#22: Shauna Niequist 2016

You’re Not Alone, You’re Not Crazy, October 13, 2017

Memoirist and devotional writer Shauna Niequist talks with Calvin student Ansley Kelly, describing her “write like it’s your job” process and her practice of capturing details each day, then letting experiences marinate. She also muses on misunderstanding readers, our God-given authority to create, easing loneliness with books, and “siding with the creators.” For Niequist, memoir arises out of her commitments to friendship and hospitality, so that writing becomes a way to assure readers they are “known, welcome, loved, enough.” Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and author/blogger Jen Hatmaker.


  • Shauna Niequist,
    • Cold Tangerines
    • Bittersweet
    • Bread & Wine
    • Present Over Perfect




Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.

Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features a conversation with Shauna Niequist at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. Shauna was interviewed by Ansley Kelly, a Calvin College senior at the time, and their wide-ranging conversation includes claiming the authority to create, the need writing meets in Shauna’s own life, the writing practices she’s developed over the years, and the joys of Razor scooters and dancing in the kitchen.

Shauna is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, Bread & Wine, and most recently, Present Over Perfect. Her work focuses on the joys and challenges of day-to-day life. To help introduce this recording we called up another bestselling writer also known for honesty, vulnerability, and wisdom, Shauna’s good friend Jen Hatmaker.



Lisa: Well, Jen, we're so excited to have you on the podcast today to talk about Shauna Niequist. Where did we find you today?

Jen Hatmaker: You found me in my office where I have been all day, and I'm going to be honest with you [Lisa chuckles], I am wearing the shirt I slept in [Lisa laughs]. So, it's like that today. It's like that.

Lisa: One of those days.

Jen: Yeah.

Lisa: Fair enough, fair enough. So we're going to be listening to a conversation Shauna had on-stage at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing, and she was actually interviewed by one of our Calvin College English majors, by Ansley Kelly, and they had this great, kind of wide-ranging conversation about kind of the writing life but also some of the things that have inspired Shauna's projects. And I wondered, what - I know that you guys are friends?

Jen: Yes.

Lisa: And that you're also a reader of hers, and I was curious what - how you guys met and also what has kind of connected for you in her work?

Jen: Shauna and I first met - we're pretty sure it was 2006. So about 11 years ago because Henry was a baby, and he's 11 now [Lisa chuckles]. We were both speaking at a conference called After Eve, and it was in Mclean, Virginia and we were both really, really green. She had her very first book in hand. I had just, just put my first couple of projects out into the world, too, and neither of us were seasoned speakers either. So we're just tickled to death [Lisa chuckles] thinking about the two of us speaking at that conference. And Shauna and I were recently talking about it, and she was like, "If there is video content of that conference, I want it destroyed." [laughter] And I'm like, "Absolutely true."

And I just - when you meet somebody and you like instantly and fully and completely love them. That was how it was for me with Shauna, and I knew right away that I needed her to be my friend, that I wanted her to be my friend, and I was going to make her be my friend [laughter]. And I did. I don't know. The older I get, the more I realize that I'll want to collaborate and work side by side with people that I love, that I trust, and that I believe in, and I really don't have room for anything less than that. There's just not enough hours in a day, I don't have enough energy, and I don't have enough bandwidth. And so I've curated my list down to a pretty small handful of people that I completely have faith in and Shauna is one of them. And so, anytime we get to share a stage or share space in any way it is such a joy.

Lisa: Mmm, that's wonderful. Well, one of things that she talks about in this, when she was on the stage here at the Festival, she talked about her writing process and I wonder, you know, you mention that you guys met just when you were at the beginning of your careers, and I wonder - she mentions that she treats writing very much like a business. And I'm sure this is something you guys have talked about through the years as you've supported each other through the development of your careers and just your craft of writing. She treats it very much like, you know, she sits down kind of at a certain time everyday, you know, she's very kind of methodical in her approach to her writing. And I wonder what your approach is to your writing process. Are you kind of like Shauna, do you kind of have these set chunks of time that you write during the day? Are you a little more spontaneous, you know, kind of jumping up from the dinner table when you have a thought? Or, you know, thinking of something in the middle of the night?

Jen: I'm pretty methodical, except when I'm not.

Lisa: [laughs] Fair enough, fair enough.

Jen: [00:04:58] You know? Like, in general, when I'm on my game, and typically - well, always - in the first half of any project it looks a lot more disciplined, it looks much more regimented, it's scheduled. I'm a morning writer. But by the last quarter of any book project, it's like Lord of the Flies [Lisa laughs]. I mean it is, it is whenever a word can get typed on page, it is manic, it is insane. I'm one of those people who writes a big chunk of any book in the last month until it's due, but I'm a morning writer. That's when I'm the most creative, I'm this really annoying person who wakes up fresh and bright.

Lisa: Right, right.

Jen: It's annoying. I readily admit it.

Lisa: It's a good thing you acknowledge it.

Jen: I'm like (imitating cheery voice), "What does everyone want for breakfast? What can I cook for you today?" It's just so gross.

Lisa: Right.

Jen: And so I am, that's when my brain feels fresh, but in general, even from a higher view, I'm the kind of writer - I'm a woolgather for quite a long time before I start writing something. I live a lot of my life inside my head. I think a lot of thoughts before I write them or express them or say them in anyway. And so by the time I sit down and put my fingers on my laptop and start a new book or start a new project, I have thought about the stuff going into that project so many times and I take notes, so I have these files - some of them are nice and tidy and organized like a professional writer should. Like they're in my laptop, here's my structure for my next book and all the ideas thought of. Some of them, it's garbage. It's like on scrap pieces of paper. I'm pulling things out of the bottom of my purse that I scribbled during a concert, you know. I mean, so it's a combination of both really orderly thoughts that I've been archiving, and just random catch-as-catch-can. But, regardless, I think my thoughts a really long time before I write them. And so by the time I finally write, I'm bursting. I'm bursting, and it comes out pretty fast.

Lisa: So, when you're doing all that thinking, so it sounds like you're kind of gathering notes, like you said.

