Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sandra Glahn, ThM, teaches in the media arts program at Dallas Theological Seminary, where she edits the award-winning magazine Kindred Spirit. She has authored six books including The Coffee Cup Bible Study series, and the medical-suspense novel, Informed Consent. She has co-authored ten additional works including the Christy Award finalist, Lethal Harvest. A PhD candidate in Aesthetic Studies (Arts and Humanities) at the University of Texas at Dallas, she recently released When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden (Kregel).

When did you decide to become a writer?

Never, actually. Writing happened “on the side” and eventually took over. After college I worked for a 700-employee company, and my boss believed I had some talent. So I edited their employee publications. When the company folded, I started a freelance publicity business with 700 contacts. One of my clients produced the music for PBS’s “Barney and Friends.” Another was Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), where I edited (and still edit) their magazine, Kindred Spirit. I had no aspirations to write a book, but I had an interest in fertility issues. I wrote articles about bioethics on the side (many volunteer hours), and that led to a book contract and later to medical-suspense novels. Today my primary job is still editor, and now DTS professor—teaching writers.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

I tell my students, “If ten people tell you something’s wrong, change it. If ten people tell you ten different things are wrong, don’t change anything. If you editor tells you something’s wrong, it’s wrong, even if it’s not wrong.” I joined critique groups, and when three people agreed that I could write, I started trusting myself.

Are you a disciplined writer or do you just write when you feel like it?

I’m pretty disciplined. Someone asked me this week, “How do you stay motivated to keep writing?” and I asked, “How do you stay motivated to write a report that’s due?” You do it because it needs doing. Sometimes we treat writing like it’s this mysterious arsty experience that has to wait on the Muse for inspiration. Imagine if a bricklayer thought that way about his “art.” We do better to treat writing like any other work.
What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?
I require myself to take a Sabbath, not as some legalistic thing, but in recognition that “down time” is to life as holes are to lace—the empty spaces make the rest beautiful. Taking a full 24 hours off every week requires faith for me, just like giving money does. During my “free” time I like to nap, read, watch HGTV cooking shows, and putter in the kitchen. Also, one of my employee benefits is a healthclub membership, so I work out and read great novels while I walk. And I love to travel. Having family on both coasts helps.

What is your favorite novel and what made it special?
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s s book is a tour de force on social justice—in a class of its own. I laughed out loud, cried, shook my head, shuddered, and then laughed again. I once read that the strongest argument comes with a one-two punch, the second blow being humor. If so, Harriet Beecher Stowe punctuates her argument with a TKO.

For my PhD examinations-prep, I have a reading list of about 200 novels. And so far of all the classics I’ve read, hers sits at the top of the list. Second would be The Brothers Karamazov. Dosteovesky’s masterpiece is the “novel” equivalent to What’s So Amazing about Grace. My √Āntonia was fantastic, too.
How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?

When I was small, whenever my Dad faced the occasional toilet overflow, he would grab the plunger and dash into the bathroom calling out, “Double, double toilet trouble! Come a-runnin’ on the double!” I found his iambic pentameter clever, and I was also glad that the same man who tossed a wrench when the car gave him fits could face so good naturedly what I considered a far less agreeable task. Yet I had no clue that he was quoting—or rather, misquoting—anything.

Nearly four decades later, however, when doing my Ph.D. work, I took a course in Shakespearean tragedies. One evening as I was reading along in MacBeth, I came upon something in Act IV, Scene I that shocked me. The witches bent over their brew chanted, “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”

I burst out laughing.

For years, decades even, I had quoted my dad’s rhyme without realizing he had based it on some of the best-known literature in the English language. I had lacked the background to appreciate it. Yet that deficiency hadn’t kept me from enjoying it at an elementary level. Still, further knowledge added—greatly added—to my appreciation. The path to literacy is laid with many such layers.

Whatever level of literary understanding we have achieved, we are always becoming readers. It’s a lifelong journey. We start out on the dirt path of plain understanding—“my father made up an amusing rhyme.” Yet as we reread texts, we find that even grown-ups grow in literacy.

This is why we must read and reread the Bible. We benefit from the way different truths touch us at different times, depending on what God is emphasizing in our lives in the moment. And we equip ourselves to notice when authors are borrowing from its pages. Doing so also helps us recognize worthy works.
Consider what John Steinbeck did with Cain and Abel’s story retold as East of Eden. Or what Melville did with Moby-Dick and Jonah. One does not have to know the underlying story to appreciate the conflict between brothers or the joy of triumphing over a whale. But a thoroughgoing understanding of the Genesis story or of Jonah’s voyage adds to the reader’s appreciation of the author’s message. Think, too, of how Dickens used the idea of substitutionary sacrifice in The Tale of Two Cities. Or how Lewis’s Narnia adventures retell the greatest story ever told.
Those of us who make our living using the word to communicate the Word—we of all people—can and should aid our readers in their multi-layered literary journeys by ensuring that whatever we offer them is legible, readable, and accessible on many levels.

To do so we must read all kinds of literature and especially the Bible, which is both God’s Word and the foundation for much of the world’s great literature. And we need to read not only books from the bestseller lists but also those that have proved their staying power in the market—classic novels, great plays, and famous poets.
Tell us a little about your latest release:

When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden (Kregel) is the first book I ever wrote. The new release is a second and much-updated version produced by a new publisher. Much has changed in the world of infertility treatment in the fifteen years since the original version. Back then nobody talked of cloning or freezing embryos.

The book includes my personal journey through three years of no success at conceiving followed by seven early pregnancy losses and three failed adoptions. My husband and I have since adopted, but we did not include our “happy ending” in the book, because Christ-followers going through the emotional, spiritual, medical, financial, relational crisis of infertility must wrestle with a key question: “Is God good, even if I never have a child?” My personal ending does not aid them in dealing with that question.

