People often ask me how to become a writer. I don’t know.
I do know is how I became one. So, this is my story peppered throughout with my advice
If you really are serious about becoming a writer this “emerging story” addresses the questions people often ask who seek to get published. It does it by autobiographically telling my own story and seldom instructs or preaches directly. It will (when finished) answer a common question I get-“How can I break into writing a book.” But a few warnings first: It is too personal: I am usually uncomfortable giving away so much personal information online, but in this case it is perhaps the best way to accomplish the purpose. It is rough. It doesn’t even reach up to “journalism, let along “writing.” It is not a polished work and the copy following is only a second draft and thus ignores its own advice at times. In editing this second draft I see it as a wonderful example of taking twenty words to say three-thus it is more BLOG-like than an example of good writing.
Having made those excuses-here is the first half:
I might never have become a writer if my father hadn’t sold our TV. My parents were “early adopters” of television. In 1952 my uncle Hobart, a wealthy executive with U.S. Steel, bought our family a television to help my parents “provide an enriched environment” for their favorite nephew-me. It was a great gift and I immediately became hooked to Howdy Doody. But the TV was trouble for my dad’s ministerial career. It put him on the liberal edge of our denomination. It created a furor among some of the conservative pastors in Western Pennsylvania where he served my denomination as a District Superintendent. They referred to the antenna on our roof as “devil’s ears” and organized an active resistance effort against their DS who was “getting liberal.”
My father was a master of the “strategic retreat.” He seldom stayed and fought and never encouraged his pastors to, either. When trouble began he usually just left. My dad attempted to befriend his opposition but they wouldn’t hear of it. Then he simply ignored them until their movement grew large enough to make his life uncomfortable-to which he responded with a smile, then walked away. He moved across the state to pastor a local church. In 1957 he left the work of a District Superintendent and re-entered pastoral ministry, work that had been cut short when he had been elected a DS at age 36.
That’s when he sold our TV. His new church in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania didn’t make him do it. They just hoped he would. They asked, “Do you own a TV?” He said he did. They mentioned that none of the board members at this church owned a TV-with obvious implications. Beginning his strategic retreat, my dad said, “We carefully monitor what we watch.” They elected him as pastor anyway. After winning the battle with the board he withdrew his forces from the war: he sold the TV before loading our moving van, using the money to purchase a “Hi Fi” record player (which was far less interesting as TV since all we had were pipe organ records).
This is how my home was both early adopters of television, and one of the latest to have one. This provided me with six full years of TV-less home life. So, I read. Had they kept their TV, I might not have become a reader, or a writer. Becoming a writer passes through the doorway of reading. It is this fortunate TV-less teenage life that opened up the world of reading to me, and eventually the world of writing.
The Sugar Creek Gang
My earliest introduction to adventure was from the Sugar Creek Gang book series by Paul Hutchens. My parents had bought each one for me. These were short books, about 100 pages each. I was captivated enough to finish one each evening before going to bed. I had about 30 books by Hutchens in total I think, but in a month I had been through the entire series. So I read them over and over again. I am sure that I read some of those books a dozen times-I began to anticipate the next page-even to the location on the page of the discovery of the mind shaft, or when the appearance of the mountain lion in camp. I didn’t have a “literature enriched environment” so I just recycled the books I had. At the time I did not know how much this would create a foundation for understanding writing, and flow, and plot, and word selection. In Paul Hutchens’ series I found the adventure and mystery I longed for, yet it was all wrapped up in a Christian package. He introduced me to adventure. Paul Hutchens let boys be boys.
Grace Livingston Hill
Lois Metzgar, my junior high sweetheart was on a parallel track, reading Grace Livingston Hill’s Christian romance novels. She loaned me several of these books and I read them because I was hungry for books. But their girlish relational-based stories didn’t grab me. Admittedly Hill was a great writer, and still has a significant following long after her death (she was one of James A. Michner’s models) but I didn’t care for them. I was more interested in trapping tigers and doing something real dangerous, than chatting in the parlor.
Eventually I wore out my Sugar Creek Gang series. Or they wore me out. I scouted the house for other books. I still do not understand why I had not yet discovered the notion of a library. But I never thought of it. In my father’s bookshelf, among his collection of sermon books by Paul S. Rees and Clovis Chappell. I discovered a set of handsomely bound novels with striking bindings-cream colored with blue titles on the spine-a series by Zane Grey. My aunt Garnet had given them to my father though she had never read them. My father hadn’t read them either. This is how they came into my possession as virgin books. I remember handling that delightfully bound first volume, caressing it with my fingers, paging through and reading a paragraph of adventure here and there. I swooned. I took my new love to bed with me that very night.
