I wrote this blog post many years ago – in fact I have long since removed it from my blog. But I've recently seen some despairing posts from even my strongest friends, I thought I would rewrite it for the COVID-19 crisis. But, as I reviewed it, it refreshed even my own soul, and I decide to just re-post the original. – Wednesday, 3/25/2020
The downside of celebrating this “calendar” holiday is that it locks us into the rigidity of thinking that we can only start afresh when the calendar allows it. And yet every breath offers us a new chance.
What is it that we are celebrating, when we celebrate a New Year?
Most obviously, it means a new start. Out with the old, in with the new. “Out” with the bad things that happened that “jinxed” the previous year, and “in” with all the hopes and dreams for 2019: good luck, good fortune, happiness, love, joy, peace and bubbly, giddy emotions.
But, really? Can’t we get a fresh start with every heartbeat? The downside of celebrating this “calendar” holiday is that it locks us into the rigidity of thinking that we can only start afresh when the calendar allows it. And yet every breath offers us a new chance. And perhaps we miss all the good of this past year when we focus on the new.
So, what are we celebrating? The New Year is not a religious holiday. But there is something spiritual about it.
The earth completed an entire revolution around the sun over this past year, which takes 365 days. When I contemplate that fact, which I really honestly do from time-to-time, it is amazing. The earth didn’t get tipsy and tumble out of its orbit. It didn’t slip a little closer to the sun, getting sucked in like a bad relationship, so that we were all scorched. Nor did it fail to pay attention to its designated path and drift every-so-slightly away, so that we might have frozen to death.
The sheer delicacy of this orbit is, indeed, something to celebrate! It is something for which I do thank God. Because really, if God even dozed off for a moment, took his hand off the wheel (so to speak), we’d be cinders. Or icicles.
No, everything continues in its glorious, monotonous orbit, thanks be to God. And that’s what might make this a spiritual holiday – a feast day of gratitude that we didn’t slip or slide too far, one way or the other.
All this while the earth managed to complete its revolutions on its own axis, which is beginning to sound like a dizzying, advanced dance step. “Turn on your own axis 365 times while slowly-slowly-lentamente turning once around your partner, never ever deviating in your distance from your partner.”
Why, yes, I think maybe this is cause for celebration. Except that we also completed 365 days of the same thing yesterday. And the day before. And the day before. And, God willing, tomorrow.
The marking of a new year, or the passage of time, is just scratchings on a stone wall, or on paper. Markers, to be sure, but markers with no magical power – no power whatsoever -- to help us or hinder us in our quest to change our habits.
And, we are made fresh and new with every heartbeat and every prayer, and we never need to wait for New Year’s to adopt change, improve our habits. If you make a decision to quit smoking or lose weight, then don’t wait until New Year’s Day. Do it now, any time of year that you resolve to do it. Honestly, to me waiting until New Year’s means you didn’t really resolve to change at all – you just resolved to wait.
If you made New Year’s resolutions, great – I wish you well. But the capacity to change is always inside of you – not just once a year. Be blessed with that thought today – and every day.
Yes, indeed. “It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.” Lamentations 3:22-24
Live today in a way that makes tomorrow better.
The grape arbor bloomed into a magical fortress each year. Trussed on posts, the broad-leafed Concord vines arched far above my toddler head, their impish young tendrils mirroring my own unruly curls.
My mother nightly carried me to this magical corner of our yard to check the progress of the little green imposters that gradually swelled and blued over the summer until fat and fragrant indigo-purple grapes. I learned to eat them right off the vine, my mom lifting me so I could clutch the clusters in my chubby little fists.
The grapes would end up in the jams and jellies born of canning on hot August nights, or in the strange Swedish concoction called “bärkräm” (or “krem”) that my mother made, which was the equivalent of grape pudding.
Beyond memories such as these, my mother’s influence takes on a new shape and meaning with each new phase of my life; it dims and glows, ebbs and flows, but like the ever-changing, never-ending tide, it’s always present.
In recent weeks, I joyfully acquired another new grandbaby, which has prompted me to be more reflective: What did I receive of value from my mother? What have I passed on to my children? And, now, what will I pass on to my grandchildren?
