Confessions of an author/speaker
My writing and speaking career began when I was seven I would line up my stuffed animals as my “audience.” Timothy, the teddy bear, was my first convert and lived a saved and sanctified life ever after. However, my Lone Ranger action figure’s independent spirit caused him to backslide and live a life of sin with my neighbor’s Barbie doll. Very sad.
My first writing was published in one of those hard-covered blank books you can buy in stationary stores. I was concerned that the “suspension of disbelief” was stretched too thin when Pinnochio not only became a live puppet but became a real live boy. So, I had the wooden puppet die a painful and prolonged death of Dutch Elm disease.
Since those days of “yesteryear,” I’ve spoken in just about every venue from local Sunday schools to colleges to a conference in Mozambique under a large circus tent.
And my writing has expanded to 17 books, over two thousand articles and lots and lots of “to” lists. But during the time—from my stuffed-animal audience and Pinnochio’s tragic death to the present—my writing and speaking has gone through at least three stages.
According to the experts, public speaking is the number one fear—even greater than the fear of death. So, Jerry Seinfeld quips, “If you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” So my early prayers were “Help me, Lord!” Help me be articulate, animated, insightful, and—most of all—dignified. “Don’t let me make a fool of myself!”
Okay, they were selfish prayers imploring God to make me look and sound good. Unfortunately, my very first sermon at First Wesleyan in Battle Creek, Michigan, lasted all of six and a half minutes, which—now that I think about it—was probably, for those listening, a merciful length.
I also prayed “Help me!” in my writing! And never so much as with a book project with Tyndale House. I had written a book for them based on 1,500 teens questions about sex It sold well, so they wanted a sequel I checked with teens and youth leaders and discovered that although teens had lots of questions about sex, they were more concerned about death (This was during the time AIDS was becoming news Students Against Drunk Driving was campaigning to stop drunk driving deaths, Columbine massacre . . .)
So without even my writing a proposal, they sent me a contract and a nice advance which I promptly signed and cashed. But then the editor called and said, “Oh, we don’t want this to be a depressing book, so we want you to use lots of humor in the book.”
“Excuse me? I must not have heard you right. You want lots of humor in a book about death,?”
I had already signed the contract and spent the advance so my prayer was “Help me!”
I think all writers and speakers start out in the “Help me!” stage We don’t know a byline from a deadline. We think a “query” letter has something to do with alternate lifestyles. And then we get an actual assignment from an actual publication or publisher and we cry out “Help me!”
So that’s why I speak at ten to fifteen writers’ conferences a year. I want to encourage beginning writers that if I can do it, you can do it. And I should point out that God was gracious in giving me the wisdom and creativity to write a book about death with lots of humor that actually won a Campus Life Book of the Year award. So, get all the help you can . . . from conferences like this one; from books on writing and speaking.
“Help me!” is a great prayer for beginning writers and speakers. The second stage I passed through was.
After a few years of speaking in local churches, district camps and national conferences, I realized that it was inevitable that I would make verbal blunders worthy of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
For instance, while speaking in Australia, my hosts had warned me about certain words not to say “down under.” At dinner (which they call “tea”) or supper (which is actually a bedtime snack), you would never push back from the table and announce, “I’m stuffed.” That’s a rather inappropriate term for pregnant.
So, I thought I knew all the “dinky die” dirty words. (And “dinky die” is not a dirty word It means genuine.) So, when asked about American basketball. They’re “bonkers” about American basketball. I told an auditorium full of high school students, “I root for the Chicago Bulls.” Root, I quickly discovered, is the Aussie’s F-dash-dash-dash word!
And it seemed the bigger the venue, the bigger the verbal blunders—most of which can’t be repeated in a Christian gathering. How can my “tang” get so “tonguled”?!
And you would think that editors would catch printed faux pas. Nooooo. In an impassioned column on the importance of abstinance a very important not was left out in the printed edition!
So, I changed my prayers from “Help me, Lord” to “Use me, Lord.” I found that my most helpful and encouraging teachings and writings were not the most articulate, animated, insightful and definitely not dignified. They were disastrous as far a presentation, but powerful as far as spiritual impact. Hopefully, just like this talk!
I could definitely relate to Paul’s confession that:
I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:3-5).
And it’s given new meaning to “fools for Christ’s sake.” Pride definitely goes before a faux pas. And so God seems to do best when I’m at my worst So, I pray, “Father, use my speaking at ________.” “Father, use my writing.”
That doesn’t mean I sluff off in my writing and speaking. I still over-prepare. I spend way more time on Power-Point slides than I probably should. I still speak from a manuscript because I want to choose my words carefully—and avoid any more x-rated faux pas. And I still attempt to be articulate, animated and insightful. I gave up dignified years ago!
