Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with Melanie Dale
This is the third in a series of interviews with creatives who inspire us by staying craft-focused in a era of easy-to-consume, shareable Internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to both find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
Melanie Dale is a straight-up firework of wit and wisdom. As moms, we love reading her poignant essays on Coffee and Crumbs, and as writers, we are so excited for the release of her newest book, It's Not Fair, which pretty much answers the big question we aim to put out there here at Upwrite. How do we find joy and purpose in a world that sometimes seems hopeless? We're really thankful to Melanie for taking the time to engage with us around craft, connection, and faith. Read on!
Upwrite Magazine: Your new book, It's Not Fair, seems to be an invitation to a powerful life. Things might not pan out how we expect, but our perspective is our own choice. How did this frame of thinking--shifting your mindset when you can't alter your circumstances--develop for you?
MD: I’ll describe it as two waves crashing over me. The first came during our five-year battle with infertility. Up until then, I really felt like hard work equals achieving your dreams, and then I hit something that I couldn’t achieve no matter how hard I worked. The lack of control and monthly cycles of grief took their toll, and I had to learn how to cope, how to find joy and a life worth living, in the middle of pain and loss. And then we encountered secondary infertility and long waits and more grief and loss in several adoption processes, and on the other side of all that, with our three kids from three different continents and our family forged from fire, I felt like, “Okay, we made it.” I set out to write a book about how I learned to love my life and “you can too!” But then as I was writing it, we encountered the second wave, new struggles and diagnoses, and I realized that learning to love our lives takes, well, a lifetime. It isn’t a box that you check when you’re done. It’s ongoing. So I ended up writing a book that I hope is a safe place where people can process the hard things that happen and bring all the pain and questions and emotion, and we can just sit together in it and have an honest conversation with plenty of stops along the way for laughter. It is possible to go through really hard things and find ways to cope and laugh--and cry and throw things--in the middle of it.
Upwrite: It seems like you connect with your readers on a really personal level, almost like two friends over a cup of coffee. How do you create such an authentic connection with both your writing style and what you write about?
MD: I think blogging has helped with that. I’ve been blogging at Unexpected.org since 2009, and I’ve developed a connection with the readers who show up. I write for them. So in my books, I approach my writing like I’m sitting down to have a conversation with you and just be myself. What would I tell you if we were on my couch and I felt like I could be totally honest with you? When I started writing my first book and I thought about the tone I wanted to set, I decided then that I’d put my whole self into it, all of my weird personality and movie quotes and questions and possibly inappropriate sense of humor. I’d just totally be myself and see if anyone wants to get to know me. I’m so grateful for the emails, reviews, and comments I get from readers saying they see themselves in something that I’ve written and that I give them permission to embrace all of who they are. I think that’s the greatest thing, to hear that someone feels like they’re not alone and that something I write is helpful for them.
Upwrite: Speaking of connection, how do you incorporate your faith in your writing without isolating your audience?
MD: It has to be about honesty. I am a Christian, but I refuse to purport the lie that Christians are supposed to be joyful all the time and behave perfectly and always have their crap together. I want to be honest about my questions about God and my understanding of him and that I don’t have all the answers. I never ever want my faith to get in the way of a relationship with someone; in fact, my faith should propel me into relationship with people.
Following Jesus is a part of who I am so if I’m going to be completely honest with you, then it’s going to come up. But I’m grateful to have lived in places where there are people from many different faith backgrounds. I hope it’s taught me sensitivity to know that not everyone believes like I do. I’m always the person wanting to ask questions about other people’s faith or belief system and to share openly about mine, because I think we can be respectful and learn something from one another. It shouldn’t be awkward if it’s an honest part of who we are. When I write, I try to picture friends I love who are not Christians and make sure I’m writing as if I was talking with them, from my own Christian perspective but with attention and respect to their perspectives. I try to make sure I’m not writing in a secret language that you need a Christian decoder ring to decipher. If I get it right, then I am a Christian but my books are not "Christian books." They’re just books written by a Christian for everybody.
Upwrite: Humor is a huge aspect of hope, in our opinion. It reminds us what's important and what isn't. How do you employ wit, and even sarcasm, in your writing, and how do you make sure it's always seasoned with hope?
MD: Ooh, great question. I think the key is remembering to love people well. I do tend to be sarcastic. I love sarcasm and think it can be a fantastic coping strategy for life’s challenges. But I probably delete more tweets than I publish because I try to run it through my people filter. “Who will this hurt?” “Is this funny or is it taking a chunk out of someone?” I think we can lightly poke fun and find humor, but it has to start with laughing at ourselves. Even in my section in the book on “Things You Should Say if You Want a Good Face Punch,” I thought about my own culpability of living with my foot in my mouth, how WE, not just OTHERS, tend to say the wrong thing, and how we can approach the subject lightly and have fun without being downright mean. How can we have fun but also offer another way and hopefully be helpful? The hope comes in the stories. Whether we’re laughing or crying through a story I share, I think the hope is in our togetherness. When done right, laughter should bring us together not tear us apart. We can laugh and be gently sarcastic and through laughing, we can come together. When we come together, that’s where we find hope. We offer it to each other, through our laughter and through our tears and often both at the same time.
Upwrite: From writing about motherhood to friendship to general happiness, you've covered a few bases with your body of work. How did you find your niche in writing?
MD: I think totally committing to being myself and listening to what readers need have helped me find my niche. For me, my writing is always going to come back to relationships. In my first book, I want to help you find and keep friends, and in my second I want to be your friend when you’re going through something hard. I want to equip us to reach out to one another. I don’t want anybody to feel alone. So whether we’re tweeting at each other or you’re reading a blog post or one of my books, I hope you feel like you belong. That leads into to all kinds of things I write about. My heart for orphan care is seeing lonely kids thriving in transformed, healthy communities and families, I want moms to feel connected to one another because parenting can be isolating, and when you’re going through something hard, I want you to feel supported and understood. And the prayer I pray the most for people is for God to draw them close and for them to feel his love and presence. It’s all about relationships.
Fall in love with Melanie yet? Then we highly recommend you buy (and read, and savor, and read again) her book--we'll even make it easy for you: just click here. You can also connect with Melanie at her blog, Unexpected.org, and on Twitter @UnexpectedMel.