The Zero-Expense Writing Year, Part 3: How an Accidental Love for Teaching Snowballed into the Unexpected

It was Sunday morning. I had been going over the Sunday School lesson since early that morning, and nearly had the whole thing memorized. I ran through it with my husband just to make sure I didn’t sound too monotone and boring.

My husband gently reminded me that they’re only second graders, that they’re not a ravenous pack of wolves, and that I would be fine.

I felt happy that I was helping my friend Allison, the associate children’s minister at my church. I was simultaneously fearful that she would secretly vow to never ask me to teach again.

I stood at the front of the Sunday School room, paper in hand, greeting the kids as they came in. It was immediately awkward. The Shepherd (the patient heart who takes prayer requests and keeps the kids on track) kept trying to do her usual routine, but I kept thinking she was finished, and so I inadvertently interrupted her, then apologized, no less than 14 times.

Then I began the lesson.

About thirty seconds into the thing, I was surprised … I mean, really surprised. I was enjoying myself. I was enjoying the kids, and the lesson, and … shocker … the kids were attentive the ENTIRE TIME.

I think they actually enjoyed it.

by Ben White

They laughed at my jokes. They asked questions. And at the end, when I playfully quizzed them, they remembered what they’d learned! When it was all over and the last kid had been picked up, I ran up to Allison and said, “Oh my goodness! That was so much fun! Can I do it again?”

Allison’s eyes went wide and she scrambled for a pencil and pointed at the calendar. “Um, yes, actually. How about here? And here?”

For the next month, I taught Sunday School for kids, made a loving new friend named Barb, and enjoyed it so much, I forgot about writing completely. I was certain this must be my new calling. Yet somehow it still wasn’t enough.

I had the grand idea of substitute teaching at our local elementary school where the boys would soon be starting third grade and kindergarten. The process of applying to be a substitute teacher was tedious and time-consuming. I had visions of lovingly guiding brilliant, thirsty little minds and hearts. We would laugh together. We would discover new, exciting things. We would bond.

This was it. I had found my new passion: teaching.

It was still spring, the school year had not ended yet, and I was anxious to start subbing right away. I applied at Caleb’s preschool, and was soon hired. I began the work of subbing with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. It was so much fun, and I couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying it! How had I not discovered this sooner?

From the extra funds of subbing, I decided to try something fun. I started a podcast.

by Sai Kiran Anagani

I called it The Simple Word, and the intention was to dig deep into biblical concepts in less than ten minutes per episode, geared toward kids. I scripted out the episodes, recorded six, uploaded three, and was humbled by the positive response.

Wait a minute … in the middle of all the teaching enthusiasm, I had discovered yet another passion.

Writing the script was a blast, and I desperately wished I had more time to sit saturated in the Word. I had so much fun comparing versions, researching timelines and cultural references.

I learned SO MUCH.

Using NIV, ESV, ICB and NLT versions of the Bible, I dug and read and compared and cross-referenced. And that wasn’t the only fun part! I was fascinated with the editing process, and would spend hours after everyone went to bed playing with the different vocal effects. Ideas for more content flooded my head and heart. I had started something that I never wanted to end, and it filled my heart up to overflowing. Better yet, my kids loved it, and it resonated with their little souls. It somehow fueled the excitement over subbing at the elementary school, because I was anxious to spend time with more kids within the age group that the podcast would be created for.

I absolutely couldn’t wait until the fall when I could start teaching elementary kids!

Little did I know, however, that I would never get that opportunity.

Again, God had other plans.

The Zero-Expense Writing Year, Part 2: The Thing I Never Thought I Would Do. Ever

It was uncomfortable, it was painful, and it was the most enlightening thing I’d ever done in terms of God’s calling on my life.

In my last post, I gave you an introduction to my commitment of taking on a zero-expense year of writing. I had determined that not a single dollar would be spent on writing endeavors, particularly toward my “next step” (an up-and-going novel-writing career I was forever clawing for). I had written four novels, endless short stories, essays and articles all hidden away in my computer. That’s when God got real with me.

This zero-expense commitment had shifted something inside of me. It forced me to look at what I already had, instead of what I “needed”.

I felt led to simply open my computer and take an inventory of my work. I had saved everything for the last twenty years, from the time I was about fifteen years old to the present. Every scrap, every sentence, every note, every character profile had all been carefully filed away so that it was easily reached and used, should God decide to make use of my efforts.

by Glenn Carstens-Peters

I scrolled through file after file of all my work … All my hard, selfish work, and in my heart, I presented it at Christ’s feet.

