I’m gradually learning that it’s not an unusual story: a writer yearning to be published admits their dream in front of Phyllis Tickle, and she does something about it. In my version, I learned a lot about both Phyllis and publishing.
It was at the National Cathedral, during a 24-hour meeting about emergence Christianity. The emergence expert Fred Burnham was facilitating the meeting at the College of Preachers, and had asked a question around the table about what was energizing us lately. I mentioned my completed manuscript for a grief memoir, and despaired a little about how flat the genre of memoir was at the time, and presented what I thought was a hopeful conclusion and the conversation continued. The meeting moved on at a brisk pace.
At dinner, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and I turned to address to the person. It was Phyllis.
“I think I’m to read your memoir,” she said, characteristic formality unapologetically out front, kindness as always in her eyes.
My mouth went dry, and my blood ran cold. This was the best possible news: a literary heavyweight wanting to read my work. Hooray! And at the same time, this is a complete badass who pulls no punches and suffers no fools wanting to read my amateur attempt at a book. Knowing her physical and professional limitations– her health requires and absolute and uncompromising twelve hours per day of complete horizontal bed-rest, and she was right then in the midst of writing her groundbreaking book ‘The Great Emergence’– I questioned her intentions. She overcame my objections: her steel-trap mind was made up.
I remember walking out into the cool night air to call my wife to tell her the incredible news. ”Scared shitless,” was my exact descriptor, I think. A generous staff person at the Cathedral was kind enough to print out the two-hundred-forty pages, and Phyllis winked at me when I put it in her hand as I forced a smile. The hardest part was about to begin: waiting to hear what she would say.
The answer mercifully came only a week later, in a brief email I read and re-read, then out loud to my wife. She liked it. Would I mind if she brought it to a publication board on which she sat? She was sure they would want to acquire it.
Of course I said ‘yes’, but my early education in publishing came quickly and certainly several months later: they weren’t at all interested in the book. Lesson One: Phyllis is powerful, but she can’t make things happen. It would be several more years before a publisher said ‘yes’ (after they twice said ‘NO’), and I have no doubt that Phyllis’ endorsement front-and-center on the proposal opened all kinds of doors to me.
But that kindness, it never wavered. ”It’s a good book,” she always said to me, every time I saw her in those intervening years, ignoring the proper distinction we both knew existed in the great gulf between ‘manuscript’ (hoping for publication) and ‘book’ (actually in print). She would also add a comforting dose of incredulity, slightly aghast that no one had published it yet, which always gave me courage and confidence. And when it finally saw the light of day? Phyllis wasn’t a bit surprised. She just insisted on a signed copy.
Today is her reputed 80th, birthday, which is not one whit believable. Someone has cooked the books: she can’t possibly be that old. She is still whirling around the globe, holding forth in full-on, notes-free, heavily-footnoted lectures on several centuries’ worth of history and theological detail, still writing powerful books, still inspiring big crowds and expanding minds
and encouraging forlorn future authors when she ought to be doing her own important work. So on this day, I hold my birthday wishes in abeyance: I’ll wish her a happy birthday when she starts acting her age.