The inception of this novel started years ago when I was working at Insight for living, a relatively young man at 38 and a still wet-behind-the-ears writer. Here is the story in my book, “Windows of the Soul,” where I tell of the experience that started me writing about the life of Jesus.
WINDOWS OF WRITING
“You should be writing something from your life, from the depths of your soul. There is more in you than this,” he said, pointing to the newspaper story, “if you have the courage to write it.”
Louisa May Alcott
From the film adaptation of Little Women
The main character in Little Women is Jo, who goes to New York to follow her dream of becoming a writer. After she submits one of her stories to a newspaper editor, that dream is taken by the lapels and the smoke of a stubby cigar blown in its face.
“Our subscribers are not interested in sentiment and fairy stories, Miss,” he said gruffly.
Jo frowned. “It isn’t a fairy story.”
“Try one of the ladies’ magazine,” he replied.
Jo stomped off, determined to do whatever she had to do to succeed. She didn’t care how gruff the editors were or how offensive their cigars, she was determined to make a living at what she loved. Even if it killed her. So instead of writing stories she felt passionately about, she wrote stories she thought would sell. One day she received a letter from the same editor she had walked out on. He liked her story and wanted to publish it. She was ecstatic. In her excitement she rushed over to a new acquaintance of hers who had been at one time a professor of literature.
“The newspaper has taken two stories, and they wish to see more!” she said
“Wonderful!” he said. “May I?” He took the stories she held in her hand
and began to read. Slowly, his happy expression changed to one of
disappointment. “‘The Sinner’s Corpse’ by Joseph March. You use another
“They pay well I suppose?”
Jo felt angry and crushed at the same time. Why didn’t he like what she had
written? “People’s lives are dull. They want thrilling stories,” she said, her
The professor frowned. “People want whiskey, but I think you and I do not
care to sell it.” He cleared his throat and tapped the page with his finger. “This
is a waste of your mind. You write of lunatics and vampires!”
“It will buy firewood for Marmee and Father, and a new coat for Beth, and she’ll
be grateful to have it,” Jo said angrily. Tears filled her eyes. She grabbed the
story and turned away. The professor gently took her arm to keep her from leaving.
“Please,” he said. “I do not wish to insult you. Understand me. I am saying,
you must please yourself. You must write about what you know, about what
is important to you. I can see you have talent.”
“Yes, but you should be writing something from your life, from the depths of
your soul. There is more to you than this,” he said, pointing to the newspaper
story, “if you have the courage to write it.”
Their conversation was an echo of one I had with God years ago when I was also an aspiring writer, also determined to make a living at what I loved, even if it killed me. The echo came from the small east Texas town of Nacogdoches where I had cut my teeth as a writer. Nothing I was writing at that time was selling, and things were getting desperate. More accurately, I was getting desperate.
It was then I came across an article in the Houston paper advertising a seminar for writing romance novels. Send your money, come to Houston, and you too can become a successfully published author. The words dripped with honey too sweet to resist.
I went to a bookstore and surreptitiously bought one of the slender paperbacks, just to check it out. It took a couple of hours to read; how long could it take to write? A couple of weeks, a month maybe? What could I lose? How many months had I already lost with my own projects? What was one more?
So I sent my money, went to Houston, and spent a day listening as writers gave seductive testimonials and editors walked us through the do’s and don’ts of writing formula romance. It was paint-by-the-numbers art, and on top of that, it was somebody else’s numbers, but it was honest work and, who knows, it might buy firewood for Marmee and a coat for Beth.
I titled my story, A More Congenial Spot, from a line in a song from Camelot. I decided to write under a pseudonym. It would need to be a woman’s name, I thought, something enticing, maybe something like that ad campaign for the perfume Jontue. Remember? “Jontue…Sensual, but not too far from innocence.”
Now what name would that be?
Jessica. Sounds pretty sensual to me. Now how about the innocent part? Jones? Nice alliteration, but no, too common. Johnson? Too stable. Needs to have an exotic feel to it. St. John? Hmm. Jessica St. John. That’s it!
Man, is this gonna be easy or what?
I spent a day brainstorming ideas and started getting really excited.
She was visiting Ft. Worth with the kids and called me, asking me how the writing was going. In the course of the conversation Jessica’s name slipped out. I knew then I had to come clean about my literary tryst. Although Judy didn’t discourage me, I detected a tinge of disappointment in her voice.
