Author, illustrator and blogger extraordinaire Joe McKeever: “Learn from everyone, imitate no one”

3 May

Joe McKeever will be a speaker at the upcoming Southern Christian Writers Conference on June 2-3 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and has a lot to say to people of faith and aspiring writers.

Check out his wonderful blog, see some of his illustrations from his regular column, and check out all of his books on Amazon.

Joe recently talked with me about faith, grief, drawing, writing and encouraging others.

Question: Tell me a little bit about your blog. How did it start? What is its ‘philosophy’?

I’ve been writing all my adult life.  Did a cartoon article for SBC’s “Outreach” magazine in 1972 when I was 32.  And as a pastor, I wrote for various things.  One day in 1996, our minister of education installed a huge bulky computer in my office.  “You’re going to be needing this,” he said.  And he was right.  The funny thing is I used to be a secretary, through college and for two years following.  I type fast and loved to write, but as the pastor of some demanding churches in the 80s and 90s had quit typing anything. So, now, I would sit at the computer and type articles for our church website.  And the creative juices began to flow again.

We sent out a weekly fax with my inspirational thoughts.  And when I discovered sending out those articles over long distance was expensive, but email was cheap, we went to an email.  And from there to blogging.  And sometime around 2002, my son informed me, “I have reserved for you.  You’ll need it one day.”  I hardly knew what that meant.  But in 2004, I left the pastorate to become director of missions for the SBC churches of metro New Orleans, and since their website was non-functioning, I began using my own.  In 2005, when Katrina flooded the city and devastated a lot of our churches, my website became a lifeline for displaced pastors and others.  Editors began taking my blog and running it in print editions.  (You can see everything I wrote during the Katrina episode Sept 1, 2005 and through the next two years, by scrolling down the page on my blog to the archives and finding those years/months.  Everything is still there.)  And since I was primarily writing for churches, church leaders, and particularly pastors, they became my primary audience.

Q: What other writing do you do, in addition to your blog?

In the decade of the 1990s, I kept a hand-written journal each night.  Eventually, it filled over 50 hard-bound volumes.  I wrote about pastor stuff–who came to see me, what the church staff was dealing with, whom I visited, what problems the deacons and I were wrestling with, and on Saturday evenings, I wrote out the sermons for the next day.  And for several years, while I had a two minute live radio thing called “phone call from the pastor,” I’d write out the gist of that program.  That’s why my postings on Facebook are often rich.  I’m mining those journals.  Oh, I also wrote about my grandchildren, you may have noticed.

The books I’m writing are offshoots of the blog. I did a book “Help! I’m a Deacon!” two years ago, and my bride of 3 months and I have one coming out next week called “Grief Recovery 101.” And at the moment, I have moved articles on prayer from the blog into a word document for the next book.  It’s far more than enough for a book, so I’m editing it down to maybe one-half of the present content.

I write a column called “My Favorite Deacon” for the quarterly “Deacon Magazine,” published by Lifeway.

Q: How dd you get started illustrating, and how often do you do it these days?

I’ve drawn cartoons since I was a child.  Did all the class posters in high school (Double Springs, AL) and college (Berry and Birmingham-Southern), and at church.  During seminary (1960s) our weekly newspaper in the bayou country of Louisiana would run my devotional each week alongside my cartoon.  That paper was actually giving me one-quarter of a page in every issue.  The publicity from it did my little church on Alligator Bayou a world of good, and brought in visitors every Sunday.  — I cannot even tell you how many books I’ve illustrated, but the number must be 20 or more.

And in the early 1980s, Baker Book House of Grand Rapids published “Instant Cartoons for Church Newsletters,” a series of 8 volumes eventually, containing religious cartoons from me and two other guys.  Before they ended the series, we had sold 300,000 copies.  The publisher I use these days is Parson’s Porch of Cleveland, TN.  They have done two books of cartoons, named “101 Cartoons” and “101 More Cartoons” (catchy, huh?), as well as the deacon and grief books.The Baptist Press posts a cartoon of mine each weekday.

