Archives for the month of: November, 2010

When I was a senior at the University of Georgia in 1984, I needed a bunch of P.E. credits in order to graduate. Probably I had been doing a little too much partying at the downtown Athens scene and not enough attending of classes. Nonetheless, I eagerly  registered for a class called Fitness for Life; an intensive, multi-sport approach to physical fitness that would fulfill my P.E. requirement. I made a trip home to borrow my little brother’s ten-speed bike, got back to campus, laced up my Pumas, and prepared to get my body in top shape. Boy, did I have a  surprise around the bend.

My class was biking down S. Milledge Avenue, sans helmets, when an elderly gentleman’s car slammed into me from behind. I don’t know if I flew up into the air and then hit the pavement, or just got struck, went limp, and lay motionless on the road waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I’ve got no memory until some sketchy images weeks later in a hospital room, and then mostly snippets of what my Mother and my best friend have shared with me. I do have a few hazy memories which take place later on in the physical therapy room of the hospital; learning to walk again between parallel bars, of squeezing sponges of water from one bowl to another. I can see bottles of phenobarbitol and hear admonitions to “Be careful, take things easy.”

When the hospital sent a brain-injury specialist to prepare my family for their new reality, I was oblivious to it all. One thing I really hate to ponder is my folks going over to the dorm to clearing out my room when they were finally allowed to take me home from the hospital. No telling what they found! Apparently my mother dwells only on the good things because she said so often as I mended, (and still says so much I get tired of hearing it), “Julie, you are a walking miracle!  You should be dead, or at the best, a vegetable. God’s been good to you.”

Well, at first I was not so sure about all the ‘God’s been good to you’ talk. I was covered in scars; a long pink-white puckered one down my inner thigh, one along my spine, and a big shiny one on the back of my head (hairdressers wonder about it). My wrists would let me down when I tried to hold something heavy, like a skillet (which makes me think I must’ve landed on my hands). Trips to the neurologist, who hooked me up to various machinery, revealed a “spark” from the right front temporal lobe of my brain. I certainly wasn’t feeling the need to say thanks or even talk to Someone who would let all this happen.

Though I’d been raised by very devout, God-fearing parents who taught me the Golden Rule and carried me to church every time the doors were open, I had never had the time, nor the desire for any of that spiritual stuff. I did not want anything that got in the way of what I wanted to do. Life was all about me.

Months and months passed, years, and as I journeyed along in my recovery (particularly as I saw the drooling folks in wheelchairs in the neurologist’s waiting room) I began to see that I had indeed been spared, and that there was a greater power at work in me.

Now, I don’t believe God made that accident happen to get my attention. He didn’t say, “I think it’s time for Julie to appreciate her every breath, and love her neighbor as herself.” But I do think He allowed it, held me all the way through it, and taught me a lot because of it.

That experience taught me about cherishing the small things. I try not to take a lot for granted. I know life as we know it can be gone in one split-second. It gave me compassion for other people. Going through that valley, which turned out to be a fairly long, dark one, made me at last (I’m very, very stubborn) seek a relationship, a peace with God that I would not trade for anything in this world.

Sometimes it still hits me right between the eyes; I realize what a miracle it is that I still possess the mental clarity to tell the stories I’ve always loved to tell, that I’ve been given three children (and a husband), and the ability to walk through and enjoy this world, this life!

The bike wreck, the brain injury and my subsequent journey to recovery has to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. But as many challenges as I faced, still face, it was worth it all. In an odd way, I’m even thankful for what became the pivotal moment in my life. I would not erase it even if I could. What it taught me is of immeasurable value. It literally changed my life.

A brain injury is a funny thing. If things are calm, I’m good. But when I am stressed, or tired, I am prone to what are called ‘spells.’ This is a spacey disconnect with reality, preceded by an unusual aura. Sometimes while I’m sleeping, I’ll even have seizures, and I absolutely HATE hearing about these, because most of the time I’m unaware of them. They are why I do not drive.

The Bible says to give thanks in everything (not for everything), which to me means to live with gratitude. So, I try to slow down and not stress, to take delight in the small joys of life.  I covet the peace that comes from a grateful heart, and I’m very passionate about giving thanks, about trying to live with a spirit of gratitude.

I am a storyteller and I like what Donald Maass has to say about conveying our passionate opinions: “They are always stronger in the mouths of characters than in the prose of the author.”

