I sat in the middle of a long table, a spread of foreign food laid out before me. It was hot in there, bodies compacted together, unfamiliar syllables and consonants mingling with the smells to overwhelm my senses entirely. I took it all in quietly, not really sure of my place inside this boisterous bunch. After a few minutes of simple observation, the meal was served, and I finally asked the question burning in my heart.
“How did you do it? How did you survive?”
It was 1995, and I was Kiev, Ukraine, in the home of Maria Ivanovna. I knew her story, having been told by her granddaughter who served as the translator for our group. I knew that she’d been sent to Germany at the age of 14 to serve in a slave labor camp. I knew she’d survived starvation and brutality, and at least one severe beating.
I knew that when the war finally ended, she found her way back to Ukraine by jumping on trains, sometimes clinging to the outside of a train car for hours.
I knew that her father was one of the few who survived Babi Yar, the killing ditch where nearly 34,000 men, women, and children were massacred in two days time in 1941.
I knew all the details, but what I couldn’t wrap my mind around was how.
How did this little woman with the silver hair and hearty laugh survive those years with her spirit in tact? How could she sit before me and tell her story without slipping into the horror of those years again?
How was she so…happy?
I wish I could remember her answer. I asked this question as a sixteen year old girl, long before the thought of writing a book ever took shape. I was just curious, and I remember the room growing quiet as my question was translated into a language I did not yet understand.
While I do not remember her exact words, I do remember the way she looked at me. Her eyes were a smile, peace shimmering in the depths as she focused tenderly on my face.
Though I don’t remember the exact words spoken at that dinner so many years ago, what I do remember is how I felt when we left that night. Maria made me feel brave.
I’d never really thought of myself as brave before that night.
Adventurous, maybe. Impulsive, gregarious, excitable. But brave? Not really.
Like any sixteen year old girl, I battled insecurities on a daily basis. I found myself constantly fighting against the impulse to tuck into the corners of my life and reside in the shadows, because wouldn’t it be easier there? If I could minimize expectation, perhaps I could also minimize the threat of failure, of heartache, of any sort of emotional pain.
But there was something about Maria that made me feel like I could step out of the shadows.
It was the way that she carried her story, the way she so willingly gave her experience to me, like it was a treasured gift. There was no animosity, no bitterness, in her memories. She didn’t wear them like an albatross, walking victimized through the rest of her life.
Years later, I returned to Ukraine and I spent the afternoon with Maria’s granddaughter, Helen. Maria was sick and couldn’t take visitors at that time, but she took my questions over the phone through Helen’s translation. Even then, though grown and preparing to be a mother myself, I still wrestled with the cruelty and brutality of those dark war years.
I still didn’t understand how she did it – how any of the men and women who survived World War II did it.
But I’ve learned in the years since then that bravery isn’t something you’re born with – it’s something you learn.
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Bravery is birthed in the trenches of life, when we’re pressed from every side and hewn from the cloth of hardship. But where does it come from?
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
If we truly understand the origins of bravery, then we just might see the potential waiting for us in the hard times. Bravery isn’t something that I can muster up on my own strength, though I suppose I could convince myself of that.
No, bravery and courage are most alive inside the power of the One who wove them into me in the first place.
The potential for bravery is knit into all of us, whether we see it or not. But the recognition of God as the author of that bravery unleashes a power far greater than any of us realize.
This is one of the many lessons I learned as a young woman in a foreign land. Bravery isn’t defined by rank or uniform, or even by experience. Bravery is simply lived and shared, and acknowledged in the hard places of life.
“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both you elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?
And IF you go in, should you turn left or right… or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a sting of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.
NO! That’s not for you!”
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Let me tell you a little story about what it’s like to write and launch a book.
It’s a process filled with waiting places – places where you can choose to sit back and hope good fortune stumbles over you, or where you can take matters into your own hands and walk to the good fortune.
