In fact, I never opened a children’s novel until I read Little House in the Big Woods aloud to my oldest daughter. Together we pioneered the continent with Laura Ingles Wilder. At the end of Where the Red Fern Grows, I cried as hard as my little girl. I marveled at the insights of Tuck Everlasting. But it was The Wreck of the Zephyr by Chris Van Allsburg, a well told tale within a tale, that inspired me to write my own stories. How hard could it be to write a picture book?
A chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, led by the famous Jane Yolen, met in the Hatfield Public Library, not far from my home. Over several months, I stood by the wall in the packed room listening to critiques. When it was finally my turn to share, I learned there was already a bestseller on the same topic. I was informed my second attempt, was not unlike The Borrowers, a classic I was embarrassed I’d never heard of. And by the way, many of my sentences were run-ons infested by commas and strings of slothful adverbs and adjectives. Although I’m sure someone said something encouraging, all I absorbed was I am ignorant, and I have nothing original to say. After only two tries, my thin-skinned writing career went into long-term hibernation.
When my second baby was born in the depths of winter, he woke often, hungry and cold in our drafty fixer-upper. In the middle of the night, I nursed him back to sleep, and began reading adult novels for pleasure for the first time. I blew through a trilogy about King Arthur starting with The Crystal Cave along with thrillers of the early 80’s like Gorky Park.
It was during this time, that I also opened my life to Christ and discovered a whole new world of publishing. I consumed a novelization of the book of Esther, David Wilkerson’s, The Cross and the Switchblade and countless discipleship how-to and testimony books. I told my pastor I too wanted to write for the Lord, and he suggested I start with my testimony.
I wrote down the story of how I came to recognize Christ as my savior and sent it to a Christian Sunday School Paper, Power For Living. With a few suggested edits, it was accepted. Iris, a friend from church asked me to do the same for her. Her testimony was also quickly published. This was followed by a handful of other first person articles about my growing faith in Christ, published in Christian Women’s magazines.
My pastor gave me a flyer about a Christian Writer’s conference at Gordon College, and suggested I go. Part of the event was a panel of well- known writers, editors, and agents ready to answer any question about the industry. A newbie to the realm, I raised my hand and asked Phillip Yancey if there was a difference between a Christian novel and a novel written by a Christian. He said even if a book was not obviously evangelical, any author’s serious work is embedded in their belief system. He pointed me to Tolstoy as an example, and that summer, I tackled Anna Karenina. It was a marriage crisis that brought me to the Lord, and oh, how I identified with the process of sin and its devastating consequences.
I was still dabbling with children’s stories with no success, when we moved to Colorado because the company my husband worked for was sold to a parent company in Denver. At my desk composing thank you letters to those who had helped us pack, I came across the address of my old friend, Iris, who’d moved to Littleton, Colorado a few years prior. Only then did I realized that Littleton was a suburb of Denver.
I picked up the phone, “Hi, Iris?”
“Ann? Ann Averill?” She drew a breath. “This is so weird. I was just praying about you.”
“I’m trying to write a book-length version of my conversion from Judaism to Christianity, and I was saying, ‘God, I wish Ann was here to help me.’”
I set down my pen. “I am here Iris. I’m in Arvada.”
She gasped, “That’s twenty minutes from my house.”
That launched a year-long project ghostwriting the story of her Bubbi’s escape from pogroms in Belarus to Iris’s discovering Jesus as her Messiah in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was my first memoir, albeit on behalf of someone else, but I was enthralled with trying to capture a time, a place, and the main character’s spiritual journey.
I went to my second Christian Writer’s conference in the Rockies and signed up for a critique of Iris’s manuscript. I entered a small room where a young man with a dark beard and glasses leaned in to ask, “Why did you write this?”
“Because I think God wanted me to.”
He grinned. “I hear that a lot.
My words sounded suddenly trite and presumptuous.
He continued to lean in. “So who is your audience, what’s your angle, do you have comp titles?”
Apparently, these were standard considerations, but I was so green, I had no answers, so needy, my eyes welled. My allotted fifteen-minute literary consult turned into a half hour counseling session where the young man listened as I poured out all my insecurities as a writer and human being. Except for his kindness, I would have been too humiliated to ever attend another conference.
When I came out into the larger foyer, a woman saw Arvada on my name tag, and asked if she could have a ride home. She had unexpected transportation issues, and it turned out she lived only two blocks from my house and wanted to start a Christian writers group. Others from the conference joined us, and we helped each other develop our craft. By the next Christian writers conference, I had a few chapters of an unfinished novel for critique.
This time I was paired with a young editor from a romance publisher. She looked up from my first page. “You can write! Tell me about your novel.”
I blathered the thinly veiled plot of the near collapse of my own marriage.
She handed me her card. “Great, a Christian version of The Bridges of Madison County. Send me the full manuscript ASAP.”
I left the room and wandered in circles under the hotel atrium until I bumped into a friend from my writers group.
“She wants the full manuscript.”
The editor’s encouragement was rocket fuel. My writing friends helped me craft the best edition I could, and in under a year I sent off a completed novel. Then waited. And waited.
Finally, a letter with the return address of the Christian Romance house. I tore it open. “We regret to inform you that Miss so-and-so no longer works here…”
I could have googled Miss So-and So and found the publisher she’d moved to, but it was only the 1990’s. I didn’t understand this submission was a near miss, not a rejection. I couldn’t see I was getting closer and closer to my goal, so instead, of sending it elsewhere, I buried it in a drawer, and began reading Ann Tyler and Flannery O’Connor.