Thelma Cairns was adopted, and when she was four-years-old her adoptive mother died. Enduring not one primal wound, but two is a rough start in life! Next her father moved her from pillar to post and then dumped her with distant relatives, where she was molested and emotionally abused. How she ever found the legs to stand on, to move forward, I will never know.
But, out of this crucible, a passion was forged: she married my dad and embraced the idea that being a homemaker was a woman’s highest calling in life. As a result, she learned everything there was to know about home economics.
She was thrifty, creative, and committed to feeding a family of four (which grew to six) on $20 a week. She planned menus and shopped with a $20 bill in her “pocketbook,” crafty about which products to choose, and calculating unit pricing long before it was mandated. She added her bill in her head, item by item, frequently removing things and putting them back on the shelves. Without the aid of a calculator, she was still dead accurate when we checked out. If there was a dime leftover, she let me buy a Women’s Day magazine. Rarely did she miscalculate and go over her cash budget – it was too embarrassing to have the clerk remove items from the bill. Can you do that kind of math in your head with kids in tow?
She sewed beautifully and made our clothes, darned socks, and canned our garden’s bounty. She saved everything, recycling stuff into other useful forms before recycling was a word. We teethed on the rubber rings from canning jars, and saved string, newspapers, paper bags, and aluminum foil. The notion that anything was “disposable” or “single use” didn’t exist.
What did I learn from her?
How to be poor: As Mae West famously said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.” When I’m broke, I know how to make a budget and live within it; I learned how to do without; and I learned to track finances and eschew debt because these habits pay off.
How to make a penny squeak: From finding fine art at Goodwill, to making my own curtains, to knowing how to evaluate fabric, produce, or any other item based on its intrinsic value in comparison to its price – I learned it from my mom.
How to look like a million bucks doing it: My mom had a fabulous sense of color and flair and could doll up a cheap T-shirt with a scarf or put a new ribbon on a hat to make it look completely new. I learned that I am a palette to be creatively splashed with color and pizzazz each day.
How to be content doing it: My mom didn’t complain about our lowly circumstances. Living creatively and well on a budget produced great satisfaction and contentment for her, and I learned that creativity and hard work are among life’s greatest satisfactions.
How to embrace the lovely ordinary of daily routines. Mom delighted in making the bed, washing the dishes, and doing the laundry. I never heard her complain and I rarely saw her sit down. She had no goal to get it done so she could rest – she got it done so she and her family could enjoy the fruits of her labor. She found beauty in the soap bubbles, the first lilacs, a straight seam, and an orderly house.
How to create order and love it: Order propels forward progress. Order frees you to be creative. As Julia Cameron says, “When we open ourselves to exploring our creativity, we open ourselves to God: Good orderly direction.” More than anything – really at the very top of the heap of things I learned from her – is how to create order and how important order is for the smooth running of a household.
How to conserve: I learned how to conserve everything, re-use, turn off lights, and make everything from scratch because it matters. I find caring for creation to be a natural outgrowth of who I am because my mom laid that foundation.
How to live today in a way that makes tomorrow better: Whether spiritually, mentally, vocationally, emotionally, or physically at the core my mother’s gospel was to live today in a way that makes tomorrow better. I will happily embrace, adopt, and transmit that gospel.
I’m not claiming that these are the most important values in life: I’m telling you what stands out in my memory of what I learned from my mom, and as I’ve reflected on them, I have decided these habits and mind sets are worth passing on. May I be graced with the ability to do so and pass on an appreciation for the lovely ordinary.
For those who mourn the loss of an unborn child.
by Sharon Cairns Mann
For Baby Pea: 1/29/2018
You went before you knew you loved
the mountains and the sky.
You went before you knew you loved
puppies, and cuddles, and pie.
You went before you knew you loved
Your mom, your dad, and me.
You skipped ahead of us to BE
Your full potential as Baby Pea
In the resurrection life.
You went before you knew you were loved
But you know love more fully than we,
In the resurrection life.
Some may think you were fragile, but
You, tiny thing, are the strong one.
You, Baby Pea, are the magnet,
Pulling us all toward
The resurrection life.
