Remember the scene in the movie "The Princess Diaries" where Mia (Anne Hathaway) sits on the low stone wall outside of her high school before classes began? A boy came along looking for space to sit there also; he sat on her lap before realizing she was there. Mia told her best friend about the incident and wailed, “I’m invisible, nobody sees me,” or something like that. She didn’t fit in and felt like nobody even saw her much less paid any attention to her. I can identify with Mia.
When I decided I wanted to write for publication all I had were aspiration and hope. I had not studied the craft of writing but I had loved books and reading all my life. So I sent my first stories to Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal. Those form rejection letters came back to me with haste. It didn’t take me long to learn that I needed help.
I scoured the magazine racks in the mall bookstore and found some about writing. I bought Writer’s Digest and The Writer and devoured their contents. I discovered names of books about all aspects of writing and lists of writing conferences. Who knew there were writing conferences to attend and gain knowledge?
I decided my first conference would be the Professionalism in Writing School conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a long trek from Alabama. I’d read in my new magazines that I should take samples of my writing and business cards to identify myself when I made an appointment with an editor or agent. I didn’t have business cards and was relieved when I read that I could put my information on a 3x5 card and share that with people (yes, this was many years ago).
My husband let me out at the front of the large hotel where the conference was held while he parked the car. The wind blew horizontally all the time we were there so while waiting for him I stepped into the area between the outer entrance doors and the doors into the lobby. A young lady came inside pulling a carrier stacked with books and paper materials. At the threshold of the first doors when she pulled her carrier into the space where I stood, everything tilted and scattered around us. I timidly helped her stack things back as best as I could. Didn’t introduce myself, didn’t recognize her.
I’d learned in my teen years when I was in an unfamiliar situation it would serve me well to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. So from the outset of the conference that’s what I did. The attendees appeared to know what they were doing so I watched and followed their lead. But among these seasoned writers’ conference-goers I was so invisible I didn’t even realize I was invisible. I was Mia in Princess Diaries all over again.
I got in a line at the registration table to receive my folder and name tag. I noticed that many folks were getting in another line before entering the auditorium, so I again followed. When my turn at the head of the line came, I realized they were putting their names on sheets for 15-minute appointments, each sheet having a name at the top; the instructions indicated these sheets were for time with editors and agents. I signed up on an editor’s sheet and made a note of my allotted time and the room number.
As others filed into the auditorium so did I. Alone among groups, I found a seat with nobody on either side. I sat, ramrod straight, eyes and ears open. Someone from the left got my attention by asking if the seat beside me was taken. I shook my head. A woman with a beautiful Texas drawl introduced herself, forcing me to speak my first words at my first writers’ conference as I introduced myself.
I scanned the conference program and marked the sessions I wanted to attend. I needed to attend them all—so much I didn’t know. I did remember to work around my 15-minute editor appointment. The conference director made her opening remarks and asked for those from certain states to raise their hands. Then she said we had someone from perhaps the farthest distance attending and called my name; she said I came from Alabama with a banjo on my knee. Most attendees chuckled. Talk about a memorable introduction. She pointed toward me and I raised my hand as all eyes turned my direction. I was no longer invisible to anyone but me.
In the workshop sessions I made copious notes but also decided I’d buy the tapes since it was impossible to get it all written down. I browsed the book room and it was like Christmas morning and finding delightful presents. I saw books on all aspects of the writing craft and I wanted to buy them all. Then when the editor’s appointment time came, I made my way toward the designated room and waited my turn outside the door.
I went into the room, sat across the table from a perky young lady and pushed my 3x5 card toward her without a word. She picked up my card, looked at it then looked at me and said, “I’m Karen Ball.” She asked me what I wrote, a question I couldn’t answer. I just wrote whatever came out of my head, but I didn’t say that to her. I realize now how gracious she was to recognize that I was out of my depth and she prodded me along by asking what I had brought for her to look at. I had been writing short prayers for women in circumstances they might find themselves and I’d brought five prayers with me.
I didn’t know that Karen Ball was a fiction editor and she probably could have told me so and to go sign up with a nonfiction editor. No—kind, sweet, and professional Karen Ball read each of my five prayers. She wanted to take my pages back to Tyndale House with her and I agreed. I didn’t know the significance of her doing so. I did know I hadn’t made any copies of them but they were in my computer, so not to worry.
Not too long after the conference, Karen phoned me that Tyndale House Publishers would like me to write more prayers. The result was Tyndale published two prayer books by me: Amen and Good Morning, God (always free at http://tiny.cc/4pvi1x) and Amen and Good Night, God. Later, another company published my devotional book, His Awesome Majesty. As I learned the craft of writing and used market guides, I submitted short stories and articles—and got them published. I’ve also written seven sweet Southern historical romance novels and two novellas that are traditionally published.
That Professionalism in Writing School conference was good for me and I attended several years until the director ended its existence. Oh, and by the way, that young lady who spilled her books in the hotel entrance was Bodie Thoene; she and her husband Brock were the keynote speakers for the conference. And that woman with the beautiful Texas drawl who sat beside me in the auditorium was Vickie Phelps and is now a close writer-friend; we’ve coauthored three nonfiction books. Our husbands also get along well.
My first published novels, in the endearing Caney Creek Series, are set in the Southern Appalachians of East Tennessee where my ancestors and I were raised. I’d listened to older generations tell their stories at family reunions about time before telephones and automobiles. Their stories fascinated me and I wanted to write about a time before I was born.
This Appalachian series percolated in my mind in the late 1990s. While these stories continued to take shape, in 2001 I received a life-altering health diagnosis with a negative prognosis.
My mind was still intact but my body wouldn’t do what it was told. My balance while walking diminished and I quit attending writing conferences. My doctor advised me not to drive. In 2008, I began to improve. My hands were steadier and I could get my first Appalachian story started. I have outlived my doctor’s prognosis by seven years.
From 2001 to 2008 I had a lot of time to meditate. A relative marvels that I’ve never questioned, “God, why me?” I have not become bitter because of the health issues. I think God just gave me time to understand a lot of things when I was inactive. I’m a more peaceful, patient, and faithful me.
This writing journey is never-ending. How could I not write? What writing ability I have comes from God and I must be the best steward of that gift that I can be.