Work as Service

The waiting game has started up again this week. It was good to take a break from it, and it was also good to have an enforced break from worrying. Having a cold meant not having the energy to fret (or do much of anything else!). It’s funny how sometimes you don’t realize how chronically stressed you’ve become until the stress lifts for a while. I’m hoping that having a fuller awareness of the feelings can also help me get beyond them, even as life goes back to more familiar patterns.

It’s also interesting to notice the effects of the daily news cycles on mood, energy levels, and overall attitude. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, I had a bit of a break from all of that. Looping back into it today definitely made me notice – again – how much chronic stress I was carrying, which no doubt all of us are carrying in one way or another. It’s impossible to justify living in a bubble and not keeping up with what’s going on in the world, but at the same time, overload happens so easily. There are so many conflicts and problems, so many things to feel concerned, anxious, and angry about. The world is simply too big. How much can any one of us do to help with all the need that exists?

A brief sidebar: for the past five years, I’ve worked as a church choir director. I started the job pretty much because I was in the right place at the right time. At first it definitely was “just a job,” which I did because I had the necessary skills and needed the money, but things started to change a couple of years ago. I continue to have many questions about religion, and many concerns about the way Christianity presents in the world. I’ve had the chance, though, to work with people for whom faith leads to action and a commitment to working for social justice and the betterment of the world, especially the lives of the most vulnerable. The work has become more than “just work,” and has gotten me thinking more, all the time, about the other kinds of work I do and how they might make a difference.

ocean view 2

Last night, I went back to my increasingly-usual brainstorming about writers’ workshops and the idea of writing, and storytelling, as a type of ministry. The various rounds of thinking I’ve done about it have started to feel like going in circles, but a couple of newer ideas did join the mix.

I know how to teach craft, and I love teaching it. I love helping people to tell their own stories, fictional or real life, and make those stories as strong and compelling as possible. I love the fact that writing can help us to know, accept, and embrace our own truths. Then there’s the kind of community that evolves in workshop: the fact that people of very different backgrounds can come together to cheer, help, and encourage each other in the telling of their stories. And the fact that, in doing so, they connect with and see one another in new ways.

My biggest question is how to use all of that and do more with it. As hard as it can be for me to admit, I’m good at what I do. I want to make a living doing it; my husband and I need that, and there are things I’d like us to be able to have and do. In thinking through these things yet again last night, it struck me that the most useful way for me to approach my work is to see it as a form of service. It’s so easy to get caught up in anxiety about self-marketing, hustling, and whether you’re desirable enough and unique enough to “make it.” My brain doesn’t work that way. It does work when I ask myself how to use the skills and tools I have as instruments of healing, in a world that needs it.

ocean view 1

If anything were possible, I’d love to create some huge workshop where people from all over the world could come together, share stories, support each other, and form the kind of community that, up until now, I’ve only seen in microcosm. It’s delightful to imagine, though I can’t quite picture how anyone could create something like that. But I’m going to keep puzzling at the question.

Stories, written and shared, can make a difference in and of themselves. They can be instruments of healing in various ways: helping people to see and think about things they haven’t before, helping people to get through tough times, helping them get out of their own heads when they’re trapped in unhealthy thought patterns. Communities of storytellers take the singular power of one story and multiply it. There’s so much work to be done, and words can do a lot to create positive change in a fractured world. I’m going to figure out which piece of that work is mine to do.


Photos by Paul Faatz



Very Small Post

Today’s blogpost will be a little different. I’m still catching up after a week-long cold, which in some ways was a welcome break: it was hard to worry about things like work and publication when I pretty much just wanted to read and sleep all day. A lot of reading got done, especially several books by my hero Terry Pratchett, and I’d like to think it still counts as “writing work” when I was studying his craft with a close eye. 🙂 But a lot of other things got shelved for later, and this week is also pretty busy for us church musicians. So today I offer three very short stories which I wrote in response to photo prompts, in an exercise inspired by the wonderful journal 100 Word Story. (My short piece “Winter Birds” appears on that journal’s site as well.)