I was suddenly ashamed of it. My intention had been to ask God what to do with it. How can He use it? What is it good for? I had spent years reaching back into past work, trying to make something of it all. Trying to make something of myself. Trying to make it all count. So there I was, dozens of open folders before me, whispering prayers for God to show me what to do. I breathed and waited, knowing that whatever God directed, my answer would be YES.

I got nothing.

I got nothing but word-by-word reminders of how I had failed Him. How can He use anything that was written with selfish motive? I was tired of reaching back into the recesses of my past work, and it was preventing me from moving forward. So I deleted one file. To my surprise, my heart felt an ounce lighter. I deleted another. My heart lifted just an inch.

I right-clicked an entire folder and deleted the whole thing. Then was struck with a rush of freedom.

I took a deep breath and whispered, “Here we go.”

Folder by folder, I deleted everything. Every single note, character photo, story, chapter … everything.

I didn’t shed a tear. Not a single one. In fact, when I saw the recycle bin on its second round of final dumping, I laughed as I saw 2,533 files erased into oblivion.

My cursor hovered over the last file. It was a completed novel manuscript titled “The House of Oak and Ivy”, and I’d written it for my Aunt Dianne, who had cancer at the time. I’d chosen a plot I knew she’d find delicious, complete with a haunted house laced with romance. It’s hard to put into words what/who Aunt Dianne was to me then. An encourager. A cheerleader. An occasional brainstorming partner. As a kid, my sisters and I received a box of books for Christmas from her. It was the spark that ignited a heavily-fueled passion for words. “The House of Oak and Ivy” had taken nearly a year to write. I had determined that it would be my first published novel, written for her, and dedicated to her. Then, about two weeks before it reached completion, Aunt Dianne passed away, having no idea about the project.

The cursor hovered. I right-clicked, hesitated, and burst into tears. What if I’d made a mistake? What if I’d just deleted twenty years worth of work based on an emotional impulse? What would Aunt Dianne say right now if she knew I was about to delete something that I’d written specifically for her?

I suddenly knew … She’d say it didn’t matter. She would appreciate the effort that anyone made for her, but especially considering her Heavenly perspective at that moment, I knew exactly what she’d say. She’d tell me to obey God’s call, at all costs. She’d tell me not to doubt. She’d assure me that choosing God over self-doubt was always the right choice.

So I clicked delete.

Just like that, every word I’d written and saved since my teenage years was gone.

I was finally free.

My zero-expense year of writing was now in full-swing. My only spending allowance would strictly come from the money I’d make with freelance writing, after taxes and tithe.

Then a funny thing happened … All of my freelance writing work suddenly dried up. No more clients. There were no prospects. There was no work to be found.

Ok, God. I hear you, I prayed. I decided to take a long break from writing entirely, including blogging. I had a shiny, pretty website that wasn’t getting any traffic, anyway, and for a long time, my heart had been dry of ideas.

by Leon Biss

Focusing on Christ’s will for my life, I began to ask Him questions that made me feel sick. Had I missed my calling, then? What if, all these years, I’d had it wrong? Or what if I’d messed it all up so badly, He was now taking it from me? Nausea, wave by wave, overtook me at the very thought. God wouldn’t use a prideful heart, I knew, except to show what it looked like to fall. HARD. So I peeled back a new layer, and began asking God deeper questions … beginning with What now? What do you want me to do, God?

God answered that question definitively and immediately on a Sunday morning as I dropped my sons off for Sunday School. When I was approached by Allison, the associate children’s minister, I had no idea what chain of events God was setting into motion.

“Natalie!” Allison said in her usual, bright spirit. “I could really use a favor. Would you mind teaching Sunday School for second graders next week?”

I hated teaching. I wasn’t good at it. I found myself to be boring, which means it was a dead-certainty the kids would hate me.

But, I loved helping. So I shrugged and said, “Sure!”

I spent the entire next week worrying about how quickly the kids would fall asleep while I fumbled through a Bible lesson. I was certain Allison would, after that next week, never ask me to teach again.

But God had other plans … Plans that involved a new, accidental passion that would change our entire family dynamic.

The Zero-Expense Writing Year, Part 1: What I Lost, and What I Gained

I was sick of it.

