Amanda Barber

Stories, songs, and thoughts on life.

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How it all started

03 February 2012

I was eleven years old in 1996. That Christmas, my parents bought me a journal and put it in my stocking. It was pink and had a picture of a little mouse sitting in an arbor, doing some needlework. Underneath it read, “Julie’s Journey Journal.” I’m not really sure why it had such a title, because there was no explanation about Julie or her journey on the inside. But that didn’t stop me. I began my journaling career the following day by this entry:

“December 26, 1996 I am on my way to Grandma and Grandpa’s house with my Mom, Dad, and little brother Justin. Christmas Day was fun, Except that I sliced my finger on the brand new scisors I got for Christmas.” (The punctuation and spelling are unabridged.)

I sort of fell into the habit of writing. I read massively, and it seemed like the natural outcome of reading to sit down and write. I began with very bad short stories in which I tried to use as many large words as I could without giving much serious thought to how those words fit the characters or time period. From stories, I branched out into novelettes, all equally dreadful. My masterpiece at fifteen years old was called, “Strife and Serenity.” (I can only guess that I had just finished reading Pride and Prejudice and decided any title that joined elegant opposites with the word “and” had to be good.) I can’t share the plotline of that story without wincing and shuddering. But, it was quite important in the grand scheme of things. You see, the year I finished S and S was the year my grandma died. At the beginning of 2000, Grandma suffered two severe strokes which left her in a wheel chair. So we moved in with my grandparents somewhere around June or July to take care of her. It was rough. Grandma’s personality seemed so different suddenly. Grandpa was cranky and wouldn’t accept the fact that he actually needed help caring for his beloved Frannie. She slept constantly and grouched at everybody. At any rate, I wanted her to read my masterpiece in the worst way and so gave it to her. Only a few weeks later, Grandma was rushed to the emergency room after her heart rate plummeted. The doctor said she had to have an operation very soon to correct a bowel issue; otherwise she was going to die. On the other hand, they told us, she might not be able to handle the operation and still die. My parents and my grandpa decided to try for surgery.

I went into the hospital room by myself that day. Grandma was awake and smiled at me. I said the usual things—that I was praying for her and I loved her.

Then she said, in her old, familiar grandmotherly way, “I read your story. It was very nice, sweetie. You keep writing, alright?”

“I will,” I said.

And that was the last time I ever saw her awake.

I kept writing for a few years, and then I stopped. The next four or five years were so full of depression, anxiety, doubts and discouragement, that I lost interest in writing and a lot of other things. Most of my stories of the past had had a decidedly Christian element about them because that was the thing I cared about and loved the most. That was the problem. I had begun a story chronicling a young girl’s life and her journey of disbelief to faith. I started when I was seventeen and only worked on it off and on. A few thousand words in and a couple of years later, I experienced the most intense period of doubt in my life. I hardly know how to explain what happened or why it happened. One minute, I was sitting in a church service, happy to be a Christian. The next minute, and as suddenly as a gunshot, my assurance of salvation was gone. And I still don’t know why, because I am quite sure that I was truly a Christian. Nevertheless, I doubted that I was a child of God. I doubted the veracity of the Bible. I even doubted the existence of God. And I struggled with those doubts for several years. I have never been more miserable in my life.

I continued journaling, mostly filling the pages with the agony that consumed me. I also kept a half-hearted blog, but I didn’t really write with the idea of accomplishment in mind. Sometimes, I remembered that last conversation with Grandma and felt guilty. But what could I do? I could not write about how good God was while I was struggling to believe that He existed. How could I write about the light and love of God when all I knew was fear and darkness?

Like C.S. Lewis has observed, as soon as we think we can take no more, suddenly we come through and God lifts the crushing pressure. I was sitting with my dad one Sunday afternoon, talking about all the struggles I had been experiencing, and he said something that resonated with me. I don’t remember his exact words so I’ll paraphrase. “This is faith. It’s as if God takes us to the edge of a chasm and tells us to walk over a rickety old bridge with Him to the other side. It is terrifying, but you do it anyway.” I sat there at the table for a few minutes, then I went upstairs and wrote, “Walk With Me.” I knew where I was. I was groping around in the bottom of the chasm after falling off the bridge. It wasn’t God’s fault I had fallen. It was mine, and He was the only one who could get me out. After I wrote that allegory, my doubts began to subside. Everything I wrote after that was so much better, because I actually had a reason to write again.

In 2009, my brother asked me to write a story for a piece of music he had written, “Children’s Suite.” The piece had six movements and my job was to describe what was happening in each movement. It was tricky, but I really had fun with it. Justin recorded me reading the story and incorporated it into his cd. At the time, he was attending summer classes at Southwestern Michigan College. His English instructor was Michael Collins, the author of a number of novels. Without telling me, Justin took my recorded story and played it for Michael who really liked it. We got in contact with each other and started emailing back and forth, and he encouraged me to begin attending SMC so that he could coach me. Up until then, I knew I liked to write, but I didn’t think I was good enough. Then Michael, a guy who knew what he was talking about, told me I was a good writer, and that revelation was all the prodding I needed. He asked to look at some things I had written previously, so he could see if I had anything that could turn into a big project. Reluctantly, I included the story I had started before all my troubles began–about a girl who learns to believe in God. I thought it was terrible, but Michael thought it was great. So all that year, I wrote feverishly, and my rather ungainly story turned into the novel, “The Pursuit of Elizabeth Millhouse.” I kind of hope people in Heaven can look in on their relatives. My theology is unsound, to be sure, but I really want Grandma to know that I’m still writing.

So, one novel and several rejections later, here I am. I am quite determined to get this book published. I’ve spent too much time and energy on it to give up now. Those of you who are on my page, reading this narrative are helping me the most. The publishing business right now is such that new authors had better have a lot of people aware of who they are and what they’re doing (a ready-made market), or the publishing companies won’t take a chance on them. That has been my experience so far. So thank you again for helping me out with this. Keep spreading the word and keep reading.