Joey had been a majestic, hard-working horse. But an injury changed everything. Now he was tired, starved, blind — and, to most people, useless. But the owners of Hope Reins in Raleigh, NC, saw something different. This 33-acre ranch serves hurting, abused and emotionally wounded children, and they gave Joey a home where God could use him to serve others.
Author Jennifer Bleakley tells this horse’s story in her debut book, JOEY. Jennifer lives in Raleigh, NC, with her husband Darrell, her two children and three pets — a “very needy Golden retriever,” a stray cat and a bearded dragon.
We had the privilege to talk with Jennifer about her new book, about writing and how her faith inspires her craft. Here’s our conversation.
How did you become interested in writing?
I first became interested in writing as a child, exchanging letters with my dad. I was a shy kid who found verbal communication overwhelming. My perceptive daddy realized this and began writing letters to me—letters about his day, about prayers he was praying for me, upcoming vacations, really anything—but he always ended with an open-ended question and encouraged me to write back to him. I did and quickly discovered that I could easily communicate through written words.
But, because I had dreams of being in the medical field, I never thought about writing professionally. In fact, I probably have one of the most random author resumes out there. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, a master’s degree in mental health counseling (and worked for several years as a grief counselor). While I had always enjoyed writing—I even enjoyed writing term papers in college—I didn’t write professionally until about six years ago.
My youngest child went to kindergarten, and I found myself looking for something to do during the day. Following a conversation with a pastor at our church, I began writing children’s curriculum lessons to meet a need we had at the time in our church, and I found that I loved writing Bible lessons for children. And not only did the experience draw me deeper into God’s Word, but it also instilled in me a discipline that conditioned me to write almost every day.
What inspired you to write JOEY?
About a year in to writing curriculum lessons, a friend invited me to tour a horse ranch in Raleigh, called Hope Reins. It is a beautiful ministry that pairs hurting children with rescued horses in order to find hope and healing in Jesus. Although I’m not really a “horse person,” I was intrigued by the work they were doing, and I went to learn more about the ministry. That is where I met a blind horse named Joey.
From the moment I heard Kim Tschirret—the founder of Hope Reins—describe the circumstances that led to Joey’s arrival at the ranch, and how God was using him to help people see the light of hope, my heart was stirred to share his story. And yet, I had no idea how or what that would even look like—after all, I had only been writing for a year, surely I couldn’t write a book! And so I pushed the thought away.
But God kept bringing Joey to my mind. Every time I prayed, every time I opened the Bible, every time I drove by Hope Reins on my way to church, I would feel the Holy Spirit prompting me to write. Thankfully, God doesn’t let our fears and inadequacies deter Him, and He kept pursing my heart until I finally surrendered to Him and began to write Joey’s story.
What has been the biggest hurdle to writing in general – and writing JOEY in particular?
The biggest hurdle for me for writing in general (blog posts, curriculum lessons, articles, etc.) has been fighting the numbers game and comparison trap. In a culture that measures success by likes, shares, followers and platforms, writers can often feel as though their writing, or even their words, don’t matter. It can be discouraging to pour your heart out on the page or the screen, feel as if God poured His words in you and through you, excitedly post it to share with others the blessing you just experienced, and then have no one, or very few people, respond. (It is equally discouraging to write a book proposal, send a query letter or submit an article and never hear back.)
I have wrestled often with God over this issue. Yet, He always patiently points me back to His Word and shows me that over and over again that He simply calls people to obey Him—not to worry about the results. He will also gently remind me that one is enough—even if the one He uses your words to bless is yourself. And so for me, I constantly have to put numbers, likes and followers aside and simply write from a place of obedience and worship and leave the results to God.
Now the biggest hurdle in writing JOEY was that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing in the beginning! I had never written a book before—and it showed in that first manuscript! But thankfully my team at Tyndale—the amazing publishing house who took a chance on a new author—was so patient with me and helped me write and rewrite JOEY until it was ready to publish. (But I will confess that it took four complete rewrites to get there!)
Throughout the writing process, I constantly battled not feeling good enough or talented enough. And the truth was that I wasn’t, but God was—and I just love that my inadequacies highlight His sufficiency. And so now, four rewrites later, I have learned so much about writing and have already started working on another book.
How does your faith influence your vocation as a writer?
My faith has been the cord that has kept me tethered to God’s plan and His will. Faith that God has called me to write and that He has a plan for my writing. Faith that His timing is perfect—even when it is much longer than I would like. Faith that obedience to Him is more important than likes, shares, followers or platforms. And faith that He is always faithful and will accomplish the plans He has for my life.
What tips would you give to other aspiring writers?
The best advice I could give to aspiring writers is to just keep writing. It sounds so trite, but it really is so important. Write as an act of obedience. Write as an act of worship. Write for yourself, or write for one who is hurting. But just keep writing.
The second piece of advice I would give to those wanting to take the next step towards writing a book or writing professionally is to attend a writing conference. There are many great conferences to choose from—even many wonderful Christian conferences. Conferences can get you connected to other writers, publishers, agents and editors. The first conference I attended was where God really confirmed his call on me to write JOEY. That conference also helped me begin to navigate my way through the giant (and overwhelming) world of publishing. And also, because writing is often a solitary assignment, conferences help you realize that there are in fact others like you, people with the same passions, fears, struggles, sense of humor and love of all things books who can support you, pray with you and help you along your writing journey.
And my final piece of advice is to follow God wherever He leads. Exchange your plans for His, your timing for His, and your desires for His. His timing will most likely be different from yours. The story He calls you to write may not be what you thought it would be. And what He asks you to do may be harder than anything you ever imagined. But His plans, His purposes, are always—always—better, and always worthy of our surrender. And always remember that: “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
JOEY is available for pre-order from all major book retailers, and will be released May 8, 2018. You can follow Jen’s journey with JOEY and future projects through her blog at jenniferbleakley.com or through Facebook, Instagram and Amazon.