Art Work #4: Rhonda Telfer, Writer

Rhonda Telfer grew up just outside the tiny town of Sheffield, IL, in a beautiful white farmhouse amid her father's green cornfields, and the landscape of her childhood still figures prominently in her writing today. She has written two children's books, a young adult novel, and numerous short stories for children; she also posts weekly essays at Suffice it to say that if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be a writer. And if I ever wander into a bar in Sheffield, IL, someone always asks me if I am my mother. Here, she talks about the creativity of stay-at-home motherhood, the number one inspiration for her art, and how her first novel took twenty years to write. (PS: BUY IT!!!! It is amazing, and the perfect poignant/painful/nostalgic read for hazy August days by the water.)

You write, you act, you play piano—is there anything the woman CAN’T do? Talk to me a little bit about the role of art in your life and how you see your various skills manifesting, both in the day to day and long-term.

I supposed more than “skills manifesting,” being an artist has to do with the way you interact with the world. I like words skillfully used—i.e. witty and beautiful. Conversation and writing like that grabs me. I also like to re-arrange my furniture—that’s art, right? I’m done with acting (too old for my dream roles of Eliza Doolittle and Lady Macbeth) and as my grandpa used to say, I only “tickle the ivories” for private audience (me). Long-term manifestations? Three more books: an adult novel, a picture book, and a collection of essays. But I think you have to be really famous to do the last one, right?

When you were a mother of four young children, did you have any time for art? I can’t imagine you had much time to create in the stereotypical sit-down-at-the-easel sense (maybe I’m wrong!), but were there any ways that art popped up unexpectedly in those intense mothering years?

Being  a mother grew me as a writer. In some ways, bringing a new person into the world, watching them grow into their own person…and all the “witty and beautiful” that comes from them, enriched me as a thinker. And it also got me collecting books. I did a lot of jotting on paper—things the kids said, or images that occurred to me for a later story, various dashings-off of descriptions of my world. And I read aloud to them lots. The actress in me liked changing my voice for each character. I can still do a pretty epic “Jabberwocky” performance.

When you were engaged and a newlywed, did you talk about art? Was “creating,” in any sense, something you and Papi dreamed of?

Hmmm…no, not really. We did talk a lot about changing the world, though, through conversation, teaching, and writing. He’s made a career of it, in fact.

You’ve lived all over the country and even the world. Have any of your moves felt particularly artistically significant?   

Wow, yes. Rich material everywhere, but most especially a kind of ongoing nostalgia for Home—the place I grew up—but also how there is an ongoing restlessness, and a longing for a lasting home. Our three years in Eritrea were great, because it was a lovely, very poignant, hard time, in a culture that was very “foreign” to who I was. Lots of strong reactions to things, and continual cultural “shocks” good and bad. I wrote an essay about buying eggs—point being, the ordinary is very extraordinary when you live abroad. And I had an outlet, an audience: we were missionaries supported by numerous churches, so I wrote letters home. I tried to make them vivid, anecdotal, etc. No one withdrew funds, so I guess it worked.

What does artistic support look like to you?

Read my book, read my blog, tell me what you think, pass my work on to others, DON’T MAKE ME BEG. People who tell me I should keep it up are THE best support. (Having a daughter who is a professional who will edit my work for free—it is still free, isn’t it?—is a huge support. Thanks, honey.) [Editor's note: If by "free" you mean "one iced coffee per 30 pages," then indeed, it is still free.]

Growing up on a farm, you were surrounded by beauty, but miles away from most of the world’s prestigious cultural/artistic hubs (art museums, symphony centers). What did art look like in your childhood and teenage years? Was there anything you felt that you were missing, and looking back on it, is there anything you didn’t realize that you had at the time?

The Number One no doubt inspiration for art was (and is) my mother. She was a homemaker in the richest sense: our home was full of beauty, order, ongoing art projects (from quilting to Christmas ornaments to wood mosaics to painting…ALWAYS a new art form being explored). I had piano lessons from a very skilled teacher, I was taught how to draw correctly, but best of all was the BOOKS. Mom bought books. A whole encyclopedia set (from an actual traveling salesman), autobiographical art books with large reprint pages, and (glory of glories!) “Colliers Junior Classics.” I loved those. Don’t tell my brothers, but I stole them without permission and am looking at them right now.

Didn’t lack a thing as far as “inspiration.” How could you, with a farm, a small town, and a huge sky to observe every day? The only thing I lacked was a better attention span. I wish I had notice more external details of my world as I was growing up. I was a very inward-looking feeling-oriented girl.

I refer the reader (er hem, aka to my essay “A Writer’s Place” for more anecdotes on writing and growing up.

