Tag Archives: writing

The Book I Didn’t Write (or In Praise of Negative Space)

negative space

For six months and tens of thousands of words, I thought that my second book would be about faith home.

I thought it would be about soil and suburbs and the small, important work of settling into your own life. I imagined I’d write out the slow process of building around you some healthier, sturdier kind of faith, and in doing so, I would figure it out myself.

I read a memoir, once, by a woman who healed from her divorce by recreating and redesigning her home. Around the House and in the Garden, it was called. And I found it beautiful and powerful – the ways that those overstuffed chairs and rugs and bookshelves became outward manifestations of deep internal growth and change.

I guess it stuck with me, because this is what I was thinking about when I slogged out a proposal for that second book.

I had just released When We Were on Fire – a memoir deconstructing the faith of my adolescence. It felt like I’d spent the last several years pounding madly at crumbling drywall, taking the whole thing down. There I stood, covered in the dust of it, surrounded by the rubble, aching to build something new.

I started to write about home.

I wrote about our house search, which began in the tiny community of Taylor’s Falls, Minnesota and then looped crazily through Minneapolis and its Northern suburbs. I wrote about our odd, glassy-eyed realtor and about all the lives I imagined I’d have in all of those homes we walked through.

I wrote thousands of words about the home we finally found – this 1980s suburban home with the pond opening up behind it like a hidden gift. I checked out books from the library on place and home, on the history of the suburbs, on the psychology of home design.

I went so far as to go down to the Anoka County Historical Society to look at old maps of our neighborhood, our suburb back when it was gravel roads and a Christmas tree farm. I learned the name of the soil: loamy fine sand. I’d never heard the word loamy before then, but I liked the way it felt in my mouth.

I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and I tried to ignore the fact that it wasn’t working. That nothing about this book was working.

The most beautiful part of memoir writing, for me, has always been the way that peering back into the ordinary moments of your life reveals hidden treasures and themes, and that as you write it, you begin to see how the seemingly disparate parts of your life were always connected.

I wanted my work of suburban homemaking to connect to something true and lovely about faith. And I think it probably does. But no matter how hard I tried, how many pages I wrote that winter, I couldn’t find the connecting point.

During a meeting with my writing group later that spring, I burst into tears, confessing that it wasn’t working, that none of it was working. I had only a few months until my first book deadline, and I had pages and pages that would never, it felt, add up to a book – at least not the one I had hoped to write.

And the consensus that night, spoken gently and ringing devastatingly true to my ear was this: Maybe this is not your work right now.

This might be a crazy idea, one of the women said. But have you thought about writing about your road trip? It seems like there was something urgent and important about that.


I’m heading to the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids tomorrow morning, and so I’ve been thinking this week a lot about writing and process and the mysterious work of creativity.

I’ve been thinking about all of those months that I spent writing something that didn’t end up being the thing. All those words filed on my computer in a folder called “Book 2 – Take 1.” Is there a purpose in this idling work? In creative output that doesn’t seem to land anywhere in particular?

It’s a question about my work, but it’s also a question about my life and about its meaning. What I want to know is this: Is all this work wasted?

Does this matter too?


In art, there is a concept called negative space the empty space around and between the subjects of a piece of art. Negative space is important in that it helps to define the boundaries of what is actually there. It brings balance.

I’ve started to think about that first take on the book as a kind of weighted, negative space in my book and in my life. I started to write about faith home and instead found myself running away. I tried to rebuild my deconstructed faith, but as I did, my foot punched through a rotted floorboard that had to do with feeling God…one that I didn’t know was still there.

What started as an attempt to rebuild turned into a journey toward making peace with the empty space that remains when your old ways of believing fall flat.

And this matters.

It matters how we get to the place where we end up. The roads we started to take and then didn’t – these add to the story, and I believe that because God is a God of abundance, of excess, of plenty, not one of these rabbit rails are wasted.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book about faith home. Maybe not. But for now, it is there and not there. It’s the negative space, the invisible stitching at the back of the garment.

You can’t see it, but it was a gift. It is not wasted. It holds so much together.

