117 – The Gift of Transparency with Guest Karen Stiller

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Gift of Transparency with Karen Stiller on Write from the Deep PodcastWe all want our books to connect with our readers, to move them and even change their lives. So how can you be sure you’re writing in a way that will do all that? Guest Karen Stiller shares what God has taught her about this very thing in her writing journey—and in her life as a minister’s wife. Come listen in!

About Karen Stiller

Karen Stiller is a freelance writer, editor and a senior editor of Faith Today magazine. She is co-author of Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer (2019) along with other books about the Church in Canada and the world. Stiller has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from University of King’s College Dalhousie. Her latest book The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Loneliness, Friendship, and More was published by Chicago-based Tyndale House Publishers in the Spring of 2020.

Thanks to our sponsors on Patreon, we’re able to offer an edited transcript of the podcast!

Erin: Welcome writers. Welcome to the deep. We’re so glad you’re here with us, and I’m delighted because we have a guest with us today. Yay!

Karen Ball: So happy to welcome Karen Stiller. She’s a writer with more than 20 years of experience, and she serves as senior editor of the Canadian magazine Faith Today, which I understand, Karen, is kind of compared to Christianity Today in the U. S. And she hosts the podcast of the Evangelical Fellowship Canada.

Very cool. As a journalist, Karen has shared stories from South Sudan, Uganda, Senegal, Cambodia, and all across North America. That is impressive. She also moderates the Religion and Society Series at the University of Toronto, and I love this: it’s a debate between leading atheists and theologians, and I bet you don’t even have to wear a flak jacket.

Karen Stiller: I probably should.

Karen Ball:  Karen loves to teach writing and coach and mentor writers on the journey. She and her husband, Brent, a priest with the Anglican Church live in Ottawa, Canada, and they have three adult children and a big hairy golden doodle, a beloved dog named Dewey. Welcome, Karen, to Write from the Deep.

Karen Stiller: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here with you, too. I’m really excited about this.

Erin: We are too. We love having guests, and I love having a person from Canada. I was wanting to hear you say “about.”

Karen Stiller: I will. I’ll try to work “about” in many times.

Erin: No, no, I want it to be “aboot.”

Karen Ball: She already did it. We always chat before the podcast. She said “aboot” several times, and I’m like “ooh, there it is.”

Karen Stiller: Really?

Karen Ball: Yes, you did.

Karen Stiller: My goodness, this is a revelation. Okay, good. I’m going to be listening.

Erin: All right, Karen, you know that we love to ask, what does the deep mean to you?

Karen Stiller: Yeah, thank you. That is such a good question. And for me, the deep as a writer, and as a writer of faith, absolutely means the most honest place we can reach, where we no longer pretend to be something we’re not. And we view ourselves very clearly, but also very compassionately, for who we really are. And we embrace that beautiful freedom and the fact that that person—ourselves in our deepest, most honest place—that we’re deeply loved there by Jesus. That to me is what the deep means.

Karen Ball: That’s great.

Erin: That’s very articulate and well thought out. I’m really curious, how did you come to that? Because I think when we start heading for the deep and seeing ourselves for who we really are, compassion is the last thing that we come up with, you know? So I love that. How did that happen in your mind?

Karen Stiller: That is another great question. I had to learn to be compassionate with myself, and it links right away into my identity as a writer, but also as someone married to a minister.

Because of the position of minister’s wife and how it’s played out in my life, I was brought up very…like, I had my shortcomings and my failings really clearly demonstrated to me right from the beginning. I saw how kind of like ill suited I was, just by being a normal person with normal limitations, and I had to learn to just forgive myself and be who I really was.

And so I’ve learned to be compassionate with myself as I’ve learned to be compassionate with others, hopefully. To just accept who I am, and that I’m on the journey, and that God loves me, and that can just be so freeing.

Karen Ball: Well, it’s hard in a pastoral family. Being a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid myself, which I love, that’s my family heritage, but it’s hard because there are so many pressures on you that the people in the congregation don’t realize.

