Once in 2013, and then again in 2015, I hosted a retreat for writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and other fabulous people who have an amazing dream. Back then, the idea was to get a group of people together for a weekend to explore the possibilities of making their dreams come true. People came to Nebraska from across the United States, and from Canada. Together, through workshops, keynote speakers, high ropes courses and zip line challenges, attendees examined their capacity for risk, the availability of their emotional (and other) resources, and the depths of their desires. There was a lot of down time, an amazing amount of laughter, and really delicious food. Lasting and beautiful friendships were formed.
At the end of the weekend, each participant was equipped to take the next step in a writing project, starting a business, enrolling in a class, or some other practical step which would help make their dream a reality. Of course, a few people decided to put their dream on hold, or pursue a different course altogether. Even that was forward progress, and it was good.
The beauty of those retreats is that people who do the same kinds of things, have the same kinds of interests, and are motivated by the same kinds of passions, were all together in one place. Many people who write, or create art, or are trying to get their business off the ground work in isolation. We wake up and shuffle or sprint to our home office, or we walk or drive to the local coffee shop where we make our way through our to-do lists and meet our deadlines, all by ourselves. Many, like me, are introverts, so we don’t necessarily mind being alone. As I often say to my daughter, “I am my own best company.”
But, while I may thrive in quiet, with only my thoughts to keep me company, my creativity often takes a hit when I fail to engage in face-to-face interactions on a regular basis with like-minded people. Once my creativity starts to wane, my productivity is not far behind. Before I know it, I’m out of ideas and searching for motivation. In those moments, I want to recapture the energy and camaraderie we experienced at those two retreats.
One day, two friends and I were talking about the craft of blogging, and of writing, and working from home. We sat in my living room and we said things like, “Do you follow so-and-so on Instagram? She takes the most beautiful pictures,” and “Did you read so-and-so’s post the other day? She is SO funny! I LOVE reading her!” We realized a lot of our favorite writers, artists, and entrepreneurs lived within driving distance and—right then and there—we decided it would be fun to try and get a group together to share insights, swap ideas, and encourage each other in our work. On that day, our group was born. Out of a desire to support and encourage others whose work is similar to our own, we created a Facebook group, and invited local writers, artists, and entrepreneurs to join. Then, we set a date for our very first gathering.
Now, the group meets once a month. Each month, one member of the group hosts the gathering in their home, while another member leads the conversation. Our monthly sessions are like a mini-retreat, complete with keynote speaker and an evening away from home with a group of like-minded friends. We bring snacks and beverages, we talk about our current projects, and we learn a new approach or strategy for getting things done. Every time we’ve been together, we have an aha moment that adds a creative spark to the same-old-same-old of our daily work. Themes of our member-led talks have included things like: streamlining your workload, using Pinterest to boost your business, and writing in the margins. In our last session, I learned from Trina the importance of correctly tagging the images I use in my post so that, should someone pin something to Pinterest from my blog, the caption that shows up actually makes sense and doesn’t just say something random like, “IMG_1776.JPG.”
Crafting a Mini-Retreat
If you find yourself isolated and in need of a creative spark, consider getting a group of local creatives together for your own mini-retreats. Even if you only know one or two others in your community, don’t let that stop you. Start with them. Together, you’ll discover others who will join you. Social media makes it easy to find and gather a local group of people who can encourage one another. Here are a few steps you can take to start your own group, with very little risk or obligation:
- Create a Facebook group and invite people to join. A Facebook group is a great place to gauge interest and determine the interests of the group. You may discover a Facebook group is all you really need to share the best local places to write, or to take photographs, or to buy art supplies for a particular project. Solid friendships are formed in Facebook groups and great advice and strategies are shared there, too. You’ll know pretty quickly, when to try to get the group together face-to-face. When you’re ready…
- Determine a time and place to meet. Yep. It’s that easy! You’ll be surprised to find how eager people will be to get together, face-to-face. If you’re hosting, there really is nothing you need to do, other than provide the space. Invite members of the group to bring snacks and beverages and make sure your housemates know company is coming.
- Figure out the format that works best for your group. It may be enough just to get together. The first few times our group met, we just sat around and talked. We were never at a loss for words, and we really enjoyed each other’s company. The more we got to know each other, the more we realized the wealth of experience, insight, and wisdom we’d marshaled, simply by getting together. We had so much we could learn from each other, so we decided to try to focus our attention on one member’s expertise, each time we get together. As a result, we now have one person who takes the lead in guiding our conversations. We still chase rabbit trails, and that’s perfectly fine, but we always come away with practical strategies to implement right away. These strategies always make us better at what we do.
Weekend retreats and conferences are still really wonderful tools for improving your craft, sparking creativity, and boosting productivity. But, there’s no need to wait an entire year or two for the next opportunity to roll around. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover the wealth of knowledge that exists right in your own community! Our monthly mini-retreats have become the perfect shot in the arm I need each month, to keep me inspired and encourage me when I doubt my ability or progress. You can get the same kind of boost, simply by connecting with the creative people, right where you are.
How do you ignite your creative spark?