Jen: Yeah.

Lisa: Like you're thinking, but you're writing in this sense that you're note-taking. And then you kind of shift into like book writing phase.

Jen: Exactly. Anne Lamott taught me that. That's was one of things I learned from Bird by Bird, which was just that any good writer is a good observer first, right? Like that's - because it's just like anything. You think, you heard something beautiful, you watched something spectacular, you had a thought that was really interesting, and you think that you were not going to forget it.


Jen: You honestly think, "I'm going to write about that." Except for three days later the memory is completely gone. So I know that that's true, and so I think being a good note-taker and being a good observer is a really important piece to being a truth-teller and a storyteller. And sometimes I can't even tell what it means though. Like I have learned I need to write enough details so I know what I am talking about. I've gotten, I've pulled out scraps before with three words on it, and I have absolutely no idea what I was trying to tell myself (Lisa laughs). So I at least try to make the memory coherent.

Lisa:And that is something Shauna talks about in the session, too. I think she calls it letting something - or she at the end of the day will often kind of write details about things that happened that day, but I think she says that she lets it marinate. So maybe she doesn't, she doesn't quite know what it means, but she'll kind of write the details and then maybe, you know, six months later even, kind of return to it in the context of a book project or an essay and kind of have those details.

Jen: Yeah, I have a really similar like, a real similar process in that sometimes I really only have this seed of an idea. I don't even know where it's going to go, I just know that there's something about it that's interesting to me. And so, I can't tell you how many times I've sat down to write an essay, and I only have the barest idea and I think, "I don't know if I have enough here to build this out into a whole thing." But, I have a quote on my desk that I have framed, it's by Henri Nouwen, and it says, "I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust it will emerge as I write." I have found that happen over and over and over, and as I start diving into the memory or into that space or into that idea, through the process of writing it really develops into something full and whole and meaningful. And so, sometimes just one idea is enough to get started.

Lisa: Well, we're super excited that you'll be joining us at the next Festival of Faith and Writing in 2018.

Jen: I know! I am, too. Thank you so much for inviting me. I am thrilled about it. I mean, I'm excited to come, and sort of do my part, but I'm really the most excited about coming and meeting other authors and listening to people that I love and respect. I'll just be a fangirl is what I'll be.

Lisa: Yay [laughs]. Well, I think that's true for most of us at the Festival. We're just all fan-girls and guys there.

Jen: Yeah.

Lisa: So you'll be on the stage probably that Shauna was at sitting on during this session we're about to listen to, and we're really looking forward to having you here. So thank you so much for spending a few minutes to talk about Shauna and your own projects, and we look forward to having you here at the Festival in what will feel like a few short months [laughs]. Right around the corner.


Jen: That's right, that's right. Thanks for having me on today.

Lisa: Of course! Have a great day.

Jen: You, too.


Lisa: And now Shauna Niequist interviewed by Ansley Kelly at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing.


Shauna Niequist: [00:10:49] I was doing a little math on my drive in, and I came to the Festival for my first time twenty years ago, as a college sophomore. And I was a college sophomore in California, so I flew back home to Chicago and my mom and I came to the Festival and have been many, many times since then, and so it is entirely, completely an honor to be with you all today.

Ansley Kelly: Well, we are so excited to have you here, and we'll get started right away.

Shauna: Great.

Ansley: So, my first question is actually about your most recent book, which is again that 365-day devotional. So, what made that project appealing for you? It's a little different from what you published before, so what drew you to that project?

Shauna: It was actually, and I think this is true about most of the projects I've worked on, it came directly out of a need in my own life. I was in a season of my life where I needed some grounding, and some quiet, and some practices that would deliver me back to a deeper connection with God, with myself, with the people that I loved. I needed, yeah, some handholds to get me to a deeper place, and so I kind of reconnected with my own practice of devotion. So when the team had talked to me about it before, and it was not something that at, in those seasons seemed like the right thing for me. And then when they asked this time I said, "Well, if you saw my nightstand you would see all the devotions that have been meaningful for me, and I'd love to be a part of that.

Ansley: Yeah, so in your own writing process do you feel like that tends to be a spiritual practice for you, even when you're not writing devotionals?

Shauna: Does the practice of devotion, is that a daily...?

Ansley: The practice of writing. So, your other works.

Shauna: Ya know, I wish that was true. I write like it's my job because it's my job. And I love my job. But I'm not like a, wake up at 3 am, write 'til dawn, let the candles burn down, forget to eat or sleep. I write the way my cousin Amanda teaches first grade. She teaches first grade when it's time to teach first grade, and then when she does other stuff when she's not doing that.

So, I love to write, and I'm so grateful that it's my job, but I'm not like a, I don't leave the dinner table to capture my amazing musings. [laughter] I just type them later when my kids are in preschool.

Ansley: Fair enough. That's probably heartening for a lot of us to hear. [laughter] So, looking again at some of your other works, you obviously write about real life, so family and friends, and that can be a difficult thing sometimes, relationally to steward that. So what does that process look for, look like for you? What have you learned through that process?

Shauna: Umhmm, and you know, one thing I have learned is there's a lot of right ways to do it. Anybody who writes in that narrative or memoir space, there are a lot of different right ways to do it. What I have done, and what has worked well for me is, I write the experience as soon as possible after it happens with every possible detail. Like, first, last and middle name, what they were wearing, what their voice sounded like, just the, to capture every single detail from that experience we had together.

And then I try to give it between, at least six weeks, up to six months. A friend of mine who's a writer uses the term "marinade." You get all the details down, you, you capture your experience as vividly and in as much detail as you can, but you don't try to decide what it is. You don't try to decide what it means, how it fits in the larger narrative of your life or your project, you just get it down and leave it. And then between six weeks and six months later, you'll know what it means in the greater narrative, and then at that point, you start asking questions about, is this my story to tell? How many of these details are pertinent or helpful? And, so I tell stories all different ways.

