They (my essays) will remind you not to write for the wrong reasons—marketplace reasons that crush your true identity. Give yourself permission to believe in the validity of your own narrative. Bill Zinsser (author, teacher)
I belong to an organization of writers who are Christian. Each year hundreds of us enter work published during the previous twelve months, vying for awards in several categories, fiction and non-fiction books and articles. I started entering 3 years ago. The first year my work was shortlisted but didn’t place. The next year I placed first in personal experience and second in another category that slips my mind.
Last year, I entered two of my published articles. I thought both were good, very good in fact, and so you can imagine my surprise when I didn’t shortlist, never mind place. At first I felt miffed. Something must be wrong with the judges. Yes, for sure, it had to be them, it couldn’t be me.
After the awards gala, I received as is the organization’s custom, copies of the pieces I entered with comments from the judges. Two articles. Different judges. Almost identical comments that went something like this: This writer knows how to tell a story. (Thumbs up.) Then each went on to say how disappointed they were when my personal essay descended into stories and quotes from other so-called experts. “I wanted to hear what you had to say,” one commented. (Seriously.)
One judge wrote that I’d begun well, hooked the reader, then lost the reader when I gave my voice to someone else who wasn’t nearly as interesting. (he said that, I didn’t).
I remembered my previous shortlisted and winning essays. I’d written from my heart, opened a window for the reader to see into my soul. Somewhere between year 2 and year 3, I’d decided my views needed confirmation from others. I know how this happened. I wrote a few articles for a magazine that sculpted my outlines. They suggested who to interview. I followed their advice. I had to or my work wouldn’t be published. Some subjects require confirmation from experts but I’d carried this practice into my personal experience essays – a mistake.
Each writer comes to the task of writing with her own life experiences. Those experiences shape us. I can quote other writers and I still do but I’m careful now not to give my voice to someone else. The writer’s voice is his greatest asset.
You’ll notice a quote from Zissner at the beginning of this post. The reason I quote him is, you guessed it, to confirm that the judges of my work were right – my story has value. For that reason I need to treasure it and express it, in my words, not in the words of a stranger.
You may not be a writer but you have a story to tell. Tell it from your heart as simply as you can. Tell how your story connects with God’s story. His big story is what makes our small stories significant.
Tell me the story of Jesus,
Write on my heart every word.
Tell me the story most precious,
Sweetest that ever was heard.
Tell how the angels in chorus,
Sang as they welcomed His birth.
“Glory to God in the highest!
Peace and good tidings to earth.” (Fanny Crosby)