Blame it on my blood

I have always written, but I didn’t know how much I wanted to be a writer until I was already out of college and working as a teacher. There were signs.

My dad worked as a printer and brought home all sorts of scrap paper and cardstock, just what I needed to make my own paper dolls. I can still smell the ink of the permanent marker, and I remember winters, sitting in our kitchen floor in front of the wall heater cutting and coloring. But sometimes I cut my characters from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue and created a village on the braided rug in our living room. I guess my parents were glad there was just one of me. I’m sure I made quite a mess.

When I hit third, fourth, or fifth grade, I graduated to writing and illustrating my own stories. I still have them—in my own squiggly handwriting and crayon and Magic Markers. They’re held together in cardstock folders with prongs. I hope my boys will care enough to pass on these little books to children someday. I wish I could have had a peek into my grandparents’ lives as children. What a treasure that would be!

On a side note, I have hint where my interests came from. The family of my Great Grandmother Smoot came here from Ireland (which probably explains why I’m so crazy about anything Irish). But on my grandfather’s side, my Great Grandmother Bell came from Denmark. She was only sixteen when she arrived in New York City. She played the guitar just like me. And, if I have the story right, her brother, my Great Uncle Will Hansen played the accordion and wrote poetry. (I hear copies of these poem still exist. I wish I could make a photocopy of them.)

My father remembers him putting on a variety show with his singing and dancing. I think they lived on a big farm in the Fredonia area for much of their lives. He and his brother Chris were multi-talented, expert craftsmen who made their own furniture, even their own coffins.

When I used to babysit my younger cousins, I coerced them into creating a newspaper, The Bell Family Times. Despite my threats, I think all three of them turned out pretty normal, well, except for the younger one, James. He’s a songwriter now—and a pretty good one at that. If he ever writes a number one hit, he’ll have to give me a cut of his royalties. (I was his high school English teacher too. You can ask him how many times he failed my class. The number changes with his mood. So it is with the Bells’ and their storytelling. They tend to exaggerate.)

By the time I made it to high school, I had turned into the extremely shy hopeless romantic I am today. Like James I wrote songs too, but these were really bad songs. I played a horrible guitar so cheaply made that I could barely push the strings down to fret the chords. I don’t remember showing these songs to anyone except one friend. But when all members of our class prepared to go their separate ways before graduation, I remember sending one of these songs off with two of my best friends, hoping it might inspire them to find their dreams in the music industry.

During my first years of college, I was a recording industry management (RIM) major, and I worked for the head of the department. I actually got up enough nerve to show these songs to him, and he was the first person to tell me about hooks and choruses and bridges and syllable counts—all the things my songs were lacking. I wish I had listened, but life got in the way, and I couldn’t tell you whatever happened to those songs.

If it weren’t for my English professor Charles Wolfe, I doubt I would have ever taken my writing seriously. I turned in an assignment for his folklore class, and he liked it so much he asked if he could publish it in the Tennessee Folklore Bulletin. It even made the cover. I always admired Dr. Wolfe. Years later, after I had been several articles published in contemporary Christian music magazines, I contacted him and asked him how I might write about nonfiction about the Christian music industry. He was an expert in his field regarding country music and was the author of numerous books.

He sent me a letter with a long list of contacts and lots of encouragement. The next thing I knew Vanderbilt University was sending me info about how to have my not yet written book published through their school. I never followed up on that interest. Again, life got in the way. But ironically, years later my work was published through the University of Tennessee. I would have never know if I hadn’t done an Internet search of my name and found that my story had been chosen for A Tennessee Folklore Sampler (2009).

People often ask me how I began writing for magazines. The answer is fairly simple. I was too naïve to think I couldn’t, so I sent clips, and several magazines responded by giving me assignments.  But first I wrote without pay for anyone who was willing to publish me. I have endless gratitude for Rebekah Hurst, who published The Parent Paper. She gave me a spot for my column, and from there on the writing bug bit and wouldn’t let go. Today I’m a frequent contributor to The Living Light News in Alberta, Edmonton. I have made just enough money to pay for my gas and writing conferences, but it’s been well worth every penny.

Contemporary Christian music isn’t what it used to be, so when I write music articles today I write about people who make their living in the general entertainment market. I’ve been blessed to chat with Smokey Robinson, Tony Orlando, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Clay Walker, heavy weight boxing champion Chris Byrd, Sting (the wrestler), and many others. They tell me stories of how God has changed their lives. I don’t write for the New York Times or People magazine, but I am still so grateful that God chose me to pass on these stories. He could have chosen someone else.

