Better Reads for New Moms…Because “How-to” Books Don’t Always Cut It

In this post I review the precious few “New Mommy Memoirs” I have found, with some comments on the dearth of such books.

If you’re a new mom, love to read, and need some support, you’re in luck…sort of…depending on what you’re looking for. If it’s advice or quick snapshots of daily life you seek, “How-to” tomes and mommy blogs abound. If, on the other hand, you just want a girlfriend with whom to commiserate and cuddle up with (perhaps your baby has failed to respond to the wisdom of Ezzo, Ferber, Pantley, or Sears), the pickings are slim. Nonetheless, here’s what I’ve found–the good with the mediocre–because sometimes “how-to” books just don’t cut it.

Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, Brooke Shields

down came the rainThis high-profile account of post-partum depression probably got published more for its author’s celebrity than her writing prowess, still, it’s a fascinating read to a first-time mom, or a first-time pregnant lady. (I read it about halfway through my pregnancy and was hooked.) If you want to know some of the emotional risks that motherhood brings, or if you are struggling with post-partum depression, this is a good read for you. Most memorable for me was Shields’s description of visualizing her baby flying through the air, hitting the wall, and sliding to the floor–yikes! I had some hard days with Sam, but thankfully never anything as drastic as Shields describes. I appreciate her honest admission of how she fantasized not only about her baby’s death, but her own. I hope you never deal with this serious malady, but if you do, read this book. And after you finish this depressing read…

Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay (and Other Things I Had to Learn as a New Mom), Stephanie Wilder-Taylor

sippy cupsSome humor for you! I stumbled upon this humorous collection of essays at a used book sale while three months pregnant, read it within the month, and recently reread certain chapters when my sleep deprivation was making me cry. If you, too, need to come up for a laugh from the never-ending demands of your baby, this book is a good choice. But Christian readers, beware. Like almost every secular comedian I know of, Taylor relies on some profanity and crassness to make her jokes. I wish I knew of a funny, clean, book on motherhood to recommend, but since I don’t, and you might really need comic relief, I offer this one. An interesting side note: Taylor makes numerous references to drinking in this 2006 book, and in the past year, I saw her featured on the Today Show for admitting she actually had a drinking problem. Sad, but good comedy always has an element of reality, doesn’t it? (Her second book on motherhood, which I will probably read at some point, is called Naptime Is the New Happy Hour.)

Signs of Life, Natalie Taylor

signs of lifeMaybe I shouldn’t include this book on a list of motherhood memoirs, because the top story here is a young widow grieving her dead husband…but the sub story is a young widow adjusting to new motherhood…so here you go. I actually picked this one up in 2011, before I planned on becoming a mother, to read about a young English teacher (which I was at the time) dealing with the freak accident death of her husband (which is one of my bigger fears in life). Then, I enjoyed Taylor’s strong writing voice and her many literary references (she derives comfort from literature like Christians derive comfort from the Bible)…but more recently, when I reread this book, I picked up on the common struggles of new motherhood. My favorite image from the book: she mentions a glob of jelly on her kitchen floor that she just can’t find time or energy to wipe up (no doubt due to both the exhaustion of grief and the exhaustion of new motherhood.) So true! If you are a mom who appreciates literature reflecting real life, you will appreciate Natalie Taylor’s take.

Double Time: How I Survived–and Mostly Thrived–the First Three Years of Mothering Twins, Jane Roper

double timeThis is the most forgettable memoir in the list, but if you are a new mother, and especially a mother of twins, you might still enjoy it. Unlike Shields’s life-threatening depression, Wilder-Taylor’s comic slant, or Taylor’s added challenge of being a single mother, Roper doesn’t bring anything new to the table, except for having to do double duty on feeding, diapering, and everything else mom-related. Roper is a writer a by trade, and no doubt thought she could get a book out of her twins, which is fine, because we all have a story to tell (and hey, I probably would’ve done the same). On a side note, Roper throws in her story of depression, which is purely clinical and responds well to medication, so not that interesting, but I appreciate this alternate, less serious description of the disease. My fun takeaway from the book: “twin-yang,” or the phenomenon of one twin acting great while the other one is a terror. My next-door neighbor with twin babies confirmed that this is a real condition:)

The Second Nine Months: One Woman Tells the Real Truth about Becoming a Mom. Finally. Vicki Glembocki

second nine months 2My favorite, by far! This is the book that new moms will relate to the most (I think). This is for the mom who is not suffering true post-partum depression, but who wonders, in those early months, if she made a mistake by having a baby. I wish I would’ve discovered this book back then, and not nine months into motherhood, but since Glembocki ends her story at her baby’s tenth month, I was right there with her on the back-end of her story, as her “devil baby,” Blair, becomes more human and lovable, and as Glembocki finally settles into her new role and finds rhythm in her new life.