I was hooked on Zane Grey. Here I discovered all the adventure of Paul Hutchens without being so preachy. One by one I read through the entire set of Zane Grey novels, and then re-read the entire set at least twice, maybe three times. The first time reading the book, I would be captivated by the story line. The second time through I began to see how the writer was telling the story. In subsequent trips through the books I eased closer to the writer’s thinking until it was almost like we were tapping out the story together.
James Fenimore Cooper
I found my next writer-mentor in the library. I walked home from school each day past the Monroe County Library. I had passed it daily yet never recognized it or realized it was packed with interesting books. An ancient converted home on Main Street, it had wonderfully creaky wooden floors. I wandered into this smallish library one day. Here I discovered entire sections of adventure books like my treasured Zane Grey novels. And I met James Fenimore Cooper. He immediately began to mentor me. I consumed his books, but more slowly than Zane Grey’s-sometimes taking two weeks to read one. They were tastier and took time to digest. It was a new experience for me to live with a book for several weeks. Actually live in the book. I was only dimly aware of my surroundings at school, for I came alive in another world-one of James Fenimore Cooper’s stories: the Deerslayer, the Pathfinder the Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, The Pilot, the Pioneers. I lived in these stories during my junior high years (my report cards showed it). Cooper’s sense of place permanently imprinted me. I can picture his richly described settings 40 years after reading them-settings where only a few words of dialogue may have passed between the characters-amazing! Cooper painted such settings so clearly that I could enter the story and live in his diorama for several weeks. I suspect this junior high romance with place set me up for later adopting James A. Michener as my favorite writer of my adult years.
Louise Dickinson Rich
In that tiny library I also found my wife-Louise Dickinson Rich. Well, I might never marry that great Maine writer, but I started searching for her double. Her book, We took to the Woods had a profound impact on me. She told the adventurous story of her family’s escape to the wilderness of Maine searching for a simpler life closer to nature. She became my model woman-smart, willing to take risks, resourceful, positive, and a lover of nature. I suspect every girl I dated after reading that book (and the woman I finally married) wishes I’d never met Louise Dickinson Rich in the Monroe County Library.
With nobody to guide my reading I stayed with the adventure book genre. In class one day I read the short story To Build a Fire by Jack London. I was enthralled. I wanted more. I found it-this time in my high school library. London mentored me as we snow-shoed through Alaska and drove great teams of dogs. Together we went on great and dangerous sea voyages. I took two trips through Call of the Wild and White Fang. But I also loved Sea-wolf and Cruise of the Snark, reading with trepidation (I could not swim until age 17). What great stories. And when I discovered Jack London’s life was about as exciting as his stories, I was even more enthralled.
I was a boy of books and adventure. It is hard to read adventure books and not go adventuring. Books affect actions. My route home from school ran directly down Main Street in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Besides passing the library I also walked passed Wycoff’s department store. There I found-snowshoes! Exactly like those described in the Jack London stories. There on the wall hung a set of 57″ Wallingford rawhide snowshoes. I stopped daily and sat on the “husband’s chair” across from them daydreaming. I suppose they were there for display purposes, but they had a price tag: $17.50. I knew those snowshoes could take me into my future, to places otherwise closed to me.
I had to have those snowshoes. I imagined myself snow shoeing though huge drifts of sparkling snow following the faint outline of Jack London ahead of me. I knew I could never achieve my destiny in life without those snowshoes.
At the time I received 50 cents a day for buying lunch at school. My allowance was my only route to my snowshoes. I skipped lunch for a couple months until I had enough money to buy my Wallingfords. Hauling them home I announced, “Now I’m ready.” I became more than a reader of Jack London-I joined his ghost every time more an inch of snow fell. I began the live the books I read.
The influence of books
I read plenty of other books between seventh grade and graduation, but there is not space for them here. These writers above were the ones with the greatest influence. Interestingly, the books I read were not at all like the ones I would eventually write. My early reading was not about the content of future writing, but about writing itself. I learned to think like a writer from reading. And I saw how books shape people. I experienced how authors mentor through their writing. How these books influenced what I wanted to do, wished to buy, how I wanted to play, what I wanted to think about, talk about, and daydream about-even the kind of woman I wanted to marry. This mentoring might never had happened if my father had kept the TV.
