Postmarked: Dear Jen (34)


Dear Jen

Well, here we are. I’m writing this to you on day #34 of the Great Isolation, and our family has taken on quite a few new practices during this strange time. We used to try to eat dinner together at least two or three times a week, but now we eat together every night, with one of the kids choosing, and helping to make, the meal. We watch a movie most nights and try to have an intelligent discussion about the story. Already a family that read, we are now collectively reading a forest of books every week.

Besides these things, life continues on, mostly unchanged for us, and I know how fortunate we are that this is the case. I work at home. Maile writes. We both take care of the kids and the house. We fight over silly things. We make up. We try to get everyone outside to “blow the stink off.” Some days are better than others.

I love the Emily Dickinson quote you shared, “We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.” It does seem that, these days, our belief must be as nimble as ever. And our hope. And our trust.

Novel-writing seems to be going well. Thank you for asking! Every time I start a new story, I chide myself, insisting that I tell a more straightforward story “this time,” that I take a simpler path. And then, each time, the story emerges more complex than I planned, and I wonder if I have the skill to tell it. This one has certainly been that way. But I’ve passed the 65,000-word mark, the end of the first draft is in sight, and I feel like I’m catching my stride again.

Maile continues to wade through the grueling query process. It is probably the hardest stage for the novelist, or perhaps any writer, who wishes to see their books traditionally published. But she has started writing something new, which I always think is the key to persevering in the face of rejection. One more step. Keep those blinders on. Keep creating.

Mostly, we have been wrestling with how we want our lives to look whenever things begin to slowly return to some kind of normal. We realize now, as we sit here in this space of inactivity and relative peace, that the busy lives we were living before were not sustainable.  So it’s back to the drawing board for us, trying to figure out how to keep some semblance of this simplicity once the world reopens.

I saw online that you will be part of a podcast! I can’t wait to hear more about it. It will be more important than ever, in the coming months, to have voices that point out the light of beauty to all of us.

I don’t feel like there’s much else to share–these days come and go, each so similar to the one before it, that it feels a bit like driving through fog. Hopefully, things will start to clear soon.

All the best


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PS – We’re doing a FREE 6-week book club for kids. Get more details and SIGN UP FOR THE SPRING BOOK CLUB HERE!

Offering Something to the World that Matters

Today, Jen Pollock Michel writes to me about the power of words:

“In recent months, the work of words often did not feel like “enough.” If people are building hospitals, feeding starving children, conducting important diplomatic efforts, running companies, of what real use am I in front of this laptop? It’s felt a bit immaterial, like I’m offering something to the world that matters a whole lot less than the really solid things that can be named and accounted for. But with the world as it currently is, I’m sensing anew the power of words, both the healing words and the reckless words. I’m starting to believe again that it matters: taming those wriggling words and offering them up to the world, however they are received.”

Read her entire letter HERE.

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Today, we’re also releasing a BRAND NEW PODCAST EPISODE. We speak with our creative doppelgangers, another couple trying to make it work in the freelance world. Leslie Verner is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, and her husband Adam is a book narrator. That’s right. He has the dream job of reading books FOR A LIVING. We talk about how to make it in the creative world, what it’s like living with another creative person, and serving the reader versus serving the work.

Listen to our newest episode HERE.

Postmarked: Dear Jen (32) — A Few Thoughts on Trust in a Time of Uncertainty


It’s wonderful hearing from you, and I’m so glad you guys made it home safely.

Thanks for asking about my novel—I think I’m finding a bit of groove. This one is a wriggling thing, and hard to grab on to, but I’m about 50,000 words in, so the path to the end is in sight.

Today marks two weeks since we were told to stay home as much as possible here in Pennsylvania, two week since schools were canceled. It’s so strange to think about how much has changed since I wrote my letter to you fifteen days ago. Then, life was still relatively normal. We had no idea, or at least I didn’t have any idea, what was coming.