What I’m Into – November 2014

what i'm into

This month has been all about the book.

I had this goal to finish my first draft of Book 2 by Thanksgiving, and so while other things happened during November, there was a giant book-shaped shadow over the entire month. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I deleted. Then I wrote some more.

I was bound and determined to hit that deadline (even though it wasn’t my publisher’s but my own self-imposed, arbitrary date). And it might have actually happened, if we hadn’t caught what I can only assume was the Bubonic Plague.

The kids and I went in for our flu shots, and we all ended up with some bastardized version of the flu mixed together with some nasty cough that we picked up at the pediatrician. Dane missed a day of school, and I had to cancel the three playdates I’d lined up for Liam the week before Thanksgiving (the ones at other people’s houses so that I could drop him off and go write).

Instead, the two of us spent the week laying on the living room floor, hacking and feeling generally miserable.


I did try to power through, even with the Plague, and get the manuscript done, but I didn’t quite get there. And by the time I sent the first 53k words off to a friend to read, I hated everything about it. Plus everything else I’d ever written. Plus the entire word.

You’d think that, having already written and published a book, I would have my “writing process” figured out. Turns out, I don’t. What I learned this month is that I do not do well with trying to “power through” and get things done. I thought it would be so nice to spend a month just zoned in on the manuscript, and then I could sit back, breathe, and leave it entirely alone during the Christmas season.

As it is, it’s much more complicated than that. Writing, like anything, requires you to live in the tension between two realities. At least it does for me. I can’t shut myself away for weeks at a time, so I have to find try to find that elusive place of balance where I am present both to my work and to the life happening around me. It requires that sometimes I put my work away and do the dishes or play Ninja Turtles or have coffee with a friend. It requires that sometimes I find someone else to take the kids, drive away, and work.

It requires sacrifice and patience. It asks that I be willing to let go of timelines and expectations while holding on to faithfulness. It’s beautiful and terrible. I wouldn’t trade it…or wish it on my worst enemy.

In short, it’s been a complicated month.


It’s been a shameful month in the reading department. (See Overzealous Focus on Writing Deadline above.) But I did pick up a great little anthology at Half Price called The Writer on Her Workthe voices of several different women writers on their craft. In her introduction, the editor Janet Sternburg writes:

“When an individual writer tells of her day-to-day struggles, what we’re seeing in operation is a person choosing to continue, to grow, to not be silent. She is claiming her original impulse and carrying it forward — knowing that as she does so, she commits herself to change.”

I love that, and I’m grateful to these women’s beautiful voices for bolstering me up as I work through this last terrifying part of the writing process.

Listening To

I found Radical Face this month, who I really like. They’re probably old news, but I tend to be behind the times when it comes to music. I blame a decade of my life lost to DC Talk and Amy Grant and Newsboys. It takes a girl a while to bounce back from something like that.

Noisetrade has so much good FREE Christmas music over there right now. The Orphan Care Network has a particularly good compilation out, and I discovered The Calendar Years, who I really like. 


Still watching: Parenthood, Scandal, Grey’s, How to Get Away with Murder, Nashville, and Vampire Diaries, though did lose interest in Marry Me. It was little too goofy for my taste. Andrew and I finished Season 1 of Blacklist but not in time to catch up on Season 2…so we’ll have to wait until that comes to Netflix.

In addition to the usuals, there has been a light speckling of terrible (wonderful) Christmas movies. Oh, who am I kidding, there have been a ton. I’m not even going to try to count them because it would only make you respect me less.

I have all of these writerly beliefs in compelling stories with complex characters that mirror some unspeakable reality in our joint human experience… And then the Christmas season starts, and I shamelessly abandon it all in exchange for the fluffiest of holiday love stories known to man…most of which, inexplicably, star either Candace Cameron Bure or Haylie Duff. WHAT IS THIS ABOUT? Please tell me that I’m not alone and that someone else out there has this Issue too.