We can do anything we set our minds to. I believe this, quite strongly. Given the proper circumstances (i.e. time, motivation, training, money, etc.), we can reach goals we never thought possible. However, I also believe this: It helps to know what we’re good at, the areas in which we don’t particularly excel, and the things we don’t mind letting someone else achieve instead of us.
For example: I am not a good photographer. My son is an excellent photographer. So are my friends, Michelle, Khara, Emily, and Curt. If I had the desire, I could probably invest in a few photography classes to hone my skills, but my desire quotient is sorely lacking. Thank goodness for websites that make it their aim to provide people like me with images to enhance our storytelling.
Ever since we launched my new website design, I’ve been using stock photos to accompany my blog posts. I wish I had done this ages ago! Here’s what I appreciate most about using stock images:
- I now feel zero pressure to look for photo opportunities where I will never see them but where other people do.
- I don’t spend a bunch of time editing photos I’ve taken with photo editing skills I do not possess.
- I enjoy admiring the beautiful selection of images provided by stock photo websites. These sites are like Instagram on steroids, and everyone knows Instagram is my favorite.
- I don’t beat myself up for not taking the kind of high quality images I desire to match the aesthetic goals I have for this site. Other people, who take better photographs than I, have kindly made their images available for people like me, and for that I am grateful.
Back in the day, if someone mentioned stock images, I’d cringe a bit on the inside, envisioning cheesy, clearly-posed images of happy-go-lucky people in color-coordinated polo shirts. But things have changed and the options available to writers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, and other fabulous people like you have definitely improved and expanded. If you’re looking for a few high-quality stock photo websites, here are my top three favorites:
Unsplash offers, “Free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos.” The images are beautiful, there are many of them, and images are uploaded with a frequency I can’t keep up with. All this adds up to incredible variety in a plethora of categories. Find an assortment of potential images using their search function, then download to your computer, directly from the Unsplash website.
2. CreateHer Stock
CreateHer Stock provides stunning images of black and brown women, men, and children, along with other lifestyle images. I subscribed to the $7/month VIP membership. Each month, I receive an email with a downloadable package of images based on a theme. However, you can find plenty of beautiful images by using CreateHer Stock’s free image gallery.
3. Death to the Stock Photo
Death to the Stock Photo continues to evolve. It was the very first stock image site I used. DTSP has an incredible (and constantly growing) selection of all sorts of free images and I use them a lot. Sign up, and receive free image packages each month, in your email inbox. You can also register to receive writing prompts! When I think of DTSP, “artistic” is the word that comes to mind.
One more option is Mopho.to. Sign up to receive a package of seven images via email, every Monday. I haven’t used any of these images yet, but it’s a good selection to consider, and it’s free!
Of course, you can use stock images for many different reasons, including marketing, social media, newsletter headers, and more. What resources do you use, and why do you like them?
In other news…
Things are taking shape for our Fall session of Forward. Forward is this community’s online book club. Together, we read books which help to stretch our thinking and broaden our horizons, often by exposing us to different cultures and world views. This Fall, we’ll be reading Healing the Heart of Democracy: the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. We’re also working together to make sure everyone who wants to participate, can. To this end, we invite you to consider donating to help purchase books for those who may not be able to swing the cost this time around. Just click the button below and give an amount that seems best to you. We’ll match your donation with a reader who needs help obtaining a copy of the book, and we will give away books until the money runs out—no questions asked. This community comes through, and donations have been stacking up, so thanks to everyone who has clicked through to donate to the cause. Here’s the link:
One more thing! I know I promised to post a reading plan for this next book club session, and it’s coming! I’ve got it nailed down and it will post on September 2. Thanks for your patience!
I started blogging in 2008, and this is the first time I’ve participated in a Blog Hop. I don’t even really know what a Blog Hop is, but I’ve been having fun chatting with Karrilee Aggett, my blogging cohort, who invited me to join the fun. Karrilee and I got in some good (although not enough) chat time at the Faith and Culture Writers conference in Oregon earlier this year. I love her. Plain and simple.
This particular Blog Hop is especially timely for me, because I can fill you in a bit on what’s going on with the whole Book Thing, and I get to introduce you to some bloggers you might not know, but who mean a great deal to me.
So, the idea is that I answer four questions and then link to three bloggers who will answer these same questions next week on their websites, and then they will introduce you to three more bloggers. It’s like a chain letter. Without the curse.
1. What am I writing or working on? Well, I’m supposed to be working on a book. And I have been. Or, I was. I worked on it for a good couple of weeks, and then, life happened—all good stuff—and the book writing took a back seat for a while. But, I’m back in the saddle, getting ready to type out some more words, on my way to somewhere in the neighborhood of 55,000 words when it’s all said and done.
Here’s something I found out about writing a book: One of the most dreaded questions is, “What’s your book about?” I’ve asked around, and this seems to be the general feeling among many writers. Not all of them. Some writers have a sixty second elevator pitch with complete details about the summary of their book. But for me, having someone ask that question makes me dizzy and my heart starts skipping beats.
“But, didn’t you write a proposal?” That’s what people ask me when they find out I don’t really have an answer to that first, dreaded question. And yes. Yes I did write a proposal. But still.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? This is actually something the publishers want you to address in your proposal. They want to know how your approach to a particular subject stands out from the rest.
