling your own story.” Van had known me, he pointed out, back when I thought of God as a long-outmoded myth.
“Today, God is at the center of your life. That’s quite a journey! Why don’t you write about it?”
Why not? Because my faith was a private matter! I know now that my emphatic Never to Van was part of the door between me and the world that I write about in Surprised by Grace. My whole world was constructed on the insistence that I was different. Since I “wasn’t like others”, how could my experience interest anyone else? Van kept at it, though, bringing up “your book” — that wholly imaginary volume — every year or so.
It wasn’t Van, however, who finally changed my mind, but people I’ve never met. Over the years I’d written, always reluctantly, three or four short articles about my own life. Not going too deep, sort of one-toe-in-the-water. To my surprise, the articles drew responses from readers, each of whom had been convinced that her experience, or his experience, was unlike anyone else’s. “You’ve written my story!” the letters said, over and over.
The article that brought the most mail was about my struggle with depression. That most lonely and isolating experience brought remarkably similar confessions from across the country, men and women, young and old. All of us, apparently, in the black pit of that blackest place, had felt that no one else had ever experienced what we did. And the relief that these correspondents felt in recognizing themselves in my story, was stunningly evident.
Unique? Unlike anyone else? Of course I was. And so was every other person. Each of us God’s individual, unrepeatable creation. But obviously with much to say to each other! I began to wonder what else my life might have to communicate. I started pulling out notebooks, diaries, trip logs, faded photos.
It was two letters in 1999 that finally got me to my word processor. One was from a mother in the mid-west whose son had been sent home from college after locking himself in his dorm room for a week, asking if I’d written anything else about depression. “I gave him your Guideposts story and it’s the only thing he’s read since he got home.”
The other letter came from a young woman in British Columbia who couldn’t remember the name of the piece she’d read in the Reader’s Digest about my strained relationship with my mother. (Mother’s Desk.) “My mother and I have trouble communicating too. She never returns my phone calls. I thought she might read that article.”
The two letters came within ten days of each other and acted as a kind of Why not, indeed!
“I think,” I said to Van, “I’m going to write that book.”
What makes your book stand out from the crowd?
Probably the experience I’ve gained traveling all over the world, interviewing fascinating people. Some of those stories, too, are in this book and may give a broader base for my conclusions.
What are the goals and intentions of this project?
To transmit to each reader the same stunning and incredible news I received: God loves her (or him) extravagantly and forever, just as she is, with all her flaws and failures.
How does your book create community?
This has been the surprise of the book to me, Suzanne, an outcome far beyond what I anticipated: people everywhere have been getting together to read it in small groups. Many of these people, like me, had always been shy about speaking of their faith and shrunk from sharing personal matters, especially painful ones, with others. For this special Guideposts’ edition, I’ve included a list of “Conversation Starters” for use in groups, based on the mail I’ve received since the original book appeared. This is what I wrote in the precede to the “Starters:”
Before I wrote Surprised by Grace I resisted letting anyone into my inner life, as though exposing myself would destroy something fragile and perishable. Just the opposite has been true. The more open I dared to be, the more I was in touch with my own reality. It’s in sharing our thoughts and lives with one another that we discover most clearly who we are.
Participants have written to tell me that out of these small groups have grown friendships that persist in other endeavors.
Many have creative ideas but trouble following through with them. What advice would you give to creative types who start projects eagerly…but then enthusiasm drizzles off?
Find someone to bug you and keep you to a schedule! For a writer, the editor serves this function. I know that if it weren’t for publication deadlines, I’d never finish a piece of writing.
Describe the behind-the-scenes effort of your book. Where do the ideas come from? How many are involved in the process? Does each contributer have a specific role?
No one writes a book in isolation! I think especially of my husband John, who lived with diaries in the dining room and Bible concordances on the bed. Who fielded telephone calls and answered the doorbell to give me protected time. Who had his own work interrupted with out-of-the-blue questions like,
“Where was the gas station where we got the news that Dad had died?”
Or: “What town did we find that doctor in, driving to Luxembourg?”
And of course without each of the people I met on my journey, there’d be less of a story to tell.
Getting past my own resistance: being willing to expose the painful parts of my story.
What have you learned?
Writing about one’s weaknesses and failures doesn’t put readers off. On the contrary, it creates connections.
Have there been any unexpected surprises?
To find that the book which I wrote (as always) as though addressing just one person, is also valuable as a group tool.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about starting any book?
That it won’t take long…
What are some ways you promote your project?
I need suggestions, Suzanne!
Creating something is one skill. Marketing and promoting it is an entirely different skill set.
I’m so glad you’re emphasizing this! This is one of the main points I make when teaching writing: these skills are totally different, even antithetical. Writers tend to thrive on solitude, promotion requires getting your work out there. And promotion is an absolutely essential to successful writing: if nobody will ever hear about your book, why write it?
In my case, promotion is a totally missing skill… Even when I know that something I’ve written will help a particular person, I seem unable to tell him so. It’s doubtless why I find ghost writing so satisfying: when I finish the final sentence, I’m through! The book’s protagonist, someone with a very small ministry with very big potential, wants to get out and advertise it.
Any marketing mistakes you would avoid?
Modesty. Being raised not to “boast.” I’d avoid these mistakes if I could . . .
What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?
Try article-length pieces on the topic before committing to the time and energy required by a book.
Where do you see this book in five years?
Hopefully still helping the reader accept and love herself.
What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it.
Why is it easier to write someone else’s story than your own?
Aside from the so-necessary promotion, which I personally would rather someone else handle, it’s harder to write your own story because you know too much. My favorite metaphor for writing is sculpture. You start with a huge shapeless bolder of marble and carve away at it until the shape of the finished work is freed from what doesn’t belong there. No matter how many months and years you spend interviewing someone else, the mass of marble you start with is far smaller than the mountain of material you confront with your own life.
How can we find your book?