It is my honour to interview K.C. Ireton for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. She has long been one of my favourite writers and she is a pure joy and well of grace to work with. In addition to two fine books, and some of the most beautifully crafted essays to be read anywhere, Kimberlee writes goodness, truth, and beauty into 5 lives in her home – four children and one good husband. It is a privilege to have her write for The Cultivating Project and a joy to call her friend. Generous and gracious as she always is, Kimberlee, gives us a rich glimpse into her life as a writer and I think we will each see something of our own self here as well.
Finding shelter – drawing boundaries
LES: Kimberlee, in addition to dozens of beautiful essays, you have written two books: The Circle of Seasons (a book I have dearly loved, by the way) and Cracking up: a postpartum faith crisis. What changed in you as a writer between writing your first book and the second?
KCI: I had twins! I know that doesn’t sound like a change in me as a writer, but it was. Juggling motherhood and writing had been difficult when I had two children. With four it was even more challenging (and remains so). But having the twins also helped me to get my priorities straight. It’s not as if my family hadn’t been important before, but after the twins were born, it became a conscious, intentional choice to be a mom first and a writer second. And that necessarily meant writing less. At this point, I’m writing a book every five years!
LES: I do not know a single writer who is able to work at writing 100% full time and has no other obligations, commitments, or responsibilities. We are all trying to manage lives with multiple roles. How do you weave together the different sides of your life as a wife, homeschooling mama, homemaker, and writer? Where do you find shelter from the conflict of demands from so many points of view that vie for your time and strength?
KCI: My weaving is really bad. So much so that it’s sometimes hard to tell the front of the tapestry from the back! I’ve found that I can only do two things well at a time—I can write and be a good mom (in which category I include the work of educating my children at home, since that’s a large piece of what I do as a mother), I can keep the house running smoothly and write, or I can keep the house running smoothly and be a good mom. So at any given time, I’m either barking at my kids or not writing much or my house is falling apart!
Right now the laundry pile is overflowing the basket, the dishes are overflowing the sink, the grass in the yard is knee-high, and weeds have taken over my vegetable beds. So you can see which two things I’m prioritizing these days. The homemaking thread is all tangled, maybe even broken, and that’s starting to get on my nerves—I hate chaos—which means I’m slowly becoming Hagatha the Horrible to my children, a clear sign that I need to shift my priorities again. (Sigh.)
As for shelter: I am a recovering codependent and also a fairly strong introvert, both of which mean that I have to spend a fair amount of time alone in order to remain healthy and happy. Even though I’m not a morning person, I get up at 6:30 every morning so I can be alone with a cup of tea and Jesus. My kids are finally old enough to be able to stay upstairs until 7:30, so that I get an hour of alone time at the start of my day. Two or three times during the day, I slip up to my room for a minute or two and read a psalm or a passage from Daily Strength for Daily Needs or Streams in the Desert. At the end of the day, I try to read something good—a psalm, the day’s reading from My Utmost for His Highest, a poem. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, it bookends the day with Godward thoughts.
Those are all touchpoints in my day when I can take a deep breath and remember that I am rooted and grounded in God and that He is the strength of my life, my shelter, and my shield. When I am faithful to take those breathing spaces, I am more able to cope with all the competing demands on my time and attention.
LES: How do you draw boundaries for yourself and your writing life and keep an open hand to family, friends, other interests, and other responsibilities?
KCI: Boundaries? What are those?
I’m only half kidding, alas. My husband frequently laughs at me because despite the fact that I’m an introvert, I insist on living a highly relational life. People are really important to me! We have two single friends over every week, each of them on a different night. I talk to my parents, who live in California, and my best friend, who lives in Iowa, every week. I am part of an amazing homeschool co-op, a wonderful church, a book club, a writer’s group, not to mention all the online relationships I’ve fallen into and then fostered over the years. I love these people! I wish I had more time to spend with them.
Truth be told, I have to arrange my writing life with deadlines in which a person I care about will be left hanging if I don’t do my work. I do not like to disappoint people, and about the only way I can bring myself to prioritize writing on a level with relationships is when it’s part of a relationship. This is why connecting with readers is so important to me—when I know there are people I care about expecting to hear from me, I’m as good as gold about writing. It is perhaps not the healthiest way of drawing boundaries around my creative life, but it’s how I’m managing to write in the midst of a very (sometimes overly) full life.