The beginning of this journey is filled with excitement. You head down these long wiggled roads at a break necking pace, and it’s exhilarating and terrifying, and you sort of stumble your way through the process until you reach the other side. Finished. A completed manuscript in your hands.
This is when you enter the first Waiting Place.
You hold in your hands a tiny piece of your heart, and you have to decide if you’re going to let anyone read it. So you timidly hand it over to strangers, hoping they like it. And you wait for the “Yes” amidst a whole lot of “No.”
If you’re not content to stay in that waiting place, you persist and push through all the “No.” Because eventually, with a little dedication and refusal to give up, you find your “Yes.” Someone agrees to bind up that piece of your heart, and put a title to it. This, it turns out, is where the real work starts.
Launching a book is like running a marathon in the dark. You sort of stumble along pitch black roads, feeling your way toward the finish line, hoping you don’t peter out and die before you get there. That’s where it’s imperative to have running partners by your side.
Last weekend, I headed up to Greenville, South Carolina for the Allume conference. This is the third time I’ve attended this conference, and it holds a special place in my heart. This is the place where I found my running partners.
There’s a confidence that comes from being with a group of people who understand this crazy journey of publication. They understand the rejection and the fear. They understand the extreme exhaustion that comes from pouring your heart out on the page, and the utter terror that you feel when you must submit those pages to be judged.
The first year I attended Allume, I went all alone. I had the unedited manuscript for my novel tucked away in my bag, and I met with several agents, all of whom loved the concept, but “fiction is a touch sell,” and on they went.
Except for one.
She agreed to at least read the first 50 pages and give feedback. “It’s too long,” she said, and she was right. 150,000 words was a ridiculous length for a debut novel, so I spent the next year editing, and cutting, and shaping it up.
I went back the second year with my edited novel, but I was also joined by Wendy, and together we had a proposal for a new book – a book for creative moms, meeting them right there in the mess of motherhood.
I went to Allume this third year with two books in production, and the weekend was spent trying to learn the ins and outs of marketing and launching. It’s intimidating and overwhelming. I’m running a marathon in the dark.
But at least I’ve got running partners by my side who are cheering me on. Several of them have already walked this path, and so they offer advice and wisdom, lighting the road before me just slightly.
It’s exhausting and overwhelming, this journey I’m on. But I’m glad I pushed myself out of the waiting place and onto this path. Dr. Seuss was right – waiting isn’t for me. The journey is so much more fun when you move forward…even if you’re moving in the dark.
So, what are you waiting on? What’s stopping you from moving forward?
I don’t really know where to start this story. Julie Andrews says we should start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.
So maybe I should start in 1995, when I was a junior in high school and I visited Kiev, Ukraine for the first time. While there, I was invited to dinner at the friend of a friend’s house to meet her grandmother, a World War II survivor.
That dinner changed the course of everything.
I sat at the table of a small, grey haired babyshka named Maria who told me her story of survival in a German slave labor camp. Maybe it was the twinkle in her eye, or the way the light glimmered in her silvery hair, but something happened inside me that evening.
That was the night I fell in love with the Ukrainian people – the night the story was born.
But maybe I shouldn’t start there. Maybe I should start 1999. I was twenty-one, and I sat behind the desk as the professor explained the goal of our two semester course.
We would leave Baylor with a finished novel.
He encouraged us to begin brainstorming what we’d like to write about, but I already knew. I wanted to tell the story of Ukraine, of the devastation at Babi Yar, the darkness of those desperate years, and the partisans who pushed back against the Germans.
I also wanted to encapsulate Maria in a character, right down to the way she tutted over a plate of food.
Of course, I could easily start the story in 2003, when my mom and I (and my five-months pregnant belly) hopped a couple of planes and returned to Ukraine where we would tour the country for a month interviewing countless veterans as I continued on my quest to publish this book of stories.
I already had a publisher lined up at that point. It would all end up falling through at the last minute, but the stories I pulled in that month would simmer a little longer. They waited for me through the birth of three children.
