Getting it write
Successful writers are gifted persons whose perfect stories flow easily from the brain. They quickly and easily dash off a novel and send it to a publisher, who sends back a large advance on the royalties. Then they live a life of ease for years off the royalties, maybe writing another novel or two so they can buy that vacation home on the coast of Maine.
The truth is, even for the most gifted writers, successful writing is the result of very hard work: drafting, revising, editing, adding words, subtracting paragraphs. Remarkably few people make a comfortable living by writing; a miniscule percentage become rich and famous.
Fortunately, there are many other satisfactions that come through writing.
Just ask Evelyn (White) Minshull of Mercer. She has written more than 25 books, ranging from children’s picture books to full-length biblical novels for adults, plus several books of devotional materials, a book of poetry, and too many articles to count. She still doesn’t have the vacation cottage in Maine, but her writing has rewarded her in many ways.
Born in 1929, Evelyn started writing when she was very young.
“I had a heart condition and had to take it very easy,” she said. “So I did things like writing and drawing. My dad liked to draw, and he encouraged me in that.”
Evelyn graduated from Mercer High School in 1947, then studied art education at Edinboro College. She wanted to take a creative writing course, but Edinboro didn’t offer one while she was there.
After graduating from Edinboro in 1951, Evelyn married Fred Minshull. The following school year she taught at Pleasantville.
“I started developing asthma,” she said. “And Freddy and I felt the need to break free. I joined one of those associations that find you a teaching job. They found me one in Arizona.”
Evelyn taught there for one year. She got pregnant, so they decided to move back to Mercer. She got a job teaching art in the Mercer schools and continued for two and a half years, until she became pregnant with their second daughter.
“I wasn’t grown up, and I had a rough time in the middle school,” she said. “Our second daughter was coming along, so I told Freddy I never wanted to see the inside of a classroom again.”
But they hit a rough year when the shop Freddy was working in was down. So Evelyn got a job at Commodore Perry, where she taught for what she describes as 22 wonderful years.
One summer, Evelyn enrolled in a writing course at Pitt taught by Edwin L. Peterson.
“So many times, whether it’s providence or serendipity or whatever, the right people have come into my life,” Evelyn said. “Mr. Peterson was Mr. Creative Writing in western Pennsylvania. That’s where I learned that there was a Writers Digest magazine and Writers Market. The whole world opened up to me then. I had been submitting stuff for years, sending everything to McCall’s. I made up my mind then that when I had a chance nobody was going to have to plow around in the dark this way. I would even take the Digest and the Market into elementary schools. I’d tell them, ‘You don’t have to remember their names. Just remember that there is this book in the library so you can find where to send things you’ve written.”
Evelyn started out writing mostly for kids, but the first thing she ever sold was an article to a Sunday School magazine on making an effective poster. She got paid $6.
“The first book I had published, I didn’t know it was a book. I had been selling a lot of stories to Humpty Dumpty magazine. They sent me a letter saying that they wanted to make one into a picture book. They paid me $500 for it! I danced around here, and I laughed and cried. Then I thought, that was really easy. I could do one of those a month. But writing, if it teaches you anything, it teaches you humility. It was ten years before I sold my next book. I had all kinds of articles and stuff published, but no other books.”
Then the breaks started coming.
“I did six books with Westminster Press with Barbara Bates there. She was a wonderful editor and a warm, caring, encouraging person.”
Although Evelyn started getting books published regularly, not everything went according to plan. Evelyn submitted a children’s story called “The Cornhusk Doll” to a Mennonite press. The editor said he had always seen it as a picture book, and he knew what artist he wanted to illustrate it. Unfortunately, that artist was also a full-time minister and evangelist who did not have the time to do it.
“He desperately wanted out of the contract, but the Mennonites wouldn’t let him off the hook. I remember one day I got a carbon copy of one of these gentle letters to him: ‘Dear Edwin, if you could possibly send two more pieces of art. . . .’ I got so mad I went to the typewriter and hammered out an angry letter. I’m glad I never mailed it. The book came out thirteen years after I signed the contract, and the artwork was wonderful.”
Evelyn wrote three novels for adults about biblical characters.
“I had a really good friend, Lois Henderson, who was a biblical novelist. I just loved her work. When she died of a heart attack, I didn’t realize how hard her death was going to hit me. I was a basket case. I always told my students, when something like this happens, you write and write. What better way to honor Lois than to write a biblical novel.”
Evelyn decided to write a novel about Eve. She wrote most of it in two months during the summer.
“I cried a lot while I was writing it. I had Lois in my mind all the time.”
When she finished the book, she sent it to Harper, which had been Lois Henderson’s publisher.
“That was a mistake because the editor there had been a Lois fan. He wrote that they realized there wasn’t much I could do on research for creation, but Lois knew every building on every street corner. He was still grieving.”
Next, Evelyn sent it to Jary Vajda, a Concordia editor she had met at a writers’ conference. He held onto it for 13 months.
“When I finally called Jary, he said, ‘We thought we were going to do it, but we decided not to do creation.’ They paid me a kill fee of $750 for not publishing my book. I didn’t know whether or not that was a compliment.”
Then Evelyn got her first agent, who sent it back to Harper.
“And they bought it – the same place that had turned it down earlier. I had a wonderful editor there, Lonnie Hull. But she said that it was so sad, that she liked to get tears in her eyes, but not this much. She wanted six more happy scenes. So I wrote them. Then of course it was too long, so I had to cut out an equal amount. Also, Jary Vajda asked why I hadn’t included anything about the Messianic promise. So I went back and threaded that theme throughout, and the book was much, much stronger for that. I owe those two editors a great deal.
Evelyn stresses that a successful book is rarely the result of one person’s work.
“You see the person’s name on that book, but really it’s a cooperative effort.”
On the negative side, she describes another of her editors as the editor from hell.
“If she had been my first editor, there never ever would have been a second book. She absolutely destroyed my confidence in myself, in my writing, in my good sense. It was a horrible experience.”
Gradually, real life encroached into Evelyn’s writing world. Her husband began to show signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. It eventually got so bad that caring for him was a full-time job.
“I sort of suspended the writing life. I was able to care for him here at home until the last year. Then I wound up in the hospital myself, and I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. He required total care. So we moved him to Countryside.”
He passed away on February 29, 2008.
When you ask Evelyn about the rewards she has garnered from her writing career, she doesn’t talk about her own writing. She talks about her ongoing efforts to keep other writers from “plowing around in the dark.”
“My greatest satisfaction comes when a student of mine gets published,” she said.
In 1960, she and Ruth Hoein started a writer’s group in Mercer, which is still active. She has been a member of the board of the St. David’s Writers’ Conference since 1975, and she has conducted countless workshops, including over fifty weeklong Elderhostel workshops.
During the 1981-82 school year, Evelyn took a sabbatical from teaching. She and Fred traveled the country, literally from coast to coast, with stops in England, Florida, Kentucky, Kansas, New Mexico, and California. She conducted 51 days of workshops in elementary schools, high schools, prisons, and even a home school for mentally challenged people.
“One of the prisoners wrote something that is so simple, but so touching. And one of the adults in the home school dictated to me some of the most beautiful pieces. Her language was so pure and her metaphors were so beautiful.”
At age 79, she still conducts a workshop at the Shenango Valley Senior Citizens Center in Hermitage.
Evelyn is not only grateful for the support of her editors and peers, but also for that of her husband Fred and their four children: Valerie; born in 1953; Melanie, 1956; and Robin, 1959. They had a son, Michael Grant, who lived just a day and a half in 1957.
They also have four grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009