I’d had my sights set on the “next step” for years, but yet, nothing was happening.

My next step was fiction novel-writing. I’d already had a few fiction short stories published, won a couple of awards with them. But I wanted more. I wanted to reach higher.

I wanted it so bad, I could taste it.

by Plush Design Studio

I wanted book signings where I could answer questions and help people who were struggling just like I’d been for so long. I could just see it all. I would be asked questions to which I could give wise and helpful answers.

“So, how did you manage to write novels with being a mom of young kids?”

Would my answer be like one author: “I wrote three novels with one hand on the keyboard and a ten-month-old on my knee.”

Gulp. I tried that once, and ended up with something that looked like this:

The trees towered fjjsbrjqh over her, like giants dnsnkfnnh shouting down their disapproval, dbsjkdfjhehhw but djdhshha she scrambled to her feet and trudged on. Fnabgqgehbdkakhh

Nope. Not for me.

Another author said: “I waited until my kids were in school, and spent a few hours each day working while they were gone and the house was quiet.”

Hm … While Wesley was in elementary and Caleb was in preschool, I somehow wrote far less than I did at midnight when they were babies. Now that we homeschool, our school days look verrrrry different than ever before.

Then there’s Melanie Dickerson, one of the most gentle-spirited women I’ve ever encountered. When I asked that question, she shugged and said simply, “I really don’t know. I just wrote.”

The clock is ticking. I’d always said I wanted a full-time novel-writing career by age 30. As Diana Gabaldon says regarding her start to The Outlander series, “I was 35. Mozart was dead by 36, so I knew I’d better get started!”

I’m 36 now. I’ve written four novels, none of which have seen the light of day. I decided that I was missing something. Something I didn’t KNOW that I needed to know.

I went on retreats. I went to conferences. I invested in workshops. I took online courses. I bought *more* books on writing, the ones that all the “experts” say you’ll need or else you’ll never know what to do. (Word of advice: read what you want. Not what you should. Because obligatory reading is … Well, exactly as boring as it sounds.)

As you can imagine, all of this took MONEY. I felt so guilty as I dropped dollar signs into a bucket labeled “novel-writing investment”. I built an impressive website. I did all the right things to drive traffic to it. I played the social media game exactly as the experts suggested. None of it worked, and I’m sure the my-heart’s-not-in-this spirit showed through. (Some writer friends reading this will be nodding their heads now).

by Marc Schaefer

Now, in all my hot persuit of finding that key I seemed to be missing, I lost something else …

My love for writing.

by Matthew Henry

I’d become sick of it. Actually, totally sick of it. I hated to even say the word “writing” because it had become connected with frustration and negativity. It wasn’t fun. I hated it. To my heart it tasted like bits of cardboard in a bowl, eaten like cereal with a paper spoon.

When it came time to turn in our taxes for 2018, I added up all the writing expenses (minus the meager freelance writing income I’d intended to fund my “self-investment”). I wept. I wept and wept. Because for years I had convinced myself that what I needed was to educate myself … To learn how to write. I obviously didn’t know how, because I’m 36, and no published novel to my name.

I felt embarrassed. And ashamed. And in all honesty, I felt burdened.

I mean, hadn’t God called me to write? I can answer that whole-heartedly without hesitation: YES. Then why, for Heaven’s sake, had I failed to do so?

The answer, in short: I have no idea. But yet I know exactly why.

Let me explain. I thought I was doing the right thing by making moves to reach my “next step”. It wasn’t a waste, necessarily. Because God uses ALL things for good (Romans 8:28). But every single move I made was with the goal of my own career in mind. I believe that works for most people, most of the time, but it didn’t work for me.

Because that’s not what God intended when He called me.

When God calls you, it doesn’t always make sense. In fact, it rarely does. Because God’s calling is strategic to His High Plan. Tony Evans says, “If God showed us the whole journey, we’d never take the first step.”

What I had essentially done is this: I had taken God’s calling, packed up His equipment (because when God calls us, He also equips us (2 Corinthians 9:8 and Hebrews 13:21)), and went in my own direction. I ended up with a shiny website that no one visited. I had a million shiny words that no one read. And I had a shiny, prideful view of my own capability that wasn’t serving any purpose at all.

I prayed about it. I repented of my own selfishness. Then God got real with me.

