Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wednesday's Writing on Writing

Check back here every Wednesday for a few thoughts on the craft. Here are today's:

Meeting Nancy Bayless

It was a typical Christian Writers Conference during the summer of 1990. I was representing Moody Magazine and had been asked to do a couple of workshops and meet with conferees at fifteen-minute intervals during the rest of the time.

Hard as it is to share with writing students, the fact is that very few such meetings are as beneficial to the editor as they might be to the conferee. In many years on the conference circuit, I had discovered only one previously unpublished writer who became an actively selling freelancer.

But editors learn to determine quickly, sometimes in as little time as it takes to read a couple of paragraphs, whether a writer “has it.” That doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t have a good idea and can even sell it and work with the editor to make an article shine. But recognizing an already gifted craftsperson…that’s rare, but surprisingly easy to detect.

One of my afternoon appointments was with a little old lady. I should find a more creative way to describe her, but she was what she was. Short, thin, slightly bent, dressed warm even on a warm day. Her face was lined and weathered. There was life in the eyes, a twinkle, but wariness in the smile too. This was clearly new to her.

She introduced herself as Nancy Bayless, “a local beginner,” and handed me a manuscript. It was one of those that followed every rule in the book: perfectly printed in large font, double spaced, name and address and word count in place, title a third of the way down the first page, and so on.

Normally I tucked manuscripts away and got to know the conferee, but something caught my eye. I don’t remember what it was. The title? The lead? The pace? The sense of direction? I speed read the first page, probably two and half paragraphs.

“Let me take this and talk with you tomorrow,” I said.

Her smile disappeared. “Excuse me?”

“Make another appointment with me. If I don’t have a slot, I’ll make time.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Okay.”

Nancy didn’t tell me until years later that she was mad. She had been nervous. Had butterflies. Made sure she was there on time. Then felt brushed off. How could she have known I had been captivated by her first page and wanted to read the whole thing right away?

The next day I told her, “You’re no beginner.”

“Never been published,” she said.

“You’ll be able to stop saying that soon,” I said. “I edited your piece.”

“I can see that,” she said. “You scribbled all over it.”

“You have no idea how little I did to it. I want to buy it.”

“You do not!”

“Watch for the check. Want to see what I did to it so you’ll know what to do to your next article before you submit it?”

Did she ever. She was a bright, inquisitive, eager learner. “I really want to be a writer,” she said.

“You already are.”

“Go on.”

“You are. You’re even a professional. I wouldn’t have dared put marks on your manuscript without your permission unless I was prepared to buy it.”

Her eyes danced. “You’re just trying to get me to buy you and your wife some ice cream.”

“No, but now that you mention it…”

Little old Nancy Bayless became one of my wife’s and my favorite people in the world. We visited her on the boat, where she lived with her husband. And we saw her every time we went to San Diego, thrilled to watch her career blossom. She sold article after article and became a writing teacher herself.

It was no surprise to find that she had friends everywhere. Nancy was bawdy and bold, blunt and bodacious. When we went on one of her dessert jaunts with a half dozen others, she would never, ever order anything for herself. But the outing had been her idea! We pleaded with her to order something. “No, nothing for me.”

Then she would cadge a bite of everyone else’s dessert, gleefully eating more than anyone.

She was an encourager, a prayer warrior, a friend who never failed to keep in touch. She never forgot a birthday or an anniversary, and she always ended her email messages to me with, “Hug her.” How she loved Dianna. And everyone else she knew.

Nancy wrote the most poignant piece I have ever seen when she lost her beloved husband to cancer, somehow avoiding the maudlin but still drawing tears from every reader. [It is cited in the second section of the Christian Writers Guild’s What’s Your Story? course.]

She was the first reader to predict that Left Behind would become number one on the New York Times bestseller list, so I took to calling her Tess, short for prophetess.

I so looked forward to seeing her at a writers conference in San Diego in May of 2002, but friends told us Nancy’s own cancer was quickly overwhelming her and that if we wanted to see her, we needed to come soon. So in early April we went.

She accepted only pain medication, no chemo, no radiation. She was ready, eager to go. Paralysis, signaling the end, had just begun. Nancy was bedridden by the time we reached her, but she looked radiant.

I videotaped a greeting from her for the upcoming conference. Then we reminisced, laughed a little, cried a little, prayed, expressed our love, and said our goodbyes. It was hard to imagine this bigger than life little woman would be gone soon.

Her last words to me? “Hug her.”

Less than two weeks later word came that she had died in the night. How we miss her! But we wouldn’t begrudge her present situation for anything. I wish only that we’d known her longer.

(Mary Jenson photo of Nancy, courtesy of Vicki Hesterman.)


Vonnie said...

Wow... I wished I had known her.

I love this line:

“I can see that,” she said. “You scribbled all over it.”

You can hear the "sassiness" in those words. I'll bet anything she was a school teacher once upon a time.

Thanks for sharing this. It gives me hope. Iwant to be like Nancy.


Aine Willis said...

She sounds like a wonderful person ... the grandmother everyone wants to have ... I love this. Thanks for sharing it. There are those people who come into your life and, well, you know their impression will last a lifetime.

Mr. Pond said...

That's beautiful. You made me meet her with you.


Michele said...

A touching tribute to a beautiful person! Well written. Has anyone ever told you that you should be a writer? (snicker, snicker)

Jerry Jenkins said...

I want to be a writer when I grow up.