There are times when it's super specific, you know exactly who I'm talking about, you know the, the street I was standing on. Then there's others that are a lot, almost like a photograph that's a lot blurrier. I was talking to a friend, a couple years ago. As opposed to, I was talking with Annette standing on Madison with our strollers, ya know?

And then I also go through a very, if your name appears in my book, you've seen it ahead of time. A hundred percent. And you have the option for me to take your name out, to change the details, I ask, "Did I get the details wrong? Does this feel like an accurate representation?" So I'm really far on the "real life details," but with the permission from everyone involved. That's how it works for me.

Ansley: Yeah, totally. So you're process sounds a little bit like you walk away from experiences and you have a sense right away, "This is something I want to write about." Is that true?

Shauna: [00:15:28] Usually, yes. When I'm in the middle of a writing project I try, I don't always do this but it would be, it, it's like working out. Like, I certainly don't do this, but this is what I should do if I was going to work out. [laughter] So, I should work out three or four times a week, so that's what I'll tell you, and when I'm in the middle of a writing project, if I'm behaving myself really, really well, at the end of every day, I'll just take like one page of notes, not trying to find the deeper meaning, not trying to write an essay, not even, not connecting to narrative or a project or anything, just, "This is how today sounded and smelled and felt and this is what we ate and this is what I read and this is what the sky looked like," because I find that in storytelling, if you try to add those details in afterwards, they can tend to feel sort of forced, so you can decide the emotional meaning, or the, the parameters or the theme later, but you can never get back those details unless you capture them right away.

Ansley: Yeah.

Shauna: So when I'm in a good writing discipline, I take a, about a page of notes every day.

Ansley: Oh really? Wow, that's cool. So when you write and you write about things in your own life that have happened to you that you have experienced, you write very openly about some painful parts of your story. What does that process look like for you, sort of emotionally and spiritually to sort through some things internally?

Shauna: Well, I would say it's, it's a lot the same. I write, the first draft is extremely long and like massively dramatic. [laughter] Ya know, it's like My So-Called Life on the page, ya know, I mean, it's just all the feelings and all the everything. And then the editing process is sort of like, dialing it back into what any other sane person would like to read, ya know.

And also giving it time. So I make sure we get everything out, and then it's sort of pulling away the excess to find out what's left that, that, that becomes a story that someone else will be interested in, not just sort of the vomit of my life, right?

Ansley: Yeah. [Laughter]

Shauna: And then I would say I depend really heavily, and my other writer friends really tease me about this, but I basically write, I don't write by committee, but I edit by committee. I have more editors than anyone on earth. I give out galleys to basically everyone I've ever met, with red pens. I just really believe, "Let's get this right. Let's, let's all weigh in," and so, and, there have been times, there were a couple things in Cold Tangerines that I had good friends say, "Hey, like, you're really going for it, huh?" [laughs] And they were like, "I don't know if you wanna put this in black and white, like, you might wanna keep this back." And there were times when I said, "You know what, you're right." And there were times when I said, "I understand that you wouldn't put it in there, but it feels right to me."

But I'm really thankful for that feedback anyway, and then, I've you know, the other things is I became a writer because of writers like Anne Lamott and Lauren Winner and so many others. And actually, I saw so many of them here, which was amazing, but what that whole genre, what, what they did, I didn't even know you could do this, until I read Traveling Mercies and my mind just exploded, but I didn't know that you could tell, that you could share so deeply the insides of your life like that. And I didn't understand what a gift it could be until I received it from her as a writer, from a writer to a reader. And so my deal has always been, it's my goal to make you feel like you're not alone and you're not crazy. Not to make me seem like an awesome person.

I will throw myself under the bus every time if it helps you feel like you're not alone and you're not crazy. So there are times, even, I remember, you run into funny grammatical things where you could either use the "correct" thing and sound super snobby, or the vernacular thing and you're smart friends are going to be like, "You know that's not right, right?" [Laughter] And we said, "I'm gonna, I'm gonna stand with the people on this one. I'm gonna, I'm gonna be, I'd rather people think I'm dumb and con--and relatable, than perfect and distant." A lot of times you'll read things in a book or you'll see things and you realize someone has put in details that are, they serve no purpose except to make themselves feel a little better about themselves, right? And they're like, "And then I got my report card (which is a 4.0) and then, dot, dot, dot," ya know. And you're like, "Did we need to know that for the story?"

And I remember doing a specific read-through saying, "If I'm going to show off, I'll find another way to do that. This is about telling the truth in as bare and as honest a way as possible. And again, it's about serving the reader. Inviting, books have shaped my life in such extraordinary ways, I just, I'm so honored to be a part of that. This is not about image-management on my part. This is about offering up a gift, saying, "Come, come with me. Walk this path with me." So it's never about making me look better. It's about you feeling connected and understood.

Ansley: Hmm, yeah, well and you do write a lot about, obviously, being present over perfect, to allude to your new book, so what I'm curious about is what would you say to people who have tried to be open, tried to be vulnerable, only to be deeply hurt, or even betrayed? How would you talk to those people?

Shauna: [00:20:48] I would say that's all people, right? Show me a person who has fallen in love, or made a best friend, or joined a small group, or joined a team, and I'll show you someone that has had their heartbroken, right? That's how it is. And it's, it can be incredibly painful and that doesn't mean it's still not worth it. And so I would say, just yesterday my husband and I were in the car and we were talking about a thing going on in our life at home and we said, "Ya know, friendship's hard. It's just hard. Like, it's tricky and you have feelings and expectations." And I think we don't talk about that often enough. We talk a lot about, everybody knows marriage is hard, right? That's like a thing, we know that.

If you met somebody and they were like, "Ya know, my husband and I have been married for ten years and we have never had a fight," you'd be like, "You're either nuts or you're lying," right? But in friendship, we often think that when something goes wrong in the friendship, then the friendship's over. In my experience, when something goes wrong in the friendship, the friendship is normal, right?

I have a dear, very, very, very best friend of twenty years. And people ask me often, we joke about it that she's the main character of Cold Tangerines. It's kind of true. She's offered to sign books anytime. But people ask, "How do you maintain this friendship?" And I say, "We fight, and we make up, and we fight, and we make up, and we talk about every little thing that could stand in the way of breaking the fabric of what we've woven over all these years."

