This speech, delivered to the Siskiyou Writers Club in Yreka, California, on June 26, 2014, won the Cicero Speechwriting Award, 2015, in the Media category. The complete text of the speech is presented below.
Fan Into Flame Your Writing Gift
Good evening! I’m so happy to be here with you! Thank you for inviting me to come and share my experience as a writer and being published.
I believe that as writers, we have been gifted in two ways: We see visions, and we feel motivated to share our visions with others.
The 16th-century artist Michelangelo once wrote: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” He also said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Your gift as a writer is to see the angel in the marble and then to search for just the right words to help others to see what you see.
This gift holds true across all genres. It’s true whether your intent is to entertain, to instruct, or to encourage.
As writers we are driven to discover the truth that is hidden from others, to make connections that others miss, and to look for patterns and archetypes in everyday events and relationships.
We hone our skills by taking writing classes. We practice story arcs and perfect our grammar. We might labor for days over a couple of paragraphs, and we submit our work to critique groups—all because we want to express our vision as effectively, as accurately, and as persuasively as we can.
Not everyone can do this. Not everyone wants to do this! The writer’s gift—some might call it a curse!—can drive us out of bed in the middle of the night to set down that perfect string of words before we forget them.
By “fanning your gift into flame,” I mean to recognize and value your specialness as a writer and to diligently pursue the course that your gift lays out for you. I suggest four principles to help you do this.
Principle 1: Know Who You Are
This sounds simple, but it’s not. The fiction writers among us are probably familiar with doing character profiles, filling out those long questionnaires for each major character in your novel. The exercise makes you decide about things like age, eye color, personality type, strengths and weaknesses, phobias and quirks.
I suggest that before you sit down to write, you do a character profile on yourself. Ask yourself the tough questions:
- What do you really believe? What doubts do you have?
- What are you angry about? What are you afraid of?
- If you were put in charge of the universe, what are the first three things you would change?
- What sort of people do you dislike and why?
- What is your favorite kind of book to read when no one is looking? Would you like to write a book like that?
- What questions do you long to have answered? Chances are your readers are looking for answers to those same questions.
Be as honest and thorough as you can be in this self-assessment.
Principle 2: Use Your Own Voice
Now that you know who you are, write out of who you are. Speak your truth into the world, whether or not you think the world wants to hear it. The angel you see in the marble isn’t going to be the same one that Stephen King sees, or Ann Rice or Nora Roberts. Ask yourself, What especially qualifies ME to write about this?
Consider your personal history—traumas, problems that you’ve overcome or felt defeated by, external forces that have shaped you, perhaps a teacher, a mentor, an abusive parent, a loving neighbor. Maybe your parents divorced or you suffered illness as a child.
If others have written about your subject, what makes your perspective, your “truth,” fresh and different? This is important not only for marketing but also to give your voice authenticity and authority. When others see what you see, they will take it seriously. They will believe you.
Principle 3: Find Joy in Your Writing
Find your “sweet spot,” and write for your own pleasure.
Who remembers the movie, Chariots of Fire? It’s the story of two runners who competed in the 1924 Olympic Games. Harold Abrahams was a British Jew whose running was motivated by an angry determination to fight prejudice. Eric Liddell was a Scottish Christian who ran for the sheer pleasure of doing something that he felt he was created to do. Both men were skilled, both were gifted, yet only one of them seemed to enjoy his giftedness.
How about you? Do you enjoy your giftedness? Do you get into that groove when writing is sheer pleasure? If not, perhaps you are not yet writing out of your own truth, or the genre you’ve chosen isn’t a good fit for you right now. Do some exploring. Rediscover the joy of doing the work that your heart and mind were uniquely created to do.
Authentic joy in your work gives you emotional confidence. It also infuses your writing with energy that will resonate with your readers.
Principle 4: Stand Behind Your Work
Believe in your work more than anyone else does, more than your mother does or your agent. If you have applied yourself to Principles 1, 2 and 3, then you can trust that you have produced a work of integrity. The word “integrity” comes from the same Latin root as integer and implies wholeness or completeness. Writing with integrity gives you a sure-footedness that helps you to overcome timidity. You can market your work with confidence and learn to speak about yourself and your work without apology.