So, to answer this question, let me just say I have no idea what I’m doing. I really don’t. I truly have stumbled into this whole book-writing thing. In other words, I’m no expert. I do, however, believe in the value of my unique story. I haven’t always believed in it. I’d go into Barnes and Noble, look around at all the books and utter this grammatically incorrect statement: “What in the world does anyone need a book written by me for?” And, honestly, I don’t know that anyone does. But what I do know is no one can tell my story the way I can. No one sees the world the way I do. No one else is me. And that’s saying something.
3. Why do I write what I do? It depends. First of all, I like to write. I have always written, and I think it’s something I’ll always do. It’s more than a hobby and, while I may go for long stretches of not writing, I always return. The main reason I write is because I can’t help it. So, sometimes I write to enjoy the process of creating something. Sometimes I write to figure out what’s going on in my head and heart (most of that is private and rarely sees the light of day). One day, when I was still working full-time for an insurance company, my coworker suggested I start a blog, and that’s how this whole thing got started.
But then there’s the other writing.
Going There: I write about race and culture and ethnicity in the North American church because I believe we can do better. I believe, of all the institutions and clubs and networks and organizations in the United States, the church should be leading the charge when it comes to diversity. And not because it’s a nice project, but because the greatest of these is love. I don’t always want to write about these things because, really, who wants to read that stuff? But, I can’t seem to escape it. Every time I think I’ve written my last word on the subject, it’s as if God says, “No. Not yet. The conversation isn’t over.” So, I’ll keep writing about race as long as I’m able.
The High Calling: I love The High Calling. That community stretches me and encourages me to be thoughtful about my faith and about the way I work and live my life in the world. I get to serve as managing editor for The High Calling, which means I have the privilege of working with a team of incredible editors. A few years ago, I tried to leave The High Calling. I wasn’t sure it was the right place for me. I wasn’t sure I fit in. So, I took six weeks off. The amazing thing is, in those six weeks, I realized many of my deepest online connections had been birthed right there in The High Calling network. I deeply believe God doesn’t look at our lives and work as either secular or sacred. He hasn’t built up that wall between the different roles and seasons of our lives. He takes great delight in the rhythms of work, rest, and play, and to God, all of it is holy. I like being part of a team helping to get that message out to the world.
Incourage: Shortly after I started blogging, Stephanie Bryant contacted me with an invitation to write for a new website called (in)courage. I spent many days, praying and fasting to see if I should accept her invitation. No. That’s not true at all. I said “Yes!” right away! Back then, I was timid and shy and pretty much afraid of my own shadow. It was a season in my life and for our family where everything that could go wrong was going wrong, and I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I really didn’t think I had anything to offer anyone. But the (in)courage sisterhood is an amazing force and the gates of Hell are no match for this team of women who wear the word “encourage” as a mandate. Those women built me up, prayed me through, washed my feet (literally), and hugged me back to life. I very much believe I would be lost without them. Every month, I get to write something at (in)courage that I hope helps breathe a little bit of life into women who might need a sweet dose of the medicine those brave women gave me when I needed it most.
And then, there’s The Book, which is just happening. I can’t explain it. I’m not in control of it. For a very long time, it scared me nearly to death. I didn’t want to talk about it. I thought if I didn’t mention it, it would go away. But then, I told you about the thing, and your response was overwhelming. You unlocked something in me. I can feel when you’re praying for me and for the words. I can tell when you’re thinking about me and sending good vibes for the project in my direction. It’s strange and beautiful. What I want you to know is when I sit down to write The Book, it’s been an incredibly intimate experience of dancing with God, who actually is really good at creating things. I can’t explain it, but I really love it. And I am deeply, deeply indebted to you for your partnership on this adventure. Thanks for cheering for me, and praying for me, and sending good thoughts my way.
4. How does my writing process work? People who know me know I’m not very good when it comes to processes. I’m more of an idea person. I don’t have a five year plan, and I’m quite comfortable with that. I think God works with us the way he made us, you know? So, for me to try to do the thing where you look at a deadline and then work back from that, creating a writing schedule on a calendar, or a plan on a spreadsheet would just about kill me with anxiety. I’ve tried that, because I thought it was “the way” writers did things. But, the truth is writers do things the way we do things. Whatever works for you is what works. And, what works for me is waking up each day, stretching my toes to the far reaches of the bedsheets and asking, “Is this a writing day?” Some days the answer is yes, and other days the answer is no.
On a writing day, I write about 1,800 words. I set the timer in the kitchen for one hour and, when the timer goes off, I get up and ride my bike or run on the treadmill for about fifteen minutes (because writing is not an aerobic activity). Then, I set the timer for another hour and write some more. I listen to Pandora (smooth jazz) and try to drink a lot of water. At lunch, I take a peek at Facebook and Twitter, eat a sandwich or a bowl of cereal, and then I set the timer for another hour and write some more.
Sometimes, when I think it’s not a writing day, I’ll be minding my business—pulling weeds, taking a walk, shopping for sandals—and I’ll get an overwhelming urge to write. On those days, I write through the night, into the early morning hours, and I love every minute of it.
But that’s just me. What does your writing process look like?
