Beth Stoddard is a writer, an accomplished musician, and a Creative Life Pastor in Central Virginia. Ever since 2007, she’s been blogging at GraceEveryDay.com – filling the pages with everything from broken down trucks and ice cream machines, to divorce and emotional healing, to mental illness and reconciliation. “Beth is daring to tell us about her life as it happens with brave vulnerability,” Audrey Woodhams says. “I had to ask her how she does it.”
This week, Beth Stoddard and Audrey Woodhams share their conversation about creativity, family, and the willingness to keep writing through life’s junk.
Hi, Beth! I thought I’d start by asking about your creative journey. You’re a musician and a writer….how did that get started in your life?
I grew up around music – my dad played a little guitar and sang all the time. Listening to the Beach Boys and the Eagles, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – that’s how I learned to sing harmony, in the car with my dad. My mom got me started with piano lessons in 2nd grade; she was determined that I push through and never let me give up. My first teacher, Millie Bark, indulged my desire to play by ear but also insisted that I learn to read. I did both and never really stopped playing piano…
I ended up pursuing music in college, with a full tuition scholarship to Texas Tech University. Got the teaching degree along with a ton of experience playing jazz and rock and roll in clubs.
Along the way I have always written; poetry as a teen (VERY anguished and angsty!), songs, some smaller prose pieces. My high school English teachers were passionate about good, creative writing and it made a huge mark on my life.
I started blogging in 2005 and that’s when a consistent theme of writing through my junk really took off.
Writing through your junk…tell me about that.
I went through a very difficult time in 2004 – a separation and subsequent divorce, a move with my five kids to live with my parents and try to sort things out. I began to write on a private blog to have a place to process, be raw and open, and more or less just spill my guts.
Blogging was just taking off at the time, and I discovered a site called ‘Real Live Preacher’ and then a birding blogger, Julie Zickefoose. (Why birding, I don’t know; I wasn’t really into birds.) Reading the comments on those blogs connected me to a handful of people who I carefully invited into my life via invitations to read my private blog. Several of these folks are still friends – some whom I have met in real life – some 13 years later!
Anyway, I had a lot to say. My stuff seemed to just pour out of me when I didn’t try to frame it with any sort of filter. As I went back to reread things I wrote, I began to recognize that the truest, most authentic part of me was in my writing. I knew that it was important that I dig into that area of my life.
I was going through a moral crisis, a spiritual sea-change; writing helped me uncover who I really was, and helped me chart the course for who I wanted to be.
I’m sure it was such a brave step to let those people read your blog. I notice in your current blog, GraceEveryDay.com, that you still share some raw moments in life. How do you experience that vulnerability, sharing your life in a creative way in real time?
I don’t think, “Oh, I guess I’ll be vulnerable now.” Mostly, it’s stuff that’s happening in me that just seems to be churning that insists on expression. That sounds weird…but it’s like it just HAS to be said. I sometimes feel like the things I write have a life of their own, that to deny them existence would cause me to choke to death. Like, “This is part of why I am here… to give life to these truths…”
That doesn’t sound weird. I know exactly what you mean.
I spent a good portion of my life faking. I pretended to have a perfect marriage, perfect kids, all the answers…it blew up and proved to be a waste of energy in so many ways. When everything was wrecked, I found myself struggling with recognizing that it was okay to be broken; to not have everything right, to not have it figured out. I was living out of a religious background, but it was not life-giving – in fact, it added to the compulsion to pretend. When I quit trying to be a good Christian woman, I ended up discovering the poetry of the Old Testament – the raw anguish of the Psalms, the outcries of betrayal and loss and hopelessness. I accepted this as a permission to be real and raw…and over time, I began to see it more as the right way to live and engage with life. So honest writing, for me, is a spiritual discipline. It also became important in my parenting.
This honest writing was important to you as a mother?
I wanted my children to grow up knowing the breadth of human experience; knowing how to love others without judgement, how to avoid being a slave to perfectionism, how to recognize bad theology. So it was important to me as a mother as well.