I’m still editing and rewriting my articles and columns and books right up to the deadline. And then I click SEND with much fear and trembling because I know as soon as I see the printed words.
Doh! A weak lead!
Doh! A passive verb!
Doh! A “not” missing!
But, by His grace, God uses my writing and speaking despite their failings. Here are a couple of emails I’ve received:
Oh, THANK YOU for this. Today was THE day I needed to read it. You’re always a blessing.
Your article [on suicide] has saved my life tonight and showing me a path toward hope. I [am] still in severe pain from the death of my boyfriend six months ago. But, I felt a need to say thank you.
“Use me” is a much better prayer than “Help me,” but there still is a dark side. If I stress “use me” what happens when God doesn’t? When I get rejection slips? When my speaking schedule dries up? When no one visits my blog?
Of course, these things have never happened to you or me The problem may be we’re not being used the way we want to be used Here’s some hope from the New Living Amplified King James Watkins Version paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 12:
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If a writer should say, “Because I have not been published in Focus on the Family, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the Body. If the whole body was writing for Guideposts, who would write for take-home papers?
But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many kinds of writers, but one body.
A writer for Decision cannot say to a writer of a church newsletter, “I don’t need you!” And a best-selling author cannot say to the one who writes letters to the editor, “I don’t need you!”
On the contrary, those writers who don’t command six-figure advances are indispensable, and the writers who don’t appear on the cover of Today’s Christian deserve equal honor as those who do. And the writers who are never interviewed on Christian talk shows are just as necessary as those in the spotlight.
But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
If one part receives a rejection slip, every part suffers with it; if one part signs a contract with Tyndale House, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I think one of the problems with us as Christian writers is that we want to be used of God, but we want to be in our own way to be “honorable” to appear on magazine covers to be featured on radio and TV interviews.
I’ve finally realized that my part in the Body of Christ is to write things that don’t allow people to sit too comfortably on their padded pew. So, I’m a hemorrhoid!
So, I’ve gone from “help me” to “use me.” And from “use me in ways I want to be used” to “use me in the venues You want to use me” But more recently, I’ve found my prayers being simply . . .
I spent the first ten years of my so-called writing and speaking career thinking of myself as a “writer and speaker.” But if that’s our self-identity, we can get pretty battered and bruised by rejection. I finally stumbled across Brennan Manning’s wonderful book Abba’s Child. Here’s the gist:
. . . make the Lord and his immense love for you constitutive of your personal worth. Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. God’s love for you and his choice of you constitute your worth.
So whether it’s speaking to a local Sunday school class or a large national conference, whether it’s 100 church newsletters or 7 million copies of Upper Room it’s now, “Love me, so that I can love them through You.”
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
And in the New Living Amplified King James Watkins Version:
If I write with the pen of the psalmist and win national book awards, but have not love, I am only a clattering printer or pounding press.
I became convinced of the power of love by a sixty-five year-old “teen” Sunday school teacher. When I was the youth week speaker at a small church 30 years ago, I met their youth leader: Dorothy was short, a bit overweight, had thick glasses and was 65! Definitely not your young, energetic, “cool” youth leader. But she loved her students&151;and they loved her. She taught a “young buck” how to teach!
And so I now pray “Love me so I can love them.”
There’s a wonderful passage in Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, describes this shift from “help me” and “use me” to “love me.” Writing about the pastor who chose to ask “What would Jesus do?” before preaching . . .
Perhaps nothing had astonished the people more than the great change that had come over the minister, since he had proposed to them the imitation of Jesus in conduct. The dramatic delivery of his sermons no longer impressed them. The self-satisfied, contented, easy attitude of the fine figure and refined face in the pulpit had been displaced by a manner that could not be compared with the old style of his delivery. The sermon had become a message. It was no longer delivered. It was brought to them with a love, an earnestness, a passion, a desire, a humility that poured its enthusiasm about the truth and made the speaker no more prominent than he had to be as the living voice of God.
His prayers were unlike any the people had heard before. They were often broken, even once or twice they had been actually ungrammatical in a phrase or two. When had Henry Maxwell so far forgotten himself in a prayer as to make a mistake of that sort? He knew that he had often taken as much pride in the diction and delivery of his prayers as of his sermons.
Was it possible he now so abhorred the elegant refinement of a formal public petition that he purposely chose to rebuke himself for his previous precise manner of prayer? It is more likely that he had no thought of all that. His great longing to voice the needs and wants of his people made him unmindful of an occasional mistake. It is certain that he had never prayed so effectively as he did now.
So what are some practical ways we can write and speak with love?
1. Visualize our listeners or readers as we prepare
How many times at this conference have you heard “Know your audience.” And so I try to speak and write to just one person: My “demographic profile”: For teens, it was “Jennifer,” 15, who attends church and youth youth group faithfully, but rarely reads her Bible . . .
