Sing it, Lamb Chop!

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This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

Concrete Tips on Book Writing: It’s Like Working a Puzzle

Jigsaw 3 bits out

Just how does one go about writing a book?

Have you ever had that thought?

I am a published author and most days, I still struggle with that question. There’s so much involved in writing a book: craft, connections, moxie, perseverance.

And then there’s this, too: writing is vulnerable. Edna St. Vincent Millay said “a person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

But what else can we do? We must write. And sometimes our efforts turn into a book.

I am in the process of writing my second book, which has pretty much eclipsed everything else in my life. With my first book, I took years writing the whole manuscript before finding an agent and a publishing house. This time, my agent sold the book on proposal with a deadline. I was given eleven months to write and submit it. Yikes.

But how do you actually do it?

I’ve decided that, either way, whether you are on deadline or on your own agenda, writing a book is like doing a puzzle.

I write creative nonfiction. My puzzle pieces are anecdotes and stories from my life. I lurch around in the darkness of my writing cove, type words, peel back memories and scenes from the past, and try to find something salvageable to get down on paper. I try pieces in different places, and attempt to trust that the piece has a place, and that at some point the puzzle will be complete.

Yeah, but, can you answer the question?

Oh, right, I’m supposed to give you a few concrete tips on writing a book.

Let’s assume you are a writer. Here are skills you already possess: you read a lot, you write, you have taken classes or participated in a writing workshop that critiqued your work. Let’s assume you are ready to write a book, and you are looking for a few quick, concrete tips regarding the process.

OK, I can help with that.

-I prepare. I read a chapter from a book I love. I pray about my writing. I block common distractions (i.e. if the kids are home, it is off to the coffee shop I go). I look at my calendar on Google and plan writing time. It is as official as doctor appointments and school functions.

-I write. I can’t tell you how many people have talked to me about writing. “How much of the story do you have down?” I ask. “Oh, I haven’t started writing yet. It’s all up here.” (points to head). Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. I try to find several hours to write. I shoot for 1000 words or two hours editing. I spend time looking off into space, though, too.

-I realize that it takes a lot of work. It took me years to write the first draft of Sun Shine Down. And just so you know, nobody writes wonderful first drafts (if they do, I am going to avoid them and refuse to read their work on principle). Rewriting is key. I hired a professional editor, printed out her suggestions, sat down to the blank page, and re-typed the whole thing.

-I look for tools that will help. I purchased Scrivener, a word processing program specifically for writers. I can pop in and out of chapters easily and I love the cork board feature that helps me see the big picture of my book. I also found an app in Google Chrome based on the Pomodoro Technique. It blocks social media for 25 minutes and then gives me 5 minutes to check email or get up before returning to work. Keep your eye out for tips and tools that will help you and then go a step farther, and utilize them.

-I try to ignore negativity. Beware. Throughout the process you will assume you can’t do it. After, God willing, your book publishes, you still won’t believe you did it or that you could do it again. One of the best ways I know to ignore negativity is to keep writing. I also talk to other writers and attend a monthly writing group.

The second half of Millay’s quote is “If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

So, here’s to good books! Here’s to puzzle pieces in place, and here’s to us in our writing pursuits!

The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?

 

Overwhelmed by Your “To Do” List?

Photo/KarenJordan

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it” (George Bernard Shaw).

Buried beneath a mountain of paperwork? Paralyzed by some impending deadlines? Dreaming of a week on the beach?

I considered a “real job” until I read the job description: “Ability to work independently and multitask.”

I love to work independently. But I tend to hyperfocus most of the time. And I struggle with multitasking all of the time. So, I passed on that job opportunity.

I’m not so sure multitasking works well for my daughter Tara, either. She seems frustrated at times when I call as she prepares dinner—holding a screaming baby, listening to a whining preschooler, dealing with two squabbling little boys, and talking on the phone, all at the same time.

I can’t even concentrate on my writing projects at times with dishes in the sink or a hamper of dirty laundry waiting on me. And if the phone rings, I lose focus completely. Then, when I start worrying about all the details of my life, writer’s block paralyzes me.

