One year later: What it means to have my book turn one
Photo: With my dear friend and agent, Jenni Burke, on my book release day last year (2018).
I thought about becoming an author off and on for years throughout my childhood and early adulthood. I pictured myself like Madeleine L’Engle on Crosswicks farm, writing in my golden years. (I know she also wrote while raising children—as well as before—but I always imagined myself like her in the later stage of her writing career.) I’d have a second story window overlooking a large grassy area and of course an oak tree. Obviously there would be a bubbling brook in the distance providing a baseline for the birds’ morning song. And butterflies. And sunshine. And probably some laughter echoing through the crisp spring air.
On a whim I started writing a blog after our first son was born. I had never read a blog before I started one. “Mine would be different,” I told myself. I want to write to help other people, not just publish self indulgent dribble online. (My sort-of-but-not-entirely-accurate assumption of what a blog was in the early days of blogging.)
Looking back at my earliest posts I can see this desire coming through the words—every post carefully crafted with the reader in mind—but I can also see a young mother, grasping to find meaning in her own words. I wrote to encourage others, but I underestimated how much the writing was also helping me to find myself amidst all the emotional upheaval and career changes of early motherhood.
Not long into writing online I began to write into “tougher” subjects. I wrote about what it was like to have a doctor tell us our baby likely had Down syndrome. I wrote about being disappointed that our child was going to be a boy rather than a girl. I wrote about the shame I felt when I lost my temper with my children or how it felt to have meaningful friendships dissolve into the haze of motherhood or how witnessing village births in Papua New Guinea challenged my perspective on so many things.
After experiencing my first miscarriage, I wrote about that too. Within hours of being home from the hospital I spilled my guts onto the page and posted it for anyone to read that would. (And I was desperate that they would.) It was my way of finding an anchor in the storm, learning how to put language to the newfound agony that was unleashed. It’s how I processed and prayed and asked for help. It’s how I grieved.
It was around this time that I had grown more serious with my writing. I was starting to get my hundreds of hours worth of teaching and preaching material onto paper—stories and antidotes that lived in bullet point notes or in my head. I began to wonder if I would write to publish sooner than my golden years. I wanted to. Yet reality always pulled me back: I was a mom to babies and my life was already incredibly (exhaustingly) full. Writing was what held me together when I felt like other parts of my life were trying to unravel themselves. I wrote with ferocity and purpose both publicly and privately—rarely missing a day, always somehow finding minutes to scratch out words, no matter how scarce the nap time hours were.
In 2014 I was invited on a writers’ retreat in Italy. I had no idea that those ten days would form a precipice on which I would learn to jump from. I entered with purpose and intention, then was hit with a wave of intense insecurity and imposter syndrome when I realized the others on the trip were “real” writers (which, in my mind at the time meant published authors—though I know better now).
One quiet afternoon I sat under a canopy of vines looking out across fields of wheat fringed in sunlight, and more clearly than I know how to articulate I sensed God speaking to me that it was time to write Grace Like Scarlett—the title he had given me days after losing our first baby.
At the time I was pregnant after our first miscarriage and I hardly wanted to write about the most painful experience of my life, but I said “yes, Lord” and resolved to get to work once I was home and back into the normal rhythm of writing.
That normal rhythm never came.
Instead, two days later I was bleeding in a monastery. My second miscarriage had begun. It continued in Saint Peter’s Basilica while I received the blessing of Pope Francis, and in a hospital hallway in Rome, and while I stood under the Sistine Chapel shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers who had no idea I was carrying death in my womb.
My second miscarriage left me angry—a visceral response to the injustice of life aborted without being given the chance to flourish. I couldn’t comprehend the jarring beauty around me while I grappled with the ugliness within my own body.
As painful as that trip was, it cemented a course God had pointed me toward. My dream agent pursued me. I began writing a book proposal through another pregnancy and a third miscarriage and then another pregnancy, and finished it weeks before our youngest was born full term and a million pounds strong. While I nursed our newborn my agent shopped my book proposal to different publishing houses. The offers came quickly and I was lucky to have the choice of which publisher to work with. I had a new baby, a new two-book contract, and a newborn passion to write the message God had already been writing within me.
It wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to write a book on grief and suffering, or attempt narrative theology around issues of theodicy or eschatology or any of the other sensitive issues I explored while also digging to the depths of my sorrow to describe my own personal loss through memoir-inspired sections. But although this wasn’t the book I wanted to write, it was the book I needed to write—one about grace and hope, promise and presence. It was the book I wished someone had handed me in the days when we lost our first baby to miscarriage—Scarlett. It’s also the book I wished I could have read after losing Oliver. And then Ruby.
It was the book I had to write.