I knew I had found the right book from one of her first scenes: she is strolling her new, three-week-young, screaming baby down the street, exploding at her husband over the phone that she needs help–please come home! She is trying to accomplish one thing that day–dry clean a comforter–just ONE THING, dang it, because nothing gets done anymore; but the baby is screaming and she is alone and has no help and no idea how to comfort her baby. I related to so many moments in this book, and I’m sure many other new moms will, too. I give this book my highest recommendation and urge you to buy it for yourself or a new mom in your life.

In Conclusion

Unfortunately, the “New Mommy Memoir” looks to be a largely untapped market, probably because new moms don’t have time, energy, or ambition to write more than a blog post here and there…and by the time they do, they’ve forgotten the “bad old days.” That’s why all of the books above, though they may not be “great” literary works, are important.

Though some are not very memorable, and a couple are not particularly well written, they might be invaluable to a new mom who doesn’t need more advice, but who just needs a girlfriend who’s gone before her. The best part about finding this girlfriend in a book? She’s available anytime, anywhere, no matter if you’re stuck in the house or your baby is stuck to your breast.

Yes, I’ve decided that anytime a writer-mom contributes to this genre, she gives a gift to other new moms. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ve found a new writing project to work on.

(Note: please don’t look for my “New Mommy Memoir” until Sam is in college. Just kidding. Maybe high school:)

Is There Such Thing as Too Honest?

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Most people agree that “Honesty is the best policy.” But as a writer and ministry leader who has made honesty her central message and MO, I wonder if it’s possible to sometimes be “too honest.” Not a few times as I’ve posted unflattering, embarrassing, content, I’ve wondered: am I hurting my influence by being so raw and real? After people read this, will they still look up to me?

I’ve found that honesty, at the level I go, can be hard to find in Christian writers, teachers, and leaders. Many I’ve observed in this group like to use honest illustrations and anecdotes…of other people’s struggles. Or, if the stories are first-person, they tend to remain on a safe, surface level. I once read an article by a Christian who used the analogy of scrubbing her floor to illustrate the filthiness in her heart. But she made no mention of what, exactly, was in her heart. “Scrubbing my dirty floor made me think of how God has to scrub my heart clean of sin. I thought, how much better if I kept it clean daily, instead of letting it all pile up?”

Illustrations of the gospel like this one don’t resonate with me. It’s not that they’re bad or untrue, it’s just that they’re so general, so vague so b-o-o-o-o-ring. Worst of all, illustrations like these are generally unhelpful when it comes to making real changes to behavior.

At the risk of assuming other humans think like I do, I would submit that humans long for authenticity. Especially when we’re talking about faith. If our sources of inspiration don’t hit close to home, addressing real issues we battle daily, they will be perceived as impotent, laughable, and even painful (because they minimize our struggles)—and they will be quickly abandoned.

That’s why I chose to be vulnerable in the memoir I wrote about discovering my new life in Christ.

It’s why I choose to be vulnerable almost every time I post on this blog.

I believe people are hungry for other people to relate to them—to say “I’ve been there, too. Look how screwed up I used to be, and how I still struggle sometimes. And yet, look what God was able to do with that mess!” I believe messages like this bring hope.

But what if I’m wrong? What if messages like this do the opposite? What if brutal honesty breeds distrust in God and disaffection for his “honest, messed-up followers?”

When leaders decide to be honest, this is a very real risk we take—the risk of our followers unsubscribing because we are not perfect.

I am willing to take this risk, not only for the reasons I listed above, but because a genuine Christian faith should not hinge on the words and deeds of any human being. (In other words, no one’s faith should hinge on me.) It should hinge on the person and words of Christ.

When Leaders Disappoint

A few years ago I was deeply disappointed when I learned that one of my spiritual heroes, Leo Schreven, committed suicide. Honestly, I felt betrayed and somewhat deceived by this man who previously appeared to “have it all together.” But I was able to weather this bad news by clinging to the truth that God is not, and never will be, totally represented by those claiming to be his followers. When we see good in Christians, that is from God. But when we see bad, that is from the enemy. We can’t lay every quality at Christ’s doorstep, because not every quality is from him.

