Ann Marie Stewart ~
Almost twenty years and 100 columns ago, I pitched a column idea to The Country Register about a young mom raising two little girls on a sheep farm. The introductory column of “Ann’s Lovin’ Ewe” entitled “Lessons on the Farm” began something like this:
My friends laugh when I tell them we raise sheep. I have a hard time calling myself a sheep farmer—but we do raise 24 sheep on 11 acres, and they are not pets.
Now with daughters out of college, I still write “Ann’s Lovin’ Ewe.” What I couldn’t know then was how valuable writing a column would be to me as a writer, book author, and mother. Here’s how it helps:
Sharpens Writing Skills
My books are between 65,000 and 113,000 words. But the better I am at writing with fewer, the better I am at writing with more. “Ann’s Lovin’ Ewe” should be no more than 500-800 words. When I return to earlier columns of greater length, they are not better than the 500-word columns and I often wish I could go back and hack out the unnecessary fill. I have improved as a writer through practice and time! From the column title to the lede and the last thought, each word counts.
Opens my Eyes
As a writer putting out a scheduled column, I must grab ideas with regularity. This causes me to look for a story or see beauty or hunt for the intriguing, process and write about it. That’s a good thing.
Five years ago when our first eight ewes were delivered, I awakened the next morning to see them huddled together adjusting to their new farm. As the morning sunshine burned through the fog in the valley, I put on a Celtic CD and was transported miles away from the beltway. At that time I could not have anticipated what these ewes would teach us.
Builds my Platform
When I write a book proposal, I have a platform collected from each state that carries my column. This puts me in the hundreds of thousands of readers and these readers get to know me well.
That I’m a mother of two little girls isn’t hard for my friends to believe. That I left the west coast Washington for the east coast version raises a few eyebrows. But how a computer engineer dad and a choral director mom could possibly raise sheep in rural Loudoun County, Virginia is beyond comprehension.
Advertises to my Readers
My column is my own advertisement. The newspaper allows and encourages me to feature a new book, giveaway, or cover photo, and recently even suggested we run an online book club. They’re happy to have a successful author, so it’s a mutual win.
Creates Material for a Book
With a large audience of readers, and a collection of columns, I could then compile a book about raising two girls and a whole lot of ewes and lambs on SkyeMoor Farm!
Perhaps we raise sheep because on a late summer’s night when our windows are open, we hear a lamb bleat for her mother. The call and response continue until they find each other, leaving us with only the sound of cicadas and peepers. We raise sheep because the first newborn of every spring reminds us that life is born anew each day. I coax a wet wiggle of white barely standing on knobby knees to find its mother’s teat. When at last the lamb nurses, I sigh, leaving a breath of fog to hang in the chilly spring air.
Records Life and Memories
I have a twenty-year diary-like collection of life’s reflections, a scrapbook of my family on the farm.
Most of all, we raise sheep because of the indescribable lessons that come with farming. Our two daughters rejoice over birth and cry over death. They haul feed and water, bottle-feed baby lambs, and my six-year-old brags about saving the life of a baby lamb. Our daughters once volunteered their cardboard playhouse turned upside down to corral triplets in our basement utility room, bottle-feeding them indoors six times a day, rather than trooping outdoors to the frozen barnyard. These are just a few of our stories.
Validates by Publication
Sometimes a novel isn’t the first work published. In the meantime, a writer can say with honesty, “I write for the _______________.” One year, having that meagre CR income kept me in the right category for a tax benefit.
The topic you choose, must be something you love to write about. Depending on the frequency of the publication, you need to “see” something about that topic regularly and find many angles about which to write. The topic cannot bore readers or you. My topic was flexible enough to include farm life, mothering, and life lessons.
The audience of the newspaper should overlap with readers for your next ventures.
The pay isn’t as important as the platform. Yes, your column and your efforts are worth something and getting paid is a good idea. But so is getting seen. I received a small stipend for each column, which added up state by state. I’m not paid for how much time I’ve put in but have been rewarded by experience and sharing while getting to know readers.
When my friends look out over the rolling hills and the Blue Ridge mountains, they say “This is beautiful.” Yes, but I say, farm work and its lessons about life and death are even more beautiful. That’s what “Ann’s Lovin’ Ewe” is about. As you meet my sheep and family, come learn with me about being a lovin’ ewe.
That’s my compelling column argument to write right now.
— Ann Marie Stewart
Ann Stewart’s award-winning first novel Stars in the Grass won the Christy for best debut novel (2017) and was nominated for Best Debut Novel in the Inspys. She originated AMG’s Preparing My Heart series, writes the column “Ann’s Lovin’ Ewe” for The Country Register and blogs for Mentoring Moments. Her second novel Out of the Water was just released on October 19, 2021. She’s now at work on a memoir about her grandparents’ 1929 escape from Russia where they had to leave behind a child. Ann and her husband live on a sheep farm in Northern Virginia and enjoy visits from their recently graduated daughters. When she’s not writing, Ann is teaching voice, watching UVA Basketball, or waterskiing.