All Posts in “Writing & Publishing”

The New Cover

One of my favorite parts of putting together an issue of Relief is working with the photographers and graphic artists who help the outside of our journal look as good as the work we publish inside. You see, I’m well aware that, while we all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we’re all prone to do it anyway. Fortunately, Relief has developed great relationships with gifted visual artists who contribute to covers that are as original as our vision for a Christian literature that is both true-to-life and beautiful, gritty and wonderful.

The cover of our current issue is a composite of two images. The central image (the tree and sunrise in the doorway) is cropped from a landscape taken by J. Brisbin, a former Relief author and photographer whose work we featured on our last cover. Like his last, this image demonstrates the high dynamic range (HDR) technique, which is a favorite form of Brisbin’s. As he explains it:

HDR is simply a way to capture an image that pretends it has more dynamic range than it actually has. The eye can see about 15000:1 contrast ratio, while photography can usually only capture 300:1 to 500:1. Highs get overexposed, lows get lost in shadow. HDR algorithms seek to compress multiple exposures of an image that expose various parts of that 15000:1 contrast ratio in “slices” by altering the exposure, then combining those images (3-12) using special software. What makes HDR cool, in my opinion, isn’t this technical side of it, but the artistic result of the tone mapping software. Different algorithms produce different results and a vast range of effects can be produced by manipulating the knobs and switches in the tone mapping software. It can be time-consuming and takes a lot of trial-and-error but with the right composition, the effects can be stunning.

The second — and much less technical — image of the dark foreground, was taken by my wife, my youngest son, Josiah, and myself during a hike at a nearby abandoned and run-down house. (Actually, I took the picture from inside while they stayed safely outside and prayed the roof would not collapse on my head).  With some clever arranging by Harriet Brewster, who also designed the cover for our last issue, the result is an image we’re calling “Lazarus, Come Forth” for its juxtaposition of  desolation with hope and beauty, and to hint at this issue’s themes of isolation and communion.

And now that you’ve seen the cover, click on over to our store and pre-order a copy of your very own!

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It All Began with a Picture

Stephanie Smith

I have a question for all you writers out there: how do your stories begin?

Do they begin inside you, with a striking thought, image, or scene? Do you observe something in the world that makes you want to put in onto paper? Do you imagine your characters to life, or do you see them on the street, at the Farmer’s Market, the corner coffee shop?

Many of my favorite authors, it seems, birth their stories like this: a curious image arises in their mind, an image they see and cannot forget, and they write to discover the story behind the image.

Beloved author C.S. Lewis says that his enchanted world of Narnia began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella in a snowy wood.  “This picture had been in my mind since I was sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’”

Kate DiCamillo was lying in bed one morning, her life in a state of depression, when she suddenly saw a magician, joined by an elephant.  They looked as real to her as anyone, and this curious introduction gave her the motivation to get out of bed and start writing again. The tale of these two characters entwine in what became The Magician’s Elephant, a whimsical story about magic, homecoming, and belonging.

Sue Monk Kidd’s award-winning novel, The Secret Life of Bees, began with an image of a girl going to sleep in her room amidst a swarm of hovering bees.  Right now I’m reading Traveling with Pomegranates, the author’s memoir which gives the reader the backstory behind the creation of her bee novel. I find myself fascinated with the way Sue Monk Kidd collects the smallest of details and finds a home for them in her book.  Simple things like a pink house she saw in a magazine, a childhood memory of bees that hummed through the walls of her old house, and a story about a black Madonna struck something in her and she wove them into her novel.

As much as I love reading fiction, this genre has always been the hardest thing for me to write.  Characters do not appear to me in dreams, or start talking to me in the shower, or hover over my bed in the form of circus animals.  But I do often see images in real life that I pause over and tuck away for later, for a story that will be woven with bits and pieces of things in the world that catch my curiosity.

Here are some of them:

A man sitting on a porch that is covered with wind chimes.

The way a book in my hand vibrates with the live music of a cello playing in a bookstore.

A snippet of overheard conversation, “Once when I was seventeen and wild, I cut off all my hair.”

What sparks your stories into life?

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at

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Ian David Philpot

I’ve been struggling recently with finding time to journal. It’s not that I even care much about chronicalling my life. I just love it when I put my pen to paper and get something out. Instead, I’ve been using Google Docs to write. And there’s a lot of positive things about holding my writing in a place I can access anywhere I have a computer–which is everywhere recently–but it’s just not the same.

But recently, I found an answer in “9 Lists to Keep Updated, and Keep Handy.” Actually, I stumbled across it…on StumbleUpon. (It seems everything cool I’ve found recently is because of that site.) I call it micro-journaling, and it’s started to change my life.

Basically, the author had a journal he wasn’t using, so he started making different sections in the journal to list out things like “Things I Want,” “Gift Ideas,” etc. The list that has been my favorite so far is  “BHAGs” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Maybe it’s because I just entered the grownup world and I’m about get married, but the pages have been filling up quickly.