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I had the privilege of meeting Leo Schreven in 2010 when he conducted a seminar at my church. My husband (left) had met him many years before and introduced me to Leo’s preaching through a set of seminar tapes that made me eager to meet him.

One quality I do believe is of God is the quality of honestly engaging our struggles as we seek His healing. I think I would have still respected my deceased spiritual hero if, in life, he had openly admitted his struggles. Perhaps I would have respected him even more for choosing bravery, rather than bravado—even though his brave sharing would have painted him as a fallible, sinful, wounded human being.

I have to add something here, to be fair. A family member of Leo Schreven’s contacted me after reading my blog post about Leo’s suicide, to tell me that my “hero” had struggled with psychological problems the public knew nothing about. This family member wanted me to have a fair, truthful view of Leo. The truth included mental illness, and as a former sufferer of mental illness, I empathized with that. I understood that I had put Leo on a pedestal. I also understood that his mental state may have precluded him from the type of honesty to which I am calling spiritual leaders.

Given the state of Leo’s mental health, it’s actually amazing that he enjoyed the long and successful career as evangelist and motivational speaker that he did. I have had similar thoughts, of course, about the late Robin Williams. Leo and Robin show us that there are exceptions to the standard of honesty I am putting forth. The exception applies to those who are not able to help themselves, or not able to let God help them, because of mental illness, or a genuine medical problem. Maybe they keep up the façade for the public for awhile, but in the end, we find out they are not the leaders we wished them to be. But then again, no one in whom we place our trust is immune to struggles, and to sin.

The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so we know every person, Christian or non, ministry leader or not, has a mix of good and bad.

No matter what we know to be true about our leaders, hopefully we can sift the good from the bad, and remember and respect them for their good qualities. Hopefully we can go on learning from them, no matter what their lives reveal. Sometimes we may observe the right course, other times the non-example. As long as we are looking up to human beings, we should expect both. And if we are the ones being looked up to, we must trust Christ to be the one shining example our audiences need; we must be okay with being imperfect representations of him.

That said, I believe that we in positions of trust—ministry leaders, Christian writers, etc.—should do our best to represent Christ, and this includes being honest about how God is working in our lives and transforming our sinful patterns. We should also be honest about “wilderness” times,  times when we struggle with our faith…but we should do it wisely.

Guidelines for Christian Leaders

Here are two guidelines I’ve found helpful in my own writing and ministry that can help Christian leaders determine when, where, and how much to share.

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1) First, we should consider timing. You can read various sins and struggles of mine on this blog that occurred at various stages in my life. I blog about problems long past and problems of last week.

The safer type of post is the one about problems past. These problems are ones I have likely had victory over. They are problems that have yielded personal lessons I can use to teach others. These types of posts, and this type of sharing, should be an absolute “yes” for all ministry leaders. Why wouldn’t we use our stories of redemption as teaching tools? What better examples of the gospel could we present than the ones that have played out in our own lives?

The murky area is problems of the present. How much should Christian leaders share about present problems? Here, we have to be wise about audience.

2) Audience is the second consideration. Consider who will be reading or hearing your message. If you are a preacher and it is your job to inspire hope, then it may not be the best time to insert a struggle that you do not have victory over, or at least cannot yet talk about in a positive way.

Sure, there are times when you are on the upside of a struggle—you can see the end in sight, and you are pressing through for victory. That might be material for an inspiring message, and if you are comfortable exposing that yet-unresolved pain, go ahead.

But other times, pain and sin is too raw to project to a large, or public, audience. That’s when you need a small, confidential audience. I’m talking a few trusted friends or advisors who can help talk and pray you through your problems. When you have worked through those problems, then they may become appropriate large-group material. But don’t rush it. Getting outside voices mixed up in your current personal problems could hurt the healing process, and you need to get healthy first so you can go back to being your motivational self.

One caveat for leaders working through personal problems: if your challenge handicaps your ability to do ministry, whether because the emotions involved take too much energy, or because a sin you are fighting “disqualifies” you to be a role model at the time, then it’s probably the right time to step out of ministry, at least for awhile. In the case of Leo Schreven, I would have much preferred hearing the news that he had stepped out of leadership for awhile to tackle some personal problems to hearing that he had committed suicide. We are ultimately the most helpful to others when we get the help we need, first.