One of the characters in my latest novel, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” is Mr. Tyronious Byrd, an aging black gentleman who’s caretaker of a tree farm in 1944 Georgia. Tyronious Byrd has gone through a valley of utter darkness, a time when his inner fortitude and all of his convictions were tested. It became one of those inward turning points for him, and now Mr. Byrd has things to say to a young man named William who struggles with polio and cannot serve alongside his peers in WWII:

“Now don’t go pityin’ yo’self, son. Seem ever’ day I hear about some mama or daddy getting’ a telegram say their baby ain’t coming home. Don’t be gettin’ jealous of nobody over there fightin’. Besides yo’ limp and a hand what gives you trouble, you an able-bodied man. Got this nice family business just waitin’ for you to take it over someday.”

Tyronious Byrd is an impassioned advocate of looking at the silver lining of every cloud. His faith in God’s plan is the force that drives him. He cleaves to the belief that giving thanks in spite of circumstances is a sure way to have peace. William complains to him that this is not an easy thing to do:

“Naw. It ain’t easy, that for sho’. But then ain’t nothin’ worth havin’ ever easy.” Mr. Byrd cleared his throat. “You recall me tellin’ you God ain’t never goin’ let you down? That whatever happen, He goin’ use it in His perfect plan?”

Even though William is doubtful, Tyronious Byrd cleaves to his convictions. He does not mince words. He speaks the truth as he sees it:

“Sometime when life give a person a hard blow, the Lord don’t reach down and deliver ‘em out of all they troubles. Sometime He give ‘em the strength to endure and overcome. Now I ain’t gonna lie t’ you, son. Sometime the nights still be lonely, and some days seem t’ go on forever, ‘specially in December, but even then I been able t’ find a peace and joy I ain’t never experience before my valley – on account I feel Jesus, the Presence, walkin’ beside me.”

Funny, but Mr. Tyronious Byrd, a minor character, became my favorite character. His story, in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” is about finding things to give thanks for even in the dark valleys of life. Finding joy and peace and a spirit of thanksgiving despite our ‘momentary afflictions.’ This is what I hope and pray this book brings into the hearts of readers this holiday season.


P.S. Last week I got an email from Teresa Weaver, editor of Atlanta Magazine. She was in Haiti with Habitat for Humanity. As I write this, Haiti is still reeling from a blow by Hurricane Tomas. This impoverished country was already fighting a deadly outbreak of cholera, and now torrential rains and heavy winds have displaced many from their homes. Teresa’s gift of time and labor, and the Haitians plight remind me to  ask everyone to please lift up a prayer for the folks in Haiti while you’re feasting with family and friends today.

No, I’m not dying. Well, in a sense I guess we’re all dying, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. This is my story about moving from the secular publishing world to the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association).

Some years ago, when my editor at Simon & Schuster said to me, “Julie, we don’t publish religious stuff,” I didn’t have the faintest notion of what to say back to her. I knew absolutely nothing about the CBA and I didn’t really think of my Homegrown series (Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes‘Mater Biscuit, and Those Pearly Gates) as religious. I liked to think of it more as ‘spiritual.’

The marketing department at S&S targeted the stories toward the gardening community. At the time, this was okay by me, because I never set out to write religious stories, and even now with two books in the chute for the CBA, I ask myself; “How in the world did I get into this business of writing Christian fiction?” Sometimes I even say to myself, “Isn’t writing Christian fiction the same as preaching to the choir?” I still haven’t read any of the how-to books out there on the subject of writing inspirational (CBA) fiction. I’m still not sure about a lot of stuff, and so I’m hoping to uncover some answers as I write this.

My family claims I’m hard-headed, a southern term for stubborn. What I’ve always desired is to tell my stories exactly the way I want to tell them. Mother says I was born telling stories and as soon as I could write, I was fashioning crude little books on things such as my dog, Roscoe, who loved to steal construction workers’ lunches from around our blossoming 1970’s neighborhood. Over the years, my English teachers put encouraging notes on my report cards, and for me, a particularly nerdy child (all knees, elbows, eyeglasses, braces, and stringy brown hair) it was a way to shine, to hold my head up a tiny bit even if I was picked last for teams at recess.

After high school I went to the University of Georgia where I earned a degree in Advertising from the Journalism school. I kept up my creative writing obsession, however, writing all sorts of awful stories and experimental poems. During my senior year, 1984, I became fascinated by the power of spiritual things because this was a time when I absolutely hit rock bottom and there was no way in this natural world I would have survived if not for being sustained by God’s mystical hand of mercy and huge amounts of grace (grace being defined as ‘God’s undeserved favor’).

