Monday, April 16, 2018

ABC Post 16-How I Became a Writer

Letters have been a theme of my life.

I give my mom much of the credit for the fact that I'm a writer today. We were Amish when I was little, so we couldn't pick up the phone and call Grandma (Mommi) in Iowa or Kansas. So every few weeks, Mom seated us around the dining room table with pencils and lined paper, and we were supposed to write to one Mommi or the other.

Sigh. All right then. 

One of these specimens was saved and I saw it years later. "Dear Grandma, How are you? I am fine. Are you very busy these days?"

Mom wrote lots of letters, and when she got a letter from her mom or her sister Vina, she read it out loud at the supper table. Except with Vina's letters she would sort of hmmm hmmm hmmm over certain parts that, I later found out, involved pregnancies and scandals and such. Iowa Mommi would draw pictures for us, usually of ducks on a pond. 

So letters were funny and tantalizing things.

I credit Dad with giving me an eye for the proper things: usage, punctuation, grammar.

From age 8 or ten on I collected penpals like I collect fabric today. Cousins I met at family reunions, old school mates, daughters of stern preachers who came for revival meetings, people who passed through on their way to somewhere else, friends of friends who were in the same circle letters.

I wrote and wrote and wrote letters.

I would write letters to my friend Millie at church and even to my sister Rebecca, slipping them into her locker between classes.

I think that's where I learned to milk an awful lot of words out of a simple and boring life.

When I moved to Oregon, I bought a bunch of lined paper and a few ringbinder notebooks. I kind of neglected my parents and the rest of the family and documented my life in letters to Rebecca, who filed them all in the notebook for safe keeping.

They were very angsty and emotiony and full of deep pondering self-absorbed thoughts and also crushes and crises of conscience, so much so that when Paul read them, some 15 years after we were married, he said it was probably a good thing that he hadn't read these before we got married. Bless his heart.

I wrote letters when I sat in the car waiting for tract distribution and I wrote letters in church, and late at night when I had to get something out of my system before I could sleep.

Then I wrote letters to Paul, who lived two hours away.

And he wrote to me.

The first letter from him was waiting for me when I came home from school one day. My landlady, Marilyn, and her daughter Laura—who is now my sister-in-law—had taped it to the kitchen counter along with a freshly-picked flower.

We got married, eventually, and I wrote Rebecca such vivid details of our honeymoon that, when she found the letters 30 years later, she read them aloud at a family gathering and didn't hmmmmm hmmmm like she should have, and we laughed so hard we nearly passed out, but first I turned beet red in utter ghastly horror.

No one should ever document honeymoon details on paper in a letter to your sister. That is something I've learned.

With our new baby, Matthew, we moved to northwestern Ontario and Paul taught at Stirland Lake, a boarding high school for First Nations kids from the northern reserves. 

I soon saw that, much as I loved letter-writing, I would drown in the task if I didn't streamline things. Both of our families, our church in Oregon, supporters, and friends—how could I keep in touch with them all?

I began writing monthly form letters. First, Paul would photocopy them at the office. Eventually we got a primitive computer and printer. Once a month, in our house at the high school or out in a remote northern village or back at the mission headquarters further south, Paul would put the children to bed and I would type out my life into words and sentences and paragraphs.

Sometimes I think that's what kept me sort of sane those years. There was no internet, of course, and often no phone contact with family or friends.

Soon after we first arrived at Stirland Lake, I found out there was a small inter-mission newsletter called the Grapevine. Every month, someone from each mission outpost and division—Beaver Lake Camp, headquarters, the print shop, Thunder Bay, and so on—wrote a little update of their activities and news, and it was distributed to everyone else.

Within a year I had the job of writing the Stirland Lake news. I took the job seriously and wrote newsworthy news.

Summer came. The students all flew home. Many of the staff left on vacation. Only a few of us were still on campus, which is how we got the job of taking care of our friends Dave and Ilva's goats.

Stirland Lake didn't lend itself to agriculture, but Dave and Ilva made a brave attempt. So when they left on vacation, someone had to feed and milk the two goats. One person got the job, then they left on vacation as well, until finally the job was passed to Paul.

Then Paul went fishing with the two other men remaining on campus.

The day wore on, and I knew I would have to milk those goats. One was cooperative and one was not. I recall horns lunging at me, running around and around that little shed as we both leapt over straw bales, and finally bracing my feet and dragging that horrible goat back into the pen, inch by inch, while she made strangled choking noises and I no longer cared.