Revelation. I woke up early one morning overwhelmed with my “to do” list. So, I decided to take an early morning walk at sunrise.

As I walked down the street toward the lake, the view of the sunrise surprised me. And I forgot about all of my worries as I soaked in the beauty of the dawn. I tried to capture the moment with my camera.

After pausing a few minutes to admire the view, I continued my walk. Most mornings, I enjoy listening to the sounds of nature as I walk the trails near my home. But since I took another route to the lake, I decided to listen to my favorite radio station.

Imagine my delight as I encountered the lyrics to “Light Up the Sky” by the Afters: “You light up the sky to show me that you are with me ….”.

In an interview with cbn.com, Matt Fuqua, vocalist/guitarist for the Afters, says, “The story behind Light Up the Sky is a part of the story of all of us … [It’s] a picture of what it looks like when you make it through [a] really challenging time, and you look back and see how God was using all of those things for good and that you were never alone.”

Reflection. God drew my attention to the majesty of His creation as I observed the heavenly canopy of the sunrise reflected on Lake Cortez, glowing through the trees near my home the next morning.

Did God light up the sky to show me that He was with me?

I couldn’t deny it. He opened my eyes, and I could see evidence of His Presence all around me.


How has God revealed Himself to you?

Photo/KarenJordan
YouTube/theaftersvideos (“Light Up the Sky” by The Afters)

 

Marketing Lessons From My Dog

bulldog wearing eyeglasses sleeping over a good novelAlthough my dog knows nothing about online social media, she is a rich inspiration for me when it comes to marketing. Here are the lessons I’m learning from her as I spend this season promoting my humorous memoir, Saved by Gracie, about my life with a four-pawed family member.

1. Persistence pays off. Gracie gets a fresh whiff of ground squirrel in one of the numerous holes in the hillside we walk every day, and for the next three days, she smashes her big nose into that same hole when we pass by. By the fourth day, she tries another approach and begins digging furiously to find the critter she knows is somewhere down there. So far, no squirrel, but she’s produced a mound of fresh dirt to play with. My take-away: keep working a lead until you get what you’re after, or until your work yields other opportunities. It worked for me last week: after a month of trying to get some events press from the alumni office of my alma mater, I tried another approach – I contacted the university’s social media manager, who offered to post and share my events. I knew there was help somewhere, and I found it! And now I have a productive contact in my resource file for future reference. Opossum22. Instead of dancing around an idea, grab it and run with it. Gracie finds an opossum on the edge of our backyard and circles, unsure what to do with it. I try to get her away from the furry ball, but we continue to dance around it until she finally snatches it up in her mouth and tears off for the front yard. She drops it along the way, I snag her collar, and take her into the house. Gracie is unharmed, and the opossum wanders back into the woods. My take-away: be bold and see what develops. I always wondered if there was value in an author book tour, so I decided to put one together myself for Saved by Gracie. It forced me to reach out to new venues and contacts in places I’d never approached, expanding my network of resources and readers. And since I traveled to places where I have family, I got free housing and a chance to visit, too. More importantly, I’ve learned the details that go into a book tour, creating a template for the next time around. (And the book tour didn’t bite me, either.) CC Cookie and Gracie 0533. Take a break. Gracie takes a nap after our morning jog, but by afternoon, she’s eager to go back outside and do it again. My take-away: recharging is just as important as working hard. Like many authors, my to-do lists are long and ever-growing. I have to make myself take breaks, but when I find myself away from my lists, my mind runs free, generating fresh ideas and perspectives. By the time I’m back at work, I’ve got new creative energy to pour into my projects. Which leads me to conclude that whoever said “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” clearly wasn’t an author. Or at least, not one who sold books…

Watch Your Words: A Mother’s Day Reflection from Nature

Photo/KarenJordan

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  (James 1:9 NLT).