On This Blog, What You See Is What You Get

To apply my guidelines to myself, I routinely post about my current struggles, but many times I have chosen to remain silent until I have prayed over them and exposed them to Scripture and the wisdom and counsel of a few trusted others. By the time I post on an issue, I want it to be, if not totally resolved, at least on the path to resolution. I want others to look up to me, yes, but I am happy to admit that sometimes the best example I can give is: “Look, I’m broken here, but I’m looking to Christ. And if you feel the same way, you need to do the same.”

By posting my struggles, past or present, I risk losing my readers’ respect, but I also keep myself accountable to Christ for resolution. I put a problem out there (such as my sleep-deprived, desperate, witchy state), and I say, “Okay, this is the mess this sinful world, or sinful me, has created today. But now, how am I going to find Christ in the middle of it?” My mission is to find out how Christ will come through for me, and then to share my victory with my readers.

Indeed, if “Superwoman Christian” is the role model you want, look somewhere else. Because on this blog you’ll just encounter a broken girl trying to depend on Christ, and trying to work out her faith, in all things big and little. After all, as so many examples in the Bible show (Kind David and the 51st Psalm come right to mind), a Christian leader worth listening to is not someone who claims to be above sins and struggles, but someone who fully admits their weaknesses; has learned how to let Christ lead in the hard times; and can discern which, of all their life experiences, will be helpful for lifting others up.

Returning to Writing

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With the help of a generous sister-in-law, I have returned to writing my book. One day a week until the end of the school year, she babysits Sam so I can write.

How has it been, reentering this manuscript I put aside three months ago?

There is the feeling of visiting a foreign country, as well as the feeling of returning to terrain I know very well. Above all, there is a clarity about the message of my book—and with that clarity, knowledge of what to cut and what to add. I surprised myself by spending most of my recent writing time cutting unnecessary chapters or scenes. Whereas several months ago I couldn’t have imagined cutting these scenes, now, there was no doubt about it: they had to go.

These cutting decisions signal so much: not only a writer’s process, but also a woman’s healing. Let me explain.

One of the standout tips I received from my professional book consultant last fall was: After the first few pages/chapters, cut the crying! (She elaborated: instead of describing your crying, describe for readers what made you cry). And related to that: Add in scenes with other key characters so we are not left alone with you and your brain for 300 pages.

In recent months I’ve thought a lot about how this advice relates to my memoir, which means I really have been working—thinking, planning, pondering—if not actually writing. I realized I had lots of crying in my book—in lots of solitary scenes, and my consultant helped me realize that this was not the best approach for a general audience. The types of books most people want to read are built around action, not a person sitting and thinking (and crying).

As I thought about why my first draft was sopping wet, I realized I wrote it for myself, and perhaps for the handful of friends and family members who read it last fall. Writing all those solitary crying scenes was a way for me to acknowledge how alone I felt in my pain. Having several loved ones read that manuscript allowed me to share that part of myself—and it felt good. Now I feel vindicated: that part of myself has not been shoved into a closet. However, that part of me (though present in the book) will not be the book’s focus.

What I am working on now is describing more of my healing, less of my hurting. To set the stage for why I became so broken (as requested by my consultant), I had to write over 100 new pages for the book’s beginning, just so readers could understand what led to my suicide attempt, eating disorder, sudden move to Texas, and shotgun wedding. But I am trying not to draw out the personal anguish after that (plenty of other memoirs excel in that area). As suggested, I am trying to show myself in contact with others—how I began to relate in more healthy ways to my family, and how I eventually extended my healing insights to others: my high school students, and then women in my church.

The new theme of the book, and maybe the new title, is “breaking silence.” I want to encourage readers who have suffered not to stuff their pain, but to get it out and deal with it—in the proper venues, of course. I believe I could have healed much faster had I not learned to hide my issues from friends, close family, and church family. What good are friends and family if we can’t tell them what’s going on? What good is religion and faith if we can’t get healing for our brokenness at church, and/or among our Christian friends? With my revised memoir, I hope to paint a picture of how honesty with ourselves, with God, and with certain loved ones is the right thing, the healthy thing, and the healing thing to do. Readers can take my advice or leave it, but for my book and my own health, I’ve learned honesty is a must.

