Jan Ackerson is a well-known presence at FaithWriters.com. Her writings have touched many hearts and several of her Challenge entries have placed in the top ten. The encouragement she offers to fellow writers is invaluable, and she is always ready to volunteer wherever needed. Join Lynda as she interviews this amazing lady about her writing, her life struggles, and following God's lead.
Lynda Schab: Start by telling us a little about yourself.
Jan Ackerson: I'm such an ordinary, regular person! I've been married to a really sweet guy, Ben, for almost 32 years, and we have two married daughters, Megan and Jericho. The absolute monarch of our house is our quirky cat, Sophie, whose talents include flushing the toilet! We attend a tiny local church where I play piano--badly. I love to play word games and puzzles, read great novels, and watch reality TV. Some of my passions are chocolate, Diet Coke, and of course, writing.
I teach high school special education—most of my students have mild learning or emotional disabilities. I usually teach English, although sometimes my schedule calls for me to teach the occasional Government or History class. This year, in a scheduling fluke, they had me teach Biology, but I'm pretty sure the administration has learned the error of their ways. Science and I are not particularly compatible!
Lynda: So did you becoming a teacher ignite your passion to write or was your gift of creative writing what sparked your desire to teach?
I've always loved the written word—I remember as a child, bringing home stacks and stacks of library books, and reading them all in one day. And I come by it honestly—my grandmother, Francena H. Arnold, wrote over a dozen Christian novels in the 1950s and 60s, and my brother is also a published writer.
Since my students have learning disabilities, they write at a fairly low level. I have to keep my analysis of their writing in a totally different part of my brain than that part in which I create and edit my own writings, or even critique the entries at FaithWriters. They're totally different skill sets and motivations. I love teaching, and I love writing, but they have very little to do with each other.
Lynda: You joined FaithWriters in 2005. I noticed in your profile that you entered the Writing Challenge the day after you signed up as a member. This makes me wonder: did you join FaithWriters because of the Writing Challenge or did you just happen to come upon it after you signed up? And what do you love most about it?
Jan: My pastor's wife—my good friend Pam—told me about FaithWriters. She had come upon it when looking for places to promote her home business, and thought it was something I'd enjoy; she knew I had just recently started blogging and had been stretching my writing wings.
I found the Challenge on my first visit, and thought I'd give it a try. I entered without having read any previous entries. When I look at my first several Challenge entries, I'm truly embarrassed—but on the other hand, I'm glad they're still there. They are a testimony to how entering the Challenge, learning from constructive criticism, and trying new things have grown me as a writer. FaithWriters is an amazing site for those who take advantage of what it has to offer.
Lynda: Your entries quickly began to place in the top ten (then, the top eight). You steadily moved up the ladder from the "Beginner" level to "Masters" in almost exactly one year. What advice would you give to those just dipping their toes into the Writing Challenge?
Jan: Read several entries first—a few from each level, and especially the winners, so you can see what sorts of writings resonate with FW judges.
Check out the comments that other entries get. Some of the most amazing advice can be gleaned there. I'd never heard of the concept "show, don't tell" until I read it in the comments, and that one piece of advice (and seeing it demonstrated so wonderfully in many entries) changed my writing more than anything on the site. I also have learned great tips for writing dialog, using POV wisely—just so many things!
Stretch out of your comfort zone. The recent "genre" challenge was super for forcing that!
Work on basics of grammar and mechanics. While the best writers break grammar rules with regularity, they've earned the right to do so. You have to write well within the rules before you get to bust out of the box.
Finally, have fun with it! Don't obsess over winning or placing. Your writing is successful if it pleases God, if it's your best effort, if it makes just one reader catch her breath.
Lynda: Excellent advice!
You've mentioned that your grandmother and brother are/were writers (which is very, very cool, by the way!) Tell us more about your family.
Jan: I'm blessed in that I have been a Christian all my life. I have a very distinct memory of seeing that famous picture of Jesus knocking on the door—at age 5—and of lying in bed one night with that picture in my mind, and inviting Jesus to come in. My husband was also a Christian from childhood, and we were so thrilled that our girls followed our spiritual footsteps.
Megan has been married for two years—she's a middle school teacher and her husband is studying to be a nurse. She's an accomplished pianist and the only person I know who reads as much as I do.
Jericho just got married a few weeks ago. She's a sixth grade teacher, and her new hubby just graduated from college and is looking for a teaching job.
Ours was a pretty idyllic life until it was shattered in one pivotal moment. It was major enough that it forced our whole family to re-examine our relationship with God, and most particularly our response to Him in the midst of devastation and hurt.
Lynda: Would you mind sharing a little of your story?
Jan: Almost 7 years ago, when Jericho was a freshman in college, she was thrown from a runaway horse. She suffered a spinal cord injury at about waist level, and doctors were unsure if she'd be able to walk again.
I could talk about Jericho and her injury and recovery for hours. As a matter of fact, stories about her tend to show up about once every quarter. It was definitely a defining moment for everyone in the family.
I was truly depressed during her year of physical therapy and rehabilitation. I questioned God continually, railed bitterly against Him, complained, raged, bargained, turned my back…but Grace kept gently drawing me back to Him. I don't think I'll ever have my answers—this side of heaven—but I have learned to lean on Grace. It's enough.
By the way, Jericho can walk—she wears braces on both legs, and uses canes. She won't be running any marathons, but from eternity's point of view, she'll be healed forever…as soon as she's done with what she has to do "down here." She's at peace with her disability and with God.
Lynda: It's obvious that God has done a major work on your heart, as well, and has given you the peace, if not all the answers, you longed for. And I'm sure writing about the incident occasionally in the Writing Challenge helps you continue the healing process. This prompts me to ask: as far as your writing is concerned, what goals and dreams has God placed on your heart?
Jan: That's such a good question! I wish I knew the answer. I started writing in earnest after Jericho's injury—mostly journaling, and some chronicles of her progress. Lots of people told me I should write about her, but I wanted to wait until her story was "complete," and also, I knew I wasn't right with God yet, and that the time for writing her story wasn't right.
And now that Jericho's got some closure—her recovery is complete, she's married and working—I don't feel led to write about it. She'd hate it, for one thing; she's never thought of herself as inspiring or heroic. And I've moved on from having to write as a catharsis.
I can't tell you how many people—friends I've met at FW and others—have told me that I should look to write something for publishing. I haven't discounted that possibility, but I don't feel strongly led in that direction, either. I'm still pondering, and listening for God's leading, and waiting for a few characters to show up at my doorstep and demand that I write their stories.
In the meantime, I'm enjoying being a 21st century writer. I "publish" at FaithWriters, and on my blog, and if I make a few people laugh, or cry, or think, or pray with what I write, then I am a writer.
My goal would be, I guess, to find fresh ways of writing. I don't want to write anything that seems vaguely familiar or predictable to the readers. I want to make them blink, go back and read again, and nod with satisfaction.
My dreams? A non-writing one would be a cure for spinal cord injuries in Jericho's lifetime. Another dream that I hope will come true within a few years would be a grandbaby or two to spoil. A writing dream? A piece that changes someone's life, either for a moment, or for eternity.
Lynda: Jan, I can honestly say that your interview is the first to choke me up. Not necessarily because of your circumstances, although those touch me too, but because of the wisdom and amazing attitude you've acquired through it. You are obviously a woman after God's own heart and that fact shines through, bright and clear, in the work you do, the wife and mother you are, and in your writing.
Blessings and hugs to you as you pursue God's plan and purpose for your life. Praying He will show you exactly what that is!
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