As a rule, I draw in cracks of times, those moments when a good idea hits or when I’m reading the paper (the paper newspaper!!) and something in the comics sparks an idea.  Then, later, I’ll collect all these scraps and doodles and redraw them, then hand color them, and scan/email.

I also am a sketch artist.  People want to call these caricatures, but they’re not.  A caricature is an exaggeration, but few people want their nose to be the size of Montana. I’m trying to capture the essence of the person in a minute to two minutes.  I’m often invited to draw for festivals and conventions and such.  They pay well, although for charitable events and church things, I’m happy to donate my time.  I do a lot of school programs.

Here is Joe illustrating and talking with attendees at the 2012 SCWC,

Q: You’re a former pastor. How does your faith affect your writing?

I am all about faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  There is no part of me that isn’t.  Even when I’m drawing cartoons or sketching people, I pray to do it well and for His glory.  So, I pray for the website, for my writing, asking the Lord to lead me in what to write and how to do it.  And then, if someone praises the results, nothing inside me swells with pride. I just thank them, and send up a silent thank-you to the Father.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your personal life, and what the future holds with writing.

In October 2016, I sold my house in metro New Orleans (where I’d lived since 1990) and moved to the Jackson, MS area. Bought a lovely garden home in a gated community.  In January 2017, I married the widow of a seminary classmate.  Gary Fagan and I had known one another since the 1960s, but we did not know the other’s families.  So, Bertha and I met in February of 2016.  We knew that same week the Lord had put us together.

She contributed a chapter to our ‘grief” book, telling what she went through in May 2014 when Gary had an aneurysm after preaching twice that day, and died 10 days later.  She teaches English at a community college here, but had never done any writing until now.

Projects?  I’m always sketching people for events.  (Have four weddings in 3 states coming up in the next 6 weeks; I’ll sketch for the receptions.)  I’m always drawing cartoons for Baptist Press.  I write on the blog almost daily and post perhaps 5 articles per week.  Online magazines for church leaders pick up some of the articles and send them to their mailing lists of many thousands.

That’s the fun thing about blogging.  I have posted an article at 6 am (after working on it, off and on, for several days) and by 11 am, one of these magazines has picked it up and sent it out to 50,000 subscribers, and my mailbox is filling with notes from people all over the world.

I went to the Naples, Italy area for a weeklong retreat for pastors and spouses from all over Europe as a result of my blog.  I’m 77 years old.  I’m so grateful I lived long enough to hold a smart phone in my hand, and think of all the possibilities it contains.

Q: What will you talk about at the SCWC, and how do you hope to encourage aspiring writers?

I love to attend any event that sparks my creative energy, and want to accomplish that for those attending my conferences.  The result should be people going out to do their own thing, express what’s going on in their lives, using the talents and gifts they have.  I have no desire to just pass along information or teach someone how to do what I’m doing.  How boring.  Outside the window as I type, there are flowers everywhere, the result of a gracious Heavenly Father and an amazing wife who loves to make spaces glorious.  Flowers come in so many different varieties and colors and forms. No two are alike.  And that’s the goal of SCWC, I happen to know–to encourage God’s highest creations to bloom where they are planted, and to find brighter and more glorious ways and venues to shine forth.

My two conferences are WRITING INSPIRATIONAL AND EFFECTIVE BLOGS and WRITING ABOUT PERSONAL EXPERIENCES.  Under the first one, we’ll talk about blogging.  The second will deal with, among other things, my writing about my wife’s death in 2015 and then dealing with the grief that followed.

In either, or in both, I will encourage people to find their voice in writing (and the only way to do that is to write and write and write until they find the street on which they live and to travel it every day), to be themselves, but to be their best selves, and not to ape anyone else, no matter how much they admire someone.  Learn from everyone; imitate no one.

(Meet Joe and the other speakers at the SCWC by attending this year’s worskshop. Visit the SCWC website for more information.)


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