So, tiny little things tweak our feelings and we talk about them, tiny little things get under our skin and we talk about them. And so I think if you can imagine, forgiveness and reconciliation as part of the rhythm of friendship, if you never expect that a good friend is someone who will never let you down, a good friend is someone who when they let you down will make it right, right? And so I think when we kind of give ourselves and give other people permission to fail and to not meet our expectations, and then knit things back together, I think that's a really redemptive, beautiful way to look at friendship.

Ansley: Yeah, absolutely. So, going back to some of the stories about yourself, are there things, or even about your family, that you've regretted writing about or releasing into the world?

Shauna: No, no, I mean it, it's, one thing I will say, and any of you if you're bloggers or writers, if you've shared your work in any way, part of sharing your work is starting to get comfortable with the idea of being misunderstood. And that's just part of it. And, and at the beginning of my writing journey, I felt very protective. Like, if someone said something to me, I'd be very quick to be like, "No, no, no, no, that's not, you're not understanding that right, that's not exactly what I meant, and duh-dah-duh."

And then you realize, people bring their own story, they bring their own lens, they hear sort of what they want to hear. So, quite often I'll, someone'll say, "Man, you're writing about this hard season between you and Aaron really helped us when we were on the brink of divorce, knowing that you guys were in that same place." And I'm like, "Don't tell my husband you think we were on the brink of divorce." [laughter] I mean, if we were I would tell you, but we weren't.

But that's okay. It's not about me correcting the record. It's about them connecting with a story, right? And you essentially become a character that they then get to interact with. And so I think the sooner, one of the pieces of advice I would give for any writer is, no matter what point you are in the process, start sharing your work now, and start getting used to feedback, criticism, and being misunderstood. Because it's part and parcel for the writing life, for the creative life in any way.

You write a song and people will fall in love with it and use it at their wedding, and you'll be like, "That was a terribly sad song. You people are weird," right? [Laughter] You'll do a painting about the happiest moment of your life, and people will say it, they love it because it reminds them of the, the dark, darkness and depth of the world, right?

It's okay because that's what art is. Art is bringing your whole self to the whole piece of art and kind of the space that happens in between those. And so, to, to put things out there is to be willing to be misunderstood.

Ansley: Hmm, well, it's interesting that you talk about your audience. So when you started writing, were you surprised by the ideas that really took with people, like the things that people tended to really identify with? Or was that not a surprise to you?

Shauna: [00:25:27] Oh, yeah. I mean I think that, and I think that's true for every writer. I mean, there are [chuckles], there are chapters in the books that I think, "This is gold," right? And I've never heard a word about them from anyone. Like, no, nobody liked them, like, not. Totally fine. And then there are some that I literally I'm like, if I have to read this one out loud again, I'm gonna jump off a bridge. [laughter] But they, other people like them. And that's just, again, that's creating, that's making things, we bring different things, we connect with different things. And that's totally part of the process and that's okay.

Ansley: Yeah. And it sounds like you think a lot about your audience when you're writing. So when you set out, did you have a sense of who you were writing for, or did the audience materialize before you?

Shauna: Well, the audience materialized very, very, very slowly. But I will say, so I started, my first book was about ten years ago. And, I grew up in the church, am a pastor's kid, I worked in a church at the time, and there were a lot of books, there were a lot of very literary books, right?, and then there were a lot of, "This is how to be a Christian" books. And I loved these books. But I was a Christian. But I didn't feel particularly represented by this way of speaking and writing. And I knew that I wasn't alone in that.

And, and so I wanted to offer out a hand of friendship and understanding to people who want to be a part of the community of faith, but don't necessarily know all the right words and signals, right? And I have a group of girlfriends. I have seven friends from high school. We've all stayed in touch, we're all still very close. And at the time, I was the only one who was a person of faith. But they are phenomenal. They are the smartest, most articulate, most creative, they're just rock stars, I adore them.

And I thought, "I'm gonna write a book, and I'm gonna use the words that I would use to them, to smart, interesting people who don't know the inside baseball of Church culture, right? Because there are books for them, and they're, there is like tons and tons. And they're great, and if those work for you, do it. But I wanted to essentially have a conversation with my best friends, who didn't necessarily find themselves represented in that community. And those are still the women I think about when I write.

Ansley: Yeah, so talking a little bit about the Church. That's something that you don't write a lot about was growing up as a pastor's kid. But as a pastor's kid, I know that that is a unique experience for a childhood. So could you talk a little bit about how that's maybe influenced you?

Shauna: Well, you know, the first thing is, every pastor's kid knows this. I think it was relatively easy for me to make the jump into kind of everybody knowing my business as a writer because everybody already did, right? [laughter] So, at least this time I got to tell the stories, right? So obviously I grew up with my dad telling stories about me all the time, and ya know, I would tell him sometimes, "Listen, listen, listen, fine, fine, fine, you're gonna tell that story, I know you, I can't stop you, but if you could at least specify that I was two when it happened, [laughter] and not right now when I'm seventeen. [laughter] So I grew up with just a general sense, I think, of openness.

But, at the same time, part of the reason I think I will probably start writing more about our church and my feelings about the church and my experience growing up in the church, but it was very important to me, very specific, I am not a pastor, I'm not an extension of my father's ministry, although I adore it and bless it. I'm a writer. I'm not writing to you from a position of authority or expertise, theological or otherwise. I'm a lady with a French degree talking to you about her life.

And, and that was really important to me at that time. This, publishing for me was not, "I'm a large church pastor and one of the things I do is also publish." Publishing for me was a brainy little bookworm who loves books and stories more than anything in the world. And it was really important to me that those were two different things.

Ansley: Hmm, yeah, totally. So, talking a little but about the authority to write, there's a section in Bittersweet, and I'll go ahead and read it just so everyone's familiar with it. It says, "The world doesn't need another band per se. It doesn't, strictly speaking, need another book or another photograph or another album. The general world population will survive without one more stage production and one more gallery showing. This is the thing, though: you might not."