Some people write for therapeutic reasons; some people write for money. I write because I want to make a difference in other people’s lives—and because it’s a form of safe adventure for me. Okay, I’ll admit it. I like the adrenaline rush. But could you imagine what I’d be like in a real mystery or adventure? I guess I’m more like Scooby and Shaggy than I’d like to admit. My children get this trait from me. They brag about venturing off someday to find adventure foreign lands, but then they freak out when we do donuts in the Walmart parking lot after a big snow. By the way, is that illegal?

Occasionally, I do write for myself. I keep a book of blessings hidden away where I work. I never ever write about anything bad. Sometimes I write about my students; sometimes I write about my friends or my family. Sometimes I write about strangers. No one ever sees this writing except for me and God. But on those days when everything seems to go wrong, I take out my book and literally count my blessings and name them one by one.

Friday is New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow after midnight we have a brand new year to follow our dreams. Who are you? What are your roots? Is writing in your blood? Then write. Put away the excuses. We may not write a bestseller, but we can write for local publications, our churches, our children, ourselves.

For 2011, I challenge you to take a leap of faith and to see where your writing takes you. What’s your dream?

But don’t keep it hidden. Tell somebody. You never know who might help you make it happen if only they knew. Let’s make 2011 a year of bold adventure.

Special note: Thanks to all of you who have taken time to read my blog, to offer a word of encouragement, to make me laugh, to inspire me. You can bet you’ve got a special place in my book of blessings. I wish you a Happy New Year.

Just go ahead and tattoo me

The clinical name is atychiphobia. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve got it—the fear of failing.

Psychologists tell us we develop atychiphobia due to a major embarrassment that occurs as the result of a minor failure. I can name a few. How about you?

People who develop a fear of failure become paralyzed. They may even sabotage their own success by coming up with excuses as to why they can’t do what’s expected of them. It’s not uncommon for people to fake an illness, to quit a job, to end a relationship just so they won’t have to face failure.

I see it quite often in my kiddos at school. Some of them are at the top of their class; some of them just struggle to get by.

The ones at the top take every honors class and work themselves into a frenzy to get an A. Yet they rarely take a risk. Isn’t that what honors classes are designed to do—provide opportunities for the brightest of the bright to explore new horizons and to think new thoughts? Who said every step had to be perfect? Whatever happened to trial and error?

The ones at the bottom, on the other hand, don’t try at all. It’s easier to save face just by saying, “I didn’t try.” It’s much harder to say, “I couldn’t do it.”

Oh, how I can relate.

I don’t remember the year, but I do remember the song. I was in music class, singing “Bingo” at the top of my lungs, loving every minute of me. My teacher reprimanded me in front of the whole class. To this day I won’t sing in front of anyone, not really.

Silly isn’t it? And scary too to think that we can affect other peoples’ lives with a few careless words. My teacher didn’t mean anything by it. I’m sure I was being too loud. She just didn’t realize the fragile being behind those loud notes.

I still remember my first grade teacher sending a note home on my report card because I cried if I missed anything—anything! How embarrassing.

My second grade teacher stopped my family in the local department store and replayed the time I became very upset because I misspelled clothes as close on a spelling test. Mind you this event occurred, what, 20 or 30 years ago. And she remembered it! Was I that bad?

My parents should have just tattooed my forehead with the letters NERD:  Needs Extreme Reassurance Daily.

I guess I was just destined to be a forever basket case.

But as with all of God’s plans, He can take a negative and turn it into a positive. Because I continue to struggle with the fear of failure, I try to be more sensitive to my students who have this fear.  I emphasize the word try because I know no matter how hard I try, sometimes my words come out wrong too. I hurt others even when I don’t mean to.

Simply put, I fail. And then I feel just terrible.

The last month or so God has been sending me through some rough waters. I’m reading for calm, but he’s making me fight to stay afloat. Nothing has been easy—teaching, parenting, managing a household, playing guitar.

Even writing this blog has been tough. The more I learn about writing, the more I realize that every word counts. So I measure every word. I aim for perfection. What if it’s not good enough?

Help! What are your ways of coping with the fear of failure?

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’ve got a goal for 2011, but you are afraid of the obstacles you’ll have to overcome to meet it. What are your fears?

It’s never easy, never easy. There will always be trials.

That’s life, a daily obstacle course. But I guess that’s how God grows us. Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. And perfect people don’t need God.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Phillipians 4:13