All Posts in “Writing & Publishing”

Book Review: Brian Spears’ “A Witness in Exile”

Brian Spears

By Alan Ackmann

Brian Spears, whose debut book of poetry A Witness in Exile was published earlier this year by Louisiana Literature press, is no stranger to long-time readers of Relief, having won the editor’s choice prize for poetry back in issue 2.2 for his poem “Hall Raising”. Although the poem published in that issue didn’t make the final cut of the book itself, many of its themes are revisited in A Witness in Exile, and handled in a way that Relief readers will probably find sincere and compelling.

Keep reading for the full review!

Violence and Grace

Stephanie Smith

In my favorite novels, it seems that the characters come to the moment of illumination only after being confronted with great violence.  When Jane Eyre finds her former home and master have suffered a fire in her absence, the agony of separation inspires her to the realization that she loves Mr. Rochester.  In The Lord of the Flies, it takes the death of a comrade for Ralph to understand that the boys on the island have lost their childhood innocence.  And it is not until author Annie Dillard wrestles with the life-altering plane accident of a small girl (in Holy the Firm) that she sees God’s goodness in a crazy world.

It seems to be human nature to have thick heads that only extreme circumstances can penetrate.  In a state of comfort, we are sometimes too relaxed, too unmindful to learn what our lives actually depend on.  But if our child unexpectedly gets sick, our husband is laid off, or our friend is going through a messy divorce, suddenly our senses are awakened and sharpened in a way that lets us experience life a little clearer.

In the face of violence or tragedy, our daily concerns rearrange themselves according to an eternal reality.  When something goes suddenly wrong, the urgency of the situation mercifully clears away any petty anxieties that once occupied us.  And that is some small grace.  I remember last year driving home from a funeral of a friend I’d known from elementary school, and finding myself suddenly careless about the work I needed to catch up on and the wedding planning I had been stressing over. Instead I wondered whether or not I spent enough time with the people I loved, and then hurried home so I would make it in time for family dinner.

Shauna Niequist, in Cold Tangerines, writes, “You pray for honest, gritty, and tender stories, and then you pray to live through them.” The price of epiphany is often violence, and any prayer beginning with, “God, change me…” is a dangerous one.  Anyone who has ever prayed to know our Father better knows.  But with the violence we are ushered into grace, just as there is grace in the story of the Light of the World who had to suffer death and darkness before mankind could see.

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 writes for and manages Moody Publishers’ blog,

There’s No Crying in Starbucks!


Michael Dean Clark

This is the fifth in a series of thoughts on how place shapes and is shaped by the stories we tell. The first four can be found here, here, here, and here.

This is a love song about the place where I write, not the places I’m writing about.

I have a bad habit, but it’s a habit nonetheless. I write at Starbucks.

Really, most of my friends think I write there so I’ll “have” to buy some coffee. And while I admit that I may have a (borderline) issue with my love for the Seattle bean, that’s not the main reason I work in the House of the Mermaid. It may, however, be the main reason I have a job that provides a paycheck that allows for said coffee ingestion.

But I actually started writing in the Green Room because I discovered that I compose better when there are people around me and natural ambient noise (that I, of course, drown out by putting my headphones on).

But I tried the monastic-writer-thing. The computer-in-the-closet-thing (hat tip to R. Kelly for teaching us all why it’s bad to end up trapped in a closet). The typewriter-instead-of-computer-thing so I could “feel” the story as an extension of my keystrokes.  I even tried the low-rent-Hemingway-stand-and-deliver-thing, but my knee sucks too much to let me grow that manly a beard.

As a side note, I draw the line at the handwriting-in-the-Moleskine-thing. No yuppie journals for this guy (if for no other reason than my handwriting is so awful – thank you journalism years – that the cost-to-benefit analysis just won’t let me be that much of an affluent nerdy hipster).

Nope, for me, the place to write is Starbucks, with their endless supply of Pike’s Roast, horrible cover versions of songs I used to like, and meetings between wedding photographers and their clients. I have, to date, written two complete novel length manuscripts and am a few hundred pages into the first version of a third, and I would conservatively estimate that in the more than 1200 pages of text in those three projects alone, at least 1,000 were written in this, my other office.

Which brings me to yesterday when I was working on changing a scene in one of my books…it’s an important scene. I killed a kid (in the book, not in the store). It’s a child I worked on creating for more than a few years. And I killed her.

Now, I’m not an overtly emotional guy. But I was a little moved when the final words began migrating from my fingers to the screen. Maybe even a little teary-eyed (though I blame that on the eerie confluence of that scene syncing up with my friend’s cover version of Muse’s “Unintended” – thanks for being such a sweet-voiced beast J. Lynn).

 This is the first time I’ve ever wondered if writing in public, in Starbucks of all places, is a good idea. I mean, I never know when a scene like that is going to present itself and I sure don’t want to get the whole Coffeehouse Weeper rep. That’s just not the guy I want my kids to have to deny is their father. I give them plenty of other reasons for said denials.