High School precursor
My 10th grade essay
I was first published in 10th grade. In English class we were all required to write an essay. We were told the best would be submitted to a national essay contest. We might even win that prize and be printed in a book. I seldom did homework, though I always dutifully took home a book for appearances. That night I took home my English book. For some reason I cannot now remember, I did something unusual-my homework. I wrote the essay. I had a simple idea. People (at that time) sometimes used a phrase describing a miserable life. They said such a person was living “a Dog’s life.” I got thinking about a dog’s life that evening and wondered why such a life would be so bad. Dogs never needed a haircut, were not made to take a bath, work for a living, or go to school. They never had to do homework like the essay I was then writing. Why call it “a dog’s life?” So I crafted an essay along these lines and turned it in to Miss Stem’s English class the next day. I forgot about it…at least for a day.
The following day I was in Algebra class when I got called out of class. Getting called out to the hall was not that unusual for me. But it was seldom for good news. This time was different. I was greeted by Anna Stem in the hall with my “Dog’s Life” essay in hand, drilled her fearsome eyes through my forehead, and sternly said, “Keith Drury, shame on you! You are squandering away your schooling yet you are a genius writer-what’s the matter with you?!” I was stunned. She scolded me as a compliment. I knew I was neither a genius nor a writer, but I did admit to squandering away my schooling. Then she softened her tone, lowered her voice leaning against the wall in an almost-friendly posture. “Someday you are going to be a great writer, I can see that-when will you get serious about preparing for that future?”
Of all the things people say to you, only a few are life-changing. This was one of those for me. It altered the course of my life. Anna Stem’s prophecy continues to haunt me. And her admonition to get serious did eventually kick in-six years later. As for the essay, “A Dog’s Life,” she was right-it worked its way up the competition and I became “nationally published” in the 10th grade. It was a precursor to what would happen in college and later. But at the time I assumed it was only a fluke. Writers start out as readers. I have little patience to this day for people who imagine themselves writing a book but have no history of reading good books. If we cannot love reading the wonderful books already out there, we have no right to add ours to the shelves. Reading may not make you a great writer. But not reading will guarantee becoming a bad one.
With only one published essay under my belt I somehow wound up as editor of my college newspaper, The Pilot. My job was to create an interesting student newspaper the administration could send out as promotion to prospective students-an impossible task. I half-way succeeded, more or less. However, editing a college newspaper taught me the entire process of publishing, not just writing. I learned how to conceive the paper, outline the copy, write the stories, edit the copy, edit it again, type final drafts, send the drafts for typesetting, correct the gallies, layout the newspaper, approve the Silverprints from negatives, and finally drive out and fetch the final bundles of printed newspapers and distribute them around campus. All this I did as a volunteer job. My pay for this, however, was getting to meet Bob Dorney and his people at Dorney Printing in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Dorney Printing was a small town printing business who gave generously of their time to help me learn the publishing process. I was a good student (of this) and thirstily drank down every bit of information they taught me. On one of my wandering-around-trips at Dorney Printing I even got to see Morris Perkin’s daily planner they printed for him and others each year. Perkins was a local attorney who had invented a system of recording time for both billing and for planning, and Dorney Printing printed and marketed that planner. This planner was to become famous worldwide as the Day Timer® planner that eventually merged with Dorney Printing and later was purchased by Beatrice Foods. I remember snickering at the very thought that a person might be so obsessive-compulsive that they’d need a planner to keep track of their schedule. Boy did I have a lot to learn!
However, learning the printing process was not the most life transforming experience for me in being editor of my college newspaper. It was my staff that would change my life. My staff numbered exactly one-an assistant editor. She was a “Yearbook type” editor and helped me make the paper something attractive to the eye. I remember showing her my “mocks” and watching her screw up her face, slowly shaking her head back and forth rejecting them. Then with a quick shuffling she’d shift the waxed pictures and columns around and presto! the layout looked professional and attractive. Sharon Bailey Drury now repeats a similar process when I select my own shirt and ties. I eventually married the assistant editor of my college newspaper, but that is a whole other story.
Meeting John Wesley in seminary
It took me a while to graduate from college. I loved the forest more than classroom. I even landed a forestry job in the Pocono Mountains planting trees in summer and fighting forest fires throughout spring. I regularly arranged my classes to avoid Friday and Monday classes so I could work fighting fires or working on the helicopter fire support crew. But it turned out OK-I needed the time to mature and clarify my life calling. After my first (of three) senior years, I married Sharon Bailey. Miss Stem’s “get serious ghost” now had a live-in ally. I did get serious. For the first time in my life I found the discipline to do homework, to write assignments far enough ahead of time to proof-read them and do several editions. I took time to study for tests. I don’t know exactly how she arranged to have this effect on me, but if I could figure it out, I know quite a few of my own students nowadays that could use similar treatment. After marriage my life headed up. So did my grades.