We will meet you there soon, for the very first time.
And we will know you. Oh, yes!
We will know you the minute we see you.
So, pull with all your heart, little strong one.
Pull as hard as you might.
Pull us all together, strong magnet,
To the resurrection life.
Here's what I've learned in the school of hard knocks, through many writing classes, critiques, and reader feedback.
#defylabels #writerly #authoradvocate #iamwriting #ilovecoloradoauthors
© Sharon Cairns Mann
So, you are a writer. Lucky you! We all know it’s a hard life, so I don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on the brilliant, luminescent, glittering gifts that writing brings to the writer because you will need that glitter when it gets long, hard, and boring. Here’s where I am and what I’ve learned. As a writer:
1. You get to discover your soul. You get to burrow deep inside and find out who you really are, what your story is, and whether you’ve got the courage to tell it.
2. You are the one who will learn the most. As John Updike said, if we wanted to “purvey our opinions” we’d become preachers or politicians. Writers are artists, and your best work will be journeys of discovery in which you will likely learn more than your reader.
3. You get to experience creativity in the most amazing way: word by word, moment by moment. You get to forge an alliance with the Great Creator and play on the page.
4. You get to experience the benefits of working things out on paper. Even if no one sees your work, it’s therapeutic and free.
5. The future belongs to you because you are writing your future. You are literally changing reality with every word you write. With every word you write you finish a sentence; with every sentence, a chapter; with every chapter, a book or project; and with every project you finish, you touch people and change their lives, and you’ve changed yours along the way. Start where you are and write your future.
6. You get to play every day. As Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” What are you waiting for? Go play!
7. If you break-up with your significant other, you can write out your pain in a new story, or kill him off. “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” (Geoffrey Chaucer, “A Knight’s Tale,” in Canterubry Tales.)
8. Ideas come at any time – in the shower, while you’re driving, while you are waiting in the doctor’s office, or on the beach. You can work while on vacation. Or not.
9. Life always dishes up new fodder; or, as Patricia Raybon says, “Life pays dividends for writers.”
10. If you’re lucky, you learn to give up fear and to just put your work out there.
So, write on, fellow writers, and enjoy the gifts that come your way!
#defylabels #amwriting #authoradvocate
Who is going to be the next great faith-based literary fiction writer?
In January, Sarah Arthur, one of the preliminary fiction judges for the annual Christianity Today book awards, threw down a challenge to evangelical writers in her article “I’m on the lookout for the next great Christian novel.” Arthur nails it when she complains that as a literature major she wonders why some of her favorite authors aren’t on the bookshelves of Christian bookstores. She lists the key ingredients that she would look for in the “next great Christian novel,” and I have no beef with Arthur’s list – after all, she’s the expert on what she looks for! So, if it’s your goal to write the “next great Christian novel,” it’s an ideal resource.
But, with all due respect to Arthur, aiming to write the next great Christian novel may not be a worthy goal for you if you are a Christian and aspire to write fiction. It may not be worth years of your life. It may be a goal that’s too limited and too restrictive, and it may deprive a broader audience from receiving your gifts.
If you are a person of faith and desire to write fiction, perhaps you should be writing literary fiction destined for the public sphere. So, I want to “up the ante” on Arthur’s challenge and throw down a new challenge to people of faith: who’s going to write the next Pulitzer-prize-winning novel?
For purposes of this article and to contain the discussion, I’m going to remain tightly focused on literary fiction, although this discussion could easily apply to poetry or creative nonfiction as well – but, in the essence of time, I want to avoid any extra bunny trails.
Literary fiction consists of fictional works of literary merit. It typically focuses in some way on the human condition, and may involve psychological, social, political, or religious commentary. It is frequently defined by what it is “not”: It is not commercial or genre fiction, with associated conventions.
Genre fiction tends to be plot driven, which may result in flat, two-dimensional characters that only exist to serve the plot, not because they are deep, rich, and important in and of themselves. One of the chief defining characteristics of literary fiction is that it is usually more character-driven than plot driven. This is a significant distinction. Literary fiction typically has highly developed richly textured characters. Their inconsistencies, foibles, neuroses, and other deep motivations – and the tensions, situations, and conflict created by those things -- are what move the story along. As a result, character-driven stories may sometimes lead to tragic endings.
