Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mrs. Smucker Obsesses About Writing

I have several times given a speech in which I rhapsodize on The Wonder of Words. Think of it: with funny black lines on a page or sounds coming out of my mouth I can take thoughts and impressions in my head and communicate them into yours.

For example, I can use words to say that I'm cold and you understand that and loan me a sweater. I can be worried about a family member and you understand my burden and offer to pray for me or them. I can tell a story and we laugh together.


And God chose words to communicate to us. In fact he valued words so much that Jesus was called the Living Word.

Well that is all very nice.

Until you find out that we live in a broken world and sometimes words are pretty makeshift ways of communicating.

I write, you all know that. Sometimes people ask me why, exactly, and the answer is always a bit uncertain. Well, I like working with words. And I feel like I"m supposed to do this because there's a constant nudging like a fatherly thumb in my backbone pushing me in this direction.

Mostly, I don't like to think or overthink about why I write. That way, I've found, is fraught with peril and paralysis. Better to do and not think.

Usually, writing is a rewarding enterprise. When I get an email and I can tell that someone precisely "got" exactly what I was trying to say in my last column, that is just utterly satisfying.

But, as I said, sometimes the words don't work so well, and instead of words communicating precise ideas, it's more like I'm cobbling together little forms with play-doh, and someone is trying to figure out what on earth I'm trying to say.

I am going to be very vague here even though I much prefer specifics, but several times recently I chose words that I honestly thought communicated THIS and a few people read them and really honestly thought I meant to communicate THAT.

By the time the words filter down through all my thoughts and perceptions and intents and then get printed and then get filtered through all THEIR thoughts and perceptions and intents, things can go very very wrong.

Which, to put it gently, is what happened. It was horrible. One phone call in particular, from a powerful and intimidating person, will go down in history as Pretty Much The Worst Feedback Ever. To make it worse, I really had made some serious errors in my choice of words, so I can't write it off as just a cranky reader rattling his cage.

And at those times I think, this is crazy. I don't even know why I'm writing, and here I am, putting my soul out there, as vulnerable as a kitten in front of a bunch of target-practicing rednecks, and really there are not enough good reasons in the universe to keep doing this.

And yet.

Would you believe the same day as the phone call I got an email with a very opposite response?

She said:

Biblical inspiration, of course, refers to the power of the scriptures, but all writers have a form of the power to raise readers above themselves. By living your life in the way you do, and chronicling the details in a way that is not judgmental, just honest and true, you have provided a compass to the souls lost in the mall, trapped in the world of Netflix and the Nail Niche, living lives without purpose, what Ecclesiastes describes as "striving after the wind." The power of picking green beans, making homemade jam, camping, sewing beautiful dresses, and being a helpmate to a kind, devout and hard-working man is a tonic and an inspiration to those who right now can only wish for something better. They read about your life and long, sometimes vow, to do better.

I have a childcare in downtown "Whoville." In the eleven years of its operation, more than a hundred parents have been clients. Most have been single mothers. . . most have been clerks and waitresses, and there have been two strippers. At least half of my children have had to deal with at least one parent spending time in jail. . .

More than 90% of the parents have discussed the sexual abuse they suffered as children. They continue to create chaos for their lives because they cannot move beyond the mentality of "victims." Their children suffer enormously because their parent has no peace. I spend a lot more effort helping the adults toward self-sufficiency than the children, but many of the parents have been successful at learning to cook, do laundry, clean house, get their kids to school on time, obtain better housing, get into vocational training, get better jobs, or abandon substance abuse. Some have even begun to study the Bible. I read your essays to them because you can make them feel that the "old" way of living is desirable. They want a family dinner, even though it is more work than McDonald's. Some have had to obtain a dining table to make that happen. They know camping is better, but more work, than video games. You inspire them to be better parents because of your commitment. Your words are confirmation that they do not have to live such stressful, empty lives if they are willing to make the effort.

Sometimes we even discuss "What would the lady in Harrisburg do?" if she had to make their decisions.

Well, I have to say that response left me just as speechless as the negative responses. I suppose I ought to be delighted. In both cases, the words went floating out into the universe and had interpretations and results that I never intended.

And that is terrifying.

And I don't know what to do about it.

How do you do it, those of you who preach and teach and write and sing and otherwise fling your words into the ears of the fickle public? How do you survive?


  1. You have to pray and leave it all in God's hands. Do your part and He'll do His.
    Your writing continues to bless me. Keep at it!

  2. I have learned that if you want to build your sense of self worth, or well being, on the praise of those who compliment you, then you also need to take seriously the hurtful words of the angry critic. So, I think the best approach is to realize that I am no where nearly as good as the people who praise me tend to think I am. Neither am I as bad as those who criticize me tend to think I am.

    Besides, it is not their words that make my words good or bad. I answer to someone a little more influential than any human being.

    Sometimes I do need the encouragement of those who like my words. It keeps me from sliding into depression and silence. Sometimes I need the advice of my critics. It keeps me humble, and helps me to be silent when I should be silent. ~merle

  3. Merle and Mary are right (well, mostly so and according to my perception of what they wrote -- grin), so I'll not repeat what they wrote.

    I'll just add that the older I get, the more sensitive I become to people's responses to what I speak and write.

    Sensitive -- now there's a word with sufficient variety of meaning to hamper communication!

  4. Yes, to the above comments. All we can do is strive to obey the promptings that nudged us to begin writing in the first place. Just think if you didn't do that---you'd surely explode. So you must obey and do your best to be as specific as possible and know that we mortals WILL sometimes make a poor word choice, but at least we've tried to communicate honestly. And then the positive feedback messages are just icing on the cake.