I committed to a zero-expense year of writing, having no idea exactly how much I would be giving up, and what I would gain in the end.

What happened next is something I never thought I would ever do.

Ever.

8 Surprising Things I Learned During 6 Weeks Off Social Media

We were at the brink of big changes.

My husband asked to go into the field with his job, which meant he wouldn’t be sitting behind a desk in Birmingham each day, at home by 6 pm. It meant he would be 400 miles away in Little Rock working on the job site, doing the parts of the job that he really loved, with once-per-month visits home.

We made the plunge to homeschool our two boys for 3rd grade and kindergarten, a decision we’d been praying about for over a year.

It was one big, giant adventure looming just at the horizon of our lives, and I was excited that my husband was given this opportunity.

That’s when I stopped sleeping.

I would watch the clock as it blinked the minutes by, thinking things like: Kris needs to teach me how to use the edger so I can keep up the yard well. I need to get a car charger for my phone so that GPS can lead us all the way to Little Rock without dying. Should we stay with him a few days, or a whole week? I should start making a packing list. How will the boys handle their father being gone? Will video chats be enough?

My feelings were so strange about the whole thing … I was looking forward to meeting the challenge. I was determined to step up and show how tough I am. I wouldn’t drag my husband down. I was grateful for the chance to grow in our family, in our marriage, and in our parenthood. So why was I already missing my husband? He hadn’t even left yet.

A few days before leaving day, I had dinner with a few mom friends. We talked about the typical range of topics for women excited to be in each other’s company. A discussion that was particularly intriguing was the weight that social media can sometimes add to a woman’s “mental load”. I instantly related to this, and asked what they do to relieve the burden that we all seem to be obligated to, or trapped in. When one friend mentioned a social media fast, I knew I had to try it.

“I know three weeks sounds like a long time to avoid social media, because nowadays that’s the only way many people communicate,” she said with bright, encouraging eyes. “but give yourself no less than three weeks. I promise it will change the way you look at social media, and you won’t be the same, in a good way.”

That night, I deactivated all of my social media accounts (without explanation or announcing my impending online absence), and deleted the apps.

For the first two days, I found myself habitually reaching for my phone when I had a few extra minutes of silence. “Oh, right,” I would say to myself with a generous eye roll. “No social media.” I thought I would need to use intentional restraint, like when I spot the chocolate in the back of the pantry when I’m avoiding sugar, and I have to clench my jaw and walk away (with agony).

After those first two days, I didn’t think twice about it.

This surprised me.

The other surprise was exactly how much of a relief it was to be away from it. I didn’t feel obligated to keep up with the people whose lives I only witnessed through my phone screen. I kept up via text and phone calls with my closest friends, but otherwise, I didn’t miss a thing.

Did you catch that?

I didn’t. Miss. A thing.

A few days ago, I decided I should probably check my progress, to see if I’d met the 3-week deadline as my friend had suggested.

The “fast” had actually reached the 6 week mark.

Let me drive this point home … I DIDN’T MISS A THING.

I decided to make a list of the shifts and changes that had occurred in the absence of social media.

  1. I wrote in my journal more.
    Oh, how I had missed writing in my journal. I even grabbed a new, fresh diary off my shelf and thoroughly enjoyed penning the first page. Without writing posts, I suddenly had a desire to keep my thoughts private. I’d also forgotten what a beautiful ceremony journal-writing can be… a kind of meditation that relaxes and is distinctly anti-anxiety.
  2. Holding onto my thoughts deepened them.
    While filling pages up with handwritten words, I wondered how often those words would have become splashed into a status bar instead of inked onto a piece of paper. I realized that I spoke very differently into my journals than I did into the realm of social media. The words came out seasoned with more wisdom than they would have been on Facebook or Instagram.
  3. I wrote more, in general.
    Instead of spewing words into social platforms, I invested them into other things. I wrote paragraphs of internalized thought threads that didn’t seem to serve any real purpose at all, until a few hours/days later. Suddenly those thought threads became untangled, and my mind was filled with calming conclusions rather than anxious wonderings.
  4. I searched the Bible for answers more often.
    I realized how frequently I turned to the advice of others before I sought out the Scripture. It made me feel ashamed, and I realized how much my social media use had turned into an idol in my life.
  5. I spent more time with my kids.
    Okay, this may sound ludicrous, but I legitimately spent more time with my children than I did before. Part of that was because we were bored in a hotel room, and we were also homeschooling. But when I felt boredom set in, I didn’t pick up my phone to scroll through news feeds. I pulled out board games or a deck of cards. And if board games weren’t available, we made up our own games. I think it’s a good idea to point out that my social media time before was NOT excessive to the point that I neglected my children in favor of Facebook. The absence of social media DID, however, force the formation of new habits, especially when I felt bored or restless. And those new habits led to many rounds of Uno with two enthusiastic little boys.
  6. The pettiness was gone.
    Let’s be real here … social media brings out the pettiness in us all. I was relieved to have it purged, from both myself and others.
  7. I read more books.
    I read so many books, y’all. SO MANY BOOKS. It was a delicious pastime that had me gobbling up every delectable morsel I could get my hands on. We rented so many books from the library, I almost felt the need to apologize. Almost.
  8. I watched more people.
    Okay, let me explain before this sounds really creepy … people-watching is fascinating. While in public, I didn’t take endless pictures of my kids and post them. I took a few photos to capture the moment, then immediately put my phone away because I was relieved of the pressure to show them to people via social media. Because I didn’t pull up my social apps and post the photos, I spent more time watching the people around me. I won’t spoil the fun for you by describing the entertainment of people-watching … just put your phone away and try it. You won’t regret it.

