Every person who comes to faith in Jesus follows a winding path of circumstances, relationships, and providence – what we sometimes think of as serendipity, or just pure luck. Every person has a story, and some of the stories leave a deep impression when we hear or read them. Michelle DeRusha’s story, as recounted in her new book Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith, is one of them.
On Tuesday, I wrote a little bit about the book and linked to a post I wrote at Michelle’s place about my own faith story as a misfit. Today, Michelle is stopping by for an interview so we can all learn a little more about her, as well as the stories behind the story. Welcome, Michelle!
CSC: Why did you start writing Spiritual Misfit?
MD: Honestly, I didn’t start out with the intention of writing a book. In fact, I had never written anything creative before I began to write Spiritual Misfit. I’d always been a corporate writer – I wrote for a living, but never on my own creatively. One day a friend suggested that I ought to try a little writing on the side, so I trudged down to our basement office, fired up the computer and started to write about my faith history. The first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the book, although I didn’t realize I was actually writing a book until many months down the road. Looking back, I truly believe that first sentence was God-prompted. I’d been stagnating in unbelief for years, yet there I was, out of the blue, starting to write about the early days of my religious background. It’s too strange, too much of a coincidence, to be anything but God!
CSC: When you finished, was it the same book that you set out to write? What changed?
MD: It was definitely not the same book. First of all, it took me more than two years to write the first draft. I had young children and a part-time job at the time, so I could only write on the fringes – in the early morning and late at night. There was plenty of time for the idea to morph along the way. Once I realized I was writing a book, I thought it might be a manual of sorts, a “How to Find God Handbook.” Because that was the thing for me – I’d been an unbeliever for so long, when I felt the first tentative nudges toward faith, I didn’t know where or how to begin. Once I began to (sort-of) figure it out, I wanted to offer what I’d learned to others who might be stumbling toward faith like me.
But the more I wrote, the more I realized I wanted to write a traditional memoir. I liked writing stories – funny stories, everyday stories, stories about my childhood. Along the way an editor suggested that many elements of a good story are universal – that is, the reader can read her own story, her own lessons, in another person’s story and then pull from that what she needs for her own life. And so that gave me the confidence to continue with the memoir genre.
CSC: What changed about you during the course of writing the book?
MD: Well, simply put, I became a believer. When I started to write the book I was very much on the fringes of faith. I’d spent 20 years as an unbeliever, but something inside me was pushing me toward faith, although I was barely conscious of it at the time. It sounds a little cheesy, but sometimes I call this book my “love letter to God.” Spiritual Misfit is my faith story, my testimony, and I truly believe God used the writing of this book to bring me back to him.
CSC: One of the prevailing themes of the book is finding faith through doubt. What piece of advice would you give to someone struggling with doubts about faith, spirituality, religion, and other ideas about God?
MD: I would say don’t be afraid of your doubts; don’t be afraid of your questions. I think a lot of us were taught that doubt is “bad,” that questions are “bad.” But I don’t believe that’s true. I stagnated in unbelief for so long largely because I was unwilling to face my questions and my fears. I simply refused to acknowledge them, and that kept me mired in a spiritual no-man’s land. Admitting my doubts, first to myself and then to others, actually helped me move forward toward faith. I didn’t expect that, but that’s what happened.
I’d also say don’t be afraid of the mystery, the unanswerable. As a rational, concrete, Triple Type A person, I yearned to have faith “all figured out” before I would commit to it. It sounds silly when I type those words here, but that’s the truth. I wanted all my questions answered before I would declare, “Ok, I believe.” But of course that defeats the whole point of faith – hope in things unseen – doesn’t it? It was, and still is, hard for me to live in the questions, as the poet Rilke suggested. But I am learning that living in the questions is an essential part of faith for me.
CSC: Another theme of the book that stood out to me is how much distance we often perceive between religious and non-religious people (or any other way you might describe that dichotomy). Having been on both sides of that issue, what do you think is the value of religious and nonreligious people trying to communicate and understand each other’s perspectives?
MD: That’s a really good question, Charity! I think we are afraid of what we don’t know, of what is unfamiliar or foreign to us. So for me, that was “religious people.” People of faith were “the other,” and I assumed I didn’t and would never have anything in common with them. When I was plunked into the middle of Nebraska and confronted with “religious people” virtually in my own backyard, I realized that we had way more in common than I had ever imagined. I realized they weren’t creepy or over the top, that they weren’t going to spout Bible verses at me 24/7 and that when they did “talk religious,” it was because they genuinely wanted to share God’s love with me. In short, most of my perceived understanding of “the religious” had been based in misconception, but I wouldn’t have ever realized that if I hadn’t engaged in the conversation. If we refuse to cross that line, if we refuse to get to know and understand the “other” as real people, we will continue to persist in our misconceptions and stereotypes.
CSC: The book was really, really funny. Did you set out to make it funny? Or is that a natural by-product of your style and experiences?
MD: Most of the funny scenes in the book weren’t actually funny when they were lived out in real time. A lot of those experiences were painful, frustrating, or humiliating. But time has a way of softening experiences, and in many cases, when I looked back I could see how ridiculous and even hilarious a situation was. I think I also use humor as a way to present an ugly side of myself and, perhaps, to help the reader see that same tendency in him or herself. Humor softens the edge, but still allows you to make a hard point or teach a difficult lesson. So I guess my answer to your question is both yes and no. The experiences themselves were not funny, but when I saw the humor in them later, I intentionally used that humor as a device to make a hard lesson more palatable.
CSC: Did you ever conceive of telling this story in any other format besides a memoir? Like did you consider fictionalizing it to avoid having to include so many of your family and friends in the narrative?
MD: Egads, no! I am terrified of attempting to write fiction, so no, it never crossed my mind to fictionalize the story. But there have been moments when I’ve had to swallow hard, take a deep breath, and be brave about writing memoir, because it is scary to put parts of your life out there to be examined and judged. I also invited my family and friends to read early drafts of the book, and I promised them I would remove anything that made them uncomfortable, so that helped ease everyone’s nerves.
CSC: Finally, what are you working on now? What do we have to look forward to from Michelle DeRusha?
MD: I am currently finishing up final edits on a book entitled 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith, which will be published by Baker Books in September 2014. 50 Women is a compilation of short biographies – very much in the non-fiction category and very different from Spiritual Misfit. It was fascinating to research and write, and I am excited to introduce these amazing women, some of whom I’d never heard of, to others.
I’m also working on a book proposal for another memoir-ish book about finding an identity in the Christian landscape. It’s too soon to tell where that one might go, though, so that’s all I can say about it for now!
WORD COUNT: 1555
AUTHOR: Michelle DeRusha
TITLE: Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith
WHERE TO GET IT: Follow the link above to order it from Amazon, or to help celebrate Michelle’s book launch, I have purchased a copy of her book, Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith, to give away in the next few days. Everyone who leaves a comment on this post or signs up to receive my blog in their email inbox through noon on Monday, April 21, will be registered to win. The winner will be posted on the Word of the Week post next Tuesday, April 22, and I will contact the winner as soon as possible for shipping information. Sign up today for a chance to get your own copy!
Photos provided by Michelle DeRusha, used with permission.
*This website uses “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Also, I received a complimentary preview copy of Michelle’s book, but any endorsements, reviews, or comments about the book are my own opinion and were not influenced by the author. The book I am giving away was purchased by me.