What Taylor Swift Taught Me About Writing

We spent our Wednesday night at the Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour. I can’t remember the last time I was at a giant concert like this, if ever honestly. But it was fun to go with my girls and their friends.

Still, when I got home and tucked the girls in hours past their bedtime, I asked one of them if she had fun.

“Yes, it was fun. I’m glad we went. But I’m okay if we never go again.”

This could be why:

Taylor Swift

Our seats were high, you guys. So high that once we sat down, we vowed to never get back up again for fear of tumbling down the stadium onto the stage.

Some people love the crowds, the lights, the noise. And then others are just old souls even though they’re only eleven and they’d just rather stay home and watch a show and snuggle.

Truly, I’m glad we went. And as the night rocked on, I couldn’t help watching the whole thing like a writer.

As a writer, my job is to pay attention to the world around and within me and then to write what I see. My dad calls it connecting the dots. It’s actually the job of every artist and maybe, one could argue, every human.

While it’s true this concert isn’t one I would have gone to on my own, I was fascinated by it. The evening was a story and she was the narrator. I thought she told the story well as a performer with a hopeful message.

I’ve honestly not followed Taylor Swift’s career much so I can’t speak to her decisions overall. But I remember reading somewhere that she said she seeks to surprise not shock. 

For now, that’s a filter for her content. Every storyteller must choose a filter. For example, my goal in this space is to help you create space for your soul to breathe. Everything I write here goes through that filter.

I won’t write about my messy closet or my frustrations over politics unless I can write about those things in a way that will help create space for your soul to breathe.

Having a content filter helps you make decisions, choose direction, and cast vision.

Whatever your opinions are about if Taylor is doing that well or not, I thought it was a great filter for a pop star. Surprise, delight, entertain? Sure. No need to shock. I like that.

Taylor Swift 1989

Whatever your opinions are about her personality, her music, or her business decisions, the woman has managed to handle fame without falling apart. And that seems like an accomplishment worth noting.

The human soul isn’t made for fame, isn’t designed to carry this much attention. To have hundreds of thousands of eyes on you? Shouting your name? Night after night? This is not normal.

But it also serves as a reminder that even with the amount of attention, admiration, and praise our celebrities receive, it isn’t enough. If it were, Hollywood would be the most peaceful and satisfied city in the world.

They would all be filled with joy, peace, and a profound sense of belonging. But that is not the story the magazines tell.

To me, the celebrities who tell the best stories are the ones who don’t believe their own myth. They refuse to allow all that cheering and attention to be their deepest truth.

Which also, in turn, means they cannot allow the bullying or negativity from their critics to be their truth, either.

Instead, they have a single-minded focus to tell the story they’ve been given, to trust the story enough to follow where it goes without getting in the way, and then offer it as a gift.

What the reader, listener, or audience member does with that story is not the storyteller’s responsibility.

The artists who struggle the most are the ones who are obsessed with how their work is received. This becomes their full time job and one day they discover they’re no longer making art because their profession as an Opinion Manager takes up all their time.

What a wonderful lesson for a writer to learn. And while I’m sure there’s a shake it off reference in here somewhere, I can’t bring myself to make it.

That’s a good lesson for a writer, too. You don’t always have to make the joke. Amen.

What Taylor Swift Taught Me About Writing

Want to create space for your soul to breathe but don’t know how? Sign up here to receive a series of free videos where I will help you clear the soul clutter, release outcomes, and begin to do your own thing well.

5 Things Keeping Me Sane This Summer

Years ago on American Idol, when they still aired the show several times a week (Girls perform! Now guys perform! One more night for results!) they used to ask the contestants to share something weird about themselves that no one knew.

American Idol Live

During that segment, Melinda Doolittle explained how a weird quirk of hers was if one of her hands got wet, she needed to get the other hand wet to even things out. Same with her feet. She just felt more comfortable in a world where here limbs were equal temperature.

I thought that was so weird that it stuck with me. Until that very next day I washed off my right hand and immediately watched myself get my left hand wet too even though I didn’t need to. What is happening?!

As it turns out, that’s one of my weird quirks, too. Maybe we all do it? Strange or not, I think it is something in me that longs for balance in so many areas but I didn’t realize it until Melinda named it for me.

All summer I have felt like one hand is cold while the other is warm, one foot wet, the other bone dry. I haven’t yet found a rhythm to settle into and finally, here at the beginning of August, I’m realizing maybe that is the rhythm – the one of no predictable schedule to depend on, no balanced out days. The rhythm is defined by the need and the now and the waiting.

