Jan Ackerson has been a frequent Challenge placer for the past three years. And this past year, she proved why. With several number one entries in the running for Best of the Best, two of them ended up in the winner's circle. Join interviewer, Lynda Schab, as she picks Jan's brain about her two (very different) winning entries and finds out more about the amazing woman behind the talent.
LYNDA SCHAB: Ok, Jan, fess up. With so many number one entries in the running for Best of the Best this year, were you expecting (maybe just a little) to see your name in the top three?
JAN ACKERSON: Well, I won't deny that I was hoping, especially since my FaithWriters ministries are changing a bit, and I'm probably not going to be entering the Challenges any more. I thought it'd be fun to go out with a BoB win…but truthfully, we were on a 4-day weekend vacation with our daughters and sons-in-law when the results came out, and it wasn't really on my mind any more. When I read the results, it was in the car, on my son-in-law's fancy cell phone, and I was both stunned and frustrated; the print on those phones is so small that I had to have my daughter read it to me!
LYNDA: What a fun way to find out, though, surrounded by family. Must have been some major cheering going on in that car!
Because you had so many of your entries place in The Challenge last year and several included in the Best of the Best contest, it really wasn't much of a surprise to see you take two spots in the winners circle. Once the initial shock wore off, were you surprised at the two pieces that won? Or was there another entry you thought might have a better chance?
JAN: You know, I really was surprised that "Sniggles" took first place, as it's a very lighthearted little story, and past winners have been deeper theologically and I really thought that's what the judges might prefer. In the back of my mind, I'd been holding out for "Flames," my evangelism allegory. And I was really stunned at "A Poet Rests in the 131st Psalm", since I've only rarely tackled free verse-but I was delighted, because that piece has particular significance for me.
LYNDA: I certainly agree that, "A Poet Rests in the 131st Psalm," is so different from your usual entries as we don't see much poetry from you. Tell us about where the inspiration came for this one and why holds a special place in your heart.
JAN: That one really surprised and moved me, because as soon as I saw the topic was "Calm", I knew not only that I had to use that Psalm, but also what form my entry would have to take. And it only took me minutes to write it-it just needed to be written in that format.
As for the inspiration: I was sitting in the U of M hospital chapel, daring God to comfort me because my daughter had just had a devastating injury. It was a very ecumenical chapel, and the only Bible available was a huge, decorative one up front, so I took it back to a seat and decided to read through the Psalms until something touched my absolute terror.
Since the Bible was so huge, I propped my feet on some little pamphlet holders on the seat in front of me, to bring my lap closer to my eyes. I started somewhere in the 100s, I think, and I distinctly remember getting to the 131st without having experienced the comfort I was demanding of God.
I'll bet you think you know where this story is going, but you don't, not by a long shot…I had just read the 131st Psalm, and started wondering why the Psalmist chose the imagery of a weaned child rather than a nursing child to illustrate comfort…when the little pamphlet holder splintered, sending the Bible crashing to the floor.
I looked around in panic-I'd just broken the chapel!-put the Bible back in a hurry, and hustled out of there. It's okay, you can laugh-I think it's funny, too. Eventually, I did receive comfort from God--not when I demanded it of Him, but on His own terms. But when that topic came up, I thought immediately of that Psalm, and that chapel, and the poem just came.
LYNDA: I'll admit, I did snicker at the image! But I think it's kind of cool how God used that not-so-funny-at-the-time moment to minister to you much later and, ultimately, to minister to many others, as well.
So let's talk about the entry that stole the judges' hearts. "Sniggles" is so fun, so entertaining, so clever (all of which are so typical of your entries!). Do you remember how you came up with the idea?
JAN: Yes! I didn't have to come up with anything at all-about 75% of that piece is based on actual experiences I had when I was the secretary to a dyslexic pastor. I created the idea that the secretary was single so that I could add the tiny hint of romance at the end, but the incident about the offer of a massage really happened, as did most of the typos and misspellings. It was certainly interesting working for Jeff, and I didn't even have room in the story to include his most notorious typo, the reason why I volunteered to be his secretary in the first place. It was "Jeff"s version" of 2 Corinthians 5:17 printed in the Easter bulletin, and it read: "If a man has become a Christina, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come!" My teenaged daughters were laughing so hard that they shook the pew.
LYNDA: I can imagine! And, for me at least, it makes the story even more deserving simply because it's based on a true story.
Out of all of the entries you've written for the FaithWriters Challenge, does one stand out in your mind as a favorite?
JAN: Actually, yes…and it's one that never even made it into the Top 40. Nevertheless, I still think "Sacrament" is my best piece of writing, and I may never top it. The characters and the situation still seem so real to me, and the action in the last few paragraphs, as the meaning of the title becomes clear, still chokes me up.
I'll mention one other, because it also fills my eyes every time, and it's based on a real little boy I know with extreme and multiple handicaps-"Mmmmm" reminds me of the sweetness of God and the temporary nature of disability, a topic that is very important to me.
LYNDA: So tell us about your normal Challenge process. Do you mull over the topics for a while before sitting down to write? Do you usually come up with a title first? How many rewrites and edits do you typically do? Do you have anyone look at your entries before submitting? And do you find it tough to stick within that dreaded word count?
