I met Jenny Rae Armstrong earlier this year, and immediately I loved her for her gentle spirit, kind words, and wisdom. She and I are both part of a group for Christian women writers called Redbud Writers’ Guild, and one of the greatest gifts that group has given me is a connection to Jen. Enjoy my interview with her.
My book is titled Don’t Hide Your Light under a Laundry Basket: 150 Bright Ideas for Wannabe World Changers. Basically, I wrote the book I needed fifteen years ago, when my kids were tiny and I felt like my world had shrunk to the size of a pea. Somehow, over the course of a decade, I had gone from being a missionary kid on the coast of West Africa to a stay-at-home mom holed-up in a 100-year-old farmhouse in central Minnesota, completely penned in by Norwegian Lutherans and their endless cornfields. I had this passion pent up inside me, all these good things that I wanted to do and be and express, but I was in hardcore mommy survival mode, completely overwhelmed by the gargantuan task of keeping the kids safe, fed, and moderately clean.
I think it’s really common for women to experience a lost sense of purpose when their kids are little, especially if they exit the workforce for those years. I wrote Don’t Hide Your Light to acknowledge that struggle give women creative ideas on how they can tap into their passions and influence their world, even when their kids are in that intensive phase. But really, most of the ideas could be used by anyone. Several men have laughed their way through it (it’s kinda snarky), and one woman has told me that her little boy keeps stealing it!
2. What do you do when you’re not writing?
I’m a pastor, which means that I basically get to love on people for a living. It’s pretty amazing. I’m also in seminary, which means that the only books I get to read anymore are the ones my professors assign (I compensate by listening to audiobooks while I am commuting and doing chores). Really, my favorite thing to do is just hang out at home, visiting with friends and family.
3. How do you balance what will sell with what you want to say?
Allow me to tweak this question a bit. I don’t worry so much about what will sell, but I do spend a lot of time contemplating how to say the things I need to say in a way that people will be able to hear. Communication is a two-way street, and while I (like most writers, I suppose) have shelves full of journals, poems, and manuscripts that I wrote simply for the joy of it, or because I wanted to get something off my chest, the writing I send out into the world was written for the purpose of communicating something. I practice the discipline of writing for my readers, and not for myself. I’m not saying everyone should do that—what a loss that would be!—but I write to encourage, exhort, and communicate, and that means being strategically reader-centric.
4. Which is more difficult – drafting or revising? Why?
Drafting—probably because I am a perfectionist about my first draft. I know the advice is to just let the first draft flow and revise it later, but the older I get, the less that works for me. I outline, I write, I give it a once-over and fix anything that stands out to me, and I send it out into the wilds to fend for itself. But the outlining is a crucial part of this process. I don’t think it would work without an outline.
5. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
I love hearing that something I’ve written has had a tangible impact on people’s lives. A church gets serious about ministering to children with special needs. A teenage girl in Kenya learns that God is not her enemy. Moms are encouraged to engage in their passions. Those are the stories that keep my fingers moving across the keyboard.
6. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?
All the time spent in solitude. I like being with people and engaging with the world around me, so holing up with my computer to meet my deadlines can feel a lot like being sent to time out.
7. What are a few of your favorite books of all time?
Even though I write non-fiction, I really prefer reading novels. As a child, I read the Chronicles of Narnia until the books fell apart—I’ve gone through at least three sets of the paperbacks. I love The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle, and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Basically, I like character-oriented fantasy and give bonus points for strong female leads and a sense of humor.
8. What are some things that get in the way of your writing? How do you move them out of the way?
Oh gosh. Right now, it is time. I work full-time, I’m in seminary, and I have four kids and a dog. I don’t do as much writing as I would like to, but I am living proof that it is possible to juggle a writing career along with other commitments. How do I do it? I let my house get messy. When I’m on deadline, I wake up at four in the morning and write until I have to go to work. I have a wonderful, supportive husband who shoulders more of the load at home when I have to work more. And my youngest child is ten, which means that every single one of my children is capable of cooking, doing laundry, and caring for their own needs in a pinch. It may not be pretty, but it gets done.
9. What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
I think it was Neil Gaiman who said writers should tell the stories only they can tell. When I first heard this advice over a decade ago, it transformed the way I write. My everyday life can seem pretty mundane, but I, like everyone else on this planet, have a unique perspective and a wealth of life experiences to draw on. I have been a missionary kid, a pastor’s wife, and a pastor myself. I have a whole passel of crazy kids. I was a college dropout who went back to school in my thirties. I’m a rural person from the Northwoods of Wisconsin. So, what is the story only I could write? What is the story only you could write? What is your unique perspective, and how can you offer it to the world?
10. If you could inhabit the setting of one book, where would you live and why?
Narnia! Mostly because I read the books so much as a child that I feel like I grew up there. But the talking animals, enchanted trees, and magical feasts would be a definite bonus too. And Aslan. Always Aslan.
Jenny Rae Armstrong is passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women in her rural community and around the globe. An award-winning writer and pastor at Darrow Road Wesleyan Church in Superior, WI, she tackles sticky topics with girl-next-door humor and grace. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, or at JennyRaeArmstrong.com.