Just because a story is not plot–driven doesn’t mean that it lacks story structure. Good literary fiction can still be a “page turner,” and has to have some kind of story question, but it doesn’t necessarily adhere to conventional plot devices.
Other characteristics of literary fiction are its elevated language, which may result in slower pacing. Literary fiction is not necessarily designed to be a page turner, but rather to elicit emotional involvement in the reader. Literary fiction is usually elegantly written, layered with literary devices such as themes, motifs, metaphors.
Christian fiction has almost become its own genre, with these conventions: it’s written by a Christian, for a Christian audience, published by a Christian publishing company, and destined for a Christian bookstore, and thus follows the guidelines of the Christian Booksellers Association. Christian fiction is a category that covers a variety of genres (romance, historical fiction, thriller, apocalyptic). The guidelines were mailed to me from a publisher, who wrote: “Since we sell to CBA stores, we must follow their rules,” which were as follows:
“The stories may not include alcohol consumption by Christian characters, card playing, gambling or games of chance (including raffles), explicit scatological terms, hero and heroine remaining overnight together alone, Halloween celebrations or magic, or the mention of intimate body parts. Lying is also problematical in the CBA market and characters who are Christian should not lie or deceive others. Possibly there could be exceptional circumstances (matters of life and death), but this has to be okayed by an editor.”
Now, here’s my question. While I know there is a big market for “Christian fiction,” I don’t personally know anyone who reads it. And, with those rules, I wonder “who would want to read something like that?” While I don’t disrespect the CBA, these rules create a censorship that bifurcates the world and creates a false dichotomy: Christians write and read Christian books, and pagans write and read everything else. This false dichotomy does not create real art and I challenge people of faith who want to write fiction to carefully consider their goals.
The Cost of Sanitized Art
There is a high cost to sanitized art. First, it fails to take the aesthetic dimension of God’s creation – including the fall -- seriously. According to the rules listed above, the Bible should not be sold in Christian bookstores because, as we well know, it’s pretty bawdy! Its characters include murderers, whores, drunkards, traitors, gamblers, liars, depressed prophets, anxious people, people who commit suicide and the great king David “remaining overnight together alone” with Bathsheba. If you can’t describe the depths and consequences of fallen behavior in your writing, then how can you describe the grace of redemption, the inscrutability of forgiveness, or the mystery of the now-but-not-now kingdom of God?
Creating “rules” about what characters can and cannot do in fiction creates dishonest art. Rules rob them of their (fictional) God-given free will, and makes them dull and uninteresting. It presents a false picture of life, humanity, and our struggle as embodied souls -- spiritual beings having a human experience. All human lives are messy, and we need to be honest about that.
Sanitized art creates a vacuum. When Christians deplore the state of “secular” art as being godless, dark, or nihilistic, all I can say is, “Well, what did you expect?” If Christian artists are not encouraged to produce art for the public sphere, then it creates a vacuum and leaves that sphere to the dominion of nonbelievers – creating the very hedonistic, desperate, lost, and dark art that Christians complain about.
Rules such as those listed above artificially suspend “faith artists” in the interstices of this false dichotomy. As a writer of literary fiction, I have learned that it is generally not “safe” for me to attend “Christian” writers’ conferences because I am marginalized in a variety of ways: 1) there are no tracks or workshops for literary writers; 2) there is an assumption that every person of faith (and every person in attendance) is writing for the Christian market; and 3) nobody has a clue what I mean when I say I write literary fiction.
I plead for the day when literary fiction writers are welcomed and affirmed at Christian writers’ conferences, and encouraged, empowered, and supported in their endeavor to serve God freely and fully, according to their gifts, to help readers in a hurting world glimpse the mysteries of grace, redemption, and the transcendence of God – by writing into a secular market.
Additionally, sanitized art insults and alienates the audience. Readers want entertainment, but they want it to be compelling and realistic – and good. I have a friend who recently recommended a “Christian novel” to her reading group because it was written by “a friend.” She later related to me how embarrassed she was when they actually read the book because it was so badly written, and no one enjoyed it at all.
