I started out 30 years ago to become a fiction writer. I thought that was my real calling. For three decades life kept getting in the way.
A few months ago, I decided I'd reached the now-or-never point. I started cranking away at a novel. I wrote 50 pages. Then 100. Then 150.
One day I did the math, though, and got discouraged.
I had—and still don't have—any idea whether the tale I'm creating is any good. But I realized that, even if it's wonderful, by the time I can finish it, edit it, find an agent or publisher and see it in print, I'll be at least 60 years old.
"Nobody writes a first novel at that age," I thought. "And if they did, no publisher would take a chance on it."
Enter Jan Watson, 69, who I met through what appeared to be serendipity.
Watson believes God has a plan for all our lives, and if we'll listen, in God's perfect timing he'll lead us to the path we should take.
For her, that kind of faith opened up a whole new career, ministry and legacy at an age when others are shopping for their retirement home.
As a child, Watson loved to visit her granny in Breathitt County. They'd sit on the porch and break beans or shell peas. Watson's grandmother would tell her stories.
The most memorable was of a flash flood that ravaged the area years earlier. The roiling waters tore a baby from its mothers' arms. The infant's body was never found.
Watson was 8 years old when she initially heard that story, but never got it out of her head, even as she grew up, married, raised three sons and worked 25 years as a nurse at Lexington's Central Baptist Hospital.
"Fifty years later, I was thinking of that baby again," she said.
She meditated on who the child might have become had it been rescued. In her imagination, she saw it as a girl, even though she didn't know its real gender or name.
She wasn't a writer, but she started committing to paper the life she wished this child might have led. It was almost as if she couldn't stop.
"I wrote and wrote and wrote," she said.
She showed her husband, Chuck, an engineer, what she'd done. He didn't know a lot about writing, either. But in his opinion she'd produced a book—a good one. Neither of them had a clue what to do next.
Chuck found Jan a conference in Maryland for aspiring Christian writers.
While the two of them were there, they heard Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the mega-bestselling Left Behind series, speak. He said something that hit Jan: if God has given you a story to share, don't waste it. Use your gift.
Watson took his advice to heart. She set herself to learn everything she could about the writing craft. She revised her manuscript.
Finally, she submitted her story, Troublesome Creek, to the 2004 Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel contest, a national competition.
She won first place. And $50,000. And a publishing contract for Troublesome Creek with Tyndale House Publishers.
Before the book came out in 2005, Chuck Watson passed away.
"It seemed God wanted my life to go in a different direction," Jan said.
So, in addition to being newly widowed, she left nursing: "After a lot of prayer, I stepped out in faith and started writing full-time and never looked back."
Shortly after her first book was published, she was speaking at Asbury College in Wilmore. She related how her granny's story refused to leave her alone and eventually morphed into Troublesome Creek.
When Watson finished, a woman came up to her, crying. The woman said she knew of a mother who had similarly lost her child in a flood: Mrs. Nettie Myers, a missionary teacher from Illinois who'd worked in Breathitt County.
Then, Watson spoke in Hazard at a conference and told her story again. Another woman came up to her and said the same thing: Nettie Myers.
Watson got her hands on a slim biography about Myers by Marie Merle McCord. It turned out Myers had not only lost her baby — a girl — in the 1939 Frozen Creek flood, but also her husband, two sons and two teenage cousins. Yet she continued her ministry.
Watson had named the fictional baby in Troublesome Creek "Laura Grace."
The real baby's name: "Lela Grace."
"It was just such a coincidence," Watson said.
Without understanding the significance at the time, Watson had woven into her novel a Bible passage. From Isaiah 43, it reads in part, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you ..."
The inscription in McCord's book about the real-life mother?
The same passage.
"When I read that, I just fell to my knees," Watson said.
To her, God somehow had connected her with a baby who'd been lost before Watson herself was born. God had helped her pay homage to the infant's existence, or at least tell a fictionalized version of it.
"I wrote the book to save the baby who had been swept away," she said.
Lela Grace wasn't rescued, Watson said, "but she's gone on to thousands and thousands of words about who she is and what she might have done."
Watson was 60 when Troublesome Creek was published.
Since then, she's continued to pursue her later-in-life calling by publishing at the rate of almost a novel a year. Her newest, her seventh, is Tattler's Branch.
Her publisher, Tyndale, is a Christian press, and Watson considers herself a Christian writer, but she's won accolades in secular as well as religious circles, including an award from Kentucky Living magazine as Best Kentucky Author of 2012.
I met her pretty much out of the blue.
After talking with her I wasn't discouraged anymore.
But I walked away with an insight that's kept me clacking happily on my keyboard: We're never too old to start fresh, never too old to be faithful to a calling.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.