Author Elise Stephens reflects on her time in the Cascadia Artist Residency
On Ash Wednesday, I stood before my church and shared the intimate broken details of my family’s journey through miscarriage. This was more than a story, more than a personal account of grief. This had been made into a church service liturgy.
I’d prayed over the words I was going to share. I knew they were true and whole and also that they’d cost me dearly. I’d traversed a deep darkness to get them and I’d emerged with pieces of heartbreak and hope.
The Cascadia Residency is a program that comes alongside Christian artists to explore ways in which their creative expression might be part of a church community. I participated as an artist and was partnered with Sanctuary Christian Reformed Church during the 2017-2018 year. The Cascadia Residency led me through instruction, discussion, and vision-casting for what my fiction and creative writing might do, when brought into interaction with a small church body.
It also helped to address some of my ever-present questions: What stories are worth telling? Am I chasing success, or just doing my best work, regardless of external feedback? What is my responsibility to my faith, as an artist who identifies as Christian?
My time in the Cascadia Artist Residency taught me more explicitly how to think of my own creative work and how it intersects with both my faith and the greater church community.
My time in the Cascadia Artist Residency taught me more explicitly how to think of my own creative work and how it intersects with both my faith and the greater church community. In particular, I’ve learned the benefit that comes when an artist plants the seed of creative work before ever presenting it to the church, the power of seeing a personal work portrayed by others, and how these things presently are forming a focus for my own future work.
The Artist Begins…
I’ve responded to prompts for college courses, I’ve entered themed contests, I’ve accepted writing assignments for various creative church projects. And always, always it was the work that began with me, alone, without prompt or guideline that produced the most insightful, evocative work. During my 2017-2018 residency, I was given a blank slate and a church community that loved and celebrated me for who and what I was. This was a liberating place to begin.
Many months before I began the residency, I’d begun collecting journal entries, poems, songs, and images that marked poignant milestones in my family’s walk through infertility and repeat miscarriage. I felt the seed growing within me. Months later, I told the Sanctuary church staff that I felt strongly compelled to write a collection that followed my family’s redemptive journey through this grief. To my surprise, they fiercely encouraged me and, with the help of many hands, we sculpted an Ash Wednesday service that included a fifteen-minute reading of my story, Darkness to Light, which began with death, and ended with the story of my second child’s birth. It was raw and vulnerable. And I knew it was good because church members who I barely knew were waiting to hug me after the service.
If our church communities don’t find a way to give our artists a free creative hand, at least every now and then, we’ll miss many rich truths and experiences.
I don’t know if my church would have dreamed of designing a liturgical service around a story of miscarriage, even one that ended on a hopeful note, but because I felt it as my passion and calling to share it, we found a way together. I’d come with a seedling plant, and they’d watered and nourished it into something that blossomed. Many hearts were touched by that story and for that, I’m incredibly thankful.
If our church communities don’t find a way to give our artists a free creative hand, at least every now and then, we’ll miss many rich truths and experiences. I’ve learned there must be room for both commissions-based work and artist-initiated work.
The Word made Flesh…
The term incarnational received a new facet in my understanding during this residency. Psalm 23 had been weaving itself through my thoughts, embodying the promise of solace and companionship during my own walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
My reflection began as a journal entry while I waited for the ultrasound that would tell me the baby in my womb no longer had a heartbeat. Many months later, it became four monologues, each inspired by Psalm 23, crying out to God from four unique perspectives of grief. I titled the piece, I Lack Nothing.
Four members of my church accepted my invitation to read the monologues. We rehearsed, I directed them, we staged it simply, and we performed it during Holy Week, as a variation on a Good Friday service. The monologues were filled with longing, pain, and the yearning for Jesus to heal all wounds.
The chance to witness my own writing read aloud by others was powerful and emotional. My words were being made flesh, carried in the body-language, eyes, and mouth of another person. The words I had written suddenly took on a life I alone could not have given them.
During the preparation, I frequently thought to myself, “Good grief! So much time and effort and this is less than a thousand words of text!” Although adding a theatrical cast to the work’s presentation seemed at first to complicate it, this incarnational rendering brought the community closer together, it transformed and enlivened the work itself, and it left a deeper mark on the mind and heart of those who witnessed it.
“I haven’t felt emotions so strongly in church for years,” a friend told me. “Thank you.”
If you’re interested, you can see a homemade video recording of our church’s I Lack Nothing performance. (Run time ~15 min.)
Now that my time at the residency is finished, I’ve continued to reflect on what my work as a Christian who writes science fiction and fantasy really looks like. It’s so easy to draw a line that separates my work from my faith, and yet the residency has encouraged me to persevere in seeking out those intersections.
I’ve gained some clarity in a refinement of my personal mission—that I am meant to use my writing, my stories, my characters and worlds to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). The stories must be built around my Christian worldview if I am to be true to myself and my faith. An honest depiction will include myriad examples of brokenness, sorrow, and evil—things gone sideways, but the ultimate truth has neither changed nor shifted, and redemption and love are going to find a way through.
I must tell my stories with compassion for both the fictional lives that I depict and the lives of the readers who I affect. I must remember that my readers are trusting me to share more than just entertainment, and not to waste their time. My art should be loving, because Jesus is loving.
I’m learning to ask Jesus what he wants to tell me about my work, and my vocation as a writer and a mother of two young children. I’m learning to ask him for notes, feedback, and direction.
Once, when I asked Jesus for creative guidance, he prompted me to edit a story draft guided by the elements of humor and compassion. So I did. The story was a long time in coming, but it went on to receive first place in Writers of the Future, which was on my professional bucket-list.
I’m learning to invite God to sit with me at my desk, while I journal, outline, plan, and draft, because only good can come from this partnership.
I’m learning to invite God to sit with me at my desk, while I journal, outline, plan, and draft, because only good can come from this partnership. And I might just find myself all the more encouraged than if I tried to go it alone.
Discover more about Elise’s writing at www.EliseStephens.com.