So my question is, does our own need to create give us adequate authority to write, or is there more to it than that?

Shauna: [00:30:13] I would actually, I think it's a great question and a really important one, and I would take it one step even before that. It's not your need to create that gives you the authority to create. It's the fact of you having been created. So if you're a person, you have the authority to make things. Because you were created in the image of God who is a maker, Who is a creator, and if you bear His image, then you have all the authority in the world to be, a bearer of a message of any kind. And I think that, and you get to decide the extent to which you do that in your life, but I was so, so fearful, and so, I mean it took me 'til like maybe two years ago. Like if I was on a plane and someone asked me what I did for a living, I would tell them nothing.

[laughter] I was like, "No, no, no, it's not," and my husband would be like, "Actually, she has written four books." I'd be like, "Oh, whatever." It was really hard for me to say, "This is what I do." And I had a really hard time, and I still sometimes do, and what I had to come back, back to, this is, this is what helps me. From a philosophical standpoint, I have the right to create because I've been created, period. Not because I'm smarter, 'cause I'm not. Not because I'm this, not because I'm that.

Because all of us, every human, has the authority to do the thing that our creator also did, right? And then the more practical side of it is I thought about it like this, listen, they're not like taking boxes of my books and handing them out in prisons and you can't get released until you read them, right? [laughter]

No one has to read them. That's the deal. I have every right to write it, and then everyone else on earth except like my mom can hate it, right? [laughter] And I think about that, my husband is a songwriter and a musician and we talk about it, and we talk about we are, we wanna live firmly on the side of the creators, not the consumers. And so in our house we practice a discipline where we don't say anything negative about something that someone else has made. Doesn't mean we like it. We are obscenely opinionated, right? No shortage of feelings, right? But, we side with the creators because we know how hard it is to make stuff.

And so instead of watching Saturday Night Live and being like, "Ooh, pitchy," we're like, "You know what? Could you stand up there and sing that song? I couldn't. Way to go," right? And so you have the right to make whatever you want, and the world has the right to walk right by it. And that, for me that's very freeing. We're not like shoving it down people's, we're not, it's not like, "Lock the doors, everybody. Hand them the books," ya know? You can, I have dear friends who will not read my books, just hate it, just think it's ridiculous. Totally fine. But they respect the fact that I make things. So we all don't have to like each others' stuff, but we side with the creators, not the critics, not the consumers.

Ansley: Hmm, yeah, so touching on that last point, so it's great to realize that you don't have to shove your work down anyone's throat, but then there's the flip-side of that which is the terror of creating something and then having no one care about it. Yeah, so could you...

Shauna: Oh, yeah, I know this, I've totally, I've done this. [laughter]

Ansley: Could you talk a little about that experience?

Shauna: Yes. One of the things, my editor is here and I love her, and one of the funny things she says sometimes is, so, so she was telling me, "You're," she was being so, so nice, and she said, "You're like the perfect example that I hold out to younger writers." I'm like, "I am?" She's like, "Yeah, because your first book sold like, just like a tiny bit, and then your second book just like a tiny bit more, and there was no viral posts, and there was no New York Times," and I'm like, "Uh huh, I know, totally, I've heard you, thank you." [laughter]

But that's true. Cold Tangerines was not met with great fanfare. It was like a couple people bought it at Schuler's, totally fine. And then Bittersweet a little bit more, and Bread & Wine a little bit more. And in those years, I spoke at every MOPS group in the state of Michigan, [laughter] and every college classroom, and a lot of chapels and a lot of, and that's, but I had written a book. An actual hold-it-in-your-hands book, which is the only thing I ever wanted to do in my whole life.

I never wanted to be a ballerina or an astronaut. I wanted to be a writer. And I was. And, and so you just, the, the joy of having done the thing you feel like you were made to do is so much more valuable than the outside response or lack of response.

Ansley: Hmm, yeah. So, going back to Cold Tangerines, and you've already talked a little bit about your creative process, but how has that changed since the writing of that first book?

Shauna: [00:35:22] Oh, I would say, every, every one, every book has felt really different to me. And some of it is, for those of you who are parents of small kids, my writing routine changes completely year to year based on my kids and their school schedule, and their childcare situation, so I always just take it a year at a time, and it changes all the time. And there are certain books, like Bread & Wine was really easy for me to write in small, little bursts. I could work for three hours, I could test a couple recipes after the kids went to bed, it was really easy for me to just dip in and out of it.

This book that's coming out in August was, I really found, I had to go away maybe three times in the year that I was writing it to like deep dive. Solitude, silence, sit on the lake, like it needed a deeper kind of shut out everything else, go all the way into it. And so I think every book is different, and I think your style changes over time, and your, ya know, and so I don't have a lot of rules about how I need to work, and I find it does change over time.

Ansley: Are there lessons that really stand out to you, saying like, "Oh, like, I wouldn't do it this way again," or?

Shauna: Yes.

Ansley: Okay. [laughter]

Shauna: Ya know what is so helpful? An outline. I have never used one. [laughter] And every time I get done with a book, I'm like, "Next time, Carolyn, next time make me make an outline!" And then I try, and I just make like a half-hearted list and I email it to her, and she knows I'm never gonna do anything with it. And then like half-way through I'm like, "What is this book even about?" And she's like, "Maybe an outline?" [laughter] So, it would be, I can't personally do that for whatever reason. I just like, my brain just won't, it's like I make a list and then I get tremendous glee from not doing it, [laughter] which is. I think an outline would be super helpful.

Ansley: Yeah, well, you'll have to let us know if it does hold true. [laughter]

Shauna: I will, I'll definitely let you know.

Ansley: If you ever get around to using one, yeah that'd be great. So, yeah, what can you tell us about your latest but yet-to-be-released book?