I decided the stupid thing can just go without milking, but then when I had time to think it over, my conscience got the better of me, and with dread and despair I headed back to try again….and just then a boat came puttering into the dock.

Paul has a knack for saving the day. That is another theme of my life.

So. It was summer. There was not much news. The Grapevine deadline was upon me. So with great detail I wrote the story of trying to milk that goat.

The Grapevine was distributed, and suddenly I was hearing from other people in the mission. "I loved your story!" "I laughed and laughed!" "We read your story in the ladies' dorm and we were howling!"

It was amazing, new, astonishing, exhilarating! I had never experienced anything like it. I had turned an event into a story and sent it out in a newsletter that went to all kinds of people. They read it. They liked it! They laughed! They came back to tell me they enjoyed it!!

I was addicted.

So the Grapevine articles grew more personal as time went on, and the monthly form letters got distributed to more and more friends and family.

We lived in Canada for eight years. 

It was probably the last couple of years in the North when Ilva, yes, the Ilva of the infamous goat, started telling me that I really needed to write for a bigger audience. I had talent, she insisted, and things worth saying.

"Ilva," I would sigh. "I would love to, but I have all these little kids, and I'm overwhelmed, and we live out in the bush, and . . ."

"I know," she would say, "but you need to do this."

In God's Kingdom, everything is upside down and counter-intuitive.

Years later, I would read pretentious articles about how to be a successful writer, and I would go to writers meetings and conferences where everyone was trying SO hard to get it right.

Trust me, not a single instructor ever said, "Go way up in the northern Bush, in the wildest and remotest possible place, and have lots of babies, and survive without running water, and get pneumonia and stuff, and don't have much time to read and study, and live in another culture, and write form letters once a month."

How could anyone have known that those lifesaving monthly letters and Grapevine articles were teaching me to take note of quotes and personalities, to write things down, to explain life in the village to people thousands of miles away, and to take feedback from readers and use it to shape my communication?

And what a gift Ilva was, that quiet and persistent mentoring voice in those overwhelming years.

We moved back to Oregon. We had very little money, so I thought maybe I could earn some money by writing while still staying home with the children.

I tried to break into the Christian magazine market—Virtue, Today's Christian Woman, and so on, with no success.

Then one day a few years later I happened to read an article in the Eugene Register-Guard. They had a weekly feature called Write On, where anyone could send in contributions, and they would pick one essay and print it.

I thought, "I could do that."

So, impulsively, I did.

They printed it.

Again, the wild exhilaration was not to be described. My name! My words!! In the newspaper!!!

I cut out the article, made a copy, and sent it to Ilva. "See? I'm doing what you said."

A few weeks later the phone rang. The caller said he is Grant Podelco, the features editor at the Guard. "You got some fan mail, all the way from Canada!"

And he read me a note from—of course—Ilva. Not only had she praised my article, but she had also told this editor that he should think about having this author write for them on a regular basis.

It just so happened that Mr. Podelco was looking for some fresh new features at this time. "Would you consider writing a monthly column?" he asked "Sort of the same flavor as this piece we just printed?"

"Flabbergasted" is far too mild of a word. Ecstatic, stunned, overwhelmed.

"I thought we'd call it 'Letter from Harrisburg.'"

And so my writing life had come full circle. That editor had no way of knowing that letters had been my identity and my comfort and form of expression all my life.

"It had to be a 'God' thing," I always say here, relating this story, not only for the "letter" connection but because if you wanted a new columnist for a newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, you would not go 20 miles north to Harrisburg and look for a Mennonite minister's wife with lots of children and not much education.

I've written that column once a month for 18 years.  I'm on my fourth editor. I've heard from hundreds of people who connected with my ordinary family stories even though their lives were often totally different from mine.

That is also a God thing.

Every month, true to its name, the deadline just about kills me. I go a bit crazy and threaten to quit. Sometimes my kids do imitations of "Mom facing a deadline." I will just hmmmm hmmmm over the specifics of that because no one ought to see them.

And yet, so far, a subject always appears that I can write about, so I do.

A couple of years after I started writing the column, people were asking for a collection of all my columns. That led to my first book, Ordinary Days. Five more books have followed.

In 2005, not long after we adopted Steven, Paul's nephew Byran mentioned that he thought I should start a blog.


Yes. He had one. It was a place where you could write and post articles, thoughts, whatever you wanted. And people could discuss and comment.