The story needed me to tell it, but first I had to live a little.
They were all beyond encouraging, and supportive, and genuinely sweet. And perhaps slightly baffled by my tangle of words trying to explain my need to finish this project?
I can’t tell the story without looking at 2013 when we saw the collapse of our adoption. Writing was the only thing that pulled me out of depression. Tapping into the heartache of others healed my own wounded heart. I typed THE END in 2013.
The only other place I could see beginning this story is last fall. Two years after finishing the book, I still hadn’t been picked up. I’d queried so many agents and publishing houses, and was always met with the same comment:
“Love the concept, and the writing is great. But fiction is a hard sell.”
So I waited, and I sent more query letters. So many queries. And last fall, someone took a chance on me. A literary agent saw potential, and she appreciate my passion. She took the manuscript cautiously, and two weeks later I received a text:
“Just finished your book and WOW can you tell a story. We’re going to see what we can do with this.”
But that’s a lot of beginnings, so maybe I should just begin with the phone call I took three weeks ago with Kregel Publications when they told me they would be publishing my book next spring.
Did you hear that?!
My novel will hit bookshelves in the Spring of 2016.
After our conversation, in which we spoke of the novel and topics for potential future books, I hung up and walked out to the kitchen. As soon as I saw Lee, I burst into tears.
It all felt overwhelming. Twenty years of dreaming, of writing, of perfecting and refining the story all came to fruition in a minutes long phone conversation.
I’m a novelist.
I can’t wait to share this book with you all. Stay tuned for more information!
(And for more on my publishing journey, check out this post where I share the news that my second book will release in September next year. 2016 is going to be crazy!)
The sky was grey the day I met him. It was 2003, and I was in Kiev, Ukraine looking on a quest to speak with the men and women who’d fought valiantly in “The Great Patriotic War.”
Leonid sat behind his desk and looked at me warily, not generally accustomed to people wanting to hear his story. His back was bent, his face bearing the lines of one who’d lived through hell on earth. Through the translator, he asked one simple question.
“Why do you want to know?”
I was a 24 year old pregnant American in Ukraine with a thirst for history. I wanted stories. I wanted to hear them and to tell them. But this man – this man had lived the stories. They weren’t romantic, and they certainly wasn’t as neat as most movies had made them seem. Leonid’s history was alive with the sounds of men dying. He could smell the gunpowder and fear, all mingled together in a story of heartache.
He was a veteran.
The men and women who lived this history are slowly fading into the past. Their stories are all we have left, and we must be willing to listen. We must gather them, and preserve the words if we cannot preserve the sights and sounds. This is why I continue to search for the right publisher for my novel.Because I believe the stories must be told.
We must continue to write books and make movies so that these veterans will understand that we want to know because we want to honor them. And for the men and women who are serving today, the ones living new stories, fighting against our own modern day terrors, we must show them that we respect their sacrifice. That their stories are worth hearing and telling and honoring, too.
“Why do you want to know?” he asked.
“Because I believe your story is worth telling,” I told him.
His eyes glistened and he leaned back in his chair, folding his hands gently in his lap. He took a moment to gain his composure before speaking.
“I was 16 when the Nazi’s invaded my country. My father went to the front immediately and died very quickly. Though I was not yet old enough to enlist, the Red Army allowed me to fight as a volunteer. When I was 17, I entered the front lines.
The men in my unit were not much older than me. They were 18-25 years old, all of us boys. We were afraid, but we had courage in our hearts.
There are a lot of stories I could tell you of those years, but I won’t tell you all of them. Most are too painful. I do remember one evening, though. It was near the end of the war, and we knew that we were winning. We were in Russia at this time, and the winter months were finally ending. It was still cold, but we could feel spring coming. We were by the fire after another long day of walking. We hadn’t seen battle that day, but we knew we could meet a fight at any time. That was part of the fatigue, knowing that we would run into the battle at any moment.