JAN: It's not the same every time, but here's a typical week. I write the topic down on the top line of a piece of paper, and brainstorm everything I can think of that relates to the topic: common phrases, titles, Bible situations, synonyms and antonyms, possible plot items, definitions, and the like-and then I throw that paper away. I figure, if I thought of all those things relatively quickly, so will everyone else, and I'm a big fan of writing "out of the box".
Then I just mull it over for several days-in the shower, in the car-and usually some sort of plot comes to mind. I start to write in pencil, on yellow lined tablets. (I've tried writing directly to the computer, but I'm never satisfied with the results.) I edit constantly as I'm writing, re-examining every word, every sentence, every paragraph several times. As you'd imagine, those yellow pads look very messy by the time the rough draft is done.
Then I type into the computer (editing again as I type) and finally look at the word count. I'm happiest if it's somewhere in the 800s, as I find the tightening-up process of eliminating 50-75 words nearly always produces a better story. Unfortunately, quite often I'm stunned by something like "Word Count: 1029". I hate that!
The title comes last, usually a word or phrase from the piece that strikes me as attention-grabbing. I've rarely had other people read the whole piece before submitting, although occasionally I'll have someone take a peek at an iffy passage. Usually, I read it to my husband, Ben, gauge his reaction and either submit or re-work.
LYNDA: What types of books do you like to read? And who are your favorite authors?
JAN: I'll read books of almost any genre, as long as the writing is excellent. If the writing doesn't grab me, I'll set the book aside. My favorite Christian author is the very excellent Lisa Samson, whose unique characters and challenging situations make me just a teensy bit envious; if I were to write a novel, I'd want to write like her. My favorite secular writer is Jodi Picoult, who's fantastic with plots and POV.
LYNDA: Who or what inspires you as a writer and as a woman?
JAN: First of all, Grace…it's my favorite aspect of God, and the one I've most often leaned upon.
Second, I come from a family that values the written word. There are several writers in my family tree, including a beloved grandmother and a soon-to-be-published novelist brother. And my parents always encouraged reading, writing, and other intellectual pursuits.
Third, my beautiful husband and daughters, and recently, my sons-in-law. All have weathered hardships and emerged with God's peace.
Finally, my fellow writers and friends here at FaithWriters, which is surely the finest website in existence.
LYNDA: I couldn't agree more with that last sentence.
I know you've shared your testimony before (http://www.faithreaders.com/featured-author-details.php?id=16) and I won't ask you to give us the story again, but let me ask this: where did the passion to write come from? And how has writing helped you in your journey through the difficult times?
JAN: I started to write as a reaction to pain; I'm a person who internalizes feelings, and my spirit tends to become stony when challenged. Writing gave me an outlet-I had no idea that it would become a means back to God.
And I also have to give credit again to FaithWriters. The encouragers and teachers there really fed and nurtured any gift for writing I might have, and as I saw my writing touch other people, that in turn softened my heart. It felt good-it felt like I had found a ministry-it just felt right.
LYNDA: What path do you see yourself walking down as a writer? Any new and exciting trails you'd like to explore?
JAN: People have been telling me for years that I should pursue publication, should write a novel, should write our family's story. I was open to that possibility, but never felt that Divine nudge to do so. At one point, I even attempted a novel, but it drained the life right out of me, and I found myself dreading that horrible thing. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, my involvement at FaithWriters began to become more and more of a ministry for me.
Recently, some doors have opened for me that put a big old grin on my face-some opportunities to edit and critique, and perhaps even to make a small amount of money doing so. Thinking about this puts me at absolute peace; this, I think, is what God has been shaping me for all along. It may mean less involvement in the Writing Challenge, but that's fine with me; there are so many excellent writers who deserve their chance to shine in the Weekly Challenge. I'm happy to step back for a time.
LYNDA: No offense, Jan, but I'm sure there are many who will jump at the opportunity to dethrone you! And they're probably feeling (just a tad) relieved to know you won't be among the competition! Not that we wouldn't love to read your entries again, of course.
So what advice would you give a writer just starting out in the FaithWriters Writing Challenge?
JAN: Read the winning entries in Advanced and Masters each week…read the comments, especially those that offer constructive criticism…brush up on your grammar by finding a website that offers practical advice and quizzes, or even by getting a junior high textbook…know your motivation for writing (for God? for self-improvement? for enjoyment?) and learn to take or ignore advice based upon that…find a mentor whose writing you admire and learn from him or her…work on improving one or two focus skills at a time.
If you find yourself discouraged, compare your writing to your previous writing. Are you improving? Great! Snap out of it! Is your writing just the same as it's always been? Find out why (see previous paragraph), lather, rinse, and repeat.
Finally, write for God!
LYNDA: What a wonderful way to sum up this interview. Perfect advice for us all.
Thank you so much, Jan, for taking the time to answer my questions. And, once again, CONGRATULATIONS on your win - make that TWO wins. I can't think of anyone who deserves it more.
To read all of Jan's work on FaithWriters.com, or to send her a note of congratulations, visit her FaithWriters profile here: http://www.faithwriters.com/member-profile.php?id=11626
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