Writing Towards Honesty

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At first I thought I was writing a book about recovery from depression, the love story that brought my husband and me together, and finding a relationship with the Lord. Now that I am revising for my book consultant, Christian memoirist Trish Ryan, I feel the topics expanding. She wanted me to set a greater context for why I ever got to the point of suicide and bulimia and all the other struggles I write about in the first place. She wanted to know more about my faith in God as a child and my family. In short, she asked me to venture into places I realized I didn’t want to go (which is why I originally did not go there).

Now that I’ve been trying to write scenes from childhood for the last several weeks (and they are coming out messy and muddled and badly), I’m finding that my story might be bigger than I thought, and it all has to do with being honest about how the church has failed me.

The more I write, the greater anger I uncover at a church culture that would not let me speak up and share what kind of help I needed. This theme also shows up when it comes to my relationships with friends and relatives—people you’d think it should be okay to share with! The revisions I am working on now are slowly bringing me to new conclusions about why I became suicidal in the first place. Maybe I will never totally understand why or how it happened, and maybe it’s not a problem that is specific to me or my family or my church. But through the messy, ugly, painful writing coming out in the last few weeks, I know it has something to do with speaking up, and the fact that I felt I couldn’t for so many years.

Sometimes it’s discouraging to think that after a year of working on this memoir, I’m only just keying in to the real point of it all—and maybe I’ll decide next month that I need to backtrack yet again. But maybe it all goes back to this blog and why I started writing it: I needed to share with people.

I’m working on a series of blog posts about my ugly, messy rebirth experience, and these posts, more than anything I’ve yet written on Writing to my Roots, have given me pause: Do I want to publish them? Do I want to share how I feel my church failed me, how it failed my parents, and how that resulted in a family’s demise and a girl’s death wish?

I feel a need for Christians to be honest about their struggles; it’s just hard to be one of the leaders in this “genre” of witnessing. I told Trish I felt like there were very few memoirs on the market like the one I’m trying write: that is, Christians seem to write really simplified accounts of how they found Christ (and what a difference he made to the before and after of their lives), which leave me hungry for the real details. Show me a life story I can relate to! Conversely, the writers who are willing to divulge the messy details of their lives are, for the most part, those who haven’t really emerged from the mess—so the story is real and raw and often literarily well executed, but not uplifting. I want my story to be all of the above.

Trish agreed with my assessment of the market, saying that when we writers undertake a project like she’s done and like I’m trying to do, we put ourselves out there as screwed up Christians, saying, “Okay, I’ll go first.” Not easy, but necessary if we hope to change the climate of things.

So if I publish some things that put my church or my religion in a bad light, it’s not that I’m denouncing my faith. It’s that I want us to take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, so we can fix it! Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free, and I just want to help the church see how we can help fulfill his mission. Sometimes, that means being brutally honest with where we’ve failed.

If you feel the same way, please pray for this writing project as it moves forward—that it would tell a story the world (and maybe just the Christian world) needs to hear, and that God would give me the wisdom and discernment to tell it.

 

Finding “My People”

Do you feel like you’ve found “your people?” Once in graduate school, one of my professors took offense to some writer who had bashed Christians, saying, “Hey, those are my people!”

I heard her use this phrase almost two years ago and didn’t think much of it then (Christians gets bashed all the time in graduate school), but it came back to me this past Sunday as I sat in a circle with five other women, all writers, all of whom were sharing fragments of their memoir with the group.

This was my first time meeting with this particular writers’ group—or any writers’ group, for that matter—but soon it became clear to me that the group was about much more than just moving our careers forward. It was about sharing stories we’d been bottling for years, it was about giving one another permission to be real, and it was about being validated for said scary task.

During those two hours, I listened to one woman’s struggle to make sense of the sexual abuse in her family; another’s decision to move forward with her education after years of being squelched by a verbally abusive parent; still another’s first attempt at writing the “good memories” for a wounded daughter; and another’s chronicle of life after leaving her third husband. The piece I brought that day was the (rough) first scene of my memoir: the day I emerged from the mental hospital, numb to joy, resigned to life, yet stripped of all expectation and desire.

Some of the feedback I got: “I can feel your numbness.” “The stripping of humanity that comes from staying in a place like this is clear.” “Your point about emotional pain and invisibility hits home.” “I can identify.”