Flannery O’Connor was right when she wrote, “Grace changes us and change is painful.” Flannery didn’t have an easy life. She earned a lot of spiritual wisdom as a young girl from witnessing the tragedy of her beloved father’s struggle with lupus, followed by his premature death and then her own diagnosis of lupus. As a devout Catholic, she wrote often about “Christ-haunted” characters, trying to portray them as they might be touched by divine grace in a created world charged with God.

I’m often asked where my story ideas come from, and I say that when I sit down to write, the story is the first thing on my agenda. I start out striving to write page-turners that folks can just fall into and forget their troubles for a while. But somehow my plots always seem to interweave themselves with spiritual themes – with many different angles of “the human condition” as it pertains to that mystical relationship between the Creator and the individual. At the core, the very center of my stories I inevitably find that those “truths” I’ve discovered along my life’s journey have just kind of slipped in. These are things to which I know I’m indebted and hence, about which I care passionately. It looks like there’s something inside me that absolutely has to share them, that feels this fierce need to offer readers hope in the midst of all the troubles they face in this crazy, capricious dance called Life. I want those whom the world mistreats or injures to see their true worth as children of the living, loving God.

It’s been almost 10 years since I published my first novel and still I’m excited when I get emails and notes from readers about it. It literally thrills me to hear from people who’ve been touched by Imogene’s story and her strength in the midst of grief; folks who’ve found a laugh, gained insight or hope or comfort or peace. Hearing from readers is the thing that gives me perspective. It’s easy to forget in the frenzy of writing, editing, and promoting – this business of putting words onto paper and into the world – how powerful words can be. As a writer, it’s not about how many thousands of copies you sell, or the 5-star reviews you collect, or your advance (though, let’s be honest; sometimes you DO have to worry about paying the mortgage and for the braces and a jug of milk.) It’s about touching people.

Looking back on my own reading history, I see some books that shaped my life. As a young teen I remember reading Christy, a novel by Catherine Marshall, set in the fictional Appalachian Village of Cutter Gap, Tennessee, in 1912. The soul of that novel touches me to this day, as does The Beloved Invader, by Eugenia Price, set on a Georgia plantation after the Civil War, and more recently, Jewell, by Brett Lott, a story I plan to read again and again so I can savor his lyrical prose along with his insights into human nature. I practically inhaled Anne Lamott’s devout but quirky book, Traveling Mercies; Some Thoughts on Faith, a narrative spiced with scripture and stories about her walk of faith how she came to believe in God, and hence, in herself.

I’ve always been fascinated by words; collecting bits of dialogue, plot ideas, and character descriptions and stuffing them into drawers and file folders. Just lately one morning, during my meditation time, I was reading Jeremiah 4:14 and I had to copy it down on an index card. I love God’s use of synesthesia (using one sense to describe another) here: “Behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them.”

Yes, words are powerful stuff. As far as synesthesia goes, it’s comforting to me to be compared to a tree in Jeremiah 17:7-8; “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (NRSV)

Recently I was talking about my cross-over to the CBA with my new editor at Abingdon Press, Barbara Scott, and she said “Terri Blackstock is a Christian who used to write in the secular world and now writes in the CBA.” I hung up the phone and went right to Terri’s website. I clicked on the word ‘About’ and read the opening line with interest. “Terri Blackstock hasn’t always written for the Lord. Just over a decade ago she was an award-winning secular novelist writing for publishers such as Harper Collins, Harlequin, and Silhouette . . . After much soul-searching and wrestling with God, she finally told the Lord that she would never write another thing that didn’t glorify Him. Thinking she might never be published again, she began planning ways to supplement her income, while she worked on her first idea for a Christian novel . . . “ You can read ‘the rest of the story’ at Terri’s website (

Writing in any genre is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. But I feel it even more now that my agent has me firmly entrenched in the CBA. It sure isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of nerve and honesty. It requires a writer to look deep inside and expose their raw self. As far as my hard-headedness, my stubborn determination to write the way I want to – now that I’m writing in this genre, and since I know as a Believer “it’s not all about me,” and combining this knowledge with the fact that my stories can only be all about me (because my experiences and my world-view are all I have to mine my stories from) it can be sort of nerve-racking. And because I know I’m a lump of clay, a work in progress, and because I want to be sure I’m allowing His greatness to work for me and through me, I often have to take a deep breath, exhale, and pray, “Okay Lord, please rescue me from my tendency toward self-centeredness, give me a heart to share stories about your goodness, and language to speak it well.”

I still have so much I want to say and figure out about life, and by the grace of God I’ll continue to devote myself to the one thing I’ve loved to do since childhood – stringing words together to compose stories, stories that not only draw a reader away from their worldly troubles for a spell, but that also offer hope and comfort they can carry with them long after they close the book.