Over the last 15 months, I've had the privilege of being a part of Miah Oren's writing + publishing process for her book, The Reluctant Missionary. I had the honor of reading her first drafts, designed her book cover, graphics for her book launch (see graphics below), and updated her website. Today, she talks about how she stumbled upon writing a book about her time as a missionary overseas. Enjoy!
I wrote my first book because of Twitter.
It all started in 2013. I had been setting up my photography business largely from my church coffee shop. One day in May, Paul, a friend there, suggested that I try WELD, a coworking space near downtown. “There are many great photographers there,” he said. “I think you’d really enjoy it.”
On my first day working there, I nervously rang the doorbell. For several weeks I had been reading about it online and was quite intimidated by all the successful freelancers there when I had almost no experience. Sojung answered the door. I had been expecting someone else, and I fumbled for what to say. “Hi, I’m here for a day pass. It’s my first day.” I spoke in a rush. “Oh hi! It’s my first day too!” Sojung smiled and invited me in. I sat next to her and Hoyoung, her husband, that day, and for many days after that.
For years I had prayed for a photography mentor, someone who would tell me what I needed to work on and help me launch my business. But lately, after repeated inquiries in Dallas, I had given up my search. Hoyoung became my mentor, giving advice, sending me videos, critiquing my work, and letting me tag along to his shoots. When I felt defeated and had given up on asking for help, he inserted himself as my coach, bringing both instruction and encouragement and enabling me to be a confident wedding photographer. Meeting and sitting next to Sojung that day was a miracle.
That summer I had been online looking at other photographers’ websites. As a new professional photographer, I was still considering different photography specialities. Since I had lived overseas in several different countries and enjoyed the two weeks I spent in Africa photographing for a nonprofit, I was considering humanitarian photography. I found a photographer who had photographed for a nonprofit overseas. Her twitter account was connected to her website, and I noticed that she had tweeted that day that she had bought a ticket to Idea Camp.
I had never heard of Idea Camp, so I looked it up. The description sounded very vague, something about discussing ideas about human care during a two-day conference.
But it was in Austin, where my brother lived. And that day was the last day to buy a cheaper, pre-sale ticket. Why not, I thought. If I don’t like it, I can always hang out with my brother.
So in September I found myself driving down to Austin, straight from WELD during a fierce thunderstorm. I made it all the way without stopping because I didn’t want to get soaked getting out of the car.
The first day of the conference was awkward. Everyone seemed to know each other. I sat by myself, wearing my name tag, and feeling small. I walked to lunch by myself in the rain and wished I had come with friends there too. Reluctantly, I returned for the second day.
And finally I knew why I had come when one of the speakers got up and spoke about the importance of caring for caregivers, especially missionaries overseas.
At that time, I had been home after serving as a missionary for seven years. During that time, I had been depressed for 2 years, unemployed for a year and a half, and desperately wished I had never gone overseas at all since compared to my peers, my life seemed hopelessly off-track. My friends from college had great jobs and were getting married and having kids, while I felt like I was starting over.
As I listened to people sharing the importance of caring for missionaries, it was like a friendly hand reaching in to touch the deepest place in my heart.
I’ve never felt as alone as I did overseas. I had no visitors and few friends, and I pushed even those away because I was insecure and depressed. I was on two different teams, and one of the key problems during both years was lack of support from my organization’s leadership. They weren’t honest with us about what was going on at our schools, which left us to piece together clues from rumors and gossip. One of our supervisors didn’t even believe my team leader when she told him how much we were struggling.
As I drove home the next day, I thought over the suggestions we had discussed. They included organizing short-term mission trips not to take pictures holding children, but to sit with hurting missionaries and minister by listening, cooking, and watching TV together. I agreed with them that a lot of training, time, and money go to waste because when missionaries aren’t cared for, many of them leave the field after only a few years. The hardest part is committing to go and leaving all of your friends and family behind. But if living overseas isn’t sustainable, sometimes because of depression and isolation, you have to come home.
After Idea Camp, filled with positive thoughts about the conference, I followed everyone who posted with the Idea Camp hashtag on Twitter.
Six months later, I had recently been let go from my part-time job at church. Without a stable source of income, I felt God nudging me to trust him with my career. A week later, I ran into Hoyoung and Sojung at church during a Christmas event. Outside by the fire, over a cup of hot chocolate, I told them what had happened. They responded with sympathy and compassion, telling me to let them know if I even needed anything.
In January I was determined to make a new start to 2014. I wanted to leave that frustrating job behind and make a new start. The first week of January, Hoyoung and Sojung invited me out to breakfast down the street from WELD. They shared that they were also looking for a new start that year, setting new goals and reevaluating their priorities. They had recently heard a speaker, Megan Gilger, challenge business owners to reveal more of themselves in their business as a way to attract more of the right clients instead of the ones who wouldn’t be a good fit. Sojung and Hoyoung challenged me to write and blog more about that year in search of clients who would be attracted not only to my work, but also to working with me.
“Write more” was already my New Year’s Resolution that year. I just had a feeling that it would be important. Around that time I noticed someone posting about a writing class on my Twitter feed. There was a deal where if you purchased a spiritual practices class for Lent in addition to a 10-week writing class, you got both of them for the price of one. That week I kept thinking about the class, and eventually I signed up.
The Lent class was first, and I immediately connected with my classmates. I never knew that it was possible to make close friends on the internet. We quickly became vulnerable with each other in a way that was rare with my “real life” friends. Most of us continued on to the writing class, led by Elora Nicole, who had originally posted about the writing. Though I didn’t know her, I finally figured out that I had started following her from Idea Camp.
During the writing class, another student write about her struggled in living abroad as a missionary. They sounded familiar, and I wrote her a message on Facebook, telling her a little about my experience. She said she was encouraged, knowing that I’d had a similar experience and it turned out all right. So I told her I’d write her more in an email.
It turned out I had a lot to say in that email. Soon I was writing several pages a day in drafts. As the project expanded, I thought, I’ll just write all this down for posterity. I don’t have a great memory of some parts of my time overseas, and it will be nice to have a more complete record in case I forget anything later.
By August, I had almost 300 pages of notes and journals that I’d combined into a long narrative of everything that happened overseas. It wasn’t in chronological order and was still a very disjointed, incomplete account because I didn’t have a through-line - something that made it a cohesive story.
On a whim, I attended an online class one weekend about self-publishing. I happened to be out of town that weekend, and I liked chatting with the other women and hearing about their projects, so I signed up. Elora said that you could spend a year finding an agent, then another year writing book proposals, and then if you signed with a publisher, you wouldn’t have creative control. But if you went with indie publishing, you are on your own schedule and you have final say on things like title, book cover, and content.
About halfway through the 8 hour course, it occurred to me that I’d almost written a book. I could publish this.
No, I don’t want to do that, I thought. No one will read it. But it just seemed like the logical thing to do. I didn’t know anyone else that was sharing stories like this about missions, and I wanted the narrative out there.
A year and a half and 22 drafts later, I’m preparing to publish next month. In general, I’m not a super disciplined person. There’s not much in my life that would suggest I was capable of writing and editing a project involving 23 drafts over two years.
But I did, thanks to a few key friends — and Twitter.
Miah is the author of The Reluctant Missionary, a memoir about the two years she spent overseas teaching English.
She writes about learning to let go of perfectionism and embracing God’s plan for her life. She lives in Dallas where she dreams of someday having another cat.
Connect with Miah online at www.miahoren.com.
Graphics for The Reluctant Missionary by Sojung Lee.