Roadblocks and Detours—When Writing is Derailed
By Cathy Gohlke
Writing is our passion. For many of us it is a calling from God, a ministry of joy that we’ve been given and eagerly pursue.
So, what do we do about our carefully crafted and hard earned writing schedules, lifelong dreams, and deadlines (self-imposed or imposed by contracts) when life hits an unexpected roadblock?
Boulders as great as our imagination loom round the corner of everyday life. Thankfully, most are minor and short lived, but what if they’re not? What happens when bill-paying jobs are lost or changed, when ill health strikes us, or a loved one? What happens when a loved one dies, is deployed, or simply leaves, when divorce upends our world? What happens when a beloved child goes astray or when we lose our home through fire or foreclosure?
Are such life changing events a sign that we need to reevaluate the time writing requires or those thriving passions in our heart? Does it mean that we’ve misinterpreted God’s calling on our lives, or does it mean that we’re to fight all the harder to pursue the dream He planted in our DNA? Does it mean something else entirely?
Little did I know, while writing Secrets She Kept, that no sooner would I complete its editorial work and sign a contract to write a new book (a WWII story set in England’s breathtaking Lake District in the photo below on the right; the photo of Two Women Standing Monument to the left was my inspiration for Secrets She Kept) than I’d receive a diagnosis for breast cancer. In what seemed a whirlwind, my team of doctors outlined surgery, months of chemotherapy and radiation, and a five-year plan for hormone therapy—all of which derailed my writing plans.
I didn’t ask, why me? I’ve always been more inclined to ask why not me? But I wondered, why now, and what am I supposed to learn from this experience?
My husband and I had just upended our empty nest world. We’d rented out our home in Maryland and moved to Virginia to rent a house with our grown children in order to help with grandchild care while both her parents worked. Three generations under one roof had us all running as fast as we could while humming the theme tune from the Waltons. Between family and writing life was rich and full and productive (photo below is me signing my contract for Secrets She Kept with my granddaughter). I didn’t have time to be sick. Everything from family needs to reader reception to story inspiration and speaking opportunities indicated I was on the right life track.
Did this diagnosis and derailment mean I wasn’t? Did it mean that God had changed His mind about my writing or that I hadn’t been faithful?
It was tempting to go that route, to question Him, to become fearful and discouraged. But those fears didn’t ring true.
Here’s what I knew: I love the Lord with all my heart. I want only to serve Him in whatever way He wants. If that means giving up writing, I’m ready to do that. If it means giving up speaking, I’m ready to do that. If it means refocusing my life on my family’s needs or on foreign missions, I’m ready. So, as much as I love writing and have always loved writing, I couldn’t see that it was a question of needing to surrender that in some way that I hadn’t.
But I have to admit, sometimes I’ve feared that I’ll run out of ideas—not ideas for stories, but run out of ideas for writing about things that matter. So, I wondered if this was a time out for the Lord to refuel my brain, and time to focus more closely on Him.
And that, I think, is the key—time to focus on Him. When life steals our health or finances or those we love or our very heart for living the day to day through any kind of catastrophe, it’s time to refocus, to focus on Him and the most intimate parts of our relationship with Him. It’s not a punishment, it’s a necessity for getting through life and getting through it with an abundance of joy.
So, I was willing—I thought. I looked at this as a time to spend with Him and still write—I’d journal and get a good start on my story and all would be well (pic to the right is me in my prayer shawl on my first day of chemo).
Naively, I believed that I’d breeze through chemo—that it would be tough, but not debilitating. In the early months of chemotherapy I was shocked at the depth of fatigue, how quickly my white blood count plummeted, at my rapid descent into anemia, at how quickly I developed infections and repeated cases of shingles. Above all, I never expected to lose the use my brain or my ability to focus enough to write. I’d never even heard of chemo brain–brain fog, weakness, forgetfulness and muddled-headedness. I never expected to have my normal taken away.
There were times that the pain was so intense I could not think, could not even pray, that I had to release that need to the Lord and ask the Holy Spirit to pray in my stead. And He did. And in that moment I learned total dependence and relief in that dependence on Him in a way I’ve never experienced.
Along the way He sent me love gifts in unusual ways, reminders that He sees me, loves me, knows my name . . . reminders that I’m not forgotten by my Father in Heaven. (photo to the left is a plaque from Transformational Fiction Fans). Big things and little things—things that only He knows matter to me. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. Those things come your way, too. Because they’re easy to miss in the throes of upheaval, we pray for eyes to see them, ears to hear them, and the sensitivity to recognize them. Then, oh, how we thank Him!