We heard a sound coming from the trees behind our camp and we all stood up. I remember my heart beating so fast I could hardly breathe. A man shouted from the darkness in a language I recognized, but didn’t understand. He was speaking English.
My friend, Pavel, spoke English and responded. He told us to put down our guns because these men were friends.
The Americans sat with us by the fire that night. They gave us cigarettes and vodka. I didn’t understand the conversation, but I remember the camaraderie we all felt. We were different, but we were also the same. We were young men who had survived. We had seen the very worst of mankind, and the very best of mankind. We were all scared, and we were brave.
We were soldiers.
They left the next morning, and not many months later we got news that Hitler was dead. This is the story I want you to know. I want you to know that those years were dark and painful, but there were good things that happened, too. I will always remember that night when I sat with friends from another land.
These are the stories you should tell. Thank you for listening to me.”
To all the veterans who have served in the fight against oppression, I thank you. And to the men and women serving now, I am so very grateful. Your story matters today, and it will matter fifty years from now. Thank you for your sacrifice.
This week, two friends offered me a bit of grace, a little encouragement, and just the kind of nudge I needed to push myself out of my creative funk. How did they do this?
Through a simple text, and a ten minute phone call.
There is no way to really stress the importance of having a few people who “get” you. You need people who will come alongside when you’re feeling discouraged, when you want to give up, when you just feel like it’s never going to happen, and who will remind you why you keep pursuing your dreams.
Tribes are how we live our lives. We are constantly banding together with other people to discuss ideas and share information.
Your church is a tribe. Your job is another tribe. Your group of friends is another. You have a tribe. The question is: Do you know it?
Let’s ditch the jargon and just speak in plain English for a second. A tribe isn’t a fan club or mega, super platform; it’s just a group of people who care about something. And we all belong to a few of those, don’t we?”
The benefit to having a tribe, a group of people who will surround you in pursuit of making one another better, is that you’re never really alone. But you must be transparent and let people in. You have to share your dreams, to be open about the things that inspire you toward passionate living, in order for people to walk alongside and help you navigate the path.
For a long time, I was embarrassed to admit that I was writing a novel. I shared the information only with people I knew intimately. My reasons for doing this were not noble or humble. They were riddled in fear.
I was afraid that if I failed, if I never finished the book, or it ended up being terrible, that I would never be able to survive the humiliation. So I shied away from discussing my writing.
I quickly realized, however, that a secret passion is terribly difficult to chase down. Without the benefit of having encouragers by my side, I had no real motivation to press forward with the project. I could see it beginning to die.
So I told a few people, then a few more. Then I shared a few snippets of the book with my readers, and an amazing thing happened.
My confidence grew exponentially, as did the people who were cheering me on. This gave me the momentum I needed to push forward until I could finally type the words, The End.
I couldn’t have done it without my tribe of people cheering me on. And now? Now I’m in the throes of seeking publication. It is a discouraging process, filled with rejection, all of which can leave a writer feeling less than confident.
Just when I began to wonder if maybe I’d made a terrible mistake in trying to publish this story – maybe it wasn’t written as well as I hoped – I received a text from a friend encouraging me not to give up, and offering a prayer for the days when I feel overcome with doubt.
Two days later, a conversation with a mentor and friend who believes in me, and who has been a champion of encouragement to me throughout this writing process, told me he believed in me, and he believed in my book. His gracious words melted the fears and doubts that had crept in over the last few weeks.
Do you see the importance of surrounding yourself with encouragers?
If you have a dream, a goal that you’re working toward, have you shared that? Have you entrusted your pursuit with someone (or multiple someones) who will spur you on toward the accomplishment of that dream? If not, can I ask why?
Don’t be afraid of your dreams, and certainly don’t keep them to yourself, even if they seem lofty, impossible, or ambitious. With the power of a team (a tribe) backing you up, you will find that in the moments you want to give up completely, someone will be there to dust you off, turn you around, and keep pushing you forward.