With a record of terrible grades those first four years I had no hope of getting into seminary no matter how I’d shaped up the final two years. Besides, most ministers in my denomination in 1969 didn’t go off to seminary. They referred to seminary (even in my college chapel services) as “semitary-where they bury your faith.” I had been the pastor of a small country church (Pt. Phillips, Pennsylvania) and had served a summer or two with the Salvation Army at their Saddle Lake Camp in the Adirondacks. I figured I’d enter pastoral service like my dad and spend the rest of my life with only a college degree. That was not to happen.
Sharon suggested I apply to some seminaries, “You can’t lose anything by applying.” Well, you could lose the application fee I figured (though I discovered if you simply leave it out, they often still consider you!) If a person did attend seminary in my denomination at that time you either went to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky or Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I applied to both. Then while out to dinner together at Walps Restaurant, my best friend, David Brownlee urged me to apply to Princeton Theological Seminary: “They’d love a guy like you there-you know how to think, not just memorize stuff.” Sharon repeated her phrase, “You can’t lose anything by applying.” So I applied to Princeton too and was shocked to be invited for a personal interview. I only remember two things from the interview. One was a professor’s remark about my “F” in one course, “Had some trouble in Pentateuch I see?” The other was the closing statement, “Well, if we accept you here at Princeton we’ve decided that you’ll some day have a significant impact leading your own denomination.” Fat chance. I left grateful for the day on that prestigious campus knowing I’d never return. In several weeks I was astonished to be accepted and granted a scholarship. I knew this one was a fluke, for I am certain I said nothing impressive in the interview. And to boot, Asbury had rejected my application and Nazarene Seminary would only accepted me conditionally. How I got into Princeton I still do not know. How I got out with strong grades is even more astonishing. Who knows. All I know is I thrived in Princeton’s educational atmosphere where thinking was as important as remembering.
I did not edit Princeton’s paper. But I wrote plenty of papers for classes. It was not uncommon for the entire class grade to be based on a single paper handed in at the end of the semester. It terrified me. I got really serious about writing and studying. I learned to craft words carefully-more carefully by far than I am crafting this essay (which is however, journalism not writing). I learned to check and double check sources. I learned to take abstract thoughts and put them in a readable style. I brought disciplined research into my writing preparation.
But Princeton’s major effect on me would be in reading more than writing. It was at Princeton that I came to meet John Wesley. I had attended a Wesleyan college, but we only touched on one of Wesley’s actual works, and that only for a day or so. The rest of the time we read what people said about Wesley. In my Princeton classes I was frequently asked in my “preceptorial” group leader to speak for Wesley, “Well, Mister Drury, what would John Wesley say about this?” I hadn’t the foggiest idea what Wesley thought of Jurgen Moltmann’s “Theology of Hope.” I could care less about Wesley-I had converted to five-point Calvinism in college. But I was being called on to speak for Wesley-so in order to fill my assigned role I started going to the library and reading Wesley’s works.
Thus I came to meet my next mentor, John Wesley in Speer Library at Princeton Seminary. I was absolutely entranced! I’d read in college what the Nazarene writers said about Wesley. Their arguments were anemic and their books should have been distributed with a built-in snooze alarm. Wesley himself was different. His writing was lively, logical, controversial and practical. He took deep truths and put them down where I could grasp them. I never felt he was talking down to me or trying to impress me with his vast knowledge. He did not intimidate with words, and never made the reader feel stupid. Rather it seemed he really wanted to help me live a better life, to explain things carefully and in detail to me. When I finished reading Wesley I wasn’t talking about how smart he was so much as thinking about the thoughts he had written in such a comprehensible way. I did not know it at the time, but I had found the style and substance of most of my future writing career-making deep thoughts accessible to the average person in a way that changes lives.
Denominational program writing
I never intended to go to my denomination’s headquarters. Or stay there. On graduation from seminary we were looking toward three tracks: (a) Become Salvation Army officers and pastor a local corps (b) become a local pastor of a Wesleyan church like my dad, or (c) go back to Princeton and become a college professor. I had been a pastor at Neptune, N.J. during my last year of seminary and loved it.
But actually I didn’t want to take any of those forks yet. We determined to take some time to sort out which road to take. So, we went on vacation. For the next year. Stuffing our camping supplies in our VW beetle, we wandered the USA meeting people, seeing sights, and camping and hiking for a year. This was 1971-1972 however-and thus we were among thousands of other migratory hippies who lived in VWs as their “full time job.” While we never smoked pot, we got plenty of it as second hand smoke! Near the end of that year we spent three months hiking the Appalachian Trail together as we sorted out our future.
It was during that year an invitation came to interview for work at my denominational headquarters. I was being interviewed for the only job in my denomination related to the outdoors-directing our midweek club program. I could perhaps become responsible for the one program in the church that actually had a badge for fire building! I happily agreed to interview, and by summer 1972 I had gone to my denomination’s headquarters “for a year or so.”