We need to do away with this unbiblical dualistic worldview that artificially divides the sacred from the secular, leads to restrictions about what constitutes a “Christian novel,” and thus has the potential to diminish truth and quality.
So, what is “faith-based fiction” (sometimes called “faith-in-fiction”? When I talk about faith-based fiction, I’m talking about something that is distinctly different than Christian fiction (described above). To me, faith-based fiction is fine literature that happens to be written by a person of faith or has compelling, but not necessarily overt, faith-based themes even if not written by a person who claims a particular faith. These themes can be very subtle, but I believe a writer’s worldview will shine through his or her work, without it ever needing to be overt!
When I think of faith-based fiction, I think of works and/or writers such as:
Most of these authors/books are not sold in Christian bookstore, but I think of them as the giants of faith-based fiction. But, as Randy Boyagoda rightly points out, many (not all) of these giants are dead. Who is replacing them? Boyagoda laments that “… serious literary fiction largely occupies its very own naked public sphere, shorn of any reference to religiously informed understandings of who and what and wherefrom we are, which represents a marked break from centuries of literary production informed by Christian beliefs, traditions, and culture."7
There is an urgent need for faith-based literary fiction that flourishes in the world outside the church door. And thus my challenge: Who is going to be the next great faith-based literary fiction writer?
I hope my fellow writers hear this call and take seriously the challenge to write the next Pulitzer-prize winning novel. For faith writers, I hope you take this challenge seriously as a valid and indispensable avenue of service.
I can’t tell you what your aspirations should be. Those are yours and yours alone. If you want to accept Arthur’s challenge, go for it! But, I hope we can develop a new culture in which faith-based literary writers are encouraged, empowered, and affirmed in their endeavors. I hope you, Writer, will be inspired to play with Christ on the page, to serve God freely and fully according to your gifts. I hope you hear that Christian fiction is not the only avenue for writers of faith, and that you do not need to be trapped by artificial conventions. Now, go out and deliver the top-quality fiction the world so desperately needs.
#defylabels #authoradvocate #amwriting
©SharonCairnsMann with gratitude to reviewers Ellen Haroutunian, Robert W. Cairns, and Patricia Long.
 I use “Pulitzer-prize” as a generic term for any national or international book award for high literary merit. There are many to aim for!
 I do not know the date of these rules, and they may have changed, but I could not find any current guidelines. This is what was mailed to me by a publisher.
 Even Arthur says, “I don’t personally read much that falls within the contemporary marketing category of ‘Christian fiction.’”
 One happy exception was the Writers on the Rock Conference in Denver in 2016 with “The Beautiful Due” led by John Blase: https://thebeautifuldue.wordpress.com/
 See also Val Comer at http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue29/Christian.htm.
 This is a short list. See a list called “A very incomplete list of novels that join in the conversation of faith” at http://faithinfiction.blogspot.com/2005/04/will-there-always-be-us-and-them.html.
 Randy Boyagoda, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/faith-in-fiction, August 2013.
You don't have to write books to have a successful writing career!
Dear Writers or Aspiring Writers:
Take heart and leap out of the publishing box. What do I mean? When I meet someone and tell them I’m a professional writer – and have been since 1978 – they immediately want to know what I write. Some are genuinely interested in finding out more about me. Some want to know if I’m famous. Others ask if they’ve ever read anything I’ve written. (I’ve never been sure how to answer that last question since I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’ve learned to answer with my own question, “Well, what do you read?”)
At the heart of their questions, however, there lurk several assumptions:
1. That if I’m a writer, I must be writing books; and
2. If I’m any good, they would have heard of me.
Unfortunately, these assumptions are fallacies and, worse yet, these assumptions smother beginning writers with misinformation and discouragement.
I want to stand up and shout, “It’s not true! Don’t let them get you down!”
I’ve had a passion to write since I was a little girl. I got my first paid writing assignment before I graduated from college, which kick-started my career in a valuable way.
What do I write? Well, in 39 years I’ve written so much, it might almost be easier to tell you what I have not written. But, I’ll take a stab at clarifying that you don’t have to write books to have a successful writing career by listing some of the things I’ve done.