The exercise for each of the stories was to write a piece of exactly 100 words, inspired by and in some way relating to a photo prompt. I cheated slightly by not including my titles as part of the 100-word limit.

It was a fascinating exercise because flash fiction is an unfamiliar form for me. William Faulkner is credited with saying that novelists are failed short-story writers, and short-story writers are failed poets; I’d have to put flash fiction in about the same category as poetry, so as a novelist I definitely go into it with a handicap. It’s hard for me to decide what really makes a piece of flash a story as opposed to a vignette. Plus, I love verbosity, so it’s very hard for me to operate within any limit. Especially 100 words!

The photo for the first piece was a prompt provided by 100 Word Story, and as it was their photo, I haven’t included it here. It was an x-ray of ankle bones. I’ve included the other two pictures with their respective stories.

If you’d like, please use the two photos to prompt your own stories, of one hundred words or otherwise. And if you’d like to share them with me at, I’d love to read what the photos inspire for you.

Next week the blog will go back to more “regular” content. As always, thank you for reading.


Story #1: Cost of Light

Six weeks, the doctor says, before I’ll start to walk again. The bulk of the cast drags on my hips; the crutches set my shoulders on fire. Hiking, I looked where you pointed, at a sunlit sapling, and missed the stump hole in the trail at my feet.

I told you, once, that “always” wasn’t me. Sometime I would have walked away, someplace where you couldn’t follow. Now you call my cast your fault, but I think of light glowing through new leaves and the line of your hand, pointing.

Six weeks in exchange for light. It’s a fair price.


Story #2: Beautiful Aliens

In the coffeehouse, a great gray beast, shackled. Proboscis lashing, bullwhip-dangerous. Ears flapping like sails in high wind. Gawkers hand their shillings to Tom Garway at the door. The beast screams rage; they cover their ears and cower.

Overton the printer, my white master, told me Go and draw the creature. My best work. His name on the prints.

In the dim room, lost in the stink of men, the beast dreams of open sky and clean air. I dream of owning my work, my time, my name.

Great beast. We are lost together, you and I: beautiful aliens both.

elephant photo prompt
Original caption: “The great Elephant brought into England and landed August ye third 1675”


Story #3: Flight

A breath out of time: your husband and your daughter, who is not his daughter but has always called him Daddy, climbing into the roadster to fly.

You are mired to the ground. The Crash, they called it. Banks failing, money gone: you are poor and lost on a bright day of windswept leaves.

Your husband fights with you. You two could be poor together, he says, if you hadn’t forgotten the feeling of flight.

They get into the roadster, he and your girl, who calls him Daddy. You will see him one last time, when he brings her home.

old car photo

Music, Words, and Community

A slightly later blogpost this week… I’ve been down with a cold for a few days, and my brain has been pretty scrambled. Working on getting back into gear.

cat trio sickbed
Feline nurses on duty

This week I thought I would explore the “ministry” aspect of writing again; it’s something I’m thinking about a lot. One of the fascinating, and challenging, things about this profession is that there are so many possible paths to take in it. You can want so many things: different things, sometimes conflicting things. It can be hard to organize priorities, which makes it hard in turn to focus on and reach for particular goals.

A lot of my focus over the past few months has been on publication, and figuring out how to get my second novel out into the world. The process continues to move along, slowly. Meanwhile, I keep trying to maintain a balance between the drive and desire on that side, and the fact that writing has other aspects I also want to immerse myself in. Especially on the teaching side.

I’ve written before about how fascinating the writing craft is for me, and how much I like working with other writers. Helping people tell and develop their stories feels like a type of ministry to me. Sharing stories allows us to see each other as people: I always come back to that as one of the most valuable functions of writing, and teaching writing.