I teamed with a seminary medical doctor to write it, and in it we include medical, marital, biblical, bioethical, and relational guidance. We also included questions for discussion, so therapists and small groups can use it—as well as bewildered family members whose well-intentioned words always seem to hurt more than help.
Where did you get your inspiration for When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden?

I was taking a media-arts class at DTS writing a novel when the professor assigned us to meet with a publisher—just to have the experience of pitching an idea. At the end of that appointment as I was heading out the door, he mentioned his daughter had experienced a failed adoption. I spun around and told him that if he ever wanted to publish a book on infertility and pregnancy loss, I would edit it for free as the books on the market at the time fell pretty far short of what I needed.
“Why don’t you write the book yourself?” he asked.

I had to sit down. The thought had never crossed my mind.

Your book deals with the pain that accompanies infertility. What would you say is the most difficult thing couples deal with when faced with infertility?

Because infertility happens during the childbearing years, the experience is usually the first serious grief-trauma a couple goes through together. And they often find that they handle pain much differently. As a result they can feel isolated from each other. The greatest loss the wife articulates is usually the inability to have a baby and become a mommy—a primary job most women envision for themselves, even if they have great careers. For the husband, however, the greatest grief is usually the loss of his partner. The happy woman he married has disappeared, replaced by an inconsolable stranger. All his efforts to reach her, to cheer her, to bring her out of her funk fail. In his helplessness to get her back, he may even state a willingness to live without kids, thinking that might take the pressure off. Yet what he intends as loving, she interprets as being “less committed to the cause.” So two people trying to love each other end up completely polarized.

You and your husband faced your own issues with infertility. Can you tell us about it?

Today I have one child, teach at Dallas Seminary, and I'm married to a missionary. The work is serving a group of Kenya pastors by providing administrative support stateside. They're doing great work on the ground, but need help via spread sheets, child-sponsorship, blueprints, and wells dug. It's sort of the new wave in missions--serving the nations who are doing the face-time work. My life has not turned out the way I imagined, expected, planned. But with the perspective of hindsight, I see the beauty of God's handwork. But that’s the perspective from fifteen years later.
At the time infertility led to a crisis of faith. I handled the three years without conceiving okay. It was hard, but not crisis-level hard. I even handled the miscarriages and the first failed adoption (three days before Christmas) pretty well. But when the second one happened—a year later, three days before Christmas—after nearly a decade of loss upon loss, I felt like God had forsaken me. I reached a point where my entire life boiled down to “Is God good” and “Will I trust Him?” Part of my crisis was realizing I had too narrow of a view of Christian womanhood. I had always focused on God’s male/female partnership as “be fruitful and multiply” and had missed the earlier expressed purpose, which was “have dominion.” I had to go back to Genesis and work my way through the entire Bible to take a fresh look at who I was and what God expected of me. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.
What is the main thing you hope readers remember from this story?

For all of us life ultimately boils down to those two questions I grappled with. Standing by the bed of a dying loved one, we wrestle with, “Is God good and will I trust Him?” A single person who longs for marriage struggles to answer the same questions. Too often books about suffering focus on God building our character (which He does) and good coming from bad (which Romans 8:28 teaches), without exploring Job’s nature walk and seeing that much of suffering is a mystery, because God’s ways are beyond comprehension to a finite being. From there we ponder, “Even if I can’t understand God and His ways, do I have enough evidence to prove He is good?” And I think the Cross is the only way to answer that.

What kinds of things have you done to market this book? Have you found anything that works particularly well?

For a subject this private most people prefer to order online rather than walking into a store. And word of mouth is particularly important in the infertility community. So we’ll be targeting churches with support groups, church book stores, and church librarians moreso than with other works I’ve done.

Tell us what new projects you’re working on.
I just put the finishing touches on number nine in the Coffee Cup series—Sumatra with the Seven Churches. I had the joy of spending part of last summer in Turkey doing research, and being there added so much to my understanding of Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Revelation. Once I knock out my PhD examinations, I plan to write historical novel set in first-century Ephesus through the eyes of a young widow there. I’ll explore those confusing passages like “a woman will be saved through childbearing” and develop background information that I think helps us understand the meaning of the some of the difficult “woman” texts.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

I do. Back before I’d ever published anything, I used to look at all the books on the market and think, “Do we really need another novel?” “Why yet another book on marriage,” or “Why would someone want to publish another Bible study on Sermon on the Mount?”

What I came to know years later was that each author’s unique sphere of influence provides a platform through which some readers are more apt to hear from that author than from others—even if the others are more eloquent. So we will always need more books, new books, even on “old” topics. Richard Baxter wrote wonderful stuff for Puritan audiences, and it stirs me when I read it today. Yet I still love reading about the same topics covered by Ruth Haley Barton.
Because of this, every year I exhort my journalism students to go ahead and write on topics that interest them or in the genres they love, even if someone else has already done it better. Several years ago after hearing this little lecture, one of my students showed up the next week with a quote that I have since cherished. It’s from St. Augustine’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity), translated by Edmund Hill:

Not everything … that is written by anybody comes into the hands of everybody, and it is possible that some who are in fact capable of understanding even what I write may not come across those more intelligible writings, while they do at least happen upon these of mine. That is why it is useful to have several books by several authors, even on the same subjects, differing in style though not in faith, so that the matter itself may reach as many as possible, some in this way others in that.

So my advice: If you are at all inclined to write, do it. Don’t let that voice telling you someone else has already “done it better” stop you from writing. Perhaps that better-written book will never make it into one of your readers’ hands and you will get to be the fortunate soul through whom someone’s life is forever changed.
Sandra is giving away a copy of her book, When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden. Be sure to stop by The Borrowed Book on Friday for your chance to win!


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