I have been paid to write:
I have been paid to publish (in print):
I have been paid to edit and assist in print production of:
I have been paid to develop and write (electronic):
I’ve been paid to consult on:
I’ve written “my own stuff” and it has been traditionally published:
That’s just a short list. Dear writers, I am not bragging when I list these things. I am writing to encourage you to think outside the publishing box that everyone else wants to put you in. Please know that there are many other options available to you besides just publishing a book.
While the general public may not consider me a “success” (I haven’t written huge bestsellers, and they don’t know my name), I consider myself a success because:
You need to discern if you are called to write (frequently with no byline) or if you are called to just write your stuff, with your name attached.
If you always want to have your name attached, then you need to discern why you are in this game. If you always want creative credit and if you only dream of writing books, then you are limiting yourself, and you may have a hard, discouraging road ahead of you.
But if you feel called to be a writer, then there are endless possibilities open for you.
Writer friends, open your minds and leap out of the “publishing box created by other people” into a writing career.
#defylabels #agoodread #writerly
©Sharon Cairns Mann
For the third night in a row tonight, I find myself in my garage, working on a mosaic I had started – and stopped -- more than a year ago. I had stowed the project away, with no real plans to resume anytime soon. But on this past Sunday, June 12, 2016, I wandered into the garage, laid out my tools, and dragged out my hoarded bags of broken tile. I inventoried them, studied my design plans, and dove in. I put Fernando Ortega’s Kyrie Elieson on iTunes, hit the “repeat” button, and stood there for hours putting pieces together, listening to the Kyrie over and over.
It’s a busy time for me, not a time for hobbies right now. So, tonight, when I find myself here for the third night in a row, I wonder what on earth I am doing. And then I realize that this is how I mourn. After my marriage fell apart in 2012, I spent hours in my tiny loft working on a huge mosaic for the entry way of our home – a home I may never live in or enjoy again. People asked me why I was doing this favor for my departed love, and I said, “I’m not doing it for him.” Mosaics are just how I make sense of my life, how I assuage grief, and, how I bless every single person who crosses the threshold of that home – with my prayerful, thoughtful representation of the vibrancy of southwestern days and nights in the finished piece.
Making mosaic art is tedious. There’s nothing glamourous about it. I take one little tiny insignificant piece and find a home for it. I search out the right color, the right size, the right shape. One of the things I enjoy most about mosaic art is recycling old stuff. I try to never buy new tile, and prefer to find it in dumpsters or at Bud’s Warehouse or the Habitat Re-Store. The search is part of the joy – the victory of finding old discarded and broken things, giving each piece a new home in a fresh setting, and making them beautiful again. The bottom line is, I take broken things and put them together in a new way. I make art out of what others deem useless; I take the discarded, give it a home, and love it again.
And as I analyze why I am in the garage again tonight, I realize that I am mourning the Orlando victims in the best way I know how – quietly and alone -- putting broken things back together again.
I begin to think about how many of my friends are out chopping weeds, and planting seeds in gardens in their quiet way of making order in the world. Those who are stitching quilt scraps together, writing poems, tooling leather, or furiously sanding an old dresser to bring new life to it. Because we grieve.
This quiet work of grief is generative. It may be silent and unnoticed, but it is how some of us work to make the world new. I never question what the Spirit suggests when it comes to creativity. If standing in my garage, alone, listening to music is how I grieve and how I bring order to the world, then I’m confident that this generative work counts for something.
To my LGBTQ friends, I love you. I’m sorry I’m not more vocal. But I mourn with you and for all of us in the best way that I know how: creating something new, breathing life into something that didn’t exist, praying for each victim and their family in the long tedious hours of putting the broken pieces together.
As Eugene Peterson says, “Life is the end [purpose, meaning] of life: life, life, and more life.”
(c) 2016 Sharon Cairns Mann
Sharon Cairns Mann quietly creates space where you are welcomed and respected as a reader. In this blog she writes about the craft of writing, creativity, and self-care. In addition to her extensive writing credits, Sharon is a psychotherapist and certified clinical hypnotherapist (Cht.), with insights into self-care based on her personal experience and clinical practice.