Sometimes, though, it takes a little extra effort to start a story rolling and get words on the page, and sometimes it takes a little extra effort to help someone share his or her words. I ran into both of those situations recently at a particular workshop I teach, and the outcomes were exciting and encouraging. The experience got me thinking more about how music, my “other side,” could open up new and creative possibilities when it comes to helping people tell their stories.

The workshop was with Baltimore Bridges, a program for kids in Baltimore city schools. Kids start the program in junior high and continue through high school. They’re paired with adult mentors who help them think about future career options and prepare for college applications and job interviews. Once a month, the high schoolers have a day-long immersion program that focuses on college prep. As part of the day, they can choose electives to take. Creative writing is one of those.

The kids are smart and energized. They’ve impressed me again and again with their creativity and willingness to experiment. A few weeks ago, though, I was especially impressed with the way they responded to a storytelling prompt using music. It brought out a new kind of creativity and built a sense of community in the classroom that I hadn’t experienced before.

I played them a recording I’d made at home of one of my favorite pieces: a movement from the suite Estampes, by Claude Debussy. Debussy was a French composer from the Impressionist era, late 19th century into early 20th century. His music explores all the colors and tone-combinations the piano can create, and plays with dissonance in startling and lovely ways. Estampes isn’t a piece most people would be familiar with, and I was interested to hear what the kids thought of it. I asked them to listen to it and write whatever it made them think about. After we did that, I asked them to share what they’d written.

It was a group of five girls: high school freshmen, sophomores, and one junior. At first, it took a little bit of work to get them to share. They were more worried than usual that they hadn’t done the exercise “right,” even though we have a workshop policy that there’s no “wrong” way to do anything. Finally one of them jumped in, and talked about how she’d heard music like the Debussy when she was visiting an arts-focused school in Baltimore that she was thinking about applying to. Another said that the music made her imagine being outside in the woods. A third had written a beautiful, improvisatory poem about trees and sunlight and flowing water. She was especially hesitant to share hers because it was different from what the other girls had written, but when she read it, everyone was wowed.

The exercise got the students’ imaginations going, and I loved seeing what the music tapped into for them. The rest of the session felt especially inspired. The girls worked collaboratively on other prompts, weaving one another’s fictional characters into their own stories, joking around and cheering for each other, making the kind of community that I think is the best kind of writers’ workshop. At the end, I felt like we’d done something valuable and lasting.

In a time when, in the wider world, we run so often into argument and division and boundaries between people, I love the fact that storytelling does have that power to let us see one another. If collaboration and reconciliation can start with that seeing, I think writers, teachers, and writing communities can play some role in bringing people together. A small role, maybe, but a potentially powerful one. This is something I think about all the time: how can I best use the tools and abilities I have to do some good in my corner of the world?

I have some ideas, and I’m brainstorming all the time. For today, I’ll close this post with the Debussy recording I shared with my workshop. If you have a chance, give it a listen and see what it sparks in your imagination.  

[P.S. If you’d like, please share your response to the Debussy in the comments, or with me by email at]

Good and Not-So-Good

It’s been another quiet week on the querying-and-waiting front. Part of me understands that this process simply takes a while; another part of me protests things like I didn’t think it would be this long! Waiting can be exhausting: riding the daily rollercoaster of bracing yourself for the worst, relaxing for a while, trying to plan for possible scenarios, trying to convince yourself you can deal with anything, bracing yourself again, over and over. One way or another, though, I think it does teach you patience. You don’t have a choice except to recognize – again and again, usually under protest – that you don’t have control over this process. Fighting it or arguing with it will make it no easier.

It certainly gives you a chance to learn about yourself. The past three months have made me look at some things about myself that I might not have come to grips with before. One very big thing I’ve started to see is that I don’t think I’ve ever managed to look at myself as a whole person, strengths and flaws and all. I’ve certainly never managed to be okay with that person.