Talk to me about your children’s books. You’ve written two, and you brokered a lucrative sponsorship deal with Monsanto for one of them. Looking back on that time, what are your takeaways from that project?

That children’s publishing is really hard to break into. Really, it’s a full-time job over a long long period, and requires a lot of research. My farm picture book was published in a completely unconventional way. The deal was heady, but in reality, it wasn’t all that glamorous. Lots of sitting at booths to promote it and smiling weakly as people walked on by. I also learned that I had autographed them all in the wrong way (don’t ask).

Do you have a regular writing practice, or do you do it when the mood strikes?

My daughter (the pro) has modeled discipline to me. I was a “when the mood strikes” writer until about ten years ago. Then I realized that the reason other people had stuff published, and I didn’t, was because, duh, they actually sat down regularly and wrote. Here’s a good quote (with some variation from Faulkner [?]): “I only write when inspiration strikes. I try to make it strike at nine every morning.”

Now that your children are out of the home, you’ve been really focusing on your writing. Was this something you always wanted to do but couldn’t? What’s led to your increased writing output lately?

Well, the ability to self-publish, and it being fairly credible, by having a cool website and posting every week, and then imagining you have a worldwide Insta-Audience…it’s very motivating. I try to post an essay every week. So far, so good.

I’m an empty nester now (kids were priority before). I’ve had a drawer full of jottings all these years, and four years ago thought I better get at it. My ability to write well is, I think, a gift from God. He’s certainly granted me time. And that means being a steward of both. And that means doing it, and doing my best.

Talk to me a bit about the process of working on your novel. What stands out about it? How does it feel now that it’s out in the world?

I’m happy I have an actual book to hold and to give away. I secretly like to just open it and poke around, especially at the “copyright page” because it looks so legit. It is self-published, but since that, too, has become more credible (and super-easy and pro-looking), I thought, Why not? I didn’t expect a mainstream publisher to take it (it doesn’t really fit the current YA market); I really didn’t have high hopes nor did I want to spend the time submitting. I truly just wanted people to read it.

It took twenty years. My brother suggested a topic that I’d be “a natural” to write about, and also suggested the theme. But I didn’t like the theme, and that got me thinking a lot about beauty and longing etc etc and my own teen years, and maybe I’d have something to put on the shelf that would counter some of the vacuous messages teen girls get from the culture. But I didn’t want it to be a “message” book, didactic and all. It took years to figure out what the STORY would be. Attending a great writers’ workshop about structuring a novel was a huge boost. And the instructor’s compliments boosted me. I worked on the novel sporadically, sometimes put it aside for years…then about five years ago I decided I better finish it. The “process” included messes of papers spread all over the floor as I despaired over how to get the thing organized! And I had to research nuclear waste…but people will just have to show “SUPPORT” and read it to find out why.

Do you have any artistic or creative regrets? Any exuberant highlights?

I love my two little illustrated stories in Ladybug magazine! Working with Kathleen Anderson on those was exuberance galore! And I love getting comments (okay, I admit it, compliments) on my blog. Don’t tell anyway, but I check my “stats” obsessively, though I’m told they are meaningless. I guess that shows I’m a newbie wannabe…. But I love when people tell me they like my writing…and especially when awesome writers like one Tori T. tell me so with lots of !!!!! and all in caps. [Editor's note: Aw shucks!]

You have a beautiful Christian faith that appears in much of your writing. Talk to me about how faith contributes to your art, and visa versa.

Nice of you to call it beautiful, but I’m a struggler and a fumbler and will be to the end. I really just want to look at the world rightly. Everyone has a “worldview,” i.e. opinion, about the Big Issues like evil, beauty, existence, etc etc. And every writer expresses it, even if unconsciously.  And by expressing it, it inevitably involves persuasion, no? Aren’t we all saying to the reader, “I’m describing something, telling a story, making a character that I think is worth your time.” Aren’t all writers proselytizers, in that sense?

I’ll be forthright: I want people to believe what I believe. I mean, just being logical: why would I believe something if I didn’t think it was True? And I want my writing to make the Christian worldview credible, in all its severity and beauty. And I’ll just end right here by casually (and genius-like) throwing out some Robert Browning, the witty words of his medieval pub-crawling monk: This world’s no blot for us, nor blank; it means intensely, and means good: to find its meaning is my meat and drink.

Do you feel like the idea of “the muse” has any role in your life? If so, what does that look like?

The clock striking 9 a.m.

And those moments when you probably should be watching the road (or listening to the Sunday sermon) but you are scrawling on a scrap of paper instead.

Thank you, Mama! Read previous installments of Art Work here