They have so many expectations of who you are and of how you will behave and the things that you will do and say. If you break those expectations, it can be a nightmare. In my case, fortunately, we were in a church that showed a lot of grace. But I’ve seen a lot of preachers kids and missionary kids who their parents were judged based on what their kids did and said.

I saw with my mom, my mom was the sweetest person in creation, but she still had to really work hard at being herself in the context of being a minister’s wife. It’s a tough row to hoe.

Karen Stiller: I think it is. I’ve heard really sad stories, too, particularly from the grown adult children of pastor’s families. So that’s something we really tried to be aware of with our own children. Just raising them to be who they really are.

I will say we’ve been in churches that have been very kind. I don’t have horror stories actually at all.

Karen Ball: I don’t either. From the church.

Karen Stiller: Good! So I deeply love the church, and the church has been a wonderful home for myself, for my husband, for our children. I think for me, the whole minister’s wife identity has…well, when people assume things about me, sometimes it’s more about what kind of a person I must be. That I must be an excellent listener and you know, always thinking nice thoughts and always available.

Inside, I know what I’m really thinking and feeling. And sometimes I may be thinking I need to just get home, or I’m just grocery shopping or whatever. That’s been the gap for me where I’ve had to be compassionate with myself and think it’s okay. You’re not perfect. It’s okay. Yeah, you’re not as nice as everyone thinks you are. It’s okay.

Erin: What do you think, as far as a writer goes, I’m feeling like there’s probably a lot of areas where writers need to learn to be compassionate for themselves.

What are your thoughts about that? What ways do you think a writer needs to learn to forgive themselves for, or have compassion?

Karen Stiller: Oh, that is a really great question. I think I’d like to tackle that in two ways. One would be on the writing journey. I have seen, and I bet you two have seen, a lot of writers give up too soon because they maybe don’t succeed right away, or they find being edited is too painful for them. Or their writing dream does not come true as quickly as they would like it to.

I’ve seen really gifted people stop too soon because their standards for themselves were too high or something. I think that it’s an act of compassion to forgive yourself for not succeeding super quickly. So there’s that.

Also, in my writing life, I’ve moved, shifted in the last few years, from twenty plus years of writing professionally about other people, mostly journalistic writing. Almost always stemmed in the church though. I’ve always worked within the world of the church press, and that’s been very important to me.

I’ve told stories of people of faith, and issues facing the church, and so on. But I’ve shifted into spiritual memoir and writing very honestly about my own experiences of faith in life, in the church. To do that well, and with transparency and vulnerability, I have to be compassionate with myself, or I wouldn’t be willing to tell such horrible stories about myself.

Erin: True.

Karen Stiller: I have to believe that you will hear those stories and read those stories and understand that we are in this together. I’m assuming a compassion on the part of the reader, which I do think is there and true. So we have to be gentle with each other as readers and as writers.

Karen Ball: I think it’s the shift from the Disney version of being a writer into the real world version of being a writer. In the Disney version, all we do is write and we send it out to one agent who takes it on and loves it and who sells it for millions of dollars. Then we live happily ever after.

In the real world version, it’s a lot of hard work. And it’s a lot of rejection coming into this field and writing. And especially, I know what it feels like in writing fiction to face rejection, but in writing a spiritual memoir, that’s you on the page. It is in fiction as well, but I mean, with memoir, you’re actually there and telling stories about yourself. Facing rejection with that would be even more difficult, I would think.

We have to learn, just like you said, rejection is a part of the process, and we have to trust God that he’s given us this task, and walk forward no matter what the reaction is to what we’ve done.

Karen Stiller: Yeah, absolutely. I remember early on in my writing journey, I’ve also written quite a bit for different charities along the way, copywriting, and lots of things that my name has not appeared on. There was one large charity that had me doing some work, and it was very much an “editing by committee” scenario.

Karen Ball: Ugh. So it was a horror movie.

Karen Stiller: Yeah. It was back in the days of landline phones, and I had on a sticky note, I wrote, “Don’t cry.” And I stuck it on my phone so that when I was doing this call, and I looked at that note a couple of times, it’s like, “Karen, pull yourself together.” And I didn’t cry, and I learned not to cry, and otherwise I would never have survived.