Shadows & light – dealing with depression
LES: A question I am often asked by people suffering from depression is, “Is there healing for this?” meaning the removal of the depression. There is an implication inherent in that question, though it is often unarticulated: “Is there any hope?” You’ve written about postpartum depression very candidly in your beautiful book – Cracking up: a postpartum faith crisis. Since those days of postpartum depression, Kimberlee, have you found a place of peace with it, or perhaps experienced a cure?
KCI: Yes! I don’t know that I’d call it a cure, exactly, but I have certainly experienced incredible healing. For two decades I lived with some level of chronic anxiety, but in the past two years, my anxiety levels have plummeted through the floor. I live most days with no anxiety at all. It’s amazing and wonderful and I want everyone who lives with anxiety to experience the freedom and joy of life without it!
So I’m writing a book about it. (Of course.) The book explores the practices I’ve adopted that have led me to this broad place of freedom and healing and health, in the hope that they will help others to experience the same freedom, healing, and health.
LES: Have you found any elements of blessing to come with the depression and struggle? Have you seen how it was ever used for something genuinely good in your life and in the formation of your soul? Does it ever bear fruit for you?
KCI: Cracking Up was born out of the crucible of my depression. And my first published essay, back in 2006, was also born out of a time of depression. So yes, I clearly see ways in which God has brought blessing out of these wilderness seasons.
For years, the main blessing I saw in my chronic anxiety was that it kept me reliant on God. Anxiety prompted me to pray. Usually only for myself and usually only that the anxiety would go away. Even so, they were Godward thoughts that turned my face in the right direction. Now that I’ve experienced so much healing, I see the blessing as being able to help other people who struggle with anxiety—I’ve been there, I know that place, and I know how to get out of it. It gives me empathy and authority I wouldn’t otherwise have.
I’m almost grateful for the long years of struggle, and certainly grateful for the goodness God is bringing out of those years.
LES: Where do you find joy in your work as a writer and where do you draw inspiration?
KCI: Words bring me joy. I collect them. I’ve collected them since I was 13 and first read Emily of New Moon. Emily collected words, and I wanted to be like her, so I started collecting words, too. I remember that christen and silver were both on that first list I made. Recently I’ve encountered gelid and whiffletree, ormolu and sardonyx.
When words are strung together in evocative ways to create a vivid picture in my mind, or when the sound of them in my ears makes music, or the feel of them in my mouth is delicious—all of those things bring me joy. And when I’ve written words that do that—well, I don’t know any experience quite like that! It’s pretty heady, like strong wine.
For inspiration, I need look no further than my own bookshelves. Among my favorite writers are C.S. Lewis (of course), Jane Austen, George Eliot, G.M. Hopkins, Elizabeth Goudge, Kate Seredy, Tolkien. I recently finished reading Paradise Lost with a friend; that’s a book I will be revisiting a lot for its richness and depth. (And now that I’ve read it, I will finally get to read Lewis’s Preface!) Contemporary writers who inspire me include Wendell Berry, Sarah Clarkson, Malcolm Guite, Lanier Ivester, Dallas Willard. I could keep going—there are so many wonderful books and wonderful writers out there whose work inspires me to keep reading, thinking, writing, praying, pondering.
Beyond my bookshelves and the walls of my house is the great outdoors, which is an endless source of perspective and inspiration. I enjoy walking and gardening (though my yard at present belies my words!), both of which restore sanity and serenity when life starts to pull in too many different directions.
Confidence & Community
LES: What has lent confidence to you as a writer in the past ten to fifteen years? What keeps you rooted in a sense of security as you write what you are given to share?
KCI: Having my first essay accepted for publication in Weavings (my favorite journal) back in 2005 was a huge boost to my confidence. Heck, even the rejection letter they sent prior to that, for my first submission, encouraged me—I’ve never received another one like it! My first book contract ten years ago and writing for Books & Culture (my other favorite journal) both felt like stars in my crown.
Sadly, both Weavings and Books & Culture are no longer in print. Book contracts are hard to come by, especially for publicity-shy people like me. So what gives me confidence nowadays is the responses I get from readers. When people email me (or better yet, send me a letter!) to tell me something I wrote helped or resonated with them in some way, it encourages me to keep writing and helps me know I’m not working in vain. My husband, friends, and children also encourage me.
Over the past year and a half I’ve come to believe that every word of encouragement comes from God—lovely on lips not His, to paraphrase Hopkins—which has allowed those words to root more deeply into me and allowed me to be more deeply rooted in God, all of which means my writing draws from deeper places.
LES: For many years, writers (as well as the public at large) have suffered from a wide spread notion that writers are very isolated individuals, yet one only has to read any acknowledgements section of any published book to see that this is really never the case. How has living in and leaning into a community in your own life influenced your writing and your sense of identity as a writer?