And now, let me introduce you…
David Rupert is one of the fabulous editors at The High Calling. A few years ago, David and I took the same class at a writing retreat at Laity Lodge. We spent three days in a room as part of a class, overlooking the Frio River, and I think we both needed that experience. David is funny and kind and thoughtful, and I’m honored to call him my friend. Here’s his “official” bio:
David Rupert is a government communications professional. Working and writing from Colorado, he is also a community editor at The High Calling. His next book, Disconnected, will be released next month. Read more from David at RedLetterbelievers.com.
Velynn and I met at the Faith and Culture Writers Conference in Oregon and I was immediately smitten. Velynn served as the emcee for the event, and she told her story of being hesitant the first time she attended a writer’s group where she was the only person of color in the room. Velynn is beautiful and brave and I’ve adopted her as my little sister in the Pacific Northwest.
In her own words: “I love BIG hair, BIG parties, BIG dreams and the BIG God that found me. I am a wife, mother, mentor, sister, friend and daughter. I come from a BIG family, church and community. I have a very BIG heart and a very BIG laugh.”
Tamika showed up in my Twitter feed—all joyful and fun and inspiring. She and I are just getting to know each other, but, like me, I’m pretty sure you’ll be drawn to her adventurous spirit and love for encouraging you to celebrate you. Tamika and her family live in Austria.
From Tamika’s “about” page: “I am a word weaving, doodle drawing, picture painting adventurer! My life’s mission is to travel the world reminding others just how amazing God created them to be. I hope to encourage and inspire others to rise up to become just who God designed them to be.Words are my air, food is my art, music is my heartbeat and people are my passion.”
I do hope you’ll visit these friends of mine and share in the comments about your own writing projects. What’s going on these days, in your journal and on your laptop?
In middle school (wait! don’t click away!), my English teacher’s name was Mrs. Goodman. She was stylish and she knew her stuff. There is a lot about Mrs. Goodman that I don’t remember, because I really didn’t think she knew much about me. I figured I was just another student in her class. She didn’t play favorites. She was tough and her voice was raspy and I could never reconcile her tough-as-nails exterior with her sleek and fashionable outfits. Sometimes, I remember, she wore her dark hair in a bun on top of her head. She wore slacks and skirts which, in retrospect, I realize must have been tailored to fit—the lines were so perfect and the cut just right. And, she wore blouses and jewelry—bracelets and rings and earrings—that added just the right amount of class in a world of teachers who wore sensible shoes and polyester pantsuits everyday.
Mrs. Goodman may have been my first fashion icon.
One day (I’m not sure how it happened—a letter to my parents? a talk with Mrs. Goodman after class?), I found out there had been an essay contest and Mrs. Goodman had submitted an essay I wrote. As luck would have it, I won that contest, which meant I’d be having lunch at the Silverdome where I’d receive an award from the Governor of Michigan.
It was the first time I remember anyone taking notice of my writing. I wasn’t really sure what to think about that. Writing wasn’t anything to which I gave a lot of thought. I just…wrote. I figured everyone wrote. I thought everyone had a journal and that they filled pages and pages with their thoughts and imaginations, way into the early morning hours. Writing was like breathing for me and so, the thought that anyone should get an award for breathing seemed odd to me. The thought that a teacher would take note of my writing and submit an essay of mine without my knowledge because she saw something in me that meant something special to her? Well, I had no frame of reference for something like that.
I have no idea what I wrote in that essay. I don’t remember if I read from it at the awards ceremony, or if I simply accepted my certificate, ate my lunch, had my picture taken with the Governor and the other essay contestants and went home. I remember I wore my favorite outfit, and my wedge heels, and I hoped I looked as stylish as my teacher. And I remember—along with my mom and dad—Mrs. Goodman sat at that round table with the cloth napkins and the white tablecloth, right next to me. In the pictures my parents gave me this week while I visited them, you can see Mrs. Goodman, talking to me in one picture, and then you can see the back of her head, watching as I accepted my award.
It’s a big deal to have someone believe in you enough to make the Governor take notice.
Over the years, the role Mrs. Goodman played in my life has become more and more significant to me. I honestly didn’t appreciate it, and I couldn’t really comprehend it, back in middle school. But, having Mrs. Goodman believe in me, when I was in middle school is one of those Ebenezer moments in my life. I didn’t realize it, then, but I’m pretty sure God was behind the scenes in that whole thing.
Because, after I started writing on this little blog, a strange thing happened. People started reading this blog. And then, people started saying things that included phrases like, “You should write a book…” and I kept thinking those people were kind, but that they didn’t really know what they were talking about. Even when actual authors with published books and people who publish actual books began to talk to me about writing a book, I found it difficult to give myself over to any ideas other than thinking they were simply being nice.
It’s not that I had any great dreams of writing a book. I didn’t. I don’t. But, when people start saying things like that to you, you begin to wonder where, in the midst of the kind and sincere words of encouragement, is the truth? And for me, my mind kept going back to Mrs. Goodman who, without my knowledge, submitted my essay to a writing contest, back in 1978. Way before any talk of a blog and before bloggers started getting book contracts and before I’d ever heard a word about acquisitions editors.
