When I was young, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer. I always knew that someday I’d see my name on the cover of a book, but it wasn’t until I had a little life experience under my belt, a few credits from the school of hard knocks, and something to say about mankind, that I was ready to hit the keyboard and pour out my mystifications. The ‘message’ that burdens every writer had finally floated to the top of my psyche. It was time to write.

But everything I wrote sounded pompous or opinionated or biased. I couldn’t make good fiction out of my message for mankind. Then science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon came to town and gave a workshop. I had grown up reading him; his influence on me as a young reader had been enormous. I paid my fee, mailed in the manuscript he agreed to read as a part of the workshop, and sat down to await his judgment.

While waiting for the workshop’s date to roll around, it occurred to me that over the two-week course of this workshop, he and I might be at the coffee machine together. The thought left me star-struck. What on earth could I say to the great Theodore Sturgeon? I could ask him a question. I knew the prospect was not likely; there would be thousands of people at the workshop. Nevertheless, I prepared myself; I wracked my brain and spent sleepless nights, torturing myself about it.

What was my Definitive Question to ask Theodore Sturgeon?

My musings came down to one question that seemed to synthesize all that had been troubling me. The question was: “What do you do when you want to preach?” I had the urge to write, I had a message to disseminate. But all my writing sounded preachy. Every time I reread what I had written, it felt as if I ought to be writing essays or how-to books. At one point, I even talked with my minister about actually preaching.

His response? “My dog collar closes the door to 90 percent of the people in the world. You, as a writer, have no such boundaries.” Wow. A fiction writer has such opportunity. Such responsibility.

Satisfied that I would not only find the answer to my question, but I would have something intelligent to talk over with Ted Sturgeon, I set about waiting with a calmer heart. The first night of the seminar, I was astonished to see there were only ten students. This was going to be an intimate setting. I would probably get to know him over the course of two weeks. And I did.

He and I became friends in the limited time he had left on this planet, but I never asked my question because the first words out of his mouth, the first night of class, were these: “It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.”

 I was stunned. I’m not sure I heard anything else Ted said that night, because this was so clearly the answer to all my questions. It was so simple and tasted so strongly of the truth that I was awash with the possibilities for my future career.

Did he mean I could write a fantasy book and my message would come through? I could write a romance, a western, science fiction, horror, a comedy about dogs? And still, that which had been shown to me, that which had been given to me, the life-saving philosophy I had developed (which surely would save the world) could still be served? Of course. I have only one story to tell, and that’s my story. I can’t tell yours.

But mine is large and encompasses much, and it can be sliced into a myriad tales of truth and fantasy. I realised it was the message showing through in the writing of my favourite authors that attracted me to their work. Singly, a book may not contain impressive spiritual insights; but over the entire body of work of a certain author, a reader cannot help but get to know the writer’s heart. When I realised the truth of what Ted Sturgeon said that night, not only did my career spread before me like a vast playground, but I was filled with confidence.

Before he died, Ted Sturgeon and I spent a lot of time together. He wrote the introduction to my first book, When Darkness Loves Us. More importantly, I could relax. I’d learned that novel-writing needn’t be unnecessarily complicated. It is difficult enough to tell the truth within fiction; I didn’t have to consciously worry about what message the reader was receiving. That isn’t my job. I don’t have to save the world. I only have to ensure the reader enjoys reading what I’ve written.

It has been my fortune to have a challenging career as a writer, teacher, editor and publisher. Through my relatively brief association with Theodore Sturgeon, I learned that the surest way to make my own dreams come true is to help others achieve their dreams.

The fate of empires does not hinge upon my work or upon any one piece of work. But those of us to whom this gift has been given have a responsibility to be persistent about writing and publishing our work. Our message is important. The world needs it.

Remember: It doesn’t matter what you write. What you believe will show through…

– Elizabeth Engstromr. Reproduced for educational purposes.