What lists do you keep in your journals?

Ian David Philpot is the Web Editor for ccPublishing and the Web Content Developer for Willow Creek Community Church. He recently received his Bachelor’s in English at Northern Illinois University and spent one year in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing program. He writes fiction, poetry, and music. Ian prefers black to white, vanilla to chocolate, and only eats yellow cake.
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Our Deepest Thanks to Lisa Ohlen Harris

Founding Editor Kimberly Culbertson pays tribute to one of Relief’s finest.

Lisa Ohlen Harris

As we enter our fifth volume, it is with sadness that we announce that Lisa Ohlen Harris will be no longer be serving as our Creative Nonfiction Editor. The upcoming issue, available for pre-sales now, will end her amazing run at the helm of all things CNF. For years she has lent us her talent and her heart, and we are deeply grateful.

Lisa began editing creative nonfiction for  Volume 1, Issue 4, and her presence has marked Relief’s journey over the years since, including doubling as CNF Editor and Assistant Editor for most of Volume 2. She has consistently shaped and crafted this fantastic genre, and we are proud that creative nonfiction has become such an integral part of Relief.

In the time I served as Editor-In-Chief, Lisa was a profound encouragement to me personally. She not only served on my team as a genre editor, but she shared her wisdom, provided a sounding board, challenged me when I started walking questionable paths, critiqued and sharpened my editorial statements, and reminded me of my strengths when I wondered if this whole adventure was just a little crazy (It is, by the way, which is why you need good people around you for the most perplexing of moments).

While we’re dismayed to see her go, we are enjoying watching from the sidelines as she continues to flourish as a writer. Her first book, Through the Veil, was recently released from Canon Press, and has already been nominated for the Oregon Book Awards “Sarah Winnemucca Award For Creative Nonfiction” (the winner will be announced in April). Deanna Hershiser, a Relief author and blogger interviewed Lisa before the book was released, and recapped some of its journey quite nicely:

Sometimes editors edit because writing just hasn’t worked well for them. Not so with Lisa. Her first book, Through the Veil, will soon be released by Canon Press. Its offerings include an essay which was listed under “Notable Essays of 2008″ in Best American Essays 2009, along with two others that have made the Notable lists in volumes of Best American Spiritual Writing. Another of the book’s essays was shortlisted for a Pushcart Prize and received special mention in Pushcart XXXIII.

In fact, one of the essays Deanna refers to here, “Torn Veil” was published in Relief’s Volume 1, Issue 4. Her success, both as an author and an editor, has helped Relief to become the journal that it is today. And so, as she moves on to new adventures, we at Relief will miss her dearly, but we’ll be cheering her on as rabid fans.


Kimberly Culbertson is the Founding Editor of Relief. These days serves on the board of ccPublishing, NFP (the company that publishes Relief and The Midnight Diner), alongside many other adventures. She and her husband live in Bloomingdale, Illinois, with their dog Latte. Their family-by-choice daughter, son, and godson now reside in California, and they are expecting their first biological child in February 2011.

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The Word and words

Editorial Assistant Stephanie S. Smith meditates on the relationship between the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, and the writer, the wordsmith.

I often wonder why, out of all the ways to describe the miracle of God-made-Man, the writer of the gospel of John chose to call it “The Word.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” –John 1:1

He says it three times; he really doesn’t want you to miss this: This Jesus? He’s the Word. As a writer who lives and breathes words, this intrigues me.

If the Incarnation is composed of the Word given skin, of theology given a body, lungs, hands, sweat glands and elbows, what do my creative words translate into? If the Word became flesh and brought Life to the world, can my words, fragile and human as they are, become something more than ink on a page? Can they also bring life?

As writers, I believe that our words wield powerful weapons of influence, for better or for worse. And as Christians, I believe we are entrusted with language to point to redemption, by faithfully articulating the brokenness of our world and the wholeness of the gospel. The written word, as creatively communicated in story, poetry, and prose can help us to interpret our lives in light of the greater, eternal context.

Flannery O’Connor affirms this, “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” Good writing connects the regular details of our lives with eternal reality and puts them on the same plane.

The response of the Christian to the revelation of God should be that of Mary’s, who said to the angel Gabriel, “May it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39).  Mary, who Scripture describes as a woman in God’s favor, invited the divine word to manifest itself in her very life, which was fulfilled literally in the Incarnation.  In the same way, we invite the Incarnation into our lives when we obey God’s Word.  We give our faith a face when we love the widow, feed the hungry, visit the sick.

Madeleine L’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, says our writing should reflect the response of Mary, “who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.” L’Engle remarks, “I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am.  Enflesh me.  Give birth to me.’”

In the creative process, the writer-artist responds to each idea like Mary to the angel’s revelation: Yes, manifest yourself in my very flesh, that I may nurture you, cultivate you to grow, and pour you into the world for men to see. The Christian writer uses language as a frame, clothing the abstractness of idea in the flesh of syllables, sentences and words, and then presenting it to the world as a bright and shining advent.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at

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