When people started talking to me about writing books and things, and I wondered if they were simply being kind, what I started to remember, all these years later, is that Mrs. Goodman submitted my essay, and my essay won first prize in the whole state of Michigan, and that I sat at a round table in the Silverdome, in the same room with the Governor. “You’re a good writer,” Mrs. Goodman said to me. And today, when my mom stood by me as I sat on her sofa, typing away on this laptop of mine, and my mom handed me four pictures of that day in May, 1978, it was just what I needed: my mom and dad reminding me that, all those years ago, someone—besides the people who couldn’t help but cheer for me because of our shared DNA—believed something big for me, and that it was okay to step through that door to see how this whole thing plays out.
Who are the people that believe in you, and see something in you that you don’t see in yourself? How can you let someone know you believe in them?
This is the strangest thing, and so I figured the best thing is just to come right out and say it because, clearly things around here are different and it would be foolish for me to keep on going along as if nothing has changed when we all know everyone sees right through a smokescreen.
Last week, I signed a contract with Baker Books. I promised them I’d write a whole bunch of words, and they promised some stuff, too. It’s very surreal to me, and not something I completely understand, yet. Except that I know it’s terrifying. And also exhilarating.
And, I know I have no idea what I’m doing.
In fact, it was H who finally brought the contract to me while I was sitting on the front porch, occupying myself with other things. He waited until I’d signed the contract, and then he took it to the post office and mailed it for me. At the end of the day, when he came home from running errands, he handed me a tracking slip from the post office and said, “This is for you to keep track of the contract. To make sure it gets there.”
It got there. I still have that tracking slip on my dresser. I’ll probably keep it for a while.
So, naturally, I have writer’s block. Oh, not when it comes to writing Facebook status updates, or witty captions on Instagram. Nope. I don’t have a problem there. It’s the other writing that’s all gone. Just like that. I could probably write a recipe, or something like this post, which doesn’t have anything at all to with what I’m supposed to be writing.
I imagine this is normal. I don’t know. This is all new to me. But I wanted to let you know. Because chances are, you’ll notice some inconsistencies here in this space over the next few months, while I try to get a handle on all of these things. Or, better yet, to not get a handle on all these things. You know. To try to let go and not control this latest adventure in which God seems to have me enrolled.
Really, this is one of those classic cries for help. That’s the honest truth. I mean, if, over the next few months, you come by here, expecting to read something new, and all you see is a photo and a bible verse from last Sunday, I guess I’m suggesting you might possibly consider it a sign that I probably could benefit from some positive energy, or good thoughts, or even a prayer or twelve or three hundred twenty-one.
I’m quite confident God considers this akin to a date night or something, where, in the end, he and I will be even more intimately connected to one another. For my part, I consider it more like one of those much-reviled truth walks from middle school youth group, where I’d be blindfolded and led through the woods—branches slapping me in the face, my feet slipping out from under me on the wet leaves, my toes and shins crashing into boulders and rocks in the path.
I’m trusting I’ll be better for it when it’s all said and done. I’m praying my poor husband can stand to live with me along the way (I’m already proving to be quite a piece of work—at least, if I were H, that’s what I’d be thinking about me, right about now). But mostly, I’m counting on God to have this figured out, and to keep me from getting caught up in the wrong things.
I’m trusting he knows me so very well, and that he hasn’t invited me on an adventure intended for someone else. I mean, from where I sit, it feels as if it’s absolutely someone else’s assignment, and that I received the wrong memo. But, doors keep opening, and I’ve learned to keep going through the ones that open. And, even if it all ends in disaster, and it turns out I did get it wrong after all, I’m trusting God to redeem even that and to keep checking my heart for me; to keep holding up a mirror to my soul and reminding me what he sees when he looks at me.
For Baker Books’ sake, and for Bill Jensen, my agent, I am trusting God to come through. They have been in my corner, enthusiastic and unwavering, seeing something in me I can’t see for myself. They are the exact human partners I need in this thing.
And, I need you. I really do.
OK. So that’s what’s going on over here. I wanted you to know, because none of this would be happening if it hadn’t been for you. You read stuff here, and you share it, and you engage with the words I write, and that means more than you will ever know. I’ll keep trying to tell you how much you mean to me, but I’ll fall so far short. I hope you can hear my heart.
My terrified, trembling, clueless, and grateful heart.
And, I hope I find all the words God has chosen especially and specifically for you.
Ever since I’ve known Michelle, she’s been working at trying to publish her memoir. Today, you can drive to your local Barnes and Noble, or click over to Amazon and order Michelle’s book for yourself! It’s Michelle’s dream come true, and I’m over the moon with excitement! I’ve been reading all the posts and, this morning I wrote my own five-star review of the book. In just a bit, Michelle and I are going to meet for breakfast, to celebrate the release of Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith. The day has finally arrived!
All these years I’ve known Michelle, I never read one word of her book until late last year, when it was time for Michelle to reach out to people who would write an endorsement for her book. When I actually held that advance copy of the book in my hands, I could not put it down. It’s the book we’ve been waiting for. It’s funny, and honest, and gritty, and beautiful.
