An essay and a flower

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“How did you get started in writing? Were you an English major?” The question came from a young person a few years ago.

I don’t know that I consider myself a writer, although I have penned a weekly opinion column for over 24 years. Prior to that, I had articles published in quite a few, and very diverse, magazines. I even received payment for many of those articles so, technically, I suppose I am, or have been, a “professional writer.”

It all began in a college English class at East Tennessee State University when the professor assigned the members of the class to write an essay that “told a story.”

I must confess that I was not a great student in high school. While I loved high school, was involved in a number of activities, and did well on the standardized tests, I studied only hard enough to not lose access to the car and to not kicked off the football team.

As a result, I graduated “cumma sum barely.” I cut lots of corners and, when assigned to read “Moby Dick” in English class, I read the Classics Illustrated comic book instead and garnered a low “C” in the term. But back to the essay.

By the time I reached the college English class, I had done a stint in the military and had grown up a lot. Well, at least I had grown up some. I completed the assignment and the results would come the next week.

The day arrived and the instructor passed out the essays with grades and comments written on them. I just hoped I had passed. All the essays had been returned to the students — except mine. My heart sank.

At the end, the class was dismissed and all the students began to file out. The teacher said, “Not you, Mr. Epps. Please remain behind.”

I prepared for the worst. I was invited to sit beside his desk and he said, “Have you ever thought about changing your major to Creative Writing?”

Certain he was being sarcastic, I replied, “It was that bad, huh?”

He slid my essay to me across the desk and said, “No. Not at all. It’s by far the best in the class.” And there on the top of the essay was a large “A+.”

“It seems you have a talent: a way with words,” he said to my rather stunned self. “You should do something about that.”

I didn’t change my major but I did put more time and effort into my writing assignments and all my other studies as well. I would go on to graduate “cum Laude” from college and “magna cum laude” from seminary. But I did no real writing, except for assignments.

By the late 1970s, I had been reading the weekly magazine of the Assemblies of God, my previous denomination with which I was affiliated for almost 20 years. One day, on a visit to my parent’s house in Tennessee, I was leafing through the big family Bible and I came across a paper tissue flower and a note I had written to my mother when I was nine years old.

My mom had been in the hospital after a serious surgery and, back then, kids were not allowed to visit. Mrs. Jones, my 3rd grade teacher at Dickson Elementary School, taught the class how to make a flower from paper tissue and a bobby pen. Mrs. Jones approved my work and suggested that I send my flower to my mom through my dad. She helped me write a note to accompany the little hand-made gift.

There, 25 years later, was the paper tissue flower and the note, carefully preserved between the pages of the Bible. She had kept both all those years.

I decided to write a story about the incident and submitted it to “The Pentecostal Evangel,” the weekly magazine. To my great surprise, it was published and I received a small check. The magazine had global distribution with an average weekly circulation of over 200,000. The title of the article, a simple story of a frightened boy’s heartfelt gift to his ailing mother, was named, aptly, “The Paper Tissue Flower.”

I took the magazine to my parent’s house. My dad was sitting in his easy chair and leaned back to read the article. No one could have been more caught off guard than I when my father, a stoic member of the Greatest Generation, and a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy, broke down and sobbed.

He was embarrassed by his weeping and I was for him. But it was the first time I had ever seen him shed a tear. For whatever reason, it moved him deeply. It was the greatest compliment I could have ever been paid.

I wrote another article and it, too, was published. Then I wrote six more and received six rejections. If the first one had been rejected, I might have not given it a second effort but, with two under my belt, I knew I had the ability to communicate with written words, I just had to figure out what could get published.

If that college English teacher had not kept me after class, if he had not shared his words of encouragement, it is likely I would never even have attempted to write anything for anybody.

Over the next several years, I was published in possibly a dozen and a half magazines, a few of them numerous times, and in several Tennessee, Georgia, and Colorado newspapers. I wrote news releases for churches nearly every week for decades and followed the old adage that “a writer writes.”

In December 1996, I was approached by Cal Beverly, the editor and publisher of The Citizen newspaper in Fayette County, GA and asked to consider writing an opinion column. It was a new venture for me and would bring with it a fair share of critics. It seems that everyone doesn’t share my opinions. By the time this year is over, I will have written approximately 1,300 articles for the newspaper.

People often ask, “Where do you get the idea for articles?” The truth is that there are ideas out there everywhere if one looks hard enough. One week, however, I truly had writer’s block. Nothing came at all that week and I had two hours left until deadline. So, since writers write, I sat down and the key board and typed, “I have nothing to write this week. No ideas come to mind. I got nothing!” And, somehow, that morphed into an article about the sources of ideas.

That, in a nutshell, is the short answer to the first question at the beginning of this column. The second answer is, “No, I was not an English major. I was a social work major.” But that’s another story for another day.

If one aspires to write, one must write. Write about what you know and about which you are passionate. At least in the beginning. And get people you trust to be brutal with you about your writing. Even your worst critics (as do mine) serve to sharpen your thoughts and your skills.

A final word to teachers, instructors, and professors: You have the amazing power to shape someone’s thoughts and to change their life. You have the power of both encouragement and discouragement. Use that power wisely. Even the poorest student can become a pleasant surprise, and even a success — with the right teachers.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). The church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]