Seated in her home office in East Northport, author and educator Lois W. Stern recalled spending many contented hours as a kid in Huntington reading her parents’ Reader’s Digests.
It inspired a passion for her own writing.
"I loved the section with uplifting stories most of all," she said. "I’ve got that Pollyanna thing in me."
A reading and resource room instructor who retired in 1996 after 21 years of teaching, Stern also eagerly embraces new challenges and maintains that "age is a number." Hers, she added, "is unlisted."
Stern created her own way to spread good news while helping writers to find and share their authorial voices. In 2012, she launched Tales2Inspire, which she describes as an "authors-helping-authors project."
T2I, as it’s known for short, is built around an annual contest. Writers submit essays based on a given theme — Timeless Memories and Personal Awakenings are two past examples. The contest is free to enter, but payoffs can be invaluable.
"This contest can give people the confidence that what they have to say is important," said past winner Adrienne Drake, 72, a retired doctor in Mission Viejo, California. "It’s very supportive of people who are pretty new at exposing their humility or their humanity or their vulnerability."
To date, 14 Tales2Inspire books have been published, including 13 printed volumes and an e-book. Each book features 12 to 15 stories. The deadline for submissions for this year’s contest is Sept. 10; the theme is Turning the Page.
Although the thematic umbrella changes, the tone is always upbeat, inspirational and motivational. Pollyanna would approve.
"I wanted to create some good-news books, collections filled with true stories to uplift our spirits and provide us with some well-needed positive energy," Stern has noted.
Stern’s classroom experience with students informs her work with authors as she coaches them and offers suggestions to strengthen stories in terms of clarity, point of view, structure and emotional payoff.
"I wanted to extend a helping hand to writers who had a great story to share, but whose writing skills might still need refinement," she said.
"Lois is a tireless coach," said Linda Bond, 72, a former elementary school teacher who retired in 2001 and lives with her husband of 52 years in Belleville, Ontario. "Lois checks in and continues to champion her authors."
Bond met Stern through a writers’ group while they were both in Florida and has "been writing seriously" since 2014. Stern has played a role in that development.
"Being one of the T2I winners was the spark that took me from being an aspiring writer to an author," said Bond, whose published essay, "The Swan," concerned game-changing lessons from nature — specifically, that unruffled bird.
"That's a very big and important new career move for a writer," said Bond, who said that everyone in her life knows that Monday is her day to write — no ifs, ands or buts.
Rod DiGruttolo, 76, a former auto mechanic in Sarasota, Florida, who retired in 2014 and now leads a local writers group, is a T2I winner for a story about his grandfather. Like Drake, he pitches in with the editing of the T2I volumes.
"I've been blessed to be able to help writers smooth out some of the rough edges on their stories," said DiGruttolo, who has self-published a collection of personal stories and two adventure novels.
"Of course, it gets my name out there," he added. "People may recognize it when they’re looking for books."
Stern’s dedication to nurturing writers’ voices is informed by firsthand experience. She knows how hard it can be for beginning writers to break into the field.
The wake-up call came after she wrote "Sex, Lies and Cosmetic Surgery," a book drawn from interviews with patients, nurses and physicians about a deeply personal topic.
Based on feedback from publishing professionals as well as doctors who read her manuscript, Stern was optimistic about getting her work on bookshelves through a mainstream publishing house.
"I knew I had a good book," said Stern. "I got a New York agent, and she felt the same way." Then, an unexpected plot twist.
"The story that came back was they had a lot of conversation about the book, but publishers all passed," Stern said. "They felt I didn’t have enough of an author ‘platform.’ I didn't even know what that word meant at the time."
Long story short: Brand names matter.
Stern wanted her hard work to be read, so she went the self-publishing route. She paid a print-on-demand company to publish the book as well as another one on a related topic.
A light bulb lit. "It occurred to me there’s got to be a lot of talented writers who deserve to be given a chance. And that’s what was really the catalyst for me starting Tales2Inspire," which, she added, is self-published through Amazon.
"There was a time when anything that was self-published was looked down upon," Stern said. "That’s changed. So many people have now self-published it has become a much more competitive field."
Precise figures are elusive, according to the Alliance of Independent Authors, an association for self-publishing authors headquartered in London. But there’s evidence that self-publishing is a robust and growing industry.
A growing business
Between 2012, when the group was formed, and April 2020, "author membership grew 20% year on year," said founder and co-director Orna Ross. The most recent growth rate jumped to 35%. About 40% of the alliance’s members are in the United States.
T2I contest submissions come from far-flung locales — Australia, Canada, South Africa, England, Scotland and across the United States. Stern said she typically receives more than 100 entries. In phase one of judging, she reads each story and chooses those worthy of further consideration.
In phase two of the process, selected stories are submitted anonymously for consideration by three T2I writers. They rank the stories on how much they inspire, writing skill and the use of supporting photographs and materials. Judges may also give a suggestion on how to improve the story.
"I don’t know of any writing contest where writers get that second chance," said Stern.
Drake seized an opportunity for such a do-over in her story about a personal awakening. Stern told Drake that the writing was very fine but suggested that she pump up her presence in her story. She did. She went on to be a T2I winner.
"In her critiques, Lois is kind and nonjudgmental, but shoots from the hip and hits target," said Drake, who has had three essays published in T2I books.
For Stern, who’s married to her college sweetheart (she attended Barnard College; he went to Columbia University) and has two sons and four grandchildren, T2I feels like an extension of teaching, a career she loved.
"I sort of wasn’t ready to retire," she said. "I was very ambivalent. One of my colleagues said, ‘You have a lot of interests. Just relax, something’s going to fall into place for you.’"
And it has. Word by word. Author by author. Tale by tale. Inspiration by inspiration.
"It’s rewarding," she said. "It fulfills a need in me."
To learn more about Lois W. Stern's Tales2Inspire contest and books, visit tales2inspire.com.