Grace Like Scarlett was conceived at the bottom of my pain where I found God’s goodness was still there. But it grew through my subsequent miscarriages and heartache and struggle to make sense of my faith in which the only thing left standing was my core belief that God’s goodness was reality, no matter how I felt. Grace Like Scarlett came to term as I poured myself into the actual manuscript during the blurry days of sleepless nights and (seemingly) endless newborn feedings. And then a short fourteen months after I started the manuscript, I labored to see the printed book take its first breath in the world.
It was miraculous; it was new life and it was changing me.
It’s been a year since sharing Grace Like Scarlett with the world, and like any new child it’s easy to divide my life into “before and after.” There is a distinct line in the sand that’s drawn when a work comes to completion (or a child makes their appearance to the outside world). Even if that book has been within you for a lifetime, nothing can truly prepare you for the fact that once it’s in print it no longer belongs to you, but to those to whom now give it place on their nightstand.
Never in my life have I come up against such fear and vulnerability, insecurity and doubt as when my words were given permanence in print. But never in my life have I been more proud of my hard work—the tears and the sweat equity and the depths of anguish I explored in prayer so that I could offer something rich and meaningful—and even beautiful—in a world often marked with pain. Never before have I experienced such abundance in my lack, such strength in my weakness, such grace in my inadequacy, such faith in the face of doubt and fear and discomfort, such hope in the midst of hardship.
One year later and I hardly know how to mark this birthday, this anniversary. I always imagined marking it with fanfare and celebration, the equivalent of my heartfelt extravagance as I hosted my children’s first birthday parties. And yet now that this anniversary is here I’m more weepy and nostalgic than anything else. More grateful. More astounded. More rooted in the wonder of its existence. More amazed by God’s kindness.
There is little in my life as miraculous as the way God tenderly led me into writing and publishing Grace Like Scarlett. It won’t be my last book, and I hope I will keep growing as a writer and be able to one day say it’s not even my best book (though that feels strange now to muse). But it will always hold a sacred place in my heart because it was born out of such sorrow and sacrifice.
I read it again not long ago and unexpectedly received the ministry of words, barely remembering that I was the one who first penned them. Writing Grace Like Scarlett was my invitation from Jesus to write down the goodness that he showed me despite my heartache. Writing it was also my invitation—his invitation—to you to look for his goodness, too.
I’ve learned that your eyes will see what you’re looking for, and even in the darkness, if you look for the goodness of God you will see it—sometimes without even squinting. If you become still, you will hear the invitation that pain brings—not just the invitation to heal, but first the invitation to go deeper, to be formed by Christ even as he is formed within you. My hope is that all who turn her pages will discover the powerful simplicity of the ministry of presence, both as a recipient and a giver.
“I wanted to give up on God until I read your words.”
“You helped me see I wasn’t alone.”
“I refer back to your book often on my own hardest days of grief, and it’s also the book I recommend to my clients when they lose a baby themselves.”
“I was burned by my friends who didn’t see my loss as significant, but you’ve helped me to see that God cares and still loves me despite how I’ve felt about him.”
I could tell you the number of printings my book has had or the copies sold. I could brag about this or that feedback I’ve received from a publishing professional with the guise of celebrating a “win” with my “fans.” Depending on your measuring stick these metrics and accolades could impress you or disappoint you. But the true measure of impact comes in how it’s worked its way into hearts, most of which I’ll never know. These snippets of statements from private letters and emails mean more to me than an online shopfront full of five star reviews. Hearing of a book passed between friends means more to me than the sum of each woman buying her own.
As I commemorate the milestone of Grace Like Scarlett’s birth into the world one year ago, I do so with deepest thanks for the One Who Holds All Things Together. He held me together while writing and now holds others together as they crack pages and hearts wide open in hopes he’ll meet them in their pain, too.
Happy birthday, Grace Like Scarlett. I’m proud of you, amazed by you, thankful for you, humbled by you, and blessed by you. I thought my fingerprints were on you, but it turns out yours are on me, too. Thank you for continuing to teach me.
Do your thing in the world, you tender yet fierce book-girl, Grace Like Scarlett. Find the hearts who need you and point them to the only One that can truly heal.
Now, let’s go buy ourselves some flowers, shall we?
Purchase a copy:
If you’d like to help others find Grace Like Scarlett to help them in their grief (or help them better understand the grief of others) you can do two fairly simple things:
- Request that your local library and church library (or pastoral care ministry) stock Grace Like Scarlett.
- Leave an honest review on Amazon (or on Goodreads) of how Grace Like Scarlett has helped you (or helped a friend if you purchased as a gift).
Just for fun:
And because it’s fun, a happy first-time-author photo from the first time I got to hold a real copy last year. (I cried not long after this as the sad reality sunk in that this book needed to be written in the first place and I was the one to write it. Such an emotional roller coaster!)