And there is NOT freedom to share everything; I do have a filter. I am sensitive to other people’s stories; I am sensitive to the community I live in. I don’t write about everything I think.
Yes, but I noticed that, in one of your recent posts, you were writing a thought, then got caught on a tangent, and then simply wrote, “I lost my train of thought.” It was brilliant…I felt like I was right there with you while you were writing…and yet, oh, so brave. Coming from a creative genre [songwriting] where we write and practice and polish before sharing it with the world, I’m fascinated by the courage to simply write and immediately share.
That’s funny. That makes me laugh. At myself.
I know that some of the writers I enjoy most, whose lives have impacted mine – when I read them, I feel like I’m sitting with them. Anne Lamott.
I like that. I would like to be that way. I’m not trying to craft anything; I’m just writing the moment for what it is.
Ah, yes. Dear Anne.
It’s a challenge, sometimes; I think to myself, “Oh, girl – you are NOT as fascinating as you think you are…” – and yet there’s always some resonance. Somebody gets it, or gets a message they needed, or just affirms me; so it seems to be the right thing to do. I don’t really overthink it much.
Because most people are living ordinary days, and so a creative expression of the ordinary will resonate with us, right?
Yes. That makes perfect sense.
Has there ever been a topic that you knew had to be written, but that you didn’t want to share? Something that was hard to write?
Yes. A few. As a pastor in the community, I’ve gotten tripped up a few times when I wanted to help explain something in context with the church; usually cultural issues or topics. Those posts – sexuality, particularly – seemed to trigger discussions that filled me with anxiety.
Dealing with my daughter’s bipolar illness has been hard; something I knew I wanted to share, that would be helpful, but something that borrowed so heavily from someone else’s story – namely, my daughter….
Yes, I remember reading about your daughter’s story, and she was very brave to share her story as well.
I still struggle with that – not because of the topic, but because words are so incredibly powerful. What we write and how it is received by others – especially with social media interaction – can really affect a person; the writer, or those written about. Words matter… they are powerful tools. When it comes to my kids, I try to be sensitive. It’s a hard line to tow, because they are so much of my life – but their stories are their own.
I’d like to write more about how bipolar has affected my family; it’s ongoing, and it’s really challenging. But I refrain. It’s not just my story.
How does this affect your life on a day to day level…I mean, do you walk into the convenience store and find someone who has read your latest most personal blog post? How does that affect you?
Yes – it happens a lot! Honestly, it startles me sometimes. I write and pour it out, usually do four re-read edits, then post. And then it’s like it’s out there, it’s alive on its own, and I sort of forget about it. Like it is a cleansing of something internal….and then somebody will comment on it, in person, and I’ll be like, “What? OH – yeah, right… I wrote that…”
Something about that always feels wrong – like I’ve put a child out into the world but then forgotten about it! BAD PARENT.
Ha! Wow, that’s amazing. You forget about it. Was it always like this? When you started blogging, were you this way?
Yes. Honestly, after I post, I usually go back about seven times the day I post to re-read and remind myself what I wrote.
That’s amazing. I noticed that Grace Every Day celebrated 10 years this past August. Congratulations! So many writers start blogs with great intentions, but find it difficult to keep up a pace of regular writing. What’s your motivation, your secret sauce, to keep writing?
One is that I HAVE to write. Stuff bubbles up inside of me that HAS to come out. I can’t speak it out, I can’t play it out on the piano. It becomes a swollen, taut mess of truth that HAS to be released. It’s part of my emotional health.
There’s a measure of putting myself out there and being seen, as well; when somebody reads my words and comments, it touches my ego and my natural need to be seen. I’ve learned to accept that as a basic requirement of being human: we need to be seen, and this is part of that for me.
I’ve also done a couple of month-long challenges for myself; “30 days of ____ .” I pick a topic that will challenge my creativity and write on it. “30 days of noticing,” “30 books,” “30 songs.” That’s always an interesting journey. It ends up feeling a little forced but it’s good discipline.
Well, thank you for making the journey, to share your creativity and your life with the world.
Thank you, friend!