The next morning I read over what I had written, and each page became a window showing me something. Was it something about me? No, it was about Jessica, not about me. It wasn’t my story, not really. It was what people wanted to read. People’s lives are dull. They want thrilling stories. What harm was it in simply giving them what they wanted? It was honest money. It wasn’t drugs, wasn’t prostitution.
Or was it?
The French writer Moliere once said, “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.”
Was what I did wrong? All I can say is, it was wrong for me.
It was a wrong turn at the crossroads between the survival of the body and the survival of the soul. Too many wrong turns and one day you or I might wake up wondering where we are, how we ever ended up here, so far from what we once so passionately loved, so far from who we once were and once thought we would become. And one day we wake up and look at ourselves in the mirror and realize we have nothing to say anymore. What’s worse, we don’t even care.
Every day each of us comes to similar crossroads. In our thought life, our social life, or spiritual life, our professional life, in our life as a husband or a father, as a mother or a wife, as a son or a daughter, brother or sister, friend or neighbor. And every day we have to decide which way we’re going to turn. Love and money are two roads that often intersect our path. Love of truth and the expedient safety of a lie are two others. Love thy neighbor and a got-to-get-to-Jericho schedule are two more.
Love is often the long way around to get to where we are going. But I have come to believe it is the right way around, and in taking it I don’t think we can go too far wrong.
But this I didn’t love. I didn’t love the story or the characters or the whole cheapening experience of being seduced by such a drop-handkerchief kind of mistress. And so at page sixty eight I stopped.
That I stopped writing the book said something about me, I thought. Something in my defense. That I started it in the first place said something, too. Something I’m not sure I wanted to hear.
Whether we write formula romances or a thoughtful note to a friend or a few infrequent “Dear Diary” entries, what we write is a window into who we are. For humility’s sake I saved the manuscript, every now and then I taking it out of my files, dusting it off, and taking a good look at who I was not too many years ago.
My face still flushes with embarrassment each time I look at the manuscript with its white-shouldered margins yellowing with age and its smudgy type that looks like morning-after mascara. I get even more embarrassed when someone else looks at it. But I felt compelled to show you as I hope you will feel compelled to look, because all that is shown us at windows of the soul is not pretty to look at, and all that is told us is not pleasant to hear.
The heroine in the book is a woman who meets her romantic interest in a library, and the following paragraph describes their first encounter.
As she bent down, she saw through the space between the top of the books
and the next shelf, the tawny slacks of the man she had just glimpsed. She
froze, though she hardly knew why. Her heart began to pound within her.
He stopped a moment as if perusing the shelf on the other aisle. His masculine
cologne pushed its way through the books and took her senses off guard.
She breathed in its fragrance and gently closed her eyes to the intimidating
scent. Suddenly she became aware of her own fragrance, and she wondered
if her perfume had met his nostrils. And if it had, she wondered, though she
knew not why, if it had the same effect on him. She felt like a little girl hiding
among the books. She would tell herself later, how silly, but for now his cologne clouded her thoughts.
Kinda makes you wanna puke, doesn’t it? All that masculine cologne muscling its way through the aisles of a public library. Intimidating unsuspecting women. Sending their hearts pounding, eyelids closing, thoughts clouding…though they know not why. Sheesh. How clouded were my thoughts when I wrote that?
Not clouded enough to keep them from asking me some pretty soul-searching questions. Thoreau warned that “a man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.” Was that the cost I was paying, my innocence? Is this what I had worked so hard for, sacrificed so much for? If I was going to die trying to make a living at writing, I didn’t want it to be here, no matter how congenial the spot. If I was going to die, it was going to be for something I loved, not for some street-corner flirtation.
My life as a writer started with writing children’s books. A More Congenial Spot was the first book for an adult reader that I started. The first one I finished was Intimate Moments with the Savior. The project came to me two years after my fling with formula romance. I was working in California, co-authoring Bible study guides, when the printer sent us the final copy of the page-layout before it went to press.
We got the copy in the morning and had to turn it around by that afternoon. The copy editors were all combing through it for misspelled words, misplaced commas, things like that. At this stage in the production schedule, called the “board stage,” you can only make minor changes because the text is precisely spaced on the page. If for some reason you needed to take out a paragraph, for example, you would have to replace it with one of similar length, otherwise it would throw off the layout of each page and therefore throw off the pagination.
After lunch I was told by the rights and permissions department it would cost fifteen hundred dollars to use one of the quotes in the study guide. It was a beautiful quote, and I hated not to use it, but I knew the budget was tight, so I opted to replace it. But the quote was almost a page in length, and I couldn’t find anything that would fit.