Shauna: So. Present Over Perfect will be out in August, actually, while we were standing backstage I got the first pages, the typeset copy, on my phone. I was like opening it, I was like, "Oh, looks good!" So we're right at the tail end of that process, and essentially every book I've written has not been something that I know, but something that I need to learn. So I needed to learn how to weather heartbreak well, and so I wrote Bittersweet. I needed a practice of devotion and grounding, and so we did Savor. And Present Over Perfect is just completely...When I was 36 I had two kids, I was in the middle of finishing Bread & Wine, I was traveling sometimes 40 times a year, and I got to a point where I loved my life, but I didn't like the person that I was and I was so tired that I couldn't really connect with myself, with God, with my family. Everything felt muted and exhausted. And I said, "I need another way to live, and I'm gonna find it, and I don't care what I have to do."

And so Present Over Perfect is that essentially three-and-a-half year journey in my life. And so it starts off with time-management stuff. Ya know, work less and blah-blah-blah. And I thought that would solve it, but what I realized through the process of writing about it and living it was this was not about poor time-management skills. This was about a belief that I had to hustle for my value on this planet. And that I had to pay cosmic rent to keep living here. That I had to hit some impossible set of standards in order to be valuable in some way.

And that construct made me exhausted at a profound level all the time. And so the process for me has been a lot about learning what most kids learn in Sunday School when they're like 5 years old about God's unconditional love. And how that changes and rearranges and grounds everything. When you are able to dwell deeply in the reality of His unconditional love, all of a sudden, whatever you do or don't do in a day, matters a lot less.

Whether you succeed or fail, whether you're a star or totally forgotten, all those things. Whether people think you're amazing or terrible or highly responsible or kind of a flake, none of it matters so much because your being is grounded in this depth of love. And that journey for me has been absolutely life-changing.

And so that's what the story of Present Over Perfect is, is perfect is no longer something I'm shooting for, but to be truly present and connected to what is, to the goodness right in front of us, to the people that are most important to us. I want to give the best of my day and my life and my heart to the people right in front of me, not the people out there who can say things about me on the internet. I want to be truly present to the best, most important things in here. That's where life is.

Ansley: Is it hard to do that while still living really passionately and intensely and chasing after things with your whole heart?

Shauna: [00:40:44] Yeah, and I mean I think it's always a balance. My husband and I are both very passionate. We love our work. It's very easy for us to both overwork. I love the hospitality and community and gathering side of life. And it's really easy for my excitement for that to make our calendar overly full, but a lot of it comes down to that practice of silence in the beginning of the day and the end of the day. And I find that if you're practicing silence in some way everyday, you don't get too far off-track in the course of 24 hours, and it's easier to get back. But if it's been like 6 months since you've truly been quiet, you can get really far off-track.

And so the practice of silence and prayer, for me, is that thing that helps me kind of assess the pace with which I'm living, the intensity, am I rested enough, am I living with a heart drenched in grace or clenched up with earning and proving. It's in the silence that I'm able to kind of assess that.

Ansley: Yeah, totally. And do you find that working through this stuff with people, I'm assuming, is a helpful thing also? So, do you have environments in your life where you're able to think through these things with people?

Shauna: Totally, I have a group of best girlfriends. We started off cooking together, and now we've become, we just everything together. They're my best daily, all-the-time people. And I find, you know, the more you talk about it, the more people will actually take you seriously. And this applies in anything. If you say, "I'm going to publish a book by the end of this year." If you say it out loud enough times, people are going to think you're going to do it, and they're gonna ask you about it, and then you're gonna have to do it, right? [laughter] Which is amazing.

If you tell people, "I want to live a more connected, slower, simpler life, that's important to me. I'm terrible at it, but I want to," then when they see you starting to make your life sort of crazy, they're like, "Hey pumpkin, weren't we doing like a simple, ya know?" And my girlfriends are so good at reminding me. "What does it look like to be present here? What does it look like to slow down? What does it look like to simplify?" So that's very much a conversation that's kind of in the water in our community.

Ansley: Yeah, well, and I think it's timely for students as well. I am a student here at Calvin, and I know there are a number of students in the audience. So what would you say to us in this frantic time of life, which probably is no more frantic than any other time of life, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. Do you have particular advice for young people?

Shauna: Well, this is not the advice you're looking for at all, like, not at all.

Ansley: That's just fine, that's okay.

Shauna: But whenever I'm on a college campus there's one thing that I say. Like, they can ask me to talk about anything and I'll do it eventually, but I will also always say this thing: if you're a college student, if you're anybody, if you're a person, but especially if you're a college student, you are significant with or without a significant other. You are significant with or without a significant other.

We live in a culture that is totally obsessed with marriage and diamonds and romance, and we confer status on people if they decide to get married to each other we give them towels and blenders. [laughter] And it's so weird, right? Like, it's not an actual achievement just to find someone and get married to them, but we act like, "Look what you've done! I want to give you fancy things," ya know?

And it's really easy when you're a young adult to feel like you're not moving forward in the way you should if you haven't yet found your person. And I'm old enough now where a lot of the friends who rushed to find their person out of fear or brokenness or loneliness. Those marriages started, and now they're done, right?

My husband and I did not meet in college. I thank God every day that I didn't marry someone I dated in college. [laughter]  They were lovely people, but not lovely for me to be married to. So I got married when I was... So I taught at a college once, and, right beforehand, I don't know what I was gonna talk about, but right beforehand she introduced me, I'm like standing off-stage. She was like, "One thing you need to know about Shauna," these are college students, "she has a lot of wisdom to share because she got married later in life." [laughter]

[00:45:05] I got married the week I turned 25. [laughter]  I was like, "You make it sound like I was a senior citizen when I got married," but they were like, "Ooh, how did you make it through?" [laughter]  I was like, "Well, I got a job, and I rented a house, and I don't know, it wasn't like a trial, ya know?" But there's this pervasive idea in culture that you're not there yet unless you're part of a pair. It's just not true. Some of the worst people I know are married, for real. [laughter]  And some of the best people I know are not a part of relationship right now.