I glanced up the hill behind our home, and I had eye contact with a doe as she watched over her fawn. As I continued to water my wilting tomato plants on my wooden deck, the doe stepped closer to check my reaction to her movements.

I remained painfully still while watering my plants. Any sudden movement from me would have caused the doe and her fawn to scamper beyond my sight.

A few minutes later, I turned my head to redirect my hose toward another plant. When I looked back up, I saw the deer walking quietly away from me, grazing on the grass and plucking leaves from the low-hanging branches.

Without any words, I understood this message from nature, loud and clear, “We feel safe here if you don’t make any sudden moves to threaten us.”

Reality check. As I observed the doe and her fawn, I recalled a recent conflict with my daughter Tara, mother of five children.

How many times have I chased away my children with my impulsive words or quick temper? Too many to count.

Without outlining the nitty-gritty details of my personal life, I’ll “plead the Fifth Amendment” here—on the grounds that my answer may be self-humiliating.

Good word. So, I’ll just quote the wisdom of the Bible.

And now a word to you parents. Don’t keep on scolding and nagging your children, making them angry and resentful. Rather, bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord himself approves, with suggestions and godly advice. (Eph. 6:4 LB)

Am I cautious with my movements and reactions as I relate to my own children and grandchildren? I’m working on that one.

After I expressed my concerns and expectations to my daughter about a situation with one of her children, I regretted my hasty response and unsolicited advice. So, I offered a heartfelt apology, hoping and praying for her forgiveness. I realized that my emotional reactions often bring unintended consequences.

Reflection. Sometimes our silence speaks more clearly than our words. I know my voice can scare away an animal or bird, but sometimes I forget that just one inappropriate word can also repel a child, friend, or loved one.

We often use our written and spoken words to express our thoughts and feelings. But at times, we fail to guard our choice of words or listen to others. As a writer, I know the importance of editing my words. But often, I forget to consider the power of my spoken words, and I fail to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. (Jms. 1:9 NLT)

When the doe appeared in my backyard again, I knew to be quiet. Opening a squeaky door or stepping on the dry, parched leaves would propel her to run to a safer place with her fawn.

As I watched the doe scamper away with her young a few minutes later, I thanked God for the lessons He sends me in nature for my own family and for my writing life. I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for being exposed to His truth expressed in nature and in my everyday life. Then, I asked Him to help me release my children and all of my expectations once again.

What concerns and expectations do you hope to release to God? 

Capturing a Moment from the Past

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When writing my first nonfiction book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2014), I added illustrations from my family’s history going back several generations. My challenge as a writer was to capture a moment from the past for my readers in a way that enhanced the nonfiction content. Here are the steps I took to make the past come alive first in my memory and then in my manuscript:

20140424-195706.jpg1. Find an object or photo.

In preparation for writing an illustration based on a scene from the past, I gathered an object or photo from that time period to help me step back into time. I found that holding a tangible object from the past refreshed my memory and triggered the creative writing skills needed for storytelling in the midst of nonfiction content. Old crafts, jewelry, certificates, clothing accessories, or desk items worked well for me. If I did not have an item from the past, a similar present-day object functioned as a stand-in.

2. Involve all five senses.

We capture memories with all five senses, so we will recall the past better if we involve multiple senses. Listening to music from a past era, tasting food from an old recipe, or smelling flowers can help you remember an old event. Have your favorite snack, put a vase of flowers on your desk, and play some music, and then start writing!

3. Take a field trip.

If possible, go back to visit a place similar to the one in your manuscript. If you are writing about an event, attend a similar present-day event. Notice the details and the differences between the present event and the past one. Attending a university graduation ceremony as an alumna helped me describe my own doctoral graduation ceremony in my manuscript. To shape a scene set in the past, walk away from your desk to relive the memories.

4. Describe a moment in time.

If you are adding narrative material to a nonfiction manuscript, consider sharing a moment in time with your readers instead of a lengthy story. In order to better relate to my intended audience, I often chose a moment representative of daily life in a certain time period instead of a dramatic event or major milestone. By picking moments many people experience, you increase the likelihood of your writing connecting with readers. I tried to tell stories that hold truths that span generations and remain timeless.