Karen Ball: Yeah.

Erin: Oh my. What would you say, you know, we’re talking about humility and transparency and being vulnerable on the page, especially in memoir, but in everything we write, what would you say to the writer who’s having trouble being compassionate to themselves?

Karen Stiller: I think right away about the writing friends I have in my life. I mean, you two model that so wonderfully, even in how you do the podcast, how you support each other, how you play off and bounce off each other. We need writing companions in our lives. I think that can help a lot to have someone, even just in a really practical way, to read our work, to interact with it, to speak honestly to us.

We’ve all been, I’m guessing, in writers’ groups where everything everyone shares is “fabulous.” And you know what? I think that’s a good and necessary step in the life of a writer. But you have to move past that with even just one trusted companion, who will be your writing friend, who will help you take that step of bravery.

I think that’s a big part of it. I think a lot about writing, especially this kind of personal writing, is pushing through the fear. Trusting the process. Doing the work. Doing all those things we’ve learned to do in our writing craft. You know: first draft, coming back, leaving it alone, coming back again, sharing, editing, rewriting. Keep trusting that process, and just keep pushing through, and have a good writing friend.

Karen Ball: I called those kinds of people in my life truth-speakers because they say the hard things, but they say it out of out of love and out of care for me and out of wanting me to be my best. Erin is a truth-speaker in my life.

God has used her a number of times, not just in the work that we’re doing but in my personal life, to speak truth at times when I really needed to hear it. Because I know where it comes from, I can hear it.

I may get a little ticked, and I may have to work through it a little bit. But I always come back to the fact that, you know, you’re right, what you said was right, and I need to change that.

Without those kinds of people keeping us, keeping our feet to the fire and keeping us on track, there’s no such thing as vulnerability and honesty in what we’re writing. It’s all just playing a part.

Karen Stiller: Yeah, I agree.

Erin: For me too, like when I wrote, Surviving Henry, that… I mean, I had to write things where I looked dumb. It was funny, it was humorous, but I did not look good. I did not look very bright, you know?

And for me, I had to get over some of that pride. I had to be willing to say, “Yeah. When nobody’s looking, I do dumb things.” Or “I do dumb things when people are looking, too.” I think that was a little bit of an issue for me. Getting past, “What will people think? Will they think less of me?”

It’s so interesting how it’s always opposite. How when we’re vulnerable, it always comes across opposite. Somebody will respect that struggle, you know? And they’ll relate to it.

Karen Stiller: Yeah.

Karen Ball: I liked something that you wrote us, Karen, when we were talking about you being on the podcast. You said, “Our true stories help connect us with each other.”

Our true stories help connect us with each other. @karenstiller1 #amwriting @karenball1 Click To Tweet

I think that’s so true, no matter what we’re writing. I’m part of an online writing group, and they were talking about sharing God’s truth with people, and what do we do when you come to speak to someone who doesn’t believe the Bible is real, doesn’t believe that it’s the word of God?

Christians are so focused on using Scripture to portray God in his love. How do we do that if this person is looking at us like, “Yeah, so you might as well just quote Hemingway to me because it has about the same import.”

One of the things that I’ve always believed is that we tell our stories. We tell our stories about our relationship in faith, and our relationship with God and with each other.

And we listen to their stories because people are desperate to be heard. When we do that, just like you said, our true stories help connect us. It’s the same thing with writing on the page.

Karen Stiller: Oh, man, you are preaching to the choir. I love that. I love everything you just said. I have a really great story, speaking about stories, that speaks to that point exactly.

When I did the bulk of the writing for my book, The Minister’s Wife, it was within the structure of a master of fine art and creative nonfiction that I was doing in a secular university. There was nothing Christian about the program I did. That was a little frightening for me at first.

I had to talk to the director of the program a couple of times. I was like, “I am a spiritual writer and I know that whatever I do—and I didn’t know what it was going to be then—it’s going to be, you know, ‘religious’ and is there a place for me?”

And they really encouraged me to come, and it worked out beautifully, and their input helped shape my writing, and it was invaluable.