CYC Monthly Letters (1972.)
My new job was to lead the denomination’s midweek club program-called CYC (later Kids Klub). The program was lodged in the Youth Department of my denomination, so I associated with youth workers-though my focus was on children. I had no idea whatsoever how to rally hundreds of local club leaders. As a pastor I knew how to lead people I saw face to face, but this was different. Here I had to lead people I never saw.
How do you lead people you never meet? I wrote. I arrived at the headquarters in late June or early July of 1972, and I sent out my first lead-by-writing mailing in September. In a juvenile attempt at cuteness I called my letter to all local leaders, “September Statements.” In it I rallied the troops by reminding them of the value of children’s work, the importance of the outdoor emphasis, and gave helpful tips in doing their work. It wasn’t even as fancy as a college newspaper. Such mass letters at the time were made by “cutting a stencil” on special blue film using a typewriter without a ribbon. The typing cut the letters into the film which would let the ink ooze through onto the paper when placed on a mimeograph machine manufactured by A.B. Dick.
The response was overwhelming. Within a couple of weeks I received scores of personal letters from the people I was supposed to be leading. I began to meet the people I was leading in their letters. They told me stories, leveled criticisms, and asked questions. All of which gave me fodder for “October Oracles” and so on through that next year until I ran out of months and cute titles.
These simple letters expanded eventually growing into a full children’s worker’s newspaper titled LEAD. The newspaper expanded to four then to eight pages and circulation came to include more than 10,000 children’s workers in local churches. Each month there were pages to fill. I had one secretary as my staff, so she and I wrote the whole newspaper. But I was gaining writing experience, especially how to lead-by-writing.
LEAD gave me another experience in writing. Putting together short articles, helpful tips, and rallying people to a cause taught me a new kind of writing-leadership writing. Using writing to get people to head the same way, do the right things. Compared to leading people through the written word, leading people face to face is easy.
Spiritual Development Guide (1973)
Managing CYC was only half my job in the early 1970’s. The other half was running my denomination’s short term missions program for students-YES Corps. Copied after the Peace Corps, this programs sent young people around the world for summer service and ministry. I took charge of this program with dozens of youth already in countries around the world. When the teams returned I got a flurry of angry letters from team members, adult coaches, missionaries, and parents. There were dozens of specific complaints but the most prominent was, “These youth had no spiritual preparation whatsoever for a trip of this nature.” In correspondence with missionaries and team coaches I compiled a list of the subjects these youth should deal with before they go overseas. After gathering the subjects they sorted nicely into two categories: general instruction on missions trips, and spiritual preparation.
In my innocence I tackled the second one first-making a Spiritual Development Guide for these youth to work through before heading overseas. The first edition was a mimeographed six week study of topics relevant to young people going on a missions trip. Students were required to recruit one other person to go through the Guide as a mentor. The adult mentors who went through this study is what caused it to take off. Demand exploded for use in general discipleship and it quickly outpaced the ability of our mimeograph machine. The guide was taken over by the Wesleyan Publishing House and continued to be published and sold for decades. The following year I wrote the other half-the general instruction on missions trips-as the YES Corps service manual (1974). This second book led to a third to help districts and local churches develop and send out their own missions team, the LIFE corps service manual (1974)
During the early 1970s most of my writing was “Program Writing”-letters, magazines, guidebooks, instructor’s guides, and leadership manuals. Thus I wrote descriptions of exactly what a local CYC Director should do in the CYC Director’s Guides (1974) By now the CYC program was growing rapidly. This led to the founding of the Christian Kids magazine, which eventually climbed to more than 20,000 circulation. Other manuals and booklets needed to be written and there was no money to pay writers, so I wrote them. But still I had not written a real book.
My first “real” book came out in 1975. Well, not really-it was more of a booklet. While the Spiritual Development Guide has lasted for decades with multiple reprints it was more of a discipleship manual than a book. I never set out to write a book-I just wanted to help people, or lead people. Writing was a means not an end.
I might have never written anything like a real book had it not been for Charles Day. In CYC every child was required in 6th grade to read a short biography of David Livingstone. The only Children’s biography at the time was published by Moody press. Moody Press ran out and delayed reprinting it. That brought our denomination a problem-there were several thousand 6th graders in the pipeline who had to read Livingstone’s biography that spring. And, Moody Press was being moody about when they might actually reprint their book. Charles Day, marketing director at The Wesleyan Publishing house called me to his office one day and asked, “Why don’t you write a biography and we’ll publish it?” “Me? I can’t write a book,” I replied. “Sure you can-I’ve read your letters and magazine articles-you can do it as good as the one we can’t get.” (Then he added, “And for sure it will be better than nothing-for that’s all we have now.”