And so in the midst of this imbalanced jumble of days, here are a few things keeping me sane this summer:

Roots & Sky

1. Christie Purifoy’s first book, Roots & Sky, won’t release until February 2016 but I got my hands on an early copy. Go ahead and click on my affiliate link to her book and pre-order your copy or at least add it to your wishlist because it is a beautiful narrative of finding home and discovering the kingdom of God right where we are. I’ve enjoyed spending my mornings with her.

Greensboro Farmer's Market

2. Our local farmer’s market embraced us like an old friend on Saturday. We went for the first time in a while and I forgot how much I love it there. We bought some peaches, a basil plant, and local honey from a friend. She even threw in our favorite lip balm for free, one for each person in the family. There is something healing about walking through row after row of local plants and farmers.


3. Practicing celebrating my smallness every Tuesday with you on Instagram has been so much fun. As of now we have 8,450 photos in the stream – that’s 8,450 regular moments captured on Tuesdays so far this year, remembered because we marked them. It’s a lovely stream just to scroll through. Even lovelier if you join in! (Check out #itssimplytuesday here and find me here on instagram).


4. The sunflowers in our backyard are growing out of control. But isn’t that what summertime is for? To grow a little beyond our own limits, to stretch out in the sunlight, to see the beauty in falling petals?

BEST (1)

5. With a book releasing in 16 days (!!) it’s helping me to have some people to partner with to help get the word out. I have an amazing launch team who have been such a support. Also (in)courage is hosting me for a 3-day email series you can sign up for right here. When you do, you’ll automatically be entered to win all these fun things.

So what’s keeping you sane this summer?

One Way to See Your World Differently

This week, I practice the words of Macrina Wiederkehr and I’m “leaving my head for a while on a journey to my heart.” I’m always surprised how I’ve lost the way but my Father knows and brings me home again.

Hilton Head, SC

Sometimes the journey to the heart takes a different path than I expect. I would do well to move to the rhythm of the moment rather than try so hard to find familiar landmarks. Perhaps my Father wants to show me a new way.

The anxiety that comes on vacation is real – This is your chance to relax and recharge so you better make the most of it! says the world. We have our ideas of what vacation ought to do, what our money ought to buy, as if a destination could give us the kind of peace our soul most longs for.

All vacations are not created equally. A house with 14 people is not a spiritual retreat. (I’ll share more about that this weekend). It’s good to know what this time is for – for joy, for play, for reconnection with my people. What a gift.


So this week I’m keeping the laptop (mostly) closed and instead I’m posting a lot on Instagram because it’s the prettiest medium around and I can take it with me. One way to see things differently is to take a picture of it. I know that sounds weird, but something happens in the framing, in the kneeling down for a better view.

While it’s possible to miss moments because of too much documenting, I think the bigger danger is in not recording them at all.

Over the years, taking photos has become a kind of remembering, a kind of worshiping God in a new way, if that’s not too weird to say. Writing helps me think better and photos help me see better. These days, Instagram is a place where I learn to see. You can follow me there (emilypfreeman) where I record moments of the days as they happen, write a word or two or even a few lines of reflection.

emily p freeman instagram

I have some favorites I follow on Instagram as well – @thenester, @gracelaced, @myorangepocket, @benjaminhole. So many others. Actually maybe I’ll share more of those on purpose soon and ask for your favorites, too. I have so many favorites and I’d love to find more. We can learn so much from each other.

When I’m not on vacation, these posts come 2-3 times a week. Want them to slip quietly into your inbox? Simply sign up with your email address here and be sure to click “blog posts.” Don’t want weekly emails but still want a little help to create space in your soul? Choose the option for “The Bench” and you’ll receive a letter from me only once a month. Or you can, of course, choose both.

What Happened After My Husband Quit His Job

God often gives a vision of things before they actually come to be. That’s been my experience anyway. The vision isn’t necessarily focused or clear. It doesn’t come with steps or money or sure-things.

my husband quit his job

But it does come with hope, and that’s what keeps you going in the fog.

For months I’ve been looking forward to writing this post. Back in March I shared it in e-letter form with my newsletter subscribers and now it’s time to share it here on the blog – what happened when John left his job as a youth pastor.