I’ve written before about growing up in an environment where mistakes weren’t allowed, and where when it came to my artistic side, pretty much the best I could hope for was to be left alone to do my thing. Many of us dealt with those kinds of circumstances, growing up. (I’m not a parent and can’t imagine how hard it must be to do your best, every day, to take care of another human being who counts on you for everything. You’d have millions of opportunities to make mistakes. That kind of fear would chew me up and spit me out.) For me, one result of the way I grew up has been – as I’ve also written about before – that I have a very hard time looking my shortcomings in the face. They just can’t be there, because if they are, I’m not okay.

waterfall pic

So now, as I’m waiting and worrying, I’m tasking myself as much as possible with the job of getting on with life. That means doing the work I need to do, and that in turn means giving myself a foundation to stand on, a place where I can plant myself no matter what happens with the things I’m waiting for. I can’t do that if I’m also gearing up to attack myself for failures and shortcomings, so I have to find a way to accept both the things I am, and the things I’m not.

For instance, in the “nots” column, I’m not a housekeeper. I’m the kind of person who has to gear up for days (if not weeks) for one “big clean,” and it usually only happens under duress because someone is coming over and it would be nice if the house didn’t look like an actual biohazard. When it comes to bookkeeping, I’m not much better. Theoretically I’m good with numbers, but the idea of, for instance, maintaining spreadsheets and tables of my self-employment income makes my brain congeal into a lump of ice, so tax season means about two solid weeks of panic every year as I scramble to pull all the numbers together. And, speaking of practical skills that can be important when you’re self-employed, I’ve never learned the art of networking and, to be honest, don’t want to. Small talk stresses me out and I’ve never been good at putting the right face on and “pitching” myself as a product. I saw a shirt once with the slogan Introverts Unite! Separately, in your own homes. This is me in a nutshell.

With varying levels of seriousness, I’ve criticized myself for those shortcomings and plenty of others. Sometimes I feel like I’m not good at the things that really are important – bookkeeping, networking, general practicality – and meanwhile, the things I am good at don’t especially matter. Sometimes I’ve been so angry at myself for the failures that everything seems hopeless. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time running away from myself, or at least from those aspects of myself that I don’t want to think about. That’s exhausting too.

river 1

So I’m working, bit by bit, on accepting the parts of myself I don’t like as much. It’s very hard to wrap my head around the idea that shortcomings and limitations are okay, part of my makeup, and maybe I don’t need to fight them, hide them, pretend they don’t exist, or try to run away from them. And maybe it’s also worthwhile to think about things I can do well.

For instance:

After many years of work, I’m starting to think I’m a pretty decent writer. A few days ago, I pulled out a book project I started last year, as a study for Fourteen Stones, and then put aside. It has rough patches and problems, but it also has a spark that makes it worth digging into again. I was impressed, which when it comes to my own work, is rare indeed.

And: having with pretty much the same group of writers in workshop for about a year and a half now,  I’m starting to see the real changes and progress in their writing. They’ve also become a tight-knit, supportive community, challenging one another to grow. That makes me proud in a way I’ve never really experienced before.

Also: the craft itself is a constant delight and fascination. I love figuring out what makes “good” writing so compelling and powerful, and I love problem-solving in writing that needs work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of fascination about any other subject. While you can definitely argue – as I have, to myself, many times – that it’s not the most practical subject to love, I’m glad to taste that kind of excitement.

For better or worse, this is how I am. Every day, as the waiting-rollercoaster carries me along on its ups and downs, I’m trying to hold onto this more candid, more honest view of myself, and decide that it’s all right. That it’s enough of a foundation to get me through whatever is coming.

I know I’m not the only one. So many of us struggle with the question of being “good enough,” forgiving ourselves for our mistakes and all the things we are or aren’t. It’s especially hard for those of us who are artists, who put ourselves on the line every day with the work that means the most to us, that carries a part of ourselves with it as we send it off into the world.

Maybe it isn’t worth trying to hide, or ignore, or run away from the things about ourselves that we don’t like as much. If we can forgive ourselves, take ourselves as the people we are, we’ll be all the stronger for it. And maybe in some small way, we can make the rest of the world stronger too.


Photos by Paul Faatz