Years ago, I read Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. It was the first Christian book I’d ever read that made me realize God wasn’t waiting for me to get my act together before he would love me. Reading Blue Like Jazz, I realized I wasn’t alone in struggling with belief and faith and church and all of the stuff that goes with all of that. Michelle’s book is the same. It’s a book that says, “Hey, you can have faith and doubt at the same time, and God’s not at all disenchanted with you if you do.” And also? The book is hysterical! You will laugh out loud. But, you will also be captivated by Michelle’s beautiful writing, and her ability to take the everyday, ordinary events of life, and point to God in them.
Today, the party is over at Michelle’s place. She’s got lots of giveaways you won’t want to miss. So, put your dancing shoes on, and click over to join the fun!
I met Kimberlee two years ago, at Laity Lodge. We didn’t get much time to talk while we were there, and I came away from that retreat wishing I’d been able to carve out more time with Kimberlee. So, when I arrived home, I ordered a copy of her first book, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year.* The description of this book on Amazon.com, ends like this: “In a word, The Circle of Seasons offers you structure–a simple and traditional way of building your life around your faith, rather than the other way around.” It’s true. The book is beautiful and, if you’re looking for some quiet encouragement on your journey with God, I highly recommend it.
As you’ll see in this interview, Kimberlee’s experience with that book dovetails into the next phase of her spiritual journey—a journey which included pregnancy, the birth of twins, postpartum depression, and her slow return to solid ground. It’s this part of the journey Kimberlee shares in Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis.*
You’ll enjoy the conversation here today. Kimberlee talks about the church calendar, depression, and faith. She also talks about the power of community, and gives insight into the writing life, handling rejection, and more. And, at the end of the interview, you’ll have the opportunity to receive a free copy of Kimberlee’s book.
You begin the book like this: “The church year is the lens through which I see my life…” Can you tell us more about that? How did this particular perspective come to be, for you?
My first book is about the church year. Writing that book clarified and solidified a number of the disparate pieces of the church’s calendar that I’d been observing rather piecemeal over the years and helped me to see it more seamlessly, as an integrated whole. The process of writing that book and then living out the convictions it deepened in me has shaped my vision. What I meant when I wrote those words in Cracking Up is that I tend to look for connections between the church calendar and what is happening in my life. The church’s telling of time adds depth and dimension to my own small story.
Beneath this story of postpartum faith, there runs a river of the story of your previous book. As you tell it, that book was unsuccessful. Why was it important to you to weave these two stories together?
The story of my pregnancy and postpartum depression is inseparable from my vocation as a writer. It is the latter vocation that made me not want to have a third child—I thought I couldn’t mother three children well and also write as much as or in the ways that I wanted to. And I was right. I haven’t been able to. The year leading up to my pregnancy and the year that followed were years of intense professional pain—mounds of rejection letters, poor sales of my book, mounting fear that I had misheard my calling, or that economic and family pressure would make pursuing it unsustainable. The life I’d imagined for myself—as a writer and teller of stories—was beginning to implode. Throw a baby or two into that already tumultuous mix, and you get a big bang of fear.
From my vantage point, the process of writing a book is an incredibly intimate endeavor. It seems to be a mining of the writer’s heart and soul and then, bravely, you present this story to the world in all its glory. In what ways, if any, was the writing of this book similar to the experiences you tell of growing, carrying, and delivering life (twins!) into the world? How has it been different?
Wow, Deidra, what a great question. I think mostly what this book did for me was allow me to go back to those dark days from the other side and look at them again without the fear to swallow me whole. Writing this book didn’t feel as much like gestating as writing my first book did. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it nearly wrote itself; all I did was show up, and out it poured. I still don’t know how I wrote it with four kids under the age of 9 hanging on my skirts. Actually, I do: For whatever reason, God wanted this book in the world, and it burned in me till I released it.
In the book, you tell the beautiful story of your faith community, and all the ways they surrounded you as you traveled through depression and despair. And of your husband, and your children, and your parents, and your sister, who walked the road with you, too. In many ways, they all seemed to rescue you, but (mostly) without crossing lines or boundaries. Is that an accurate assessment? Can you say more about the role of family and friends in our journeys of family, faith, and even failure?
I couldn’t have lived the months after my twins were born without my community. They were not and are not perfect people any more than I am, but when you’re in the depths of despair, you don’t need perfect; you just need company, someone to walk with you on the way—or clean your floors while you sleep for an hour. Except in a very few instances, I didn’t even mention in my book when boundaries got crossed.
Truth is, I don’t remember but a few of those instances; I was too deeply sunk in myself. The book is about that journey into the darkness of myself and back to the light of the living, and that is in some senses a journey we all take alone—no one can walk that road for us. But in another sense, I couldn’t have made the journey without the people who came alongside me to speak words of encouragement and provide tangible help: meals, house cleaning, babysitting.
And my husband in particular, who knew more than anyone else how deeply dark it was in my mind and how difficult, was a rock and a fortress.
I remember shortly after the twins were born, a friend was telling me about visiting her brother and his wife, who live in Chicago and are not church-goers, two weeks after the birth of their twins. When she showed up at their house, her brother was pacing the living room with one of the babies and muttering, “Two weeks. Two weeks! And only one f—ing lasagne!” I can’t even imagine that—we had food overflowing both our freezers and fresh meals delivered for months, and all I had to do was ask for some help (that’s the hard part, simply admitting that you need help), and voila, help arrived. I don’t know how people live without community. Rubbing up against other people can be super annoying—we’re all super annoying at times—but when life lands you flat on your back, you can’t do without all those annoying people coming around you to love on you and hold down the fort till you’re back on your feet.