KCI: Oh goodness. Where did that idea come from? I don’t know a single writer who lives an isolated life—though a lot of us would sometimes like to! I am who I am (and so are you and everyone else) largely because of the communities of which I am and have been a part. What is it that Diana Glyer says about surrounding oneself with very tall trees?
I went to graduate school at a Benedictine university, and Wendell Berry has been a strong influence on my thinking. Both Berry and the Benedictines have a strong sense of place and community that has shaped me, probably more than I know. For all my moving around, I have remained at the same church for the past 23 years. I am deeply rooted there, and those relationships nourish and shape me, even as I also feed and shape my community.
I would also say that the writers I read—both living and dead—are a kind of community. They have certainly shaped my thinking and the way that I live my life, as a Christian, a mother, a friend, a writer, and any other role that I play.
Time-travel advice & making changes
LES: Looking over your life, especially as a writer, would you do anything differently than you have? If you could give some words of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
KCI: Silence the harpies. That’s what I’d tell her. They’ll kill you, and gladly, so if you want to not die, you have to shut them up.
Also, I’d tell her to stop reading contemporary writers and read older ones. I spent far too many years doing “market research” trying to figure out why certain books were bestsellers and how I could emulate them. What a waste of time! I’d have been way better off reading Milton and Shakespeare. Or even Milne.
LES: If you could make one change to your writing process itself, what would it be?
KCI: That it would go faster?
Writing is slow work. Actually, writing is fast work. It’s the revision that’s slow. I’m an accordion writer, so I write and cut, then write some more and cut some more, and so on, until the piece is finished. It’s not an efficient way to write, and it means that every piece takes a long time to finish, sometimes months or even years for a piddly little essay. I have to go back to it again and again with new eyes, new understanding, new abilities, before I get it right. Sometimes I just want to be done, you know?
Finding an authentic voice
LES: As an avid reader, Kimberlee, steeped in the voices of many writers, how do you tap into the vein of your own authentic voice and keep it clear for your own work?
KCI: My first thought was: I don’t know that I do keep the vein of my own voice clear. I’ve been a chameleon all my life, and I’m good at voices, and whichever voice I’m most enamored with at present will be the one you hear in my writing.
But as I thought about it some more, I realized that reading widely and deeply is the way (or one of the ways) I keep that channel clear. In the past seven or eight years, I’ve intentionally read older and more various voices, and they’re all sort of settling down into the rich warm leaf-mould that Tolkien spoke of, the humus out of which my own voice is finally growing. At least, I’d like to think that’s what’s happening!
LES: Most writers and artists I am acquainted with are beset fairly often with voices of intimidation and opposition. Those voices may be from others in our circles of relationship, but far more often those voices are internalized in our own thinking. How do you silence those voices who are set to oppose you and keep you from writing?
KCI: For years now I’ve called those nasty self-critical voices “the harpies,” and I believe that shutting them up is one of the foundational pieces of spiritual growth in Christ (and since spiritual and creative maturity are very closely linked, I would say that it’s a foundational step for a healthy creative life, too).
If I’m going to shut the harpies up, it’s crucial for me to stay rooted and grounded in God’s love. I have to learn to hear God’s voice and believe it. For years my spiritual director would say after I’d recounted some nasty voice in my head, “You know that’s not the voice of God, right?” And I’d nod and say of course I did. But I didn’t. It was only when I started steeping myself in God’s love—and choosing to believe that He loves me the way He says He does—that I was finally able to recognize those nasty voices for the harpies they are. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The Accuser of the brethren has been cast down. So what was I doing listening to those accusing voices?
Nowadays when they start breathing down my neck, I get squinty-eyed and pull out my sword.
Favourite words & Sacred presence
LES: Where have you had your clearest sense of God’s strong presence with you in the writing process?
KCI: In writing Cracking Up. It’s the only time in my life when I felt like God was telling me to do something—write the book and write it now—and I felt absolutely carried during the nine months I was writing it. In retrospect I see why God asked me to write it then—I couldn’t write it now. I couldn’t even have written it two years ago. It had to be written when I was in that sweet spot of still being close enough to the depression to remember it vividly and almost viscerally but far enough away to make sense of it and see the way God used and redeemed it. If I wrote it now it would be far less raw and therefore less real, and I don’t think it would resonate the way that it does with readers who’ve experienced acute anxiety or PPD.
LES: What are three favourite words for you and why are they special to you?
KCI: First of all, I love that you spelled favourite with a “u”—being an Anglophile, I’m rather partial to those -our endings.