5. Enjoy the writing process!

Writing down a tiny bit of history for a future generation of readers is a wonderful privilege. Relish the opportunity for a little time travel as you type the words of your manuscript . If you find happiness in your craft of writing, you increase the chance your readers will discover joy in the pages of your book. Smile as you take a snapshot of the past!

 

Don’t Write to Heal and Other Truths about Writing from Affliction

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Dear writers, don’t we know already that we are to write into our darkest moments? My writing students have heard me say this 1000 ways: Enter the forest, dive into the wreck, face your toothy, hot-breathed dragons, open the closet, hold hands with your enemies, etc. We may remain silent in the midst of them, but at some point we must write. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. Patricia Hampl reminds us why: “We do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.” Dan Allender, in “Forgetting to Remember: How We Run From Our Stories,” tells us what happens when we ignore the hard events in our lives: “Forgetting is a wager we all make on a daily basis and it exacts a terrible price. The price of forgetting is a life of repetition, an insincere way of relating, a loss of self.”

How then do we begin to write from within our afflictions? And how might the practice and the disciplines of writing offer a means of shaping our suffering into meaning for both writer and reader? Forgive the brevity and oversimplification, but here’s what NOT to do and why:

1. Don’t write to heal. Really. Our therapeutic culture urges us to write into our pain as a means of self-healing. Newsweek’s article, “Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Heal?” rightly questions this cultural assumption. One friend assumed I wrote my most recent book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt primarily as a means of self-healing. Not so. Writing into our pain can be hellish at times. Know that returning to re-live an experience with language and full consciousness is sometimes worse than the original event. Recognize that writing into affliction brings its own affliction. And even more importantly, recognize that when we are predisposed to heal ourselves, we will not be fully honest in the writing. Healing will likely and eventually come, but only as we engage with the hardest truths.

noah pulling in skiff in storm

2. Don’t write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation. We want to bring beauty from ashes. We want to make suffering redemptive to prove its worth. But this is God’s work, not ours. Our first responsibility is to be true to what was, to witness honestly to what happened. Our job is not to bring beauty out of suffering but to bring understanding out of suffering. Poet Alan Shapiro argues that “…the job of art is to generate beauty out of suffering, but in such a way that doesn’t prettify or falsify the suffering.”

smiling old woman with cigarette

3. Don’t write for yourself alone. This is not just about you. You are working to translate suffering to the shared page. Buechner reminds us of the universality we should be striving for: “…all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us share? Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.” One of the greatest compliments I have heard from the book and the telling of my own story is, “You told my story.” Writing begins in the self but should consciously move us beyond ourselves, to place our story into the larger stories around us, and ultimately, into the grand story that God is writing. The most powerful work comes from a “self that renders the world,” as Hampl has said—not just the self that renders the self.

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Life is holy with meaning. Pain is holy with meaning. Don’t miss it. I pray for you the strength and faith and wisdom to begin to enter those hard places and to translate your afflictions onto the pages we share—for the good of All.

How have you been able to translate your suffering into your writing?

Frozen in Time: Writing and Healing

Photo/LeahSchultzHealing … is change from a singular self, frozen in time by a moment of unspeakable experience, to a more fluid, more narratively able, more socially integrated self. (Writing and Healing, Charles Anderson & Marian M. MacCurdy)

These words challenged my heart. Am I “frozen in time”?

The writing process helps me work through the painful trauma of my “unspeakable” experiences. It enables me to view my story from a more objective viewpoint, melting my frozen numbness, offering me hope beyond the icy boundaries of emotional bondage.

Helpful process. When I write about traumatic events, I often sense fear closing in on me like the twisted, frozen branches of a tree—wrapping its bone-chilling claws around me, choking the inspiration right out of me.

When I work on certain writing projects—like my book proposals—I freeze. I can’t control my thoughts, and chaos emerges, stealing my creative energy and organizational skills.