We’re approaching the end of the honeymoon phase of staying home all the time. I know the jokes and memes about being trapped in your house with your children abound, but to be honest, Maile and I have so enjoyed our time with our kids. After all, it’s only been two years since Maile was homeschooling them all, so in some ways this feels like a flashback to a simpler time in our lives, when everyone was under our roof most of the time, and our schedule was in our control. Add to that the fact that Maile and I both prefer not to have busy schedules, prefer to be at home, and these two weeks, in many ways, have felt like a blessing.

And yet.

This morning marked the first time a friend of ours was admitted to the ER with Covid-19. We have close friends who work in the healthcare system, as well as friends in New York City where the disease is exploding. And the fog of uncertainty hangs over everything, no matter how much we enjoy being at home—will our aging parents and friends make it through this? Will the economy recover? Will I still have writing projects through this time, or on the other side of it? How will the publishing industry be changed?

During our dinner club last week, when we met on Zoom instead of in real life, one of our friends laughed and said, “Well, now we all get to live like Maile and Shawn have lived for the last ten years.” I think she was referring to the uncertainty everyone is feeling, and in some ways what she said is true: Maile and I have grown accustomed to uncertainty. Rarely in the last ten years, since I started writing full time, have we had more than three or four months’ income lined up. Often, less than that. A few times, we have had nothing lined up. We have operated, these ten years, with a certain level of trust (more or less, depending on the season) that God would provide what we needed. Strangely enough, and in sudden fashion, it would seem that everyone has been ushered into this kind of uncertain existence.

Trust is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity.

Something that has meant a lot to me during this decade of trust has been Brennan Manning’s book, Ruthless Trust. My favorite quote from that book goes like this:

“The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of the pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”

I think we are, all of us, entering into a season that will require more trust than we have ever managed to muster before. As Manning later writes, “The most urgent need in your life is to trust what you have received.” While none of us have chosen to walk into this new life defined by a virus, I think we can still take heart in what Manning has to say, because even here God offers us his presence and his promise.

So, here we are. You and me and our families and nearly everyone on the planet, walking into darkness, waving our hands around in front of us, trying to get a feel for what lies ahead.

May we all sense a presence and a promise during these strange, uncertain times.

Our love to you and yours


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Maile and I are going to run the same free writing class for kids again next week that we did this week. These 20-minute classes will be held each day next week, from 3/30 – 4/3, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, and we’ll explore creating characters, settings, conflict, plot, and ways to move forward in the writing life. Please share this link with all your friends!

Another Wonderful Letter from Jen Pollock Michel

This week, Jen Pollack Michel sent me another letter:

“You and I both know that the writing life requires the discipline of leaving white space in our lives: time to read, time to journal, time to burrow deep into ideas and stories, time to stare out the window. Both of our lives are busy enough with family, but adding to this regular travel and speaking? I know it’s not sustainable for me. I think what I’m trying to reckon with is what you wrote about in your last letter. I need to see the confines of this garden I’m called to tend, see its boundaries from the expansive land surrounding it. The horizon is endless, but I’m not meant to be looking at the horizon, just the plot of dirt beneath my feet. That’s what I need to till and tend.”

To read it in its entirety, head HERE.

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Also…I’m hosting a FREE 20-minute writing class each day next week via Zoom helping kids (around ages 12 – 16) start to write their own story. 3/23 – 3/27, 1:30 Eastern time. You can sign up here:

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We spoke with award-winning author Devi Laskar about writing. She had one piece of advice that really struck home.

Postmarked: Dear Jen (30)

Dear Jen

Just when I thought the mornings were getting lighter, the time changed, and now all of us here in the Smucker household are meandering around through dark breakfasts again. But despite the darkness, I can tell the seasons are changing. The buds are forming on the trees, the grass is recapturing a kind of hopeful, almost-green hue, and the sunlight lingers in the early evening. My quarterly reminder is here: things will always change, good and bad will come and go, and even the darkest seasons eventually give way to light, even if its soft and can barely be seen above the city skyline.

I’m glad to hear you are on track to finish your next book as planned, although I do have to admit, I felt both a small cringe as well as a sense of awe when you described the process you’ve been through: “I studied 41 chapters in the Bible, read 3,055 pages of commentary, wrote 190 handwritten pages of notes, composed 27000 words in outline, drafted 64,000 for the manuscript.” The cringe comes from my resistance to research. The awe comes from how thorough you are, how dedicated to your craft and the message of your book. Well done, and keep going.