I liked the last comment best, because it came from every single woman at the table. As, one by one, the women admitted that they, too, had found themselves at this place in life before (either literally or figuratively), I felt a sense of relief washing over me. Although I’d known these women less than two hours, it was a relief that they already knew more about me than so many of my acquaintances. That day I also gained strength to continue with what is sometimes an emotionally difficult project, and validation that my project actually matters. Best of all, by the end of the session, I felt I could finally say, “I’ve found my people.”

Of course, like my graduate professor, I could certainly say the same of my church family. I could also truthfully say it of my family family. But somehow, connecting with people because of shared religious convictions or shared bloodlines isn’t the same as connecting to people emotionally. Because rather than falling by default into a category, this type of writing, and this type of realness, is a choice we make—even a dream we share.

Why did I ever wait to join a writers’ group?

 

Friends in High Places

I walked in the church, scanned the pews for a place to sit, and found tears in my eyes.

You know that story in the Bible where God opens the servant’s eyes to see the army of horses and flaming chariots surrounding him? His eyes were opened to see what had been all around him all the time—and suddenly he didn’t feel so alone anymore (2 Kings 6:14-17).

Well, God opened my eyes last weekend. For several months I’d been ruminating on how alone I felt. And it seems I never miss an opportunity to tell my readers that I’m 1,000 miles from home. Indeed, writing to my roots has revealed that I often feel displaced in my new home, and I feel even more that way when visiting my old home.

Being in a hiatus from work and school has also laid some things bare: I don’t know who I am without my work. Sometimes I don’t know how to relate to people outside of the most functional of activities: I can be a teacher, a sister-in-law, a communications secretary and music leader for church, a Bible study leader for friends.

But what about just a friend?

I can tell you right now, friendship—hanging out, relaxing, shooting the breeze—none of these have been my strengths.

Yet despite all the off-putting, prickly parts of me, God has drawn friends to me. And at the church that day, I saw them.

There was Tasha sitting in the back left pew of the church. Her friendship was a carryover from the small group Bible study my hubby and I had for a year and a half. We still get together often, for fun things like spa days, iced tea, and girl talk.

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Me and Tasha–on our cruise to Cozumel in December. The hubbies came, too.

Then, a few rows up, was Tammy, a new-ish fixture in our church, who responded to the call I made in October to start a choir. Now she has taken the reins, much relieving me, and also become a fun girlfriend.

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My friend Tammy directing a mean choir in December! They sounded great. I’m at the piano to the left (you can’t see me).

Across the aisle were Ashley and Christina, two young moms whom I’d only recently come to know from our Tuesday night prayer group. They’d been in the congregation for many months before their lovely personalities were uncovered for me. Both sincere and searching for the Lord, they responded to the opportunity to pray with Amanda and me, who had recently been trained in prayer ministry.

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Me and Ashley at my house for a late night Easter egg hunt. It was for the kids…really!
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Christina with her two strapping boys–also at my house for that late night Easter egg hunt.

And behind them was Amanda. I had known Amanda the longest of any of these ladies, yet until our prayer training, I’d hardly known her all–had not seen the beauty of her personality beneath her quiet exterior. Now we are prayer partners and buddies in ministry.

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That’s Amanda chuckling on the left–we had a great time at our 2012 New Year’s party. The life-sized Barbie was my husband’s surprise in our informal gift exchange.

How did it come to be that I was so blessed with all these friends?

Last summer when Amanda and I joined the prayer ministry Straight 2 the Heart to lay our hearts bare before God and our small group—I saw that we had a lot in common. A lot of hurt, a lot of self-protections, and a lot of desire to serve the Lord if we could only know how to channel our pain into something positive.

Looking back, I think it must have been the laying bare of my heart before God and a trusted small group that allowed me to be more authentic with these others that have decided they like my company. Sure, I’m still detail-oriented and serious when I talk church business. But over the past year, I’ve had more frank and open conversations with ladies in my church than I’ve had in eight years combined.

Sharing my heart in a prayerful, supportive environment has bound me together with Amanda, and now Ashley and Christina, in a way that mere biblical instruction can’t. And as a result, I have been able to relate more authentically to others like Tammy and Tasha, and even my music committee in meetings, where we have finally started talking openly and corporately about issues our church has had for a number of years.

Showing some vulnerability not only to my prayer partners but also to my acquaintances has opened the door for conversation that goes beyond surface level…and finally, friendship.

Since deciding to be more honest with others, it’s been a relief not to have to hide my feelings—to be able to speak up when something’s on my heart—to get it out in the open and deal with it sooner rather than later. And saying things that have gone unspoken before—such as on music committee—has actually gotten people thanking me for my honesty and openness.