And some of them desperately want to be, and some of them don't, and both are okay. And so I think one of the things, clearly, that I get all wound up about is, a lot of times I'll talk to college students and they won't tell me about the amazing things that they're learning, that they're writing, that they're creating, that they're researching. They tell me about how scary it is to not have found their person before graduation. And let's make that not a thing anymore. Let's give ourselves a lot more space and a lot more time, and a lot more dignity, that you are significant no matter what your relational status is.


One tiny more thing, and then I'll totally let you ask questions.

Ansley: You're totally good.

Shauna: On that topic, the guy or girl that you are currently spending 100% of your emotional energy texting right now, statistically speaking you will never see them again after you break up, right? But the women that you've lived with for four years, the men that you've lived with, the people you've been on a team with, the people that have been in your major, the people that you studied abroad with, these people might be a part of your life forever.

So again, the guys I dated in college, we don't go to lunch, right? [laughter] But the friends that I studied with, that I traveled with, that I lived with, are such an important part of my life even now. They speak into my writing, into my marriage, into my parenting. And so if you're thinking about what matters, here in your time at college, what matters is time building memories with the friends who might be a part of your life forever, not giving all of your mental energy to someone that probably is not going to be a major player in your future. Does that make sense?

I know none of you will do that, but I just like to say it. [laughter]

Ansley: Well, you're totally right, that was not the advice that I was expecting. [laughter] But it was wonderful nonetheless. [Indistinct speech]

Shauna: And I'm not saying you won't do it. I didn't do it, so. But it just deserves to be said.

Ansley: Yeah, totally. So you talk a lot about relationships and the importance of relationships, but I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about lonely seasons and people who struggle with loneliness. What does all of this look like when you don't feel like you're surrounded by a good group of people?

Shauna: Well, I would say, you know, like we talked about before, friendship is hard. And I think it's really helpful to say that out loud. And it takes a lot of energy. And especially when you're just trying to make friends, it's a lot like dating, which is kind of awful, ya know? And so I would say, first of all, if you're in a lonely season, put a plan of effort toward connecting with people. Ask someone out to coffee, and you'll know at the end of coffee if you want to have coffee with them again. And if you don't, ask a different person. And if you don't, ask a different person.

But friendship takes work, and it doesn't happen without somebody making it happen first. And so a lot of times people feel lonely, then if you talk with them about the choices that they're making, they're not really doing that work to take the risk to connect with people.

And this is the dorkiest thing I'll ever say, but in the loneliest seasons in my life, I feel like I'm among people who might understand this, maybe, but books were my friends in my lonely seasons of life. And I can tell you the authors and the stories and the characters that kept my heart company.

When we just first moved to Grand Rapids, I was so lonely. I had no friends. My husband worked at a church, and all day long he would talk with fabulous people and I would sit at home and wait for furniture to be delivered. I mean, it was just awful. And I read hundreds of books, and they made me feel less crazy and less alone. And they always have, since I was a little girl. Books are my greatest medicine for anything that's wrong with me, but especially for loneliness.

Ansley: Is that part of why you're passionate about making people feel connected through your work? Something you talked about earlier.

Shauna: [00:50:02] Absolutely. I actually had lunch with a bunch of people yesterday, and one of them asked me something about--he essentially was saying, "What does hospitality and your focus on food and the table have to do with the rest of your life?" And I said, "Well, I think, as best I can tell if you're the kind of person that talks about spiritual gifts or something like that, my greatest gift, the thing I've been given, my responsibility to offer to the world, is hospitality. It's saying to people, "You are known, welcomed, loved, and enough."

And I say it through books, and I say it on the stage, and I say it when I invite you into my home, and I say it when I talk with you at preschool drop-off. What I'm doing with my life is all an extension of hospitality. I have friends for whom their books are an extension of their leadership or their imagination or their ability to teach and instruct, or their ability to cast a vision for a better world. For me, it's hospitality. It's "Come in, you're safe. Stay with me for a while and we will be safe and comfortable together."

Ansley: So, you talked about books being your friend. Are there particular works of art, music, books that are really inspiring you right now?

Shauna: That's a great question. I'm just reading the Neapolitan Series. My Brilliant Friend--have any of you read that? It's great. It's kind of weird, but I really like it. And everyone told me it takes about half-way through the first book to get into it, and I have found that to be true and now I'm really excited about the rest. I am crazy about both Johnnyswim and The Lone Bellow. Florence and the Machine, How Big, How Deep, How Beautiful is on repeat in my whole life right now. I love it. So those are the albums that I'm really--I listen to those three probably more often than anything else, when I'm writing especially.

A couple books that I've loved recently: Seth Haines' book Coming Clean is fabulous. Jonathan Martin has a book out in June called How to Survive a Shipwreck. It's so beautiful. I think I read something just recently on vacation that I just loved. I'll work on thinking of it.

Ansley: Sounds like a plan.

Shauna: And I just got the Elle King Love Stuff album, and it's fantastic, I love it. So that's all I'll give you for now.

Ansley: Awesome, yeah, that's great, that's a great list. I'm sure people are jotting things down as we speak. So here at the Festival, obviously this is a place where people come for inspiration. But Grand Rapids is a place that you've talked about as housing a lot of wonderful memories for you, and also some painful memories. So what is it like for you to be back here at the Festival and in Grand Rapids?

Shauna: That's such a good question. I don't know if you guys have places like this is your life, where for a long time, Grand Rapids for me was like the scene of a crime. We moved here and in the six years that we were here, they were the hardest six years of my life. I got fired in a really embarrassing public way from a job I absolutely loved. And it tore me up. I was like a basket case. I had a really, painful, scary miscarriage and a lot of medical follow-up. We had a pretty rocky financial time, like everybody else having a financial rocky time during that time. And because of how I left my job, a lot of my relationships were all kind of screwed up. And I was lonely and I was afraid.

So this is a place that has--I'm reminded of a lot of wounds when I'm here. At the same time, I became a mother here. Our son Henry was born at Spectrum downtown. I became a writer here. My first editor Angela Scheff offered me a contract at the Panera on 44th Street on a Tuesday in January. Those two things changed my whole life. I made some of the best friends of my life, I'm gonna have dinner tonight with three girls. So two of them, when we moved to Grand Rapids, the day we were moving in, I was like, someone was like moving a stove, like delivering a stove. And all of a sudden I hear voices and it's these two girls, and they're carrying a bouquet of orange flowers. I'm like, "Hi, who are you?" And they said, "We're your new best friends." And I was like, "These people are nuts." [laughter] And then they were. They were totally my new best friends.