Writing with integrity also changes your definition of success. If you’ve done what we’ve talked about, that is, written with authenticity and the authority of your own truth, and infused your work with the joy of knowing that you are doing the work you were created to do, then you can count yourself successful, before the first copy of your book is sold and without comparing yourself to other authors and their successes.
To sum up, there are four principles that can help you to “fan into flame your writing gift.” They are (1) Know Who You Are, (2) Use Your Own Voice, (3) Find Joy in Your Writing, and (4) Stand Behind Your Work.
I’d like to take the next few minutes to share with you the role these principles played in my having my first book published. This was a nonfiction book on forgiveness. The book describes what forgiveness is, why we all need it, and how we can begin to practice it.
I became interested in forgiveness while I was getting my master’s degree in counseling. I’d had a difficult childhood—I was abused physically, sexually, and emotionally by both my parents. I spent nine years in therapy, and I knew it was important to let go of my anger and resentment, but I did not know how to do that. So I researched forgiveness and wrote my master’s thesis on the clinical use of forgiveness in treating adult survivors of childhood abuse, like myself.
My treatment model won the Outstanding Graduate Thesis award, and I thought, There’s a book here! I could write a book for counselors to use with clients, and I’ll make big bucks!
For the next ten years I toyed with the idea. I’d write a chapter, do a little more research, then throw it all away and start over.
My problem was this: I wasn’t using my own voice. I was focused on writing a book that counselors would buy. I was looking for their approval instead of creating a work I could stand behind. In effect, I was using their voice instead of my own. And so my work was unfocused and stymied.
In my uncertainty, I debated with myself about whether I should write from a secular or a Christian perspective. I knew my beliefs were Christian, but I was afraid that if I wrote from a Christian perspective, non-Christians couldn’t use the work. On the other hand, if I wrote from a strictly secular point of view, the work would feel inauthentic and incomplete.
The turning point for me was to realize that I was paralyzed by my own fear. I was terrified to go public with my faith, to be transparent in my writing. I was afraid that people whom I respected would scorn or dismiss me. I was afraid that people would look at my imperfect life and accuse me of being a fraud—Who does she think she is to write about this?
Once I faced my fear, I knew exactly what kind of book I needed to write. I got out my Bible and looked for connections between biblical truths and forgiveness. I drew on my personal experience in recovering from abuse, and I wrote out of the hope I had found in my faith.
The writing felt solid to me. I can say with confidence that I believe every word I wrote.
From start to finish, this book took me fourteen months to complete. I finished in December, and by February a publisher asked to read my manuscript. By March I had a contract. The whole process felt quite miraculous!
In the process of writing, I discovered that sweet spot, the joy of making connections, of seeing the angel in the marble and working to set her free. I also discovered a joy that I had not anticipated.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking about forgiveness and leading classes through my book. I remember my first book-signing event at a little boutique in Danville, CA. I spoke for about twenty minutes about my personal testimony and how I came to write the book. Afterward, they set me up in a cozy little room where women could come and sit next to me on the sofa, and I could sign their books. Each one who came wanted to tell me her story. In fact, every time I’ve given my testimony, at least one person has come up to me afterward and said something like, “I couldn’t believe it. Your story is just like mine. And if you can talk that way about forgiving after what you’ve been through, it gives me hope that I can, too.”
There is joy in knowing that your words can touch someone’s life in a meaningful and positive way. Whether your words are spoken or written on a page or digitized in cyberspace, your message—the expression of your vision, your truth—makes a difference. People are hungry, and they read to be satisfied.
Which brings me to my final point: Don’t take it personally if people don’t like what you’ve written. Your job is to write your vision, your truth, as clearly and as authentically as you can, whether you write fiction or nonfiction. You cannot control your reader’s reaction to what you write. I know that some people are ready to learn about forgiveness, and others are far from it. That’s not my call.
My advice to you as writers is to write from your heart and then stand behind your work. Be willing to talk about it, blog about it, promote it. Boldly offer your vision to the world in a voice that only you can speak.
I’d like to close with one last quote from our friend, Michelangelo. He writes, “The marble not yet carved can hold the form of every thought the greatest artist has.” To each of you—I wish you the joy and success of releasing the angel that you see!