So I tried. I researched the life of David Livingstone and tried to call up the ghost of Paul Hutchens, Zane Grey, and James Fenimore Cooper to help me write an exciting children’s book in the following 30 days. My result was published as The Adventures of David Livingstone 1975. It wasn’t even really a book, but just a booklet-only 40 pages and my wife drew all the maps and Ed Wallace supplied the line art. As a story it was horrible. As familiar as I was with the great story-tellers from my childhood, I was a dreadful story-teller myself. I have often been embarrassed that during the following decades thousands of 6th graders were required to read this book, thus advertising my ineptness. I never again attempted to write stories. Well, to be truthful, I have-but I have never shown it to anyone.
By the later 1970’s my job grew to include denominational camping ministries. I wasn’t promoted or anything like that-there was no denominational camping ministries. I had some experience working with Salvation Army camping, was active in Christian camping International and the American Camping Association, but my own denomination’s camps were led by volunteers and held on adult camp meeting grounds. Programming was weak with little attention given to site development. Master plans did not exist, or were drawn differently by each successive District Superintendent. I offered to write on camping, and my boss (David Keith) quickly agreed, adding “so long as you keep doing all your regular work too.” This commission turned me loose to write and publish an entire “Camping Guidelines series” over the following two years including Camp Site Selection (1976), Camp Site Development(1976), Camp Evaluation(1976), Camping CYC-Style(1976), and Wilderness Camping (1977). My early interest in the outdoors, along with those years of camp work with the Salvation Army would provide the basis for writing about camping. For the next 5-7 years Wilderness Camping became the most popular text for college courses by that name.
The entire series eventually went out of print. They are now only found in dusty files and bookcases. When I see one today they appear crude and simple. With the aid of computers and advanced graphics the students in my “Camping and Retreats” course or “Backpacking” course write better books now for my classes. However I still drag them out for “show and tell,” they were state-of-the-art guidebooks when they were published.
However, overall the guidebooks were a flop. While it had influence at the time, the series had a fatal flaw: I wanted desperately to write it. I learned through the process that writing perhaps should not start with “having something to say” so much as having a need to meet. I loved camping. I wanted to write about camping. I had passion about camping. I wanted to write about it like I wanted to buy those snowshoes. It was my destiny! So I did. The series met needs-most my need to write on the subject, not the public’s need to know about it. The series lasted only as long as my personality and passion drove sales. Once I was out of the camping picture, the series collapsed.
Besides learning a lesson about needs I learned another lesson. Though I wasn’t famous, I was known enough to drive sales. Fame drives sales. Even a bit of mini-fame. But fame is fleeting Fame sells. If you have a bit of fame you can market it-and a book is a handy vehicle. However when your fame fades (as it always does) the book will fade as well. People never really buy famous people’s books anyway-they buy a piece of their fame. Such books are souvenirs instead of life-transforming documents. Books that last for decades or generations meet needs and are not built on the fame of the author.
It is a better destiny to get famous for writing a book, than to write a book because you are famous. But even better still is to write a book and never be famous. Then if the book keeps selling, you know you really have met real needs, and your book might even outlast you.
Perhaps I should point out that to this point in my life I had yet to collect a penny for writing. Frankly, it never occurred to me that I should be paid for writing. I did not expect any remuneration for the long evenings and Saturdays I spent writing. Of course, some of the work was “for hire,” and thus done “on the clock.” That sort of work is rightfully the property of the employer. But others (like the Spiritual Development Guide and The Adventures of David Livingstone) I wrote on my own time-during evenings and on long weekends. It did not occur to me to ask for a royalty or even a one time fee. For me, I was meeting a need, not writing a book. While many professional writers gasp at this naiveté, I do not regret it. I was only 33 years old and most of what I had written wasn’t worth paying for. I ought to have paid others to read it! I was happy to practice a skill and meet some needs. I had no dreams of ever writing a “real” book. At least not until Cathy Stonehouse of the Free Methodist Denomination called me one day.
First (& last) CE book
I love Christian Education. It is my first topical love. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in Christian Ed. Two of the top five mentors in my life were CE professors. The two best teachers I ever had taught Christian Education (apparently a rare thing from reports I heard from my peers). All my jobs have filled relate to CE-Children’s work, youth work, Executive Editor of Curriculum, Denominational CE director, college professor in CE. Yet with all this education, experience and passion for Christian Ed. I could not pull off writing a book on it.