I was going through a tough time with what felt like post-partum depression after Steven's adoption. Maybe this would help. I considered the idea, even though I knew almost nothing about the internet.

Byran persisted.

"How would I do it?" I said.

"Go to and follow the instructions," he said. So I did.

And Life in the Shoe was born, thanks to Byran's quiet persistence.

Again, I experienced that indescribable exhilaration of putting words out there, and perfect strangers read and understood them.

It was addictive.

In the 8 years that Blogger has been keeping track, I've had over 2 million page views. I'm grateful to everyone who took the time to read what I had to say. That is no small gift.

The newspaper column reached a local and mostly secular audience, and the blog was my avenue to the broader Mennonite world. 

Facebook increased my connections even more and became an easy publicity and marketing tool.

I am finally comfortable calling myself a writer, but I am not blasé about any of it. I am still awed when I see my name in print. I still feel that addictive wonder and delight when someone out there in the big wide world reads my words, understands them, and writes back to tell me so. 

I still think it's a God thing, it still seems impossible, and I am always surprised.

And I still think letters are wonderful things.


  1. I'm glad the Lord has led you to write. Have you ever written an article for Keepers at Home magazine? I managed to actually get an article published in KAH many years ago called "Plain is Beautiful". I haven't really tried to write another article though I may write one on my journey to headship veiling.
    Have a joy filled week!

    1. I've written just a few things for KAH. I really think you should tell more of your story!

  2. I loved reading about your journey! Thanks for being willing to share your life with us.

  3. Thank you for this interesting story about how you became a writer! As a mother with a bunch of young kids, your stories and your journey always inspire me. Love from another Canadian fan.

  4. I so enjoy your stories. Letter writing is fast becoming a thing of the past but it was letter writing that led me to one of my very best friends. We began as 10 year old pen pals about as far apart in this world as we could be but we have been friends for over 50 years now. She has traveled here to the US twice and I have been to NZ four times. We can call and text each other easily now, but we still write letters. Please keep writing. Your words inspire and encourage. God Bless

  5. I loved reading your journey to becoming a writer. It has encouraged me because I would love to write and haven't found the courage to share my words with the world yet via a blog or other forms of writing. I too wrote letters as a child, and have boxes and stacks of letters from others as well. Anyway... Thanks for sharing your journey and for writing. I love to read your blog and other articles!

  6. When I was a child, I wrote into Ruralite magazine for a pen pal. I got 39 responses, and Mom insisted I write every one back for as long as they wrote me, out of politeness. I did so, suddenly needing more chores to pay for stamps. Most everyone stopped writing after 2 or 3 years, but one boy in Anchorage, AK kept at it for more than 7 years because of that initial ad!

    1. How cool is that! And I laughed out loud at your determined mom!

  7. Thank you. God has been nudging this writer to write more than I am. Your blog was nudge #3 toward a specific piece I've been putting off. It's written now...

  8. Jennifer Jantzi4/17/2018 3:48 PM

    I've been reading your blog since the days when Jenny started school and Amy turned around and said, She's going to SCHOOL in her CAR SEAT?!

    You've made me laugh, ponder, and cry many times.

    Once, either before I was married or soon after, I read a blog of yours to a tableful of inlaws. The piece was sort of irreverant, poking a little fun at our Mennonite hangups, and I thought it was brilliant and hysterical. So I read it aloud, and nobody laughed or got the point.

    That gave me a tiny taste of what it must be like for a writer who puts her words out there and is misunderstood or misinterpreted. Thank you for doing it anyway, and please keep on doing so as long as God leads you.

    1. Thank you for faithfully reading all these years, and special thanks for understanding that painful and awkward drama of putting thoughts and words out there and having them utterly -- as you said-- misunderstood and misinterpreted.

  9. I'm not a writer but I did enjoy writing emails, when my husband was stationed in Korea, telling people what the country was like and our experiences over there. I enjoy your blog. Thank you!

  10. I love the thought that often we can't see that God is doing anything, until many miles down the road, hindsight provides that clarity! It's thrilling to know that there's God-work going on right now behind my awareness!

    I also treasure a circle letter that our close group of friends has had circulating for about 27 years now. Yes, we do have modern technology, but when that fat envelope rolls around, my family knows that supper, laundry, etc. will come to a grinding halt for a little while!

    Keep writing...for God's glory, for your fulfillment and for our enrichment!