What Would Judy Do?
Judy Baer and I are walking in circles around her immaculate kitchen, pretending that a laundry pile the size of a healthy eight-year-old child has miraculously appeared before us. The imaginary clothes pile is mine, and it's been magically transported from my overflowing closet to her crumb-free kitchen in Elk River. On this chilly November day, Baer, a Christian-fiction writer and life coach, is instructing me in an organizational exercise.
We slide in our socks across the shiny Pergo floor from one side of the (imaginary) dirty clothes to the other, landing on defined spots like "perfection" and "chaos" as if we're playing a giant self-help board game. "You have gremlins on your shoulder," Baer says. I'm not alone. Everyone has them. Mine just happen to be more drooly, bitter, and degrading than others.
Baer suggests I lock my gremlins in a closet (a laundry-free one) or shove them in front of a moving vehicle. They're only sabotaging my life purpose. "I'm a firm believer that we're created with a purpose, and that we're created divinely," says Baer, who has written 69 books of Christian fiction in her 50-odd years. Her latest novel, The Whitney Chronicles (Steeple Hill Café), is a Bridget Jones-style chick-lit tale of a girl trying to honor God while searching for a good Christian man. Despite the soul-sucking shoulder gremlins, Baer knew since childhood that her purpose was to create, whether it was creating stories, creating relationships, or creating cakes.
"Your purpose doesn't have to be long and lofty," she offers. "Some people's purpose in life is to teach. Some people's is to love."
I don't tell her that, for a few pathetic, pajama-spent months, I was convinced my purpose in life was to create a multimillion-selling tchotchke called "Porpoise in Life." The competitively priced stuffed dolphin would come with its own uniform and job title--like Teacher, Artist, or Construction Worker--and a little scroll under its flipper outlining the life mission statement for each. I even tried to patent it.
If it's true that cleanliness is next to godliness, then Baer's woodsy home is a cathedral. The unblemished beige carpeting begs you to roll around in its plush goodness. The mirror-lined display cabinet in the entryway shows no signs of dust mites or grubby kid-hand smudges. Baer's next manuscript, Million Dollar Dilemma, a story about a young Christian woman who wins the lottery, is the only thing that clutters the kitchen table. And though she works from home all day, Baer opts for fresh lipstick and a matching quilted vest and turtleneck ensemble instead of saggy flannel pajama bottoms and an XXL T-shirt.
Baer had her first story published when she was 11 and living on a farm in South Dakota. She sent a short story about a parental argument over how to cook soup to the Dakota Farmer, one of the many periodicals lying around her home. The magazine published her farm-life vignette and sent a check for $10. "My dad cashed the check and I still have the 10 dollars," she says. "But I wouldn't encourage aspiring writers to send them their stories."
She does, however, encourage writers to find their voice and mission. For Baer, it's exploring Christian ethics through the eyes of Christian characters and their daily experiences. Whitney Blake, the titular heroine of Baer's latest novel, records Bible verses in her daily journal instead of drink and cigarette tallies. She pens prayer letters to the Lord looking for solutions to her love and work life: "Lord, I'm confused. Life doesn't make sense...I'm exactly the same person I was a year ago, only then men were as scarce as good hair days."
Her goals are to pray more, meet a Christian man, give money to a ministry, shed a few pounds, and become a successful marketing consultant. Whitney weaves rubber bands through the buttonholes of her pants to add extra inches to the waist, and attends a Christian overeaters' group called EEAT, which she wryly dubs Ecclesiastical Eaters Anonymous Training.
The names in The Whitney Chronicles are pure Sweet Valley High, which is appropriate since Baer has written more than 30 novels for teen girls: There's Whitney, (a.k.a. "Whit"); her object of (mostly chaste) desire, Dr. Chase Andrews; Mitzi, her obnoxious co-worker; and her Christian couple friends, Kim and Kurt. But there's no thumbing over plots to get to the G-rated make-out sessions that made Valley High so sweet. Good-girl Whitney leaves those wide-eyed teenage twins looking like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie on a weeklong coke bender.
God, Sunday school, or the Bible pops up on the pages as often as Bridget Jones shoves a fag in her mouth. Baer, who is a fan of Helen Fielding's novel, says that though the two books may have certain surface similarities, she didn't read that chick-lit landmark until long after she'd written The Whitney Chronicles.
Baer's journal-style novel was drafted with a Christian audience in mind, but that doesn't mean secular audiences will necessarily find Whitney to be cloyingly pious and God-fearing. In fact, the only totally unlikable aspect of Whit is her petty obsession with marriage. After a single date, she's prepared to write thank-you notes for glassware and bedding. Even when she's playing Scrabble, the tiles somehow spell out wedding-themed words like hugged, desire, and bride. But as Whit would say, that's all part of God's plan, and his way of clueing her in to it.
While Whit struggles to make out God's handwriting, she does manage to juggle two men at once. "That's how a lot of Christian women live," Baer says. "You live your life and you're having fun and you're stumbling and you will have men in your life. You probably won't take them into your bedroom. That's actually the only place the door really closes."
Judy Baer's novel lacks any shirt-ripping, heaving-chest moments. Yet the book's publisher, Steeple Hill Café, turns out to be a new subsidiary of Harlequin, who practically patented heaving chests. According to the Christian Booksellers Association, the market for faith-based fiction, which includes the burgeoning Christian chick-lit genre, has grown 25 percent since 2001, with annual sales topping $2 billion a year. Baer attributes part of this growth to the success of secular chick-lit and the fact that Christian women want to see their value sets explored in similar novels.
That's not to say any of these values are new. "It's all of a sudden a little spotlight shining on part of a Christian woman's life that really hasn't been examined before," Baer says. "Christian women haven't changed. They've been perfectly wonderful, flawed, silly, happy humans all along."
In a similar spirit, Baer has always known that she wanted to write, though she admits she wasn't always confident in her abilities. "I can't say that I love writing. But I always love the end result," she says. Regardless of her well-groomed surroundings and well-defined sense of purpose, she says that early in her career she would stumble on nagging thoughts of worthlessness. "Some days I wake up and I don't even want to write," she says. "Sometimes I think, What if I'm a fake and I haven't been able to write all along? But when that happens, you have some chocolate and go take a nap."
Baer auditioned different versions of Whitney with her daughter, who's in her twenties, before finally settling on the character. Yet a part of Whitney had lived inside Baer for years. While life-coaching her clients, many of whom are aspiring writers, she sometimes will even life-coach the characters until they become fully developed. The process involves discovering their values, which helps to broaden the plot and dialogue. "It's kind of like relationship coaching," she says.
Which brings me back to that make-believe laundry pile and my own lesson: uncovering a life purpose by defining my values. "What is it you can't live without in life?" Baer asks. "Is it integrity, is it family, is it power? Is it fame? The things you need to have in life are really what your values are."
From that point, she says, my purpose should reveal itself. "It's about mining for your values," she says. "It's about mining for your gifts."
Gifts? I tried to patent a porpoise. "But what about the days you feel like the most ungifted human on the planet?" I ask.
Baer didn't finish 69 books by surrendering to this particular gremlin, and she looks at me with a mixture of pity and firmness. "That's when you go eat some chocolate," she says. "And then you take a nap."
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