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'Use your fears.
They're very powerful'

September 26, 2007

I like to keep journals because almost all of my books on writing say that if you want to be a writer you should record things. This will be your raw material. It’s about becoming conscious. They say you should put down things like memories, daily experiences, bits of dialogue you overhear, the way the sky looks just before a storm, your innermost feelings…

But it took me a long time to embrace the words of one writing instructor; “Write your fears, Julie,” she said. “Use your fears. They’re very powerful.” I did not want to do this. Something about putting those words on paper would give them authority.

When I was 34, my father was diagnosed with cancer and the bottom fell out of my life. I felt scared beyond words. Of course, I was not able to write about my fears of losing him in my journals, but I did begin this fictional story about a newly widowed older woman. In part to distract myself and in part because subconsciously I was playing that old “What if?” game. Of course I was writing around the real issue, which was the fear of losing my father, but I decided I had a story to tell.

Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes began as a story about a woman who just lost her husband of 48 years. I decided to put my sad, empty widow Imogene out there in the garden to give her a distraction, to find solace and joy in the sheer pleasure of physical labor. But then her battle with grief touched me so deeply I did what I call “let her see the spiritual side of composting” which is that life springs from death. I figured that would cheer her up and give her hope. What happened was that gradually the garden emerged as its own character and the seasons in Imogene’s garden, her passage from grief to wholeness, wove themselves together. As I wrote I even startled myself by the insights I received. Not only by the simple, pure beauty of the natural world, but also that Imogene turned out to be like the tomatoes in her garden, the plants with the strongest survival instincts.

Another fear I wove into that same novel was my childhood fear of the Rapture. My Mother warned me and my siblings many times that the trumpet would sound when we were all unaware, and only the Saints would rise. “Be ready,” she would admonish, her brow furrowed. Well, I knew I was no saint, and several times I came home to an empty house, where unbeknownst to me, the other five had been invited next door for a hot slice of apple pie or some such thing, and I would do what they say in biblical language “rent her clothes in anguish.” So I let Loutishie, my heroine Imogene’s niece, get drunk and smoke cigarettes after she believes she has been “Left Behind.” The writing of this humorous scene was very cathartic for me.

In 2001, when said novel above was released and my publisher sent a long list of my media appearances and speaking engagements, I confronted yet another fear; Laliaphobia, or the fear of public speaking. You’ve probably heard the statistic that identifies public speaking as the number one fear in America, second only to death, and that a number of folks would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. Well, this was a pretty apt description of me as I started out down the long road of book promotion with my quaking voice and my quivering hands. Previously I had believed that writers were reclusive creatures, not reduced to hawking their wares. I was ignorant. I prayed for deliverance. But even so, I knew that a person cannot kneel at the foot of their unmade bed and wail, “Oh, Lord, make this bed!” So, I dusted off my knees, plunged ahead, and fortunately, not too long afterward, my friend and fellow author, Karin Gillespie, invited me to join a troupe of women writers called The Dixie Divas. There is safety, comfort, boldness in numbers and years of events later, there is one thing I can say for certain: I may still have many fears to confront in this life, but I know that laliaphobia is not one of them. I am a polished and eager speaker.

Truly, Julie

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