For some reason, thinking of you doing this work reminded me again of the phrase I was handed over a year ago: “Tend to your own garden.” When I envision all of that work you’ve done—the research, the reading, the study, the writing—it brings to mind the image of someone casting seed out over a patch of tilled earth, working diligently in that space, caring for each square foot of the soil. Never mind the expansive farms that border this garden, the ones that stretch on for miles with their complex machinery and ever-droning harvesters. Never mind the ones that seem to be growing more exotic things than the gardens we have been given to look after.

Tend to my own garden. Again and again I come back to this.

Isn’t tending our own gardens the very thing that leads to stories like the one you told in your last letter, where someone gave you a card to let you know how your writing has mattered to her? When we tend our own gardens, when we stop jealously eyeing the fields of others, it gives us the freedom to do the work we have been called to do. And what good work it can be. What good work it is.

And when we tend our own garden, as you mentioned, this “making” does its good work in us. Maybe that is what lies at the end of this writing journey we’re on—not necessarily best-sellers (though it would be nice), or critical acclaim, or awards, but a thorough and complete remaking of ourselves. Can anything till up the inner self like writing? Can anything better use the compost of life than these small literary gardens we’re looking after?

This novel is still a heavy slog, but as one writer said, “Hard writing makes easy reading.” How I hope that will be the case with this one.

Warm Regards


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What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers on creative work and family life has become an exchange of letters. Here is where Postmarked began:

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (1)

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In the most recent episode of The Stories Between Us, I make a confession, Maile talks about depression and creativity, and we dig into the weighty topic of revision. You can listen HERE.

Postmarked: Dear Jen (28)

Dear Jen

I write this to you sitting in a hotel room in downtown Nashville, getting ready to go hand out ARCs of my upcoming novel, These Nameless Things, to librarians at the PLA conference. Hawking my book to strangers isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but I do love the story—it’s been in my head since 2011ish—so I’m pumping myself up.

As of Wednesday last week, I was completely prepared to write this letter to you. Maile and I left on Wednesday for our annual pilgrimage to Kentucky to spend time with a small group of writers we love. I use the word love in the deepest sense, not in a passing kind of “Oh! I love that book!” but in a way meant to communicate a deep sense of caring and belonging and hoping for. These are writers who not only write beautifully but who also live beautifully. They inspire me to care even more about the craft, the words, the people to whom I’m writing. It is a good, good group.

So, for about three days we ate together, shared our writing with one another, had conversations about downward mobility, publishing, and the desire to be read. We also laughed a lot.

I’ve come away from that meeting, our third time together, thinking quite a bit about the role of community in the writer’s life. And when I say community, I’m talking about writers who gather more or less as equals to encourage, critique, and share about their lives. I don’t think I could keep going without my writing community—not only those writers we met with last week, but my online writer friends, the people who listen to Maile and I on our podcast, and friends like you.

Writing is hard, hard work. Yes, it is fun. Yes, there are few places I’d rather be than perched in front of my laptop with a few blank hours to work on my next novel. Yes, the encouragement, the contracts, the very occasional awards, the positive feedback…these are all nice parts of the writing life. But without the people, without the other writers, I would soon lose myself in an endless feedback loop of self-criticism or self-aggrandizement.

So, thank you. Thanks for being part of my writing community, for coming alongside me for this season, for taking the time to write every other week (or a little less often than that, when I forget to keep the chain going!).

Well, I guess I’d better start polishing my one sentence description of my book for these librarians. They really are some of my favorite people in the world, librarians. They seem to me to be like the sacred keepers of lost worlds. I would never have read Tolkien or Susan Cooper or Madeleine L’Engle at such a young age if it weren’t for my middle school librarian. They really do change our communities for the good.

I hope February is coming to a satisfactory end for you and your family, and that you are charging into the home stretch with your upcoming book due date.

All the best, my friend. Thanks again for your companionship on this writing journey