On my last What I’m Into post, an astute reader, Ryan, made this comment:

I don’t mean this at all to sound critical, really, but: holy cow, I can’t believe how much TV you watch! It’s a miracle you get as much other stuff done as you do!

Of course,he’s right. I watch an abominable amount of TV, and I realize that.

My secret is this: I rarely simply sit in front of the television and do nothing but watch. (The only time I do that is when I’m watching a show with Andrew, because it bugs him when I multi-task.) But mostly, I watch my shows on the Internet, days after they air. I watch while I’m folding laundry or loading the dishwasher or prepping a week of school lunches or making a lasagna.

It’s my little way of rewarding myself for all the Mom Tasks that I have to do. A little mind-game I play with myself. Not “chores.” ALONE TIME. TV TIME! WOO HOO! True, I could spend this time better. There are TED Talks to watch and podcasts that are full of useful information or even books on tape. But what can I say? TV is my special addiction. I can’t quit it, and I don’t even want to.

Other Things I’m Into

– A trip home to Chicago to see my family. And one last walk through the woods with my kids and my Mom before winter.


– Hallmark Christmas movies

My parents have cable, which is why holiday movie viewing started so early and has been so embarrassingly…comprehensive. We do not have cable, so I tried to cram in as much sappy viewing as possible while I was home.

But then — CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!! The CentruyLink guy stopped by last night, and my husband switched us from Comcast on the spot, and I will have free cable starting next week.

Ryan — you thought I watched a lot of TV before. Just you wait until I can watch Christmas movies all day and all night without pause. Lord help us.

– Best friends having babies.


If you’ve read my book, then you’re familiar with my two best friends from high school, Kim and Alissa. You should probably then know that they are both preggers, and freakily, due the exact same day. February 18th. Kim is having a girl, and Alissa’s having a boy, and I can’t even deal with it at all. I keep accidentally buying things for the new babies. It’s a problem.

How beautiful are they??!?!

– The first snowfall. I’m not THAT into this, but I’m trying to make my peace with winter. More about that soon.


– Living room forts.


(We way or may not be watching Rudolph. Before even Thanksgiving. I have SUCH A PROBLEM.)

– Christmas decorations copied from Pinterest

With the new bookshelves I bought this fall comes all sorts of space for new decor. So I took on a variety of Pinterest projects that I’d had my eye on for a while.

Andrew helped me create this sign out of reclaimed lumber. (Tutorial here.)

He took apart and reassembled a pallet and drilled the holes for the Christmas light stars, and I stenciled on the words and the wise men.

I’m in love with how it turned out. It might be my favorite decoration currently in the house.

pallet art

I also did these — a quote from The Polar Express, a chalkboard Christmas tree, JOY nail-and-string art, a glittery reindeer bust and a piece of snowflake art. I don’t know if you can really see it all here, but it looks pretty awesome if I do say so myself.


I put all of our Santa pictures up on the old shutter by our front door, made a garland of cinnamon stars to hang on my kitchen window, and found a bargain on this pretty frame for our Christmas cards at Home Goods.

decor 1

And ADVENT…so bags with our Jesse tree ornaments and some chocolate. (I ordered Ann Voskamp’s new Jesse Tree book a little late…and I’m looking forward to trying it out with the kids!)

jesse tree bags

And book presents…one storybook every night until Christmas. (I bought them all from garage sales and thrift shops years ago, and I just keep re-wrapping them every year. For the first year, Dane is starting to catch on. “Hey! We opened this one before!!)

book presents

I know. There should be support groups for this.

– And of course getting a Christmas tree. As much as I wish we were a “go to the woods and cut down your own” kind of family, we’re a “spend 5 minutes at Lowe’s picking out a half-dead, green spray-painted tree” kind of family. Whatever. It’s fine.


Book and Blog:

I’ve already told you about the book, so let’s not talk about that anymore. Or the fact that I’ve barely blogged all month.

Let’s talk about the fact that it’s Advent Season. There are a lot of wonderful bloggers doing Advent series. (If you read nothing else, check out John’s wonderful words at The Beautiful Due. He’s amazing.)