No surprise, my next genre was short stories. I scoured The Writer’s Market for literary magazines and received several standard rejections and a few, “Not this one, but what else do you have.” I subscribed to Writer’s Digest, a professional writers’ magazine, and learned more about the nitty gritty of writing than I did in college.
One day on a grocery run to King Soopers, I stumbled upon Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club at the end cap of the Hallmark section. Standing in the middle of the aisle, ice cream melting in my cart, I was riveted by what I’d learned to call voice.
Angela’s Ashes ambushed me in the same grocery store. Reading Frank McCourt was like listening to him tell his story. The way his dialogue ran in and out of exposition without quotation marks, I saw immediately why he won the Pulitzer. He broke the rules with a unique style both ancient and groundbreaking and entirely unputdownable.
During this golden age of memoir, I was working full-time as a remedial reading teacher, and studying for my masters at University of Colorado at Denver in Language, Literacy and Culture. While all my pleasure reading became memoir, all my writing was academic.
Once I graduated, I took a new job as a teacher of English language learners. Many of my immigrant students were fresh from Mexico, and I fell in love with their culture. Teaching House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros’ spare, evocative language seemed the apex of show don’t tell, and became the new exemplar for my own work as a member of the National Writing Project at the high school where I worked. A piece about one of my first trips to Mexico, Zumbales, and The Daily Miracle, about my beloved students, were written during that era.
Because of elderly parents, my time in Colorado came to an end, and my husband and I moved back to Massachusetts. My children had flown the nest, and I started writing creatively again. In my newest genre, fairy tales, I wrote about a childless old couple who gained a coveted infant through magic, only to lose her through magic as she became a young adult. Back to my original dream of writing a picture book, I returned to SCBWI under new leadership at a new location, The Eric Carle Museum of Children’s Literature.
Through friends in the larger group, I was invited into a smaller group containing the first published writers and illustrators I’d ever worked with. Through one of these friends, Yulia’s Fawn, was shared with Ruth Sanderson, famous for her luminous fairy tale illustrations. Her response to my work was, “This is good! Too bad there’s no current market for this genre.” She also asked if she could use my story with her illustration students, but I was too shy to take her up on that. I wrote another fairy tale, Bleeding Heart, however, on the power of her praise, and never completed another before I was totally distracted by my new job at an inner city middle school.
I was struggling for my life as a teacher with primarily Puerto Rican students from generational poverty, so unlike first generation immigrants. Although the picture books I brought to writing group were about patient, loving grandmothers, my journal was filled with the heartache and horror of my inability to manage the chaos within my classroom.
The summer after my first year at the inner-city school, I reconnected with The National Writing Project and spent two weeks in the Teachers as Writers program at U. Mass. One of our first exercises was to write from an unusual perspective. I chose to narrate as one of my female students. Her voice burst from my pen in a torrent. Her raw emotion, romantic distractions, and home-life trauma flooded the page. When it was my turn to share the piece, the professor used the word brilliant. Her encouragement led me to share the first in a growing portfolio of such stories with my writing group. Their unanimous response, “This is what you should be writing!”
But what was it? A young adult novel? A memoir? An autobiographical novel? With multiple narrators made up of composite student voices as well as my own, who was my audience, my readers? I went to my first Write Angles Conference, in S. Hadley, and asked these questions to a panel of experts. Mira Bartok, author of The Memory Palace, another memoir I’d just devoured, was the one to take my question, and afterwards, invited me to eat dessert with her after lunch. She asked why I called my project a novel if it was my real-life experience? Why not say it’s true?
My answer, “Because it’s a story about my failure and what it was like to live with that.
Her response, “Do you know how many people need to hear that?”
And so, with new fervor, I worked on Broken, 180 Days in the Wilderness of an Urban Middle School, with my writing group. Before it was finished, I submitted three separate chapters, to Writer’s Digest short story contests, and to my amazement, the first two placed twenty-fourth and eighteenth out of thousands. The third placed high enough to be published in their short-short collection of winners for that year. Wow!
I now had the confidence to submit queries for what I called a novel based on a true story to agents and editors. I received several personal rejections praising the caliber of the writing, but adding they weren’t interested in the content. I was encouraged and discouraged at the same time. How to find my niche in a haystack?
This was the beginning of indie publishing, and finally my husband said he’d help me publish it as a Kindle on Amazon. And so it remains. But I didn’t know how to promote it. Every conference emphasized the need for an author’s platform which I had no clue how to construct.
Enter Andy Christian, the multi-talented son of a close friend. He asked if he could use one of my fairy tales to try his hand at illustration. I was delighted to share my work, and he offered to create a blog for me saying, “You need to offer people a sample of your work for free, so they’ll buy your book. Like they offer snacks at the grocery store. Once they taste your work, they’ll buy your other products.” I agreed, and in an afternoon, I had a blog.
I invited another young friend to my writing group who’s also a conceptual photographer and graphic designer. She offered to help me update my blog with a new look that represents a consistent tone and theme. Perhaps this essay has helped me find that. Reviewing my writing career, I’ve come to realize how much I wanted the praise of men. And yet when I came to faith, my heart’s desire was to proclaim God’s glory through my life.
My latest project, Breadcrumbs, A Baby Boomer’s Path to Jesus, has brought me full circle, illustrating how God was always at work leading, protecting, using, even my fears, especially my fears, to help me trust him more and more.
As a writer recounting all these near misses, I could be frustrated, disheartened, and give up, but trusting God’s goodness and purpose for my life, I know that in His economy nothing is wasted—especially failures in my own strength. Perhaps failure is the rudder that’s steered me away from rocks beneath the waves.
Rather I re-count my ordinary life, trusting the miraculous arithmetic of the cross. Zero plus infinity equals infinity. Even negative numbers when added to the infinite equals more than we can imagine.