And so that was, you know, thirteen years ago. And those two and another woman have become the kind of friends who will be a part of my life forever. And so while Grand Rapids was a place where there was a lot of pain, it was also a place where a lot of really beautiful things happened. I saw Sleeping at Last here, and they played this song "Needle and Thread" that made me cry like a little baby. I met some of my writing heroes here at the Festival. Grand Rapids is both, as are most places in the world, right?

So, it's not about it being only the scene of a crime, it's a scene of a crime and it's totally holy ground. It's where I became a mom, it's where I became a writer, it's where I found my voice in a lot of important ways. And also, Marie Catrib, the Green Well, and the Real Food Cafe. [cheers] So there's some downsides and some upsides.

Ansley: The culinary scene is definitely an upside in Grand Rapids, yeah. So how do you work through writing some of those painful stories, things that involve people where lots of hurts happened? How do you think through some of that, how should we steward that as writers?

Shauna: [00:55:40] I'm very conservative on that side. Again, I write it all out in the messiest, barfiest, get-it-all-out way, and then we cull many, many, many times. So for example, when I got fired, I had to write about that, like I had to. It was so much a part of my life and story. But it involved a lot of other people. And so I actually gave those chapters to the team of people that I used to work with. And I said, "Does this feel honest and honoring to you? Do you feel comfortable with this? Do you want to omit these details? Am I saying this wrong?"

There was one story in I think Cold Tangerines where I was talking about being jealous of a friend. And I thought, "You know what, if I put that person's name in there, that's really weird for them, right? So they're like, "Oh, so I guess you're the one that Shauna's jealous of." Ya know, that's a weird dynamic in the real life. And so to honor her, I changed all the details, you know, so she doesn't have to carry that around, between us.

But I would say you write it all out as real and honest and real-time and full of details, and then with time and smart people, you decide which part of the story is actually for everyone, and which part of it was just for you.

Ansley: So looking back on the books that you've written, do you have one that stands out as particularly beloved or sort of a favorite for you?

Shauna: I've never been more excited for a book than I am about Present Over Perfect, maybe because it required the most life-change, and that life-change has been so fruitful. So I feel proud of that process, even in nobody reads the book. What it did in me was worth it, period. I'm so thankful for being where I was to where I am now in terms of connection to the people that are most important to me, connection to my faith in a deep way, practice of silence, kind of that grounding love. Even if somehow Zondervan called and they were like, "We lost it. It vanished," I'd be like, "You know what? This process was valuable enough for me." I mean, I hope they don't lose it. [laughter]

Ansley: We hope they don't, either.

Shauna: But this process has been the most transformative of any of them, and I'm really thankful for that.

Ansley: Yeah, totally. So one of the common critiques of memoir or personal narrative, whatever you want to call it, is that it's sort of self-indulgent for the author. So hearing you talk about the process and it being transformative for you, is that ever problematic?

Shauna: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I guess I don't totally think about it in those terms because of how much the books that have shaped me so much have been memoir and narrative. And they've changed me. So they didn't feel self-indulgent to me at all. They felt like a gift that this author was giving to me. So I would say it feels more like an offering than a performance, at least maybe the good ones. I feel like I could name thirty memoirs that didn't make me think like, "Mmhmm, pretty excited about your own life." [Laughter] They made me think, thank you for inviting me into this story in which I can find pieces of my own story.

Ansley: Yeah, totally. And my last question would be, what is your favorite interview question that you've ever been asked? [laughter]

Shauna: My guilty pleasures.

Ansley: What are your guilty pleasures? Tell us.

Shauna: I have so many. I'm like all guilty pleasures. Fake cheese of any kind, in a little can, in a big vat at a gas station, at a baseball game, any of it. If it's like melty and hot, that's like my jam. Let's see. Videos of little children doing hip hop dancing. Crazy about it, it's my favorite thing. Dancing in the kitchen with my kids. My kids are--so when my son Henry was six, he got this new babysitter named Jamie. And I heard them walking away and they were just chatting and she's asking him questions about himself and I hear him say, "Well, pretty into hip hop." Like, she asked you about your life and that's what you say? "Pretty into hip hop." So, we dance a lot, we're a dancing-in-the-kitchen family. We also all have little scooters, like the little Razor scooters, and we scoot around the neighborhood. We're like the dorkiest family ever. [laughter]

[01:00:18] So my husband will come home from work and he'll go, "Family scoot!" And we run out in the garage and we scoot around the neighborhood and it's just...having boys is like the most fun thing in the world. So my biggest pleasure is getting to be with them. A lot of lightsaber fighting, you know. But yeah, a lot of guilty pleasures.

Ansley: That's awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today and for being with us. It's been a total pleasure.

Shauna: It's totally my pleasure.




Lisa: Many thanks to Shauna Niequist. You can learn more about her work at shaunaniequist.com and follow her at Twitter @sniequist. Thanks also to Jen Hatmaker. You can learn more about her at jenhatmaker.com and follow her on Twitter @JenHatmaker. We loved hosting Shauna at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing, and are thrilled that Jen will be joining us for the 2018 Festival here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 12 through 14th. Jen will be among scores of writers speaking that weekend whose work grapples with faith in creative and complex ways. The Festival is a three day celebration of literature and belief and we invite you to join us as well. Check out our website for more information, festival.calvin.edu.

Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Today's episode was produced by Jon Brown, Amanda Smartt, and yours truly. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Peter Ford, Gwyneth Findlay, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Debra Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Chloe Selles, Isabelle Selles, Deborah Visser, and Jane Zwart.

You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and, if you’re into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we are doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful.

Also, we’ve got 26 years of festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you’ve been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at ffw@calvin.edu and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.

Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.