I’m not doing that, though last year I did do a little series on Christmas mindfulness, which included the following posts:

This year, I’ll probably just share what’s going on in our little corner of the world, as we try to wade into the Advent season in mindful, imperfect ways. I hope you’ll keep following me, even though my posts have been erratic at best.

I did write one post that is especially meaningful to me about my friend, Stephen, who had a surgery go wrong and now lives with chronic pain. He introduced a concept to me called “redemptive hygge” which has stayed with me in a very powerful way and that I will continue to bring up again and again on this blog. If you haven’t had a chance to read that post, please go read it now. And if you can, support Stephen and his family.

Thanks for sticking around even though I’m totally unpredictable lately.

I’m linking up as usual with my lovely friend Leigh Kramer for What I’m Into.

What about you? What’s your November been like? Less angst-y (and Hallmark-obsessed) than mine hopefully?

While I Was Out


While I was out, the last days of summer came and went. We caught and released the last of the painted turtles that spend the summer on the pond before they all disappeared. I threw out the summer sneakers – all full of holes from running and bike riding and sloshing through the pond, the soles practically falling off – and we switched to the next size up.

The mornings got darker a little bit at a time…then all at once, and the ducks came back. I don’t know how they always somehow remember this place, but they do. They come by the dozens, and they spend the early evening wandering our yards for food, calling to each other loudly.

While I was out, my firstborn, Dane, boarded the bus to kindergarten for the first time, Avenger’s backpack strapped on his back, waving out the window, and I didn’t cry, but I felt it at the back of my throat all day long.

10.07 - kindergarten

Liam went from age three to AGE THREE and spent long afternoons sobbing over the fact that I put his milk in the wrong cup or that I put it into his hand in the wrong way. We had a lot of long battles about using the potty chair, and in the end I got him 2/3s of the way potty-trained before we hit a total power impasse. Which means that while I was out, there was a lot of laundry to do.

The Internet kept spinning while I was out, but it all felt farther away. I stopped reading blogs and looking at Twitter for the most part. Instead, the world became very small. A kitchen table. A piece of paper. A loaf of pumpkin bread in the oven. A red leaf on the driveway.

I helped one friend welcome a new son into the world with a diaper-and-wine baby shower. People from our church filled up the house with love and appetizers, and we passed the new baby, one set of open arms to another, exclaiming at his tiny fingers, his perfect features, his new baby smell.

I stood by another friend while she let her twelve-year-old son go, unexpectedly, far too soon, on a beautiful September morning. When they put his small casket into the hearse, we all waved checkered flags and popped confetti, and racecars showed up to do a victory lap. While I was out, I stood in a crowd of grievers, and we hugged through our tears and worked very hard to believe that this will all someday be made right.


While I was out, I excused myself from calorie-counting and responsible, grown-up eating habits and binged on potato soup and bread and pasta. Sometimes I had lunch-wine at my favorite writing spot, and it felt like a luxury, alone at a table, just wine and words.

I was out, so I didn’t blog, but I wrote every day, thousands of words that I didn’t show to anyone. I second-guessed and deleted and rewrote and revised. I averaged five cups of coffee in the mornings, writing and guzzling, writing and guzzling.

Every two or three days, I stomped out of the kitchen yelling, I’m quitting writing forever! But then I’d go back, and it felt like learning to tune my violin by ear back in junior high school. Without the instant response of commenters and retweets and Facebook shares to tune my words against, I had to close my eyes and really listen. I had to remember the sound of sharp and flat. The fixed pitch of truth.

I didn’t read much – just bits and pieces, here and there. I couldn’t seem to manage whole novels, so I read excerpts and a lot of poetry. I renewed The Interestings twice and then finally had to give up and return it to the library.

I spent too much money on IKEA bookshelves and stayed up way too late putting them together. I got one piece backwards on the TV stand that I spent five hours building, and two nights later, I had to loosen the whole thing and redo it.

bookshelvesI had a garage sale. I sold our old rocking horse to an art student who will make him into a sculpture. I sold a good portion of our pretend food to new families who will be served imaginary meals by their enthusiastic children. It was therapeutic and sad – letting go of one part of their childhood, embracing a new part.