But as part of the MFA, you have to do a public reading to your classmates, and it’s takes place in a loud, drunken pub-night. You’re talking on a microphone, trying to be heard over the rising din as the evening  progresses.

I chose a passage of my book to read where I talk about visiting with a 100-year-old minister’s wife named Millicent. My dog and I were a therapy dog team, and we would go into the seniors’ home, and I discovered that one of the ladies was a minister’s wife, a beautiful widow who lived there.

The passage I read out loud that night in the pub included an exchange with myself and Millicent, where I tell her, “Millicent, I’m moving and I’m not going to be back to see you, but I love you and thank you.”

And she blessed me. She raised her hand up in the air from the corner where she sat and she blessed me. “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you…”

So I read this out loud in this loud party pub that night. As I left immediately after my reading, a friend of mine from the class—who I don’t think probably has ever been to church, like we talked about all these things very openly, faith was a mystery to her—as I walked by her, she grabbed hold of me, and she hugged me, and she pulled me in, and in my ear, she whispered, “Bless me, bless me. Like she blessed you.”

Erin: Wow.

Karen Stiller: And I did. I blessed her right there, you know, in the middle of this pub. And it was such a beautiful moment for me. I realized my story, my little story with Millicent has enabled me, given me this privilege to bless you, my friend.

Like it was just, I don’t know. I just learned so much from that moment of, yeah, stories matter, and yes, people want to be heard as well.

To your other point, my big lesson in the church in my years of being a minister’s wife—one of the biggies—has been that people want to be heard. They want someone to listen to them because that does not happen as a matter of course in our daily lives.

Erin: Yeah. Well, one other thing I wanted to ask you about, when we were talking about this book that you wrote, I’m looking at the subtitle. The title is The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More. You were writing about doubt. What gave you the courage to write about doubt?

I mean that’s great. Instead of being like, “Oh, I can’t say that I doubt because then non-Christians will not believe in God.” You know? So what gave you the courage to write about that?

Karen Stiller: Thank you for that question. I had no problem writing about doubt. I probably found my courage partly because I was with my classmates, and so on, as I wrote a lot of this book. I remember one professor said to me, “Explain to me. Explain to me how you can believe this stuff.”

So that was a fairly clear request. I know that doubt is part of everyone’s faith journey. I have found, again in my life as a minister’s wife, if I can share openly and honestly about my own doubts and my own questions, it actually opens up the room for people.

I don’t want that power, actually. But because sometimes people have the wrong idea about clergy and their families, thinking that they do have it all together, that when I say, “Actually, I struggle with this,” or “That passage is really difficult for me,” or “I don’t get that,” or, “Yeah, I’m having doubts,” because they have this idea we have it all together, that sort of surprises them, and they feel relieved.

They’re like, “Oh, thank you. I can then share my questions and I can share my doubts.” Then we’re journeying together. Then we’re finding our answers together. So yeah, I think it’s so important.

It’s so powerful just to be honest like that. Often it draws us closer to faith and it draws us closer to God together. So, yeah, I believe in that a lot.

Karen Ball: Well, this has been a marvelous conversation. I have so enjoyed having you here and hearing the things that you’re doing. I look forward to reading your book, as a preacher’s kid and preacher’s grandkid.

I want to thank you so much for coming and talking to us about these things because it’s so important for us to remember that we’re not supposed to play a part. We’re supposed to be who we are. God uses us as broken and as fallible as we are.

If we wear a mask or try to portray who we are as believers, as writers, as any of that, if we try to pretend, God cannot use that. The only reason that we’re doing any of this is that God can come and show himself to the world through us, and it’s hard for him to do that if we get in the way because of what we think we are.

Thank you so much for what has been affirmation and exhortation. We really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to come and spend with us.

Karen Stiller: Wow. Thank you Karen and Erin, I really appreciate it. I love your podcast. I’ve listened to it for a long time, so it’s wonderful for me to speak with both of you.

Karen Ball: Thank you.

Erin: Thanks for being here.

we want to hear from you!

What do you find most challenging about being transparent? How has God used your transparency?

Books mentioned in the podcast

The Minister's Wife by Karen Stiller

The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More by Karen Stiller

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