Sorry! That’s a long answer to your question. I didn’t have time to write a short one.
Throughout the book, you have chapters—some longer than others—of Grace Notes. These lists of things for which you’re grateful often brought me to tears. They were simple, everyday, ordinary blessings. Can you say a few words about the sacredness of the simple, the everyday, and the ordinary?
Oh Deidra, what a gift to me! Thank you for saying they moved you to tears. That is going into my Blue Day File. I’ve been an avid journaler since I received my first journal for my 9th birthday (we’re coming up on 30 years of journaling here in a few months!), and one of the gifts of journaling is that it is a record of the simple, ordinary things of life, a way of remembering the sacredness, as you say, of the everyday.
Another gift of journaling is that if I know I’m going to be writing something down, I’m more likely to pay attention to what’s going on around me, so I have something to write about, which keeps me more grounded in the present moment than I am prone to be (I’m highly distractible, and live way too much in my head).
The Grace Notes were all drawn straight from my journal. Sometimes, in those months, I was so exhausted, all I could do in my journal was make a list of my blessings—I needed to make those lists, because life seemed so hard, and the deeper the darkness got, the more desperately I needed to hang on to the graces of daily life.
We live in a culture that is all about Big. But most of life isn’t lived large. It’s lived in the daily, moment-by-moment, small duties of our work and our relationships, so it’s there, in the ordinary normal, that we’re going to find grace and goodness and delight, if we find it at all. I choose to find it.
OK. You have four children, and the youngest are twins, right? What’s an ordinary day like for you?
Well, ordinarily (and I say that with hesitancy because ordinary is often disrupted when you’re dealing with little people who have their own agendas), ordinarily, we get up and have tea and eat breakfast and do morning chores and pray, often not in that order. Two mornings a week I take my twins to preschool and come home to do math and history and literature and Latin with my two older kids (yes, we homeschool; because I’m bat-crap crazy, happily so, but crazy nonetheless). When the twins aren’t in preschool, I read our various books to my older two while the twins play with Legos or Duplos on the floor. Then my older two do independent work at their desks for 30-60 minutes, while I read or play with the twins.
Then we eat lunch. Usually after lunch the twins nap, Jack and Jane read quietly, and I either write or read or crash out with the twins; it depends on the day.
After quiet time, the kids play (or squabble) together, while I make dinner. Then it’s dinner, often with friends, which is a huge gift, these other adults in my children’s life, in my life. And then bedtime and the chaos that entails. Sometimes after the kids are in bed, I get to write or read a little more.
It sounds way more calm and organized than it actually is.
So, what’s your best advice for carving out time to write? When do you write, and where? What are your favorite writing tools (laptop, notebook, pen, tablet, etc.)?
I don’t know that I have great advice for carving out time to write. When I was working on my books, I hired babysitters to watch my kids so I could write. I’ve left my kids with my husband on Saturdays for months on end so I could write. I’ve stayed up way too late at night to write. I’ve squeezed writing in during their naps.
As for tools, I use a laptop for most of my work. But a pen and paper are also a significant part of my writing process. I hand write in my journal. When I write poetry, I always write it by hand first (probably because poems don’t come to me when I’m at a computer but when I’m out and about). When I’m stuck on a piece and can’t make headway, I go back to pen and paper. It’s how I learned to write, and even though I’m quite comfortable composing on a keyboard, I think hand-writing is still my native language.
What is your favorite book about writing? Why do you like it?
Oh mercy. Do I have to pick one? It would probably be Walking on Water*, by Madeleine L’Engle. I keep it on my writing desk, right beside my dictionary and my thesaurus and my vocabulary notebook (where I collect words). I like it because it was the first L’Engle book I read. (I was 20. I know. My childhood was rather deprived in terms of excellent books, though we did read The Wind in the Willows three times as a family, and A Secret Garden was my favorite book, until I read Anne of Green Gables at 14. But I didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time till I was 21.) But where was I? Oh, yes, reading Walking on Water at 20 when I was studying in England, the homeland of my spirit, gave me permission to own the dabbling I’d done in words all my life and call it art. It gave me a vision of Christian writing that wasn’t confined to Christian topics. It helped me see more deeply that all truth is God’s truth, and that the only way my writing would be Christian is if I were Christian. I believe that now with my whole soul, and it both encourages and frightens me.
And what about rejection? What would you say about that?
Get used to it? I’m not sure what else to say. It sucks. It hurts. It’s part of being a writer (or an actor or a singer or any number of creative careers). Don’t let it stop you. And don’t, whatever you do, let it define you. Don’t go all incurvatus in se (turned inward) in the face of it. Learn what you can from it, but ultimately it’s not the rejection that defines you as a writer (unless you let it—don’t let it!); it’s how you respond to the rejection. Are you going to curl up in a ball or are you going to keep your head raised and your arms wide to embrace whatever comes next? It’s the hardest part of being not just a writer but a human being: not letting our hurts define us, not letting them turn us in on ourselves. Jesus’ posture on the cross is one of embrace, arms wide to hug the world, and it’s the posture we’re called to as His followers, even (especially?) in the face of rejection.