Do people prefer pretenses, or plainness?

While being honest can open up some uncomfortable cans of worms, in my experience, that’s not any worse than tiptoeing through church—and through life—not knowing and not being known by anyone. Being honest is no worse than feeling alone—wondering if I’m the only one who ever suffers.

As I’ve learned, the sooner we share our stories with someone and listen to theirs in return, the sooner we are brought out of our self-centered misery. The sooner our eyes are opened to the fact that we are not alone.

I’m so thankful for my friends in high places, the old no less than the new (although this post just happened to be inspired by the new). Much love to all! Here’s to many more great memories!

 

Is My Writer Seeping Through?

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Since deciding to be a “real” writer, I’ve kept a low profile. Not wanting people to know I’ve embarked on a low-paying (sometimes no-paying) job, I’ve hidden my true profession behind a façade of graduate student and teacher.

I haven’t been a teacher since May 2011, but until last December, I really was a graduate student, putting the finishing touches on my one-hundred-page master’s thesis. Mostly I was done by October, but I still let my classmates offer condolences for “how hard” the writing must be.

It wasn’t hard, really, because my advisor let me write the way I wanted to write: creatively and personally (with a little academic jargon sprinkled in). I guess this “practical” approach worked because the topic was practical: best practices for teaching writing.

When a few of my fellow students heard about my personal [slash] creative [slash] academic project, they seemed intrigued.

“I’d never have thought of that,” some said.

As they scrambled to turn up sources on the databases, scouring search engines and library shelves, giving themselves ulcers looking for an original angle, I just sat back and wrote. I started from the inside—I knew what I wanted to say, and I didn’t much care about citing the scholarly conversation that had come before me, or that would come after.

I know this sounds sort of pompous, and it wouldn’t work in some of the disciplines where original voice is not prized. But thankfully, English departments operate on this truth: If a voice is engaging enough it doesn’t really matter what it’s saying—people will read it for the good writing.

And that’s the truth in the real world, isn’t it?

People who don’t care a lick about golf will watch Tiger Woods because he excels in his sport. Same for most Olympians and Olympic sports. Who watches bobsledding or curling on a regular basis?

But millions watch the Olympics because it’s fun to watch pros do what they do best.

Funny, then, that I feel I’m still hiding in the wings, waiting for permission to “come out” to do what I do best.

Well, not so funny, I guess. I have no doubt that the hiding is due to the overwhelming personal content of my writing. (It’s not really about the money.)

In order for me to write about the things I write about (mental illness, family dysfunction, deepest fears) and be respected, I feel I have to be either a mental health professional or a pastor, or some other authority who can talk on these things at a close, yet safe, distance. That, or I have to make the writing itself attractive. Because the topics just aren’t.

Still, I am convinced that these topics are worth discussion. Worth a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, and many book series. I am convinced that all this painful self-reflection is what more people ought to be doing, but aren’t. But if it’s so worthwhile, why aren’t more people doing it?

Because: Like graduate students fumbling for research topics, we are afraid of ourselves, and we are afraid of what self-examination might reveal. So we look for other voices to latch onto. Let someone else be the guinea pig—or the “straw man,” to use an academic term. Then, if our life thesis fails, we can partially blame the voices on whom we’ve built our own.

Well, I’ll stand behind my own work. To the thesis examiner who said my work got uncomfortably personal at times, I would remind her that everyone else who read it said it was the most memorable thesis they’d ever seen. She was more comfortable in the theoretical realm, and that’s where she encouraged me to return. Toward the end of the defense, we had a more informal discussion about how we felt about publishing—how we felt about others reading our work—and this professor said she felt terrified thinking others would read her academic writing (not to mention any personal stuff).

Just like she couldn’t understand me being so personal in writing, I couldn’t understand her being so guarded (about dry academic prose). Perhaps she is worried that others will smell a rat—that of inauthenticity. And I guess if I were not being true to myself, I might worry about the same thing.

But after denying myself public expression for so long, I think having to live in hiding is far worse than living exposed. After spending time in a theoretically constipated English department, I think living vulnerable is better than living jealous of writers whose real-world topics you only dare poke with a critical stick.

Perhaps my guarded professor would even agree. At the end of the day, she passed my thesis unconditionally. Call my writing what she will, that day she called me a master.