Some authors emerged from the womb knowing they wanted to be writers. Not me. What I did know from early childhood, though, was that I loved books. I loved everything about them—even their scent.
I didn’t begin writing one, however, until my late twenties which was when a coworker connected me to the South Carolina Writers Workshop, a nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of services for aspiring writers. I’ll never forget the first meeting I attended, partly because it was in the upstairs conference room of a psychiatrist’s office. What stood out even more, however, was the warmth, encouragement, and camaraderie the members ringing a conference table offered to me despite the fact that I hadn’t done any creative writing since middle school. I returned for the next meeting with a short story, and the meeting after that with the beginning of a novel.
SCWW members cheered me on through that novel and the next which, though neither were very good, served as my training wheels in learning the craft and art of creating a full length book in addition to articles for magazines.
Indeed, venturing into freelancing for magazines led to success beyond my wildest imagination. After writing for several publications, I set my sights on seeing my work in Guidepost Magazine, one of the country’s most popular magazines. Its senior editor rejected the query I sent but told me he liked my writing style and to stay in contact. Well, I did. Every few months or so, I’d send a query and he’d respond that it wasn’t quite what he was looking for, but to keep pitching ideas to him.
Meanwhile, an epidemic of racially-motivated arsons targeting African-American churches, especially small ones in rural areas in the South began dominating the news. Among the first ones hit was St. John Baptist Church in nearby Dixiana, SC. What made its destruction even more tragic was that about ten years earlier, a biracial band of volunteers literally risked their lives by defying the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups to rebuild the church after racists decimated it.
A decade later, despite the danger the Klan and other white supremacists continued to pose, the volunteers—led by an incredibly courageous white lady named Ammie Murray—launched into rebuilding St. John Baptist a second time. The arrival of a team of Texan construction workers wanting to donate a week of their time to the reconstruction effort buoyed the volunteers’ spirits and attracted a lot of media attention.
Once my dad, George Johnson, read a newspaper article about the Texans’ trekking halfway across the country to Dixiana, he turned to my mom and said, “Mary, if those people can drive all the way from Texas to help that church that’s only about twenty miles from here, surely you and I can help, too.”
Mom agreed and together they started working there three to four days a week, and one Saturday, they invited me along. I was glad to go. After hearing them talk so much about this church that they had become devoted to and I had seen many news stories about, this was a chance to see it for myself.
We arrived to find it a beehive of activity with volunteers streaming this way and that. I went inside and spent the day helping to paint the pastor’s office, the kitchen and Sunday school classrooms. I enjoyed being part of such an important endeavor and meeting other volunteers who sacrificed an extraordinary amount of time and effort to push the reconstruction project toward the finish line.
I returned a few months later with Mom and Dad along with hundreds of others, including reporters from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, to celebrate the church’s completion. The crowd was as diverse as could be. Blacks, whites, rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats, Protestants and Catholics and people representing an array of other groups were there. What united all of them was their determination to overcome racial hatred with redemptive love. As I listened to many of them take turns speaking, I knew I had a fantastic story for Guidepost. And, at last, its senior editor agreed with me.
I was chomping at the bit to do the assignment and knew my main source of information would be Ammie. Not only had she been the lynchpin through both rebuilding efforts, but she also maintained an extensive archive of photos, documents and additional material detailing the reconstructions. Unfortunately, however, when I called her to schedule an interview, between bone-rattling coughs, she explained she was too sick with some type of upper respiratory infection to meet with me, but to check back with her in a couple of weeks. I did, but she was still too sick to do anything but go to doctor’s appointments. It ended up taking a couple of months before she was well enough for an interview. I updated Guidepost’s editor about this unexpected delay, and he was very understanding and extended my deadline.
I turned in the article by the extended deadline and eagerly awaited learning when it would run. The answer turned out to be never. The reason was that only weeks before,Reader’s Digest ran a condensed version of an article that the LA Times did on the church and Guidepost decided that coverage of St. John Baptist was beyond the saturation point.
At first, I was crushed, but then I realized that despite all the media the church had attracted, its story was too extensive to be told in anything except a book. I put together a book proposal, sent it to an agent who sold the proposal to St. Martin’s Press three weeks later.
In May, 2002, my book Standing on Holy Ground: A Triumph Over Hate Crime in the Deep South was released and changed my life. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined seeing glowing reviews for a book I had written in such publications as O: The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, Southern Living and Publishers Weekly. Nor could I have imagined that invitations to speak about the book would take me everywhere from the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, GA, to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Conference in Seattle, WA, to Wellesley College in Boston, MA. The book even landed me at the Time-Life Building in New York City to receive an award from The Christophers, a Catholic organization that highlights artistic accomplishments that promote social justice.
They were all heady experiences and made me ponder what my next book should be. I knew I wanted it to be a novel. I also wanted it continue my exploration of the issue of racial conflict, particularly in the South, which—for better or worse—is and will always be my homeland. More importantly, I felt compelled to examine the subject of mental illness through this book. Despite the fact that nearly 20% of American adolescents have or have had a mental illness and half of all Americans will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lives according to recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studies, ignorance, denial and shame still shroud this problem with lethal results. CDC reports that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all ages.
This doesn’t have to be. I know this not only from a long career in clinical social work but also from many years of receiving psychotherapy for depression and anxiety. The urge to add my voice to those calling for more attention, compassion and resources for people living with mental health disorders aided in the birth of my latest book Flowers for the Living. If only one person is helped by it, it will have made the many years it took me to write it and get it published worthwhile.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, like me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter at @SandraJ29061.