What one thing do you want readers to know?
For this book, the one thing I wanted readers to know is that they’re not alone. If my book can provide solace and a sense of solidarity—a sense that oh thank God I’m not the only one—that would be enough. If it helped someone to see—really see—that God is present in the darkest of places and holding them, that would be—I don’t really have words for how great a gift that would be. And I am rarely wordless.
Kimberlee has graciously offered to give away a copy of Cracking Up to one of you! To be entered to win, please answer this question in the comments: How have you been rescued by the beauty of community?
Kimberlee Conway Ireton is the author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and the recently released memoir, Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis You can also find her words at Godspace, A Deeper Story, and Tweetspeak Poetry as well as on her own blog.
A wannabe connoisseur of tea and an avid reader, Kimberlee lives in Seattle with her husband, four kids, two cats, and more books than she can count.
I should be packing.
Tomorrow, I fly to New York City where I will meet up with my children and a few of the truly awesome people I’ve met through blogging. The internet really is amazing, isn’t it?
On Friday, I’ll be speaking at a Q Focus event called Women and Calling (it’s sold out, but you can stream it live and watch it in your pajamas!).
Remember how I took 31 days off from blogging? Have you noticed my slow return to this space? Yeah. I know. There was a day when my absence from this space would have freaked me out, even if no one else noticed I was missing.
If you are a blogger, you know there’s a lot of blogging wisdom that begins with words like these: “Always do this…” or “Never do that…” or “Write like this…” or “Never write about that…” or “You should post at least X times each week…” or…well…you know how it goes. Taking 31 days off has never made any list I’ve ever read.
Some people thought God would reveal an amazing Truth to me in those 31 days off. Maybe he did. I can’t be sure. We’ll see, right?
Just a few days before the end of my 31 days off, I headed downstairs to watch something on television. H and I had eaten dinner, and we’d had a fun conversation about something I can’t remember. I didn’t have a blog post to write, or link, or prep. In fact, I had an entire evening of nothing to do and on my way down the steps, I called over my shoulder to H, “Taking 31 days off from blogging is one of the best things God has ever told me to do!”
Those words were barely out of my mouth when I noticed a message in my inbox. I clicked on it and found a message inviting me to speak this Friday afternoon about…you guessed it…rest.
“I’m fascinated by you taking Oct ‘off’ from your blog and I’m wondering if you might be willing to share on the topic of REST within calling,” the messenger said.
So here’s what I know right now. God has a plan for each one of us. He’s not concerned about what the experts may say. He is the expert, and when we find a way to trust him, he always comes through. Always.
Has God been suggesting something to you that seems unconventional? What if you went ahead and gave it a try?
When I stood in the shower, the water ran itself in tributaries — slipping around my shoulder, gliding over the small of my back, and then traipsing over the curve of my hip. My flesh and bones mark time. The fullness in my hips and belly, mocking my attempts to tame them. Aches unravel beneath the rivulets of water; water I run hot. So hot, it makes my skin all splotchy red. Steam will hang in the air long after I’ve turned the faucet to off and H yells from the kitchen, “Did you save any hot water for me?”
I am lost in thought and giddiness — looking forward to a lunch date with a friend. We will linger over naan and mango chutney and mulligatawny soup. This friend of mine has a knack for calling at just the right time and — more often than not — into our conversation she weaves the words, “Hey, do you wanna go with me to…” So later today, we’ll have lunch. In the shower, I am rinsing Crabtree and Evelyn lather off my wrist when I realize she’s got a gift for this. For friendship.
Holley Gerth once said we sometimes build a wall around ourselves and then we wonder why we’re all alone. Behind the wall. It takes work to get out from behind walls like those. Climb over, crash through, dig a trench and squeeze your body underneath. Call out for help (God forbid — I know, I know). Accept the hand that’s offered through the crack in the mortar.
I turned 49 this year, and I’m still learning how to be a friend. Some days, I have to remind myself to pick up the phone. Write a note. Send an email. Ask for help. Let my guard down. Linger. Share my fears. Laugh until I can’t catch my breath. Trust you. Let you in.
Friendship is a gift and it is worth the risk of tearing down the wall and all the other things I use to try to keep it safe. And I say it’s a gift, but really…that word is nowhere close to being good enough. Friendship is light and life and disco music (or, maybe you prefer unicorns?). Contrary to what we may have thought, it can’t be bought. It can’t be sold.
In the restaurant, my friend and I sit in chairs across from each other, at the table in front of the plate glass window. This part of the restaurant is two steps higher than the rest of the room. So here we sit, sharing a platform. Eating naan. Spooning chutney. Sipping soup. It is utterly divine. The platform-sitting is not lost on me. You caught it, too, didn’t you? Isn’t this the best use of a platform? To set a table on it and invite your friends over for a meal?
I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is the thing worth protecting. This breaking of bread. This clinking of silverware against white, restaurant dishes. This friendship in front of a plate glass window.