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Lynn Vincent: The narrative reversal

A painful early life was preparation to tell other persons’ stories


Lynn Vincent Wally Nell/Genesis

Lynn Vincent: The narrative reversal
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Lynn Vincent spent a decade as WORLD’s feature editor and action-adventure writer before becoming the best-selling co-author of Heaven Is for Real and Same Kind of Different As Me. She also collaborated on Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue: An American Life, and now specializes in writing narrative or “dramatic” nonfiction books—true stories that pull readers from page to page like fast-paced fiction.

I understand your mom was not the greatest mother in the world. No, she was not. I grew up in a child protective services quality childhood. And there were drugs. I’m coming to terms with this after all these years. My mom, trying to fit in during the ’70s, gravitated to every fringe group that there was, whether Hell’s Angels, local drag queens, even witchcraft. As she tried to find her way, we felt we were luggage just being carried around.

It didn’t get any better when you were a teenager. When I was 14, she lost her job and we wound up homeless in Hawaii. We wound up living in a tent in a beach park. At some point one of her boyfriends told her something: I don’t know even what it was, but she chased me, knocked me to the ground, and tried to choke me. So I ran away and wound up in a home for runaways. That was the first time someone ever witnessed to me—a beautiful lady with red hair talked to me about God. I did not feel that my constitutional liberties were being encroached upon.

What do you think the lasting effect of your hard childhood is? How do you overcome that? You don’t overcome it right away. God has used it for me to be able to tell the story of a homeless man or the story of an addict, Michael English. God has given me empathy, along with the gift He’s given me to be able to string words together. One reason I’m able to talk to people is because I don’t ever feel I’m better than anyone else. I’ve done every sin, including murder, because I’ve had an abortion. I can approach people on that level and they feel comfortable opening up.

‘My mom, trying to fit in during the ’70s, gravitated to every fringe group that there was, whether Hell’s Angels, local drag queens, even witchcraft.’

Your parents separated when you were 3. Then there was a stepfather, but that didn’t work out either. How do you overcome fear of marriage? I did not have a fear of marriage, but I was not very good at it at first; but I put my trust in God’s Word, and once I decided to get married, no matter what happened, I was going to continue to be married. So we worked at it, we worked at it, and we’ve been married 26 years.

With two children—and your younger son, Jacob, just graduated from Navy boot camp, following the family business. Both you and your husband Danny were Navy air traffic controllers, and you joined when you were 21. Good move? It’s worked out really well. The military instilled in me a discipline I didn’t have.

After nine years as an air traffic controller, and writing for Army Times, Navy Times, and Air Force Times, you started writing for WORLD. I remember your “Keeping secrets” article from 2002, about Planned Parenthood, and your article about clergy sexual abuse. How did your own experience of abortion and abuse play into your reporting? When Planned Parenthood people would say outlandish or ridiculous things, it was hard for me to just write it down and move on. With the sexual abuse story, I worked on it for six or eight months. The victims were women who had usually been sexually abused in childhood and because of that conditioning had an inability to say no to a pastor who seemed like a god-figure, an authority figure, because of the conditioning of their childhood. Having been a victim of sexual abuse I was able to relate to the women: They felt ashamed but felt I wouldn’t judge them.

Your first books came out in 2008, with Same Kind of Different As Me becoming a huge bestseller. Why? It has the Christian theme of redemption, salvation, and racial and class reconciliation, but it doesn’t preach.

You were the ghostwriter for Sarah Palin’s autobiography. I know how you’ll answer this question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Inside stuff about her? I signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Now that you are established as an author in your own name, you have a lot of projects from which to choose. What’s your decision process? I have to be passionate about the story. I also have to know that the story can carry a narrative. A lot of times people will come with a story, but it’s one brief window in their lives and there aren’t enough “narrative reversals”—when a story goes from good to bad or bad to good—to carry a full-length book.

What about the book you just finished that has an Afghan locale and comes out in November? It’s called Dog Company: A True Story of Battlefield Courage, and it combines battlefield action and military courtroom drama. [WORLD will have more about this book in November.]

How should people who want to write popular books prepare themselves? Read everything you can, from classics to “airport books” that create suspense. Reading fills your tank. Then write. Close the doors, turn off the phone and internet, put words on a screen.

Many people really don’t like writing but they like having written. Seems to me book writing is hard to sustain unless you enjoy the process. You have to be willing to do the work, and it’s not glamorous at all.

Many people have said that 90 percent of writing is rewriting. Ninety percent of writing is rewriting, but the hardest 10 percent is the first draft.

You talk about “the sacred ICPID.” ICPID is my acronym for readers saying, “I couldn’t put it down.” After I write a book or even an article, I go through it at cellular level and try to make sure that they can’t put it down.

How about your anti-procrastination formula? It’s [(B + C) - (I + P)]n. I’ll decode that for you. B is for butt. C is for chair. So butt plus chair, minus internet and phone. The variable n is for how many words can I write without breaking a sweat. My number is 300 words.

Without breaking a sweat or without throwing up? Without having little dots of blood break out on my forehead. If I can’t make myself buckle down I say, “If I can just write 300 words, I’m going to get started.” If you write 300 words for five days that’s 1,500 words. That’s a feature length article. Do that for 10 days, that’s the length of a chapter.

See “More how-to from nonfiction writer Lynn Vincent.”


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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