  5. I think it's OK to laugh at the misunderstandings. Doing it in private is the safest way, after having made all the necessary apologies and/or corrections. When I've said something that conflicts with another's deeply held persuasions, and causes offense, it's much harder to know how to respond. What I think I should do then is listen to whatever criticism arises, ask the Lord what He thinks of what I've said, either leave it alone or calmly reiterate how things look to me, or apologize and make necessary corrections if the Lord shows me that this is necessary. I'm pretty sure that setting out to please everyone is the worst possible way to go about writing.

  6. What you do about it is to just keep writing. You continue to present your words and they will take it the way their schema will allow them to. I'm taking an online communications class and the text says "Meaning is within the person." You can't control how a person accepts your message, you can only tell it honestly and prayerfully the way you have always done. Leave the rest in God's hands. At the very least you have caused your reader to think. Even if they don't agree with what you've said, you've sparked a thought, a conversation, maybe even a change. You are a blessing! Please continue to allow God to use you to affect positive change in others. You inspire me!

  7. I love the way you write... you have a very dry sense of humor and tend to describe things in a dramatic way. I get it; I think it's terribly funny. But without speaking to a person face-to-face certainly the wrong meaning can be taken. Please don't stop writing. If necessary, apologize to the offended party but don't stop writing.

    I recently had the opportunity to speak to a large audience and the feedback I got was surprising. There was a specific, intended message I was trying to convey but so many people said, "I loved how you talked about such-and-such." I don't remember speaking about some of the things they were blessed by but I'm guessing God opened their ears to hear what He wanted them to hear. It was a neat experience.

    Keep it up! God will keep using you to bless people.

  8. That's true, Mary, although part of the problem is I have a hard time believing that God takes my work seriously. I mean, he sees all the procrastination, the flaws, etc. But thanks for the encouragement.
    Merle, I like your approach and your balanced view of praise and criticism. However, as for answering to a higher critic, that's true, but if you're going to speak or write it's crucial to know whether or not you're communicating with human readers. But how to get their response without letting it inflate or destroy your self-worth, that's the hard part. Love your last paragraph.

  9. Mark--Interesting, that your sensitivity to others' responses increases with age for you. I guess "sensitive" could mean either "thin-skinned" or "aware of others' feelings." We assume the latter and aspire for it ourselves.
    JPierce, yes, I would explode. Thanks for the reminder to obey the nudges.

  10. If God is in it, who can be against it? Even in our calling, we "take our licks and lick our wounds". The sting of criticism may take a long time to fade, but when it does,and you have handled it with God's grace, you will be the stronger person for it. Your writings bless and encourage me.

  11. My favourite part of this post is about the positive feedback you got. It sounds like something God would do, the way it was timed.

  12. I have all of your books and the past few nights I have enjoyed rereading them. You are a gifted writer and I think the Lord uses you.

  13. Our own personal life experiences seem to be what defines the way we filter and understand what other people are saying.

    It would be so much easier if it were an exact science!

    Is it only me, or does it seem as though even those who speak the SAME language are still in many ways affected by the Tower of Babbel in our attempts at communication??

    What interests me is this; if someone has been well exposed to your writing, they more than likely know that your intent has never been to be hurtful to anyone...and that would help them interpret your meaning.

    Your pained and alarmed response to the fact that you offended someone also stands to prove that it was the last thing you would want to do.

    You only have your own life experiences to guide you, so you cannot anticipate every possible meaning someone might attach to your words. All you can do is "go dancing in the minefield" and show love and humility if/when you accidently set off someone's mine.

    And knowing you, that's what you did.

  14. Your writing is such a blessing in my life. You challenge me to me a better person by your example. I wish I had the writing skill to use lovely prose to lift you up. I'm so glad that others that can say it better have done so. Thank you for finding the time to write. Thank you for your blog.

  15. The ultimate question is, who are you writing for? If your Employer is pleased that's all that matters. The opinions of people (pro and con) are beside the point. Except, of course, an editor's constructive criticism which should always be taken seriously.

  16. Mrs. I, at this point I am not laughing but I can see it as a possible future option, maybe in ten years. Loved your last sentence as well...so true.
    Lanell, that is very true also and I like your advice.
    Thanks, Cheryl, and you're right about people hearing things in our message that we never intentionally put there.
    Frieda, thanks for understanding.

  17. This comment is a bit late due to my procastinating self I guess. Dorcas, I very much enjoy your posts. You have such a knack with words and often say what was only an unformed thought floating around in my subconcious and would never have taken on structure. Particularly I like your 'take' on various...oh what's the word?.. on some of our 'culture's ways.' And that sentence has the potential of offense. Keep writing. Mary Horst

  18. Whether you learn or don't learn to balance it--keep writing. Then maybe us younger ones, 10 years down the road, in the midst of this same stuggle can stop and remember, "Well, Dorcas struggled with this too and she survived and wrote well"

  19. While talking face to face has its advantages, so does writing. You get to think things through a lot more thoroughly, and no one's critiquing your hair, your outfit, your mannerisms, accent, and pronunciations. (Just ask Paul!) Be comforted. Lots and lots of us love you.
    I've always wanted to write, but maybe I'm safer being the proverbial procrastinator! -PC in VA

  20. In this context, I meant the former.

  21. I think the best piece of advice I heard on this was from Corrie ten Boom (if you haven't read her story, you won't regret it!). She said that when she received praise (imagine a performer on stage receiving a big bouquet), she would pass it right on up to Jesus.

    And just from my own thoughts: Constructive criticism, when it IS constructive, is a gift, because I get my work mirrored back to me in a way I can't see on my own. But if it's just criticism, well, bless their hearts and move on. :O)

    And honestly: if you please and/or are understood by everybody, now that would be a miracle!