It was now a little more than two hours before the deadline. I strummed my fingers, looked at the clock. By five o’clock I had to have something on that page. The only way I could think to solve the spacing problem was to write a poem of my own. That way I could make it just the right length to replace the other one.
The subject of the study guide lesson was Mary breaking an alabaster vial of perfume and anointing Jesus during the week when he was taken away to be crucified. So that is where I started, looking through a window at the home of Simon the Leper, where Mary and Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, and his disciples were all gathered.
Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them out any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:1–9)
Some people have a romantic view of what the life of a writer is like. They think writers go out and sit by the sea with their notebook and pencil, muse awhile, write awhile, spread out the beach towel and tan awhile, muse awhile, write awhile, tear the ragged end off a loaf of French bread, smear it with a little Brie cheese, sip a little Chardonnay, muse a while longer, write a while longer, and at the end of the day, savor what they’ve written like an after-dinner mint on a serene walk home.
The truth is, writing is mostly blue collar work, not much different from that of a stone mason. At least, it’s that way for me. Everyday I go to work where I pick through a rubble of words, looking for one that will fit, hoping the mortar will hold, that the work will stand up. I go back and forth from the word pile to the work site all day long, looking for the right words and the right places to put them. And at the end of the day I dust myself off, wash up, and go home.
Hardly a day at the beach. Especially on a day like today with a five o’clock deadline heating up on the back of my neck like a sunburn. Instead of tearing off a piece of French bread, I was tearing off my fingernails an anxious bite at a time. I jotted notes on a legal pad, picked up a word here, a phrase there, discarded some of the things, set others aside.
As I worked, I found myself slipping into the story, sitting among the disciples as they watched Mary, catching their reaction in the corner of my eye, then turning to Jesus to catch his. What did Mary see about him that day that the disciples didn’t? What did he see about her that they didn’t?
For a long time nothing.
Then something deep inside seeped to the surface, rimming my eyes with sudden emotion.
And suddenly I have the right eyes.
And through the blur of those tears, everything, paradoxically, became clear.
After two hours I finished typing the final draft, sent it down to our typesetter who spaced it on the page and sent it out to the printer, just in time. The following vignette is what I wrote.
The aroma of extravagant love.
So pure. So lovely.
Flowing from the veined alabaster vase
of Mary’s broken heart—
A heart broken against the hard reality
of her Savior’s imminent death.
Mingled with tears, the perfume became—
by some mysterious chemistry of Heaven—
Not diluted, but more concentrated,
Potent enough behind the ears of each century
for the scent to linger to this day.
Doubtless, the fragrance, absorbed by his garment,
as it flowed from his head,
Accompanied Christ through the humiliation of his trials,
the indignity of his mockings,
the pain of his beatings,
the inhumanity of his cross.
Through the heavy smell of sweat and blood,
A hint of that fragrance must have arisen
from his garment—
Until, at shameful last, the garment was stripped
and gambled away.
And maybe, just maybe, it was that scent
amid the stench of humanity rabbled around the cross,
that gave the Savior the strength to say:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And as Mary walked away from the cross,
The same scent probably still lingered in the now-limp hair
she used to dry the Savior’s feet—
A reminder of the love that spilled
from his broken alabaster body.
So pure. So lovely.
So truly extravagant.
It was a vase he never regretted breaking.
Nor did she.
When I finished, I sat back and rested a moment in my chair. Then something remarkable happened. It was as if a fragrant whiff of Mary’s love had come through the open window of that page and breezed through the stuffy rooms of my heart with such potency I could almost smell it.
Since I am a writer and since writing occupies so much of my time, I tend to sense God speaking more often in that area of my life than others, but maybe that’s just because that’s the area of my life where I am the most attentive. All I know is, He meets me there.
He also met the wise men there, where they worked. In the night skies with a sudden star. He met the shepherds there. In their fields as they kept watch over their sheep. And He met me there, too. In my office as I watched over my words to meet a five o’clock deadline.
He met me there and brought me to a window in the Scriptures and showed me an intimate moment that Mary had with the Savior. It was a moment so pure and so lovely it brought tears to my eyes.
And something else.
It brought a project I would end up spending the next six years of my life writing, a series of devotional books about the life of Christ that began with Intimate Moments with the Savior.
Going from Texas to California, you have to pass through Death Valley. Going from A More Congenial Spot to Intimate Moments with the Savior, I had to pass through a Death Valley of my own.
It’s not the route I would have chosen. But it was the route God used to take me from a more congenial spot in my relationship with Him to a place that was a more intimate one.
And en route, He transformed the cologne of a formula romance into the aroma of extravagant love.