I try to forget some things for fear of stirring up painful memories, but they resurface when I least expect them. Often something unrelated triggers a memory—like a smell, a song, a picture, a person, or a place. Then, panic sets in again. And I freeze from the memory, unable to cope, until I regain control of my thoughts and reactions.

Healing narratives. Sometimes I‘m not sure how to begin composing my healing narratives. But I know the writing process will bring restoration. So I just start writing, even if I don’t know where the process will take me.

Do you fear writing certain projects? Are the stories too painful to consider? Do you fear the memories will trigger hidden emotional scars? Can we escape being “frozen in time”? Yes!

Hopeful vision. I long to write my stories without fear of a panic attack rooted in painful memories. But sometimes the writing process seems impossible. Luke 1:37 promises, “… nothing is impossible with God” (NLT).

I’ve observed the power of writing and healing as a writing instructor. Many students seem compelled, like I am, to write their own gut-wrenching narratives. And many of those writers come out of their secret hiding places, free from their emotional bondage. They experience change and healing—“to a more fluid, more narratively able, more socially integrated self.” And they begin to live new stories, delivered from their “frozen in time” memories.

As I write my healing narratives, I pray that I have the faith and courage to tell the stories that matter most and encourage others to experience the power of writing and healing.

What stories have you written that have brought healing to you and others?

Photo/LeahSchultz

Tell Your Story

Tell Your Story

Each year thousands of folks descend on the tiny town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, for the National Storytelling Festival. Tucked in these southern Appalachian hills, the International Storytelling Center hosts storytellers and attendees from throughout the country for exciting performances.

What New Orleans is to jazz… Jonesborough is to storytelling.
 Los Angeles Times

Watching this unfold for many years now, I’m seeing how the crowds gather, yes, for the exceptional story-telling, but I believe for more than that. More as in the exponential healing power that story holds.

There’s just something about story that somehow makes our lives better, easier to live.

As writers, we understand this, how the greatest stories of all time evolve from a raging internal conflict. As writers, we can also use this. I don’t mean “use” as in “cheapen,” I mean “use” as in put to good use, aligning with God’s purpose.

We live in a self-aware generation that craves authenticity and real connections with writers who are willing to share raw and real, willing to share the story of overcoming, yes, but also the backstory. Today’s generation wants real hope, seeded in Truth, from folks who have been there.

We can use our stories to make a difference.

I’m passionate about this, believing we’re part of a selfishly divine design. Our stories hold the potential to unlock hardened {or even hopeless} hearts, our personal experiences serving as a point of reference for others in similar places.

Consider the Israelites—an intimidating Jordan River standing between them and God’s future, the imposing waters (seemingly) blocking God’s promise. Remember how God successfully led Joshua and his people through those waters? We know this story because God called them to establish a memorial. He had them return to the trouble-spot {that very place they thought they would never endure} to gather twelve stones to mark the occasion of His divine deliverance. These twelve stones served as an invitation for a future generation {including us}.

“In the future, when you are asked, ‘what does this mean?’ God said, “tell them the story (Joshua 4).”

He meant the whole story. The storyteller was required to be careful and exact. To share the intricate details and not change one single word. The Israelites story of deliverance began in back-breaking bondage as slaves to the Egyptians. The oppression was as much a part of their story as the victory, the pain as important as the healing, and God wanted their children, and their children’s children, and all future generations to know that.

Will we do this, ground our legacies through the power of authentic story?

Oh, that our epitaph would read what was said of King David. “David served God’s purpose in his own generation, then he died (Acts 13:36 ESV).” Yes, God has a purpose. And I pray that by the time I arrive at my grave I’ve lived out mine, that you will have lived out yours, and the same can be written about us.

Everyone has a story. It’s time to tell yours.

Deeper Still: Do you ever feel stuck in the “in-between”? This stalled out place somewhere between the joy of using your story to make a difference and the daily to-do’s of parenting, a busy career, or even a fear of failure? What is one step you can take today to move you closer to using your story?

(Photo: Shanyn Silinski)