Author Sharon Garlough Brown (MDiv, Princeton Theological Seminary) is a pastor, spiritual director and retreat leader who is passionate about shepherding others deep into the love of God. Her book Sensible Shoes was named one of television personality Kathie Lee Gifford’s “favorite things” in March 2013. She and her husband Jack have served congregations in Scotland, Oklahoma, England and in their current hometown, Caledonia, Michigan. The second book in the series, Two Steps Forward, was released in October, and a third, Barefoot, comes out in November. A fourth book in the series, An Extra Mile (working title) is slated for March, 2017.
Sharon enjoys all things British—especially tea—and loves when her son says, “Mom, would you like me to put the kettle on?”
I caught up with Sharon, and she was gracious in answering my questions about her writing life—full of wise words and giving us a glimpse into the richness of the spiritual components that shape her books.
Terri: When did you first discover that you were a writer?
Sharon: I love the word “discover” in that question. Though the discovery (and embracing) of my call as a writer has come just in the past few years, the desire to write emerged when I was a child. Shy and introverted, I spent hours writing stories and creating imaginary worlds for the sheer joy of it. But then along came junior high, and my ego got attached to those writing dreams. Writing became a way for me to gain recognition among my peers or gather accolades from teachers. I didn’t merely want to be a writer—I wanted to be a famous author of award-winning books. A lot of pride and vainglory needed to die in me before I was ready to take up the pen again as an adult. It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I sensed God saying, “This is who I’ve created you to be. It’s time to say yes.” When that call came, I discovered I wanted to write for Him, not for me. What a significant work of reorienting grace in my life!
Terri: Tell us about your latest book, Two Steps Forward, and what gave you the inspiration for the story and its four characters.
Sharon: Two Steps Forward is the sequel to Sensible Shoes, a novel about four women who meet at a retreat center and explore deepening intimacy with God. The first book grew out of my experience of leading a women’s spiritual formation group in which I introduced prayer practices that have shaped Christian devotional life for centuries. As we walked together, we encountered the love and power of God in deeply healing and transformational ways. (You can read more details here: http://sensibleshoesclub.com/the-story) After a few months together, I began to wonder, What would happen if I imagined characters and introduced them to the same sort of spiritual disciplines that had become so life-giving to us in community? The result was Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey. Readers are invited to travel with the characters and draw near to God in the process.
In Two Steps Forward: A Story of Persevering in Hope the characters are no longer in retreat. So the question becomes, What will they remember (or forget) as they move forward, especially when life unravels? It’s a messy book. And each of the characters is invited to keep watch for how God is revealing himself in the midst of the mess.
Terri: What do you hope people take away after reading it?
Sharon: I long for readers to encounter God as they journey with the characters, to see themselves more clearly and to be awakened to God’s presence in their own lives. I long for them to glimpse the heart of God, to see how God is with us and to grow in confidence in his love. I hope readers catch a vision of the importance of community and maybe even take a step toward forming their own Sensible Shoes group. For readers who do decide to pursue some next steps, I’ve provided a Companion Guide for each book. In Two Steps Forward and Barefoot the guide is at the back of the book. For Sensible Shoes the guide is available as a free download on my website.
Terri: About the writing process: Are you a detailed plotter, or are you a SOP (seat of the pants) writer?
Sharon: Definitely SOP. In many ways the stories feel more “received” than “created.” I bring my training as a pastor and spiritual director into the writing process, and that means listening prayerfully for the direction the characters are moving and then responding accordingly. I delight in being utterly surprised by the twists and turns along the way, including some of the significant plot points.
I remember one particular moment when I was writing Sensible Shoes. Our son, then 13, was in the room with me while I was crying over something a character had just disclosed in a scene. Puzzled, he said, “Mom, I don’t get this! You’re in charge of the story!” Weeping, I replied, “No, I’m not.” That’s part of the joy for me—giving the characters freedom to walk on and off the page.
Terri: What is your most difficult writing obstacle, and how do you overcome it?
Sharon: I’m a perfectionist in recovery, and one of my biggest obstacles is my own vociferous internal critic.
Not long after I completed Sensible Shoes, I was reading the story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus. There she is, offering a lavish gift of love, holding nothing back, and the disciples respond by censuring her. I love how Jesus replies to her critics: “Leave her alone! Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
It occurred to me as I read those words that I need to invite Jesus to silence those same voices in my own head, voices that question whether what I’m offering is an “appropriate” use of my gifts. Or whether it’s good enough. I can be so easily derailed and paralyzed by the judgment I pronounce upon my own work (or imagine others pronouncing). And that distracts me from writing as an expression of worship and gratitude. I want my words to be a beautiful offering of love to Jesus, and if I keep my focus on the reasons why I’m writing, then I can rest in his receiving my work as a “beautiful thing,” regardless of how others receive it. Letting Jesus quiet those voices in my head is a spiritual discipline I have to practice repeatedly.
Terri: Any advice for the pre-published?
Sharon: Madeleine L’Engle described writing a book as a “yes” to an annunciation, that a work comes to a writer, saying, “Give birth to me. Enflesh me.” I love that image. My advice: Keep saying yes to the work that stirs you. Write what you’re passionate about without fretting over who will read it or publish it. Write the book you’d regret not writing. Just say yes to the joy (and the labor) of creating. And watch for how God is longing to shape you and stretch you in the process, regardless of an outcome. Relinquishing publishing dreams or expectations to God can be difficult, but defining our worth or “success” by a contract or number of copies sold is deadly.
Terri: What’s next for you in the writing arena?
Sharon: I’ve just submitted the third book in the Sensible Shoes series, Barefoot: A Story of Surrendering to God (releasing this November). The first draft of book four (tentatively titled, An Extra Mile) is due next March, so I’m getting ready to return to both the terror and the hope of the blank page. Prayers appreciated!
You can keep up with Sharon’s publishing news on her Facebook author page (Sharon Garlough Brown) as well as a book page (Sensible Shoes). She also sends out an email newsletter. Visit her website (www.sensibleshoesclub.com) and click on the subscriber window.