Well, I did pull it off, but the book was an awful one. In the late 1970’s Cathy Stonehouse was the executive editor for the Free Methodist denomination (Light and Life publishing House). She invited me to collaborate with my wife in writing a CE text for Children’s workers to study. We were to outline the characteristics of children at each stage in their development so as to help church workers understand them. Then we were to indicate the implications of this for teaching children.
Children as Learners (1979) was a ghastly book. It reads with all the gusto of a telephone book. It has little more content than an hour long seminar-and a boring one at that. It turned out to be a book like many of those CE prof’s classes my friends griped about-dry and unappetizing and a great time to catch a nap. I apologize to a decade’s worth of Free Methodist Sunday school teachers studied through that book. It should have inspired and educated them rather than put them to sleep. When the book (and entire series) went out of print I rejoiced. To this day, I buy up just about any copies that get listed online by used bookstores as my restitution for inflicting such a crummy book on wonderfully dedicated children’s workers.
I learned that knowledge, experience and even passion for a subject does not guarantee a writer’s success. Then again, this was the first time I actually got paid for writing something. Sharon and I received several hundred dollars when we sold “exclusive rights” to Light and Light Press. Exclusive Rights essentially means the publisher owns the work and can do about anything they please with it after they’ve paid you a lump sum up front. In this case Sharon and I were delighted we got paid at all and spent a long weekend in Chicago. That, as I remember was the only highlight of this writing project.
Learning to spell
After six years leading children’s ministries I joined my denominational CE department as Executive Editor of Curriculum-the most pure Christian Education job I ever did. That’s when I learned to spell. Since my third grade teacher Miss Culp had inflicted her unresolved past on me, I had told myself, “I can’t spell.” Having that self-image meant that I didn’t even try. My wife would proof read everything I typed. I always hired secretaries who could spell perfectly. When forced to write on a board or overhead I simply wrote so illegibly so that spelling became irrelevant since the audience couldn’t read it anyway.
On becoming Executive Editor for my denomination it seemed right that I might now learn to spell. This required my own resolving a grudge against Miss Culp first. So I did. Then I instructed my secretary, Lola Colen, to refuse to correct any errors in anything I wrote. She was to count the spelling errors and return my writing with the number of errors marked at the top of the page. My job was to find the errors the hard way-by looking them up in the dictionary. What a painful procedure!
At first I couldn’t even find misspelled words and I looked up dozens of words that were spelled right. When I did find a misspelling I could hardly find them in the dictionary since one needs to have a general idea of spelling to even look up a word. These were the days before spell-checker programs so I would have to scan through a lengthy list of pages in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary until I found the proper spelling of this or that word. To avoid that painful pin the tail on the right word, I made a list of words I misspelled most often and taped them to my desk. I looked there first. The list grew daily. However, slowly day-by-day I improved. I never got perfect, and by the late 1980’s spellcheckers swept into my life and completed the good work begun in me in 1978. All this does raise the issue of spelling. It is a trade secret that many writers-especially creative ones-are poor spellers. I have been surprised at how many manuscripts of quality writers exhibit interesting creativity in spelling and grammar. But then again, editors need work too. (More on the role of editors later).
Youth program writing
In 1980 I was elected to lead my denomination’s youth department which is some ways was the most memorable contribution I made to the church. Most older men and women can pick one era of life where they feel God got “the biggest bang for His buck.” I’d pick this era. In a sense everything I did before was a prelude to these years, and everything I’ve done since issued from those years. For certain the second half of my writing career took off, for these years were the “tipping point” in my wiring career.
I kept writing manuals and booklets. The youth and youth leaders provided a ready market for booklets and manuals. When the denomination got on one of its periodic church planting kicks, I wrote Project Plant (1982) to describe the role young people might play in planting new churches. Some of my sermons and seminars found their way into print including, Nine Thoughts about Temptation (1982), How to Have a Day Alone with God (1985) and How to Establish Accountability (1985).
The earlier Spiritual Development Guide still sold so strong that there emerged a need for a entry level discipleship program-for all young people, not just those going on a missions trip. Out of that need Sharon and I produced the Growing series Growing (1982), Growing More (1983) and Keep Growing (1984). This series started as ideas Sharon and I brainstormed for Sharon’s college women’s Bible study in our living room. (One of those groups had Vangie Armiger in it). After Sharon has tested the curriculum with college kids, I wrote up a manuscript and sent it to a dozen youth pastors for more testing and revision. After taking their own youth through the discipleship material and suggesting changes from their field test, I then revised the manuscript for final publishing. It was a simple entry-level discipleship series that has been repeatedly reprinted for decades. It always seems to outlive far more sophisticated competitors. I think its durability springs from the extensive field-testing in real-life situations. Most discipleship material is created by one person for one situation and wears out after a few years. The Growing series was a product of wide field testing and thus represented multiple situations and perspectives. It became a “work of the people.” In fact it was such a collaborative product that my name and Sharon’s are simply listed among a lengthy list of “Writers and revisers.” It is a lesson in ministry-if you don’t care who gets the credit (or the money) you can have far more ministry than you might imagine. (I am not suggesting here that all writers should write for free-just that we should sometimes do it.)