On the other hand, what better market research is there for a writer than resting secure in the knowledge that a scene they created brought them to tears in a coffee shop full of strangers? Unless that author is Glenn Beck, it seems like that says pretty good things about the emotional resonance of the moment.  

Michael Dean Clark is the fiction editor at Relief, as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and three children.

An Encouraging Story

Bonnie Ponce

Bonnie shares an encouraging story about how donations can save print media. In this age of technology, digital media has overshadowed printed materials.  Looking around it seems like everyone has an e-reader of some type.  While the pros and cons of e-readers are a topic of debate among literary connoisseurs it is hard to ignore the growing number of people who use them.  Even in my family it is a topic of debate.  I have one and enjoy it and my husband feels negatively about them.  With the growing number of people reading from digital files, it is growing increasingly harder to sell printed material like books, journals, and magazines.  I found an encouraging article about one such magazine that turned to donations to keep going in this technology-saturated age.  I hope that if you read their story that it will encourage you to give to Relief Journal.

In this age it is hard to believe that there is any hope for print media.  Paste is a small independent music magazine that shares a story of financial triumph in hard times by turning to donations from loyal readers to stay in print.  By asking for donations and changing their magazine’s format for a short while they were able to continue to pay their staff and print their magazine while increasing their subscriptions.

Relief, run by volunteers, offers authors a creative outlet and provides exciting new stories to interest readers.  It is important to realize that subscriptions don’t cover all of the costs of printing, so for print media to survive, donations are needed.  Please consider a gift to Relief so we can keep on printing.  While digital media is growing, there is nothing quit like sitting on the couch with a good book in your hands.  Please show Relief some love.

Bonnie Ponce is the Director of Support Raising for Relief and lives in Huntsville, Texas with her husband and betta fish. She has a BA in English from Sam Houston State University. After work she enjoys relaxing with a good book or working on her novel.

Memoirs: Self-Obsessed or Sacramental?

Stephanie Smith

American novelist Henry Adams once wrote, “Everyone must bear his own universe, and most persons are moderately interested in learning how their neighbors have managed to carry theirs.”

This line, written in 1918, would be an understatement for modern readers who are consuming the published memoir as fast as it can be printed. The memoir, as a published form of self-narrative, has successfully climbed the literary ladder, claiming equal standing with the traditional novel and receiving recognition by literary scholars as a genre revolution. Within the past thirty years, the memoir has asserted itself as a rising trend in the writing world.

Yet public responses are mixed: skeptics claim that the memoir indulges in syrupy solipsism, the theory that the self is the only reality, while enthusiasts praise it for the value of self-discovery through story. With an emerging cultural impulse to chronicle the self and such conflicting estimations of this trend, the church must join the conversation. The church must recognize the rise of the self-narrative as a signpost for the human longing for transcendence and affirm storytelling as a sacrament in the high art of illuminating divine grace.

The memoir is a personal narrative that provides the author with a verbal processing of the self’s “becoming.” This kind of literature has charmed millions of readers with this human interest appeal in bestsellers such as The Color of Water by James McBride, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. The voice of memoir offers its readers an occasion for personal identification so that a reader can find him or herself within the story of another and perhaps borrow the wisdom, healing or insight from similar life threads.

Henry Adams’ idea of the private universe of men is being born into memoir, as the individual universe of motherhood experience, healing from the trauma of abuse, or growing up in a racially mixed family is translated into print. The private universe of the writer, then, opens up a new world to the reader in which a common human spirit is realized, introducing the memoir as a catalyst for community.

The Church’s Response: Stories as Sacrament

The church is no stranger to self-narrative, understood in Christian circles as spiritual testimony, and Augustine’s Confessions is just one example. Beginning with the gospels and later patterned in martyology, hagiography, confession and conversion testimony, the story paradigm is rooted in ancient church tradition. The church has an evangelistic responsibility to engage the rising confessional characteristic of culture for kingdom purposes rather than dismissing it as a narcissistic endeavor. The church need not be suspicious of the collective cultural cry for self-understanding, having its own so satisfied in the Person of Christ. Instead, the church must bridle the technique of self-narrative for Christian testimony, and affirm the art of life story as a powerful witness for grace.

The pattern for spiritual testimony finds its structure in the grand drama of redemption, as the unfolding story of a believer’s sanctification is only understood in the identification with the rhythms of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The storyteller must then recognize the tension between the cosmic Story of redemption and the echoing story of personal redemption. By telling personal story within the framework of God’s Story, we can engage the cultural trend of self-narrative while adding the new, redemptive element of pointing beyond the self to the Savior.

The cultural rise in the self-narrative affords the church a powerful opportunity to channel the very same confessional trait into spiritual testimony. The church can enter the social scene of life-writing by affirming it in theology as sacrament and encouraging it in practice as testimony. The church is already a credible voice in the self-narrative genre not only because of its tradition of testimony, but also in its sacramental ability to transcend the very story it tells by praising the grace of the Divine Author, something no secular memoir can claim. The art of testimony, then, trades a religion of solipsism, characterized by self-devotion, for a religion of sacrament, marked by the surpassing of the self to point to the Savior.

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