While I was out, I missed this place and the way I am changed at this blank screen. And I also appreciated having time to rethink what I want this online space to be about. Time to plan and to realign myself and to get excited about this new season of blogging.

While I was out, life kept happening, and I am grateful, and I am refreshed, and I am broken in a few new ways. I am a little emptier and a little fuller.

I am here. I’m ready to get back to work.


[Okay, update me! I missed you all. What have you been up to while I’ve been out?]

Sorry. I’m Out of Words.

photo credit: madame.furie via photopin cc
photo credit: madame.furie via photopin cc

Once, there was a study by the University of Maryland’s College of Medicine that found that on average, women speak about 20,000 words per day, while men speak only 7,000.

My Dad, a wise an unapologetic introvert, was the one who told us about this study, I think. He said it with a note of laughter in his voice and a raised eyebrow at my Mom. From then on, whenever he had exhausted his social resources, he simply said with a shrug and a smile, “Sorry. Out of words,” and headed off to the bedroom to read the paper and watch sports on the tiny old television on his dresser.

I’ve been thinking about that this last couple of weeks when I’ve sat down at my computer, planning to write a blog post, coming up empty every single time.

For the last several months, I’ve been living and breathing Book #2, and the closer I come to that nebulous but certain deadline, the more intense it gets. I’m writing down flashes of insight on the backs of receipts at stoplight. I’m leaving the water running for too long in the kitchen sink because my mind is somewhere else entirely. I’m reading books not as a reader but as a person trying to pin down her own language. Instead of getting lost in the story, I’m trying to figure out how Mary Karr manages to make such seamless transitions, jotting down really great verbs that I want to remember.

When I started work on this project, I understood very quickly that writing a book is like putting together a 100,000 piece puzzle and not knowing what the picture is supposed to look like. But lately, I’ve discovered another twist. In this box, along with the correct 100,000 pieces, there are also thousands and thousands of pieces from other puzzles. It’s lunacy, this writing business. I don’t know why we even try.

photo credit: Pablo S Rios via photopin cc
photo credit: Pablo S Rios via photopin cc

I tallied it up today. Best as I can figure, I have removed 47,490 words from my book so far. Probably more. An average book has somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 words, which means I have nearly an entire book’s worth of deleted words. There was a two-week span in which every time I opened my computer to work on the book, I deleted a thousand or two words instead, leaving gaping holes in my narrative and spotty notes highlighted in yellow.

There is a kind of terrible humility to all of this. When you’re trying so hard to create and you have to just keep destroying. When you need to produce, but even more than that, you need to remove. The world around hums with progress – more, more, more – but the story you’re telling needs less, less, less. Less of this. More of something else that you haven’t figured out quite yet but is on the tip of your fingers as you run the errands, make fish tacos for dinner, buy school supplies, do the laundry.

It’s a hard and holy process, and I love what it’s turning my book into. I believe that it’s becoming what it’s supposed to be.

But when it comes to trying to muster up something brilliant for the Internet? I can’t. I thought I’d be ready by now. I meant to come back to the blog and to social media at the beginning of August and be all the way back. And yet, I’ve got nothing.

Last week, my friend Ed Cyzewski released his great new book, and I really wanted to join in his synchroblog. The question was “What saved your faith,” and I thought, Brilliant question! I’d love to answer that. But all week, I just sat at my computer, and I couldn’t muster up the energy, couldn’t pull my mind out of the other work I’m doing, couldn’t come up with even the simplest answer.

I’m sorry. I’m out of words.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll feel like this or how much longer this book will be a sponge soaking up every bit of inspiration I can muster. I may come up with a post here and there, but for the most part, I’m taking a page from my Dad’s book. I’m heading to the bedroom. I’m closing the door. I need a minute. I need to finish this and to finish it well.

Bear with me? I’ll be back eventually. And when I am, I hope to bring my best words and my whole heart back to this page. Which, in the end, has become one of my favorite places to share it all.

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