My first real book
It was during my early years in the Youth department that I came to write my “first real book.” Three denominations at that time cooperated in producing books and Sunday School curriculum: the Church of the Nazarene, The Free Methodist Church, and the Wesleyan Church. These three smaller denominations cooperated in projects to “lengthen the runs” on books and curriculum and thus reduce the cost and increase the “profit” (technically non-profit organizations don’t have “profit” they have “excess revenue over expenses”). Each of these denominations were considered “Holiness denominations” (at that time) and thus especially promoted John Wesley’s view of Entire Sanctification. They had been jointly selling a book by Dr. Lee Haines titled Entire Sanctification as their standard doctrinal book on this subject. It was up for revision or replacement.
The interdenominational committee decided they wanted a new book with a new approach. This new approach should explain this doctrine to a new generation of young adults. They wanted someone young enough to understand the age group yet old enough to understand the doctrine. They wanted to correct what they perceived as errors in the understanding of past teaching on holiness. I did not apply.
They chose me anyway to write this book. I did not know it would change the direction of my life-both personally and professionally. My assignment was to write John Wesley’s doctrine of holiness in a readable format for young adults-and to clean up some of the errors in understanding bequeathed to us from past excesses in teaching. The book had no title. Part of the committee insisted on retaining “Entire Sanctification” in the title. The rest (led by Cathy Stonehouse, now professor at Asbury Theological Seminary wanted to move toward the more palatable term of that day “Holiness.”
I wound up suggesting the title thanks to my wife. I wrote the manuscript in the early 1980’s when Robert Redford’s film Ordinary people was sweeping the nation and Sharon remarked, “That’s how you write-for ‘Ordinary People.'” Thus the title of my most widely circulated book on holiness was born of a Robert Redford movie title!
Holiness for Ordinary People (1983) was my first real book. It took research too. I revisited Wesley’s works I had not read since seminary and read the current articles and journals on holiness before “translating” the ideas for young adults. It was also the first book I wrote on a computer. I had no computer. Radio Shack at time was selling their magnificent TRS-80 computer. The floor model I looked at was a powerful model with 4K of memory-but it could be “maxed out” all the way to 16K if I paid extra for it. I paid the extra and took home my TRS-80. I paid $5200 for that personal computer and dot matrix printer. (I checked recently and could hardly spend that amount in today’s money for a personal computer!)
I set aside one day a week for research and thinking, and a second day for writing. We had a small room in our three bedroom house which became my writing den. On my writing days I took the phone off the hook, and sequestered myself in that room refusing to eat until I had written 3000 words. In a year I had produced the manuscript of my first full length book. I was 37 years old when I finished the manuscript and 38 by the time it worked its way through the editorial process and actually was published. People liked it. They affirmed my writing strengths-practical, easy to read, logical and engaging writing for the ordinary person. This book steadily gained ground in my denomination and to this day is almost always the most consistent in sales. Actually it was the first thing I’d written that I liked too. Not everything of course, but I got to make those changes with the second edition. For the first time I considered myself “becoming a writer.”
Holiness for Ordinary People was the first book I had a contract for. A writer’s contract usually pays 10% royalty to the writer for each sale, often paid at the end of the fiscal year. This can mean that your first royalty check comes two years after you’ve finished the manuscript and three years from when you started it-if you only took a year to write it, unless you get an advance against future royalties while you’re writing. Thus, if the book sells for $3.95 (as this one did when first published) I received 39 cents royalty for that sale-at the end of the sales year. If the book had been discounted (say, sold to Amazon.com @ 60% off retail) then the writer usually gets only 10% of that wholesale amount. A couple thousand books a year is a fair number of sales for an average writer (unless we’re talking John Maxwell or Rick Warren). You crunch the numbers. Perhaps it will be enough to remind prospective writers with a gleam of gold in the eyes to choose another path to riches. Or, put another way, it took a while to pay for that computer!
On the other hand, that book still sells about the same number of copies every year that it sold in 1983. And it still pays royalties-and now the book costs over ten dollars. This is why I often tell budding writers that writing is like parenting: all the work may be front loaded-but, if you do it well, you can collect the dividends long after you’ve forgotten the pain.
©2003 Keith Drury
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.