As you do that, you’ll find that you write and speak conversationally. One of the nicest compliments on the newspaper column I wrote for fifteen years: “When I read it, I can hear you talking to me.”
And you will find that you’re writing with love.
2. Come “along side” our listeners and readers
I love the word Jesus uses for the Spirit: comforter. The Greek word is paraclete. One who comes along side. We don’t lead our audience. We don’t drive our audience. We put an arm around their shoulder and walk with them.
I mentioned the Campus Life award. The rewarding thing about it was that it was judged by teens. However, one teen judge wrote “Jim Watkins is not an author.” Teens can be so cruel! But she went on to write, “It like he’s sitting down with you at McDonalds sharing Diet Cokes .” Okay, I can deal with not being an author!
And, this is the way that we avoid that “preachy” style that editors—and readers—reject. A quick way to check is to run “SEARCH” for the number of times you use the word “You.” Then check the number of times you use “We.” We (meaning me, too) need to walk along side our readers “I’ve been there too, and here are some things I’ve learned that may be helpful as we walk this journey.”
3. Be real to our listeners and readers
One of the most loving things we can do for our audience is to be real And the absolute best book on being real is The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.
“Does [becoming real] hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
My book, Squeezing Good Out of Bad, is probably my most honest, transparent book I’ve ever written. It deals with my depression. Thankfully with prayer and Prozac it’s pretty much under control. Being “fired” from a dream job. I won’t go into details but it was just so unjust! My anger issues following being fired. Family crises. I’ve learned the wonderful truth of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
Being real and transparent is one of the most difficult—and yet loving and comforting things we can do as writers and speakers. Several years ago I shared a message called, “I’m a mess. You’re a mess. That’s why we need a Mess-iah” and revealed what a mess I am. Afterward, a woman came up to me in tears and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe. “I’m so glad somebody else is a mess.”
4. Write and speak with truth and grace
Colossians 4:2-6 has become a goal for my writing and speaking:
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
John describes Jesus as being “full of truth and grace.” That’s such an important balance to have in our writing. I think Evangelicals find it easier to be full of “truth.” And as a result, the world sees them as hateful, judgmental, intolerant, homophobic . . .
Mainline church seem to error on the side of “grace.” It’s not a sin. You were born that way. It’s a genetic predisposition. We need to be tolerant.
But we’ve got to have the balance of truth and grace. I had a homiletics professor say, “You need to preach on hell, but you need to preach on it with a tear in your eye.” I heard some speakers who seemed to be glad I was going to hell.
So write the truth, but write it with grace. Or as Paul warns, “Speaking the truth in love.” One of the best emails I received was a response to an article I wrote on homosexuality and God. As I was writing it, I was praying “Let it be full of truth and grace.” God hates homosexual behavior. but He loves homosexuals.
“I want you to know that I’m gay and an atheist. But I also want you to know, that if there is a God, I want Him to be the kind of God you described.”
From a gay atheist!
Apparently, I occasionally hit the right the balance of truth and grace
5. Be accessible to our readers and listeners
I have a list on my Web site of the top ten books that have changed my life . And I finally got to meet one of the author’s in person. Well, actually I first had to get through his handlers. After he had talked, he disappeared behind the stage. So after showing my press pass, I finally got to meet him and tell him how much his book had changed my life.
“Would you mind autographing my book?”
I thought he’d be thrilled that it was nearly falling apart from use dog-eared, underlined, highlighted. He simply grunted and said, “You need a new copy.”
His book is still in my top-ten book list, but he’s at the bottom of my list of authors.
Do you answer letters and emails? I’m amazed at the number of people who write passionate emails sharing their hearts with me and then are shocked when I actually answer their email.
Do you have a Web site? A blog? Does it make your reader feel like they know you even better? That you’re now BFFs.
Do you have a Facebook account? Do you Twitter? Those are becoming also essential for writers and speaker to as Seth Godin writes “build your tribe.” Your loyal readers and listeners.
Do you hang around after you speak? I know how hard it is to expend every ounce of energy delivering your message. But the most important part of your talk is the hour following your talk. So, I’ve learn to ration out my adrenalin, so I don’t burn it all up during my talk. I save some for the moments afterward. Then I go to my room and completely collapse.
So where are you in your writing/speaking career?
Help me? That’s a legitimate, valuable prayer. We certainly need the help of the Holy Ghost writer.
Use me? That, too, is important. Paul tells us to pray for “opportunities.”
Where there are magazines, they shall cease publication. Where there are speaking venues, they shall pass away. Where there are Web sites, they shall crash. But love never fails.
Copyright © James N. Watkins