Take Up Your Pen: The Sarah Gadsby Story

You haven’tventured too far off Baylor campus before noticing the tiny, ramshackle building on Speight Street that you’ve driven past countless times before. This time, amid its paint-chipped screen doors and fraying cream trim you register the shack’s invitation: a “Come In, We’re Open!” sign inside the window, hanging above the stockpile of fresh bread loaves heaped on red crates. The restaurant’s derelict appearance boasts a charming appeal that compels you inside.

Resounding conversations buzz around bits of spitting frying grease, as three children spin on rusting counter stools. In between twirls, they watch the short-order cook, as he goes back and forth between deep-frying batches of French fries and pounding hamburger meat on the grill. You make your way to the only empty booth, but your shoulders tense as you witness Frank turn so quickly in the single-lane pathway between the grill and the counter that he sends his sister flying into the cash register. The diner’s only waitress seemed unphased. You take your seat as the telephone rings.

“Cupp’s Drive-In,” the cook answers, tossing fries in grease with his free hand. “Let me check,” he said, turning to face the hunched elderly woman, who is spooning raw meat with an ice cream scoop. “Mom, do we need any produce?” She shakes her head.

“Not today, Wayne,” he responds and returns to the fryer.

His other sister sits silently at the counter, delicately wrapping fork and knife sets in squares of crepe paper. You open your notebook and begin to jot down your impressions. This hole-in-the-wall experience was the perfect local attraction to feature in your creative nonfiction story assignment. You spend many hours interviewing the owner, chatting up the cook, and listening to his sister’s stories about the family-run business.

You wish you could have said that your time spent here resulted in a beautiful narrative that the Waco Tribune-Herald begged you to sell so they could advertise “Waco’s best burger” since its 1947 opening. You wish you could have seen the owner’s beauty, her faithfulness to this establishment since her first days as a waitress in 1957. You wish you could have held onto the chance to talk about her braving the weather as a carhop to take orders under the tin-roofed carport in the restaurant’s actual drive-in days. You wish you would have listened to your inner voice telling you to honor this family as they united to maintain the restaurant’s legacy when the former car hop became the owner in 1988. But, you fixated on the missing teeth. You felt the cracked vinyl. You fraternized with these people, sat in their establishment, ate their food, and then chose to call your article “Razing Cupp’s with a Farewell Toast.” You wrote the last lines, “Unfortunately for Cupp’s, property taxes are high, the coffee tastes cheap, and the Burger King across 15th Street accepts credit cards. Soon, there will be nothing left of the original burger joint in Waco except, perhaps, silence and the lingering odors of frying grease.”

I am genuinely ashamed to admit this is how I started my writing life.

* * *

I pursued my Bachelor’s in Professional Writing because I felt confident that I could succeed in a writing-related field. I knew I had an ability to manipulate words and construct sentences, and I was aware that not everyone can do that well. But during that very first story assignment, I abused the power that lies within that gift. I “made an A,” but the reward was bitter. I grew up with rule-following, people-pleasing tendencies, so this dark motive took me by surprise. I betrayed the people at Cupp’s, but I also betrayed myself. I would have never said the words I wrote in person, out loud. I never was going to show them my article. It wouldn’t be published. So, I took the liberty to exploit them. And while I am guilty, I don’t regret my choice. It exposed a new and vital understanding about being human that has shaped my character since: we all have the propensity for good or for evil, but power lies in our ability to choose. I made the choice after that assignment that if I continued to write, I wanted to use my gifts to honor people, to celebrate them, to highlight their beauty. Never again would I use my words to tear people down.

* * *

I’m not sure if I’ve always been a writer. But I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember.  In fact, it has become a long-running joke in my family that I only know how to tell a “short story long.”  

Before leaving for college, my high school youth pastor asked me what I would do if I could do anything in the world and money didn’t matter. I told him, “I would be a writer.”  

I didn’t know any writers at the time, but I really wanted to be one.  

When I didn’t have a job lined up after graduation, I tried to live into the whole “money doesn’t matter” mantra. I remember telling my dad that, after paying for four years of university, I was going to work as a barista at Starbucks and write for a living. Needless to say, he shot down my idea faster than an espresso has a chance to kick in. So, I earned my living using my technical writing skills at a local engineering firm. Soon after, I became certified to teach high school English. I thought, if I couldn’t work at Starbucks and write, at least I could teach writing. During this time, I felt called to write, but honestly, I wasn’t writing much.

When I moved back to League City after a three-year tour de Houston, I was looking to re-engage at Clear Creek Community Church by joining the East 96 campus launch team. As I explored ways I might be able to serve at this new venue, I noticed a volunteer opportunity called “Story Team.” I reached out to the director, and it was only minutes into our initial conversation that I felt connected to this mission. I would be a listening ear for people to share their vulnerable moments, facilitate self-reflection, and celebrate with them how God has redeemed their story. Because God has a history of redeeming. And every story points to Christ, the hero.   

I think we all have this innate sense that there is a tale to be told. The sense that there is this divine author with a unified plan for all of history. A story. And everyone wants to hear a good story, but writing requires a different level of commitment than storytelling. Writing takes time – time that I have to fight to find. So honestly, I write because I’m too busy to write. I write to slow down. To be still. To exhale.  

But it also hurts to be a writer. You have to empathize with the universal brokenness in the world.  You have to think deeply. Often, you have to travel back in time to your own past to channel the emotions you want to convey. And that’s not always fun. So, Story Team is no joke. The work we do, like all Kingdom work, feels weighty. It’s emotionally challenging to journey with people through their dark and tragic moments. When I write these stories, I feel I am walking on holy ground. It’s an honor and a privilege to be trusted with people’s holy experiences. Knowing I’m using my gifts to share God’s love and gospel to a broken world is the most satisfying work I do.

So, I am a believer in the power of story.  Everyone has a story. Every story matters. And when people use their voice to tell their story, they are sharing hope with the world. For me, joining Story Team, also, came at a time when I found that telling people “because the Bible says so” wasn’t always enough. Absolutely the Bible is powerful and effective in transforming lives. But in the time of history we live in, stories of real people who have been transformed by the Bible, are powerful change agents themselves. We all live within the world of God’s grand narrative. We’re all on a protagonist’s journey with tension, tragedy, milestones. Our stories inspire curiosity and draw people to God himself – the true hero in the stories we tell.  

I don’t tell a single story that doesn’t first change me. Victor and Ginger challenged me to love deeper and without walls. Cathy and Tricia showed me the power of presence. Tia convicted me to search the scriptures for wisdom and understanding that can only come from through God’s inspired word. Nate Fisher reassured me that there is no silver bullet to eliminate our struggles, but that it’s okay to still struggle. And the Sutherlands modeled for me how to choose joy through the excruciating and enduring pain of loss and to let your village share that burden with you. 

No matter how many times I change jobs, or move, or shift directions in my life, I will always be writing. This is my life’s work and the way that I want to contribute to my small part of the world. 

So, I’m a storyteller.  

I’m a writer. 

And when I write, I help give voice to the inspiring stories that people are living. Back when I made that promise to myself about the kind of stories I would write moving forward, I could have never imagined the opportunity I would have to hear people share their stories of their humanity and their faith.

As it turns out, even the story of Cupp’s Drive-in had an interesting plot twist and redemptive ending—believe it or not, they are still in business today despite what I wrote about them 11 years ago. Recently, they’ve even been showcased on the weekly television show “Texas Bucket List” as the best burger in Waco. Who knew?

So, even though every story reels with a messy, dark, or broken start, they all have the potential to end with hope—and somehow I have been given a front row seat.

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