Second of all, remember that list of words I started as a 12-year-old? Do you know how long that list is now?? How am I supposed to choose only three???
Okay, I will stop hyperventilating and go think. Give me a minute.
All right. I’m back. Here they are:
Remember. I keep learning the same lessons over and over again, and remembering helps me not freak out—I’ve been here, I know this, it worked out last time, all is well. Also, I believe that we need to look backward in order to understand the way forward, and we live in an amnesiac culture, so this is a word I slide into conversations to remind people that we’re not charting new territory, not really. There is wisdom from the past that can help us navigate the present and move into the future with thoughtfulness and confidence and joy.
Silver. This was on my very first list, and it’s still a word I love. It’s the color of moonlight and birch bark and my wedding ring. It tinkles like a creek trickling over slate or limestone. It’s quiet, unobtrusive, and a little mysterious. It shines without glitter. It’s the kind of person I always wanted to be: beautiful and reflective. Thirty years after I first recorded it, it still makes my heart happy.
Ideal. Can I cheat and include also idealism and idealist? I have recently become enamored with this word. It includes in it the word idea (and there is nothing so powerful as a great idea), and it also references Plato with his realm of forms, of which earth is but a shadowy copy (an idea echoed in the book of Hebrews). Moreover, idealist is a kinder word than perfectionist, of which I am one. Idealism has a softer feel to it; it’s less demanding and implacable. Perfectionism is a legalistic cudgel, driving you to despair, but idealism, living as it does in the mind and imagination and pointing beyond itself, is a beacon to steer toward. As I learn to be gentle with myself, this word is helping me navigate the muddy waters of my less-than-ideal real life without capitulating to mediocrity. I can let go of my drive for perfection while still keeping my eyes on and steering toward the Ideal.
LES: Is there something, Kimberlee, that you are yearning to be writing and that you hope to bring into being in this next season of your life? Are there things in your life and writing style that you must bless now and release in order to make room for this new work?
KCI: I love the way you worded that, Lancia—“bless now and release in order to make room.” Yes, I have several novels burning inside of me, only one of which I will be able to write in the next year. The others I must bless and release, again. And of course, there is the book on overcoming anxiety, which I would like to finish so that I can release it in a different way in the hope that it will bless others.
LES: You are striking out in a new direction for your writing, as mentioned on your website. Would you be willing to share a bit about that us? How might we be praying for you as you undertake this new direction?
KCI: Well, when I wrote that on my blog back in February, I had some Big Ideas that got dismantled over the course of Lent. But I’ve found that when something is deconstructed, it’s usually so that it can be reconstructed into something else. Out of the dismantling of these ideas and plans my deeper, older desire to write fiction has resurfaced. This is scary, because finding a publisher and audience for fiction is even harder than for non-fiction, and as I said earlier, I write out of and into relationship. Thanks be, my daughter is excited about one of my novels—it’s the sequel to one I wrote for her and her brothers three years ago—so I at least have an audience of one for that story, which is why I plan to write it next.
Always I desire prayers for wisdom. Contemporary life is overfull, and we all know the struggle of having too many balls in the air. Knowing which ones to let fall and when is my near-constant challenge. Also, for perseverance. Holding to one’s ideals in the midst of a clamoring culture of distraction (and often outright ugliness) is difficult, as you know from experience. It is easy to become discouraged. And while I know that discouragement never comes from God, who wants to hearten us and strengthen us to pursue the good and the true and the beautiful, it still takes strenuous effort and measureless grace to keep our faces turned in the right direction, and our feet moving along the road.
Many thanks to K.C. Ireton for her generosity in sharing with Cultivating readers and being a bright light among fellow writers! Look for more about K.C. on her own website; here at The Cultivating Project; at Velvet Ashes; and at Grace Table. You will find K.C. speaking this year at the 2018 Refine Retreat, the fabulous retreat for women writers put on by Kris Camealy and team.
Many blessings to you, friends!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is passionate about the disciple making. Reflecting that calling, she is the Founder and Executive Director of Cultivating Good | True | Beautiful, and of The Cultivating Project, a discipling initiative for Christians engaged in the arts, with a special emphasis on writers. Lancia is a board member and patron of the Anselm Society, and Regional Representative of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. She is President and CEO of a thriving environmental consulting and construction firm based in northern Colorado which she runs with her husband Peter. They are parents to seven children, and are grandparents to a beloved flock of grandchildren. Lancia loves strong coffee with cinnamon, writing, website design, David Austin roses, Marvel movies, road trips with Peter, and nearly every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R. R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.