I’ve now activated my social media accounts, but I am determined to use it at arm’s length. I’ve been freed from the spell, and the freedom feels amazing.

When the Past is Full of Failure, the Present is Confusing, and the Future is Terrifying

“Bring them to me, Lord,” I prayed in a sanctuary full of church family. I was still sitting with my head bowed while everyone else stood and sang along to the music. “Lord, use my writing as a way to bring souls my way so that I can tell them about you….”

My prayer evaporated. Tears stung my eyes as my words to God halted. I couldn’t go any further.

Because I knew I was lying to Him. Continue reading “When the Past is Full of Failure, the Present is Confusing, and the Future is Terrifying”

The Most Entertaining Thing at the McWane Center

Thanks to my mother-in-law, the boys and I are able to enjoy an endless number of trips to the fascinating McWane Science Center in downtown Birmingham. We’ve experienced so much exploring, learning, discovering and laughing there.

We spent a couple of exciting hours yesterday afternoon at McWane. But just before leaving, we made one last stop.

I’m not even sure what this object is called, but it was the most hysterical part of our day.

Don’t Miss Them

In an instant, they’re gone.

bubbles-by-david-schap
Photo by David Schap

So many of them happen unnoticed, disguised as mundane spaces between the exciting moments that become legends.

sparkler-by-caleb-jones
Photo by Caleb Jones

It’s in the first cool drops of a spring rain.

rain-by-geetanjal-khanna
Photo by Geetanjal Khanna

It’s in the earthy scent of rich, black soil.

soil-by-neslihan-gunaydin
Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin

It’s in the giggles of a happy child…

chalk-and-children-by-tina-floersch
Photo by Tina Floersch

… and in the cries of an infant at midnight.

baby-by-jordan-whitt
Photo by Jordan Whitt

It’s in the rays of a bright sun, warming the skin and lifting the spirits.

bible-on-the-beach-by-ben-white
Photo by Ben White

It’s Life.

eggs-by-ian-baldwin
Photo by Ian Baldwin

Life in all its mundane glory.

couple-and-sunset-by-asaf-r
Photo by Asaf R

God’s Love and Twizzlers

church

Photo by Astrid Westvang

There are a million reasons why I love my church. I experience God in this place in such a rich way, I walk away week after week challenged, convicted, encouraged, humbled, and empowered. Our pastor, Ryan Whitley, and song leader, Bryan Haskins, are the face of CrossPoint, displaying passion and enthusiasm for Christ that, in my opinion, is an incredible example of unrelenting faith and love.

But an exchange today is such a perfect example of how the family of CrossPoint works.

Continue reading “God’s Love and Twizzlers”

The Early Bird Gets the Word

I have found The Way.

Writing is a very, VERY hard dream to chase, especially in the midst of life.

Ideally, time would pause long enough to allow some rest, let my imagination wander, and pound out an impressive word count without being absent from my family.

But let’s be real. Time is elusive. Continue reading “The Early Bird Gets the Word”

Evidence

The other night I rounded the corner to find this:

Evidence that there is a naked boy running around my house somewhere.