During periods of respite between chemo treatments I was occasionally able to journal. Sometimes I could read, though I couldn’t keep anything in my head for long. Research for a new historical novel was impossible. I couldn’t remember the contents of a paragraph two minutes after I’d read it. So often I wondered if I’d ever be able to think clearly, to capture a plot and hold onto it, to write again. And if I didn’t, if I couldn’t, I needed to be okay with that. I needed to be able to say, “Yes, Lord.”
There were times when I just wanted to lay it all down, when I longed to go home to the Lord and enter into His gates with thanksgiving and live forever in His courts of praise. There were times when I wondered if that wasn’t where I was headed soon.
At one of the lowest points of my chemotherapy treatments—while weak and bedridden from a dangerously low white blood count—I read an account of John Sherrill’s two-time battle with cancer.
Sherrill and his wife, Elizabeth, were writers for Guideposts magazine at the time. According to the story I read, although John believed in God and regularly wrote stories of people whose faith helped them overcome great obstacles, he’d not yet accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He’d not made a personal, internal commitment. On his way to a second surgery, with a prognosis of only three months to live, John surrendered his life to Christ. When the doctors went in to cut out the mass of suspected cancer, it had shrunk to the size of a “raisin,” and was not cancerous. John considered his healing miraculous.
But there was another miracle for me. I hadn’t known the Sherrills as writers for Guideposts. I knew them as the “as told to” co-writers of Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place.
I checked Sherrill’s website. He is now in his 90s and still writing. Reading Sherrill’s story of full surrender to the Lord and of overcoming fear and cancer at the low time I did in my own cancer journey gave me great hope that if I wait upon the Lord He might again use me to write stories of hope and faith and conviction, too—stories that glorify Him and portray His love for us all.
Sherrill’s unique connection to Corrie ten Boom (photo the left) and her connection to the characters of Secrets She Kept –-which was about to release—washed over me as another great love gift, a reminder that all my days and all my abilities and opportunities are in God’s hands, that He is not limited by diagnoses or human catastrophes.
That morning I learned to fight cancer with a surrendered heart. Whatever my future holds or doesn’t hold, I know He walks with me through both the valley and into green pastures. I’ve claimed as my inspiration a Scripture I’ve always loved, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
I’ve learned that cancer, like any major life roadblock, is part of my journey, but it does not define me. It’s neither the climax nor the end of my story, for life and eternity only begin here. By God’s grace, there will be many more stories to write. Those are the secrets I keep, warm and alive in my heart.
The things I’ve learned from the Lord in the silence of pain and waiting are lessons I’ll carry into all of life ahead, lessons that will surely show up in anything I write in the future, most definitely in the book I’ll resume writing as soon as I’m able.
I share my journey to encourage you, to say that an interruption in hopes and dreams and plans for a writer is not a dead end. It is a fork in the road less traveled that leads us to new understandings—if we allow it to enrich and not embitter us. Everything in life is material for a writer, every joy and every trial.
Let all of life, the good, the bad and the ugly, be the gift it’s meant to be. Seek joy each day, through each experience. We’ll all be better people and better writers for this, we’ll all have more from the Lord to share and more ways to bless one another.
In addition to our $50 gift-card giveaway this week and the grand prize of an iPad Mini to be drawn at the end of the month, Cathy has been gracious enough to offer a copy of Secrets She Kept to one winner drawn from all those who comment today.
ABOUT SECRETS SHE KEPT:
All her life, Hannah Sterling longed for a close relationship with her estranged mother. Following Lieselotte’s death, Hannah determines to unlock the secrets of her mother’s mysterious past and is shocked to discover a grandfather living in Germany.
Thirty years earlier, with Lieselotte’s father ascending the ranks of the Nazi party, a proper marriage for his daughter could help advance his career. But Lieselotte is in love—and her beloved Lukas is far from an ideal match, as he secretly works against the Reich. But Lieselotte never imagined how far her father would go to ensure her cooperation.
Both Hannah’s and Lieselotte’s stories unfold as Hannah travels to Germany to meet her grandfather, who is hiding wartimes secrets of his own. Longing for connection, yet shaken by all she uncovers, Hannah must decide if she can atone for her family's tragic past, and how their legacy will shape her future.
Cathy Gohlke is the two-time Christy Award-winning author of Secrets She Kept, Saving Amelie (INSPY Award), Band of Sisters, Promise Me This (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2012), William Henry is a Fine Name, and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2008, and winner of the Carol Award). Cathy and her husband divide their time between Northern Virginia and the Jersey Shore, enjoying time with their grown children and granddaughter. Find her online at www.cathygohlke.com and on FB at CathyGohlkeBooks.