Almost two years ago, (in a post I wrote here called Why My Husband is Quitting His Job), I quoted these words from Ann Patchett:


When I first shared this quote, John and I were living in our own what now? kind of moment, preparing to leave his position at our church of six years (after a total of twelve years in youth ministry) to . . . well, that’s just it.

We didn’t exactly know.

But we did see arrows, faint as they may have been. So we followed them and here is where they have led so far.

The Arrow of Grief 

After John’s Dad passed away during the summer of 2011, we knew things would never be the same for a lot of reasons, the main one being that John was broken open by grief.

After the funeral, John went back to work, back to routine, back to his regularly scheduled life. But his soul lingered with the grief. It wasn’t long before the disconnect between the pace of his life and the state of his soul began to show itself in the form of panic, sleepless nights, and intense fear.

That was Fall 2011.

He was unable to keep pace with the demands of his highly relational job as a youth pastor so the church gifted him a three month leave to catch his breath and to simply be human.

During those three months, he didn’t check his email, meet with students, co-workers, or parents. He completely disconnected from the demands of work. This, I know, is a rare gift. We are ever grateful to our former church for allowing him this time.

I promise this post will not be a recap of the last four years of our lives. I go back that far only to communicate that this transition has been slow, deep, and far-reaching. And it has been about more than simply quitting a job.

The Arrow of Desire

Long before his Dad got sick, John and I had many talks about the future.

After years in youth ministry, we began to notice the parts of the job that brought him life (relationships, small group discipleship, connecting with students on a soul level, teaching deeper life in Christ concepts) and the parts that wore him out (traveling, games, programs, hype).

I would try to initiate dream talk, you know the kind: If you could do anything regardless of income or location, what would it be?

While I was able to chatter away about moving to a big city or writing books together or traveling the country for a year with the kids, John was always more hesitant.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Even in hypothetical conversation, he was unable to take pretend risk. His mind simply wouldn’t allow his heart to dream.

Logic and limits often get in the way of longing.

It’s important to be able to answer the question: What do you really want?

It can be scary, but it was only when John and I began to honestly explore the answer to that question in the presence of God that we started to get a hopeful vision for his vocation. But it didn’t come the way we thought it would.

The Arrow to Each Other

During those few months away from work, John traveled to Colorado Springs to participate in a week-long course in spiritual direction taught by author and psychologist Dr. Larry Crabb.

We both thought his time there might bring some kind of vocational clarity.

What actually happened surprised us both. God met John during that short time away, his Spirit traveled into the deepest parts of John’s soul and poked around, turned some things over, and woke some things up.

This awakening didn’t come like a glorious sunrise or a blooming flower. Instead, it arrived more like a summer storm: dark clouds, thick air, rolling thunder.

But here is where we learned that desire often lives next door to grief inside the soul. Access the grief, you wake up the longing as well.

As a result, John came home more alive as a husband and friend than I had ever seen him before. There was still a long road of healing ahead, but now he had a focus – he wanted to be fully available as a husband and father in ways he had been previously closed off. 

Looking back, I remember hearing myself telling people in the months following his return that it wasn’t so much that John had changed, more that he became more fully himself. 

We thought we needed clarity, a good next step, a vision for whether or not John should stay in his current job as a youth pastor or move on to something else. Instead, all God offered was an arrow pointing from John to me and from me to John.

We wanted to know the way and instead, he showed us each other. 

For the first time in our marriage, we began to cultivate a respectful curiosity for our mutual desire as a couple. And the only thing we knew for sure is we were to move toward one another. And that was it.

john and emily freeman

The Arrow to Nowhere

After many months of conversation, prayer, and counsel from trusted mentors, we finally knew it was time to move on from youth ministry even though we didn’t know what was next.

The first six months after he left his job were dedicated to rest, recovery, and home. It was during those six months that my book A Million Little Ways released so the timing was nice. He maintained our home rhythms while I worked, traveled some for the book, and began preliminary work on my next book.

We started to attend a small church, quietly getting to know a new community, re-adjusting to our new rhythm, re-learning how to sit together on Sunday morning (!!) as well as how to relate in a church where he wasn’t a pastor. 

Those six months turned into nearly a year before we actually had any clear indication of what the second half of John’s career and ministry would look like. We walked through some hard days, some hopeless what-are-we-even-doing kind of days where it seemed like the arrows led nowhere.

But we kept coming back to the promise of God, knowing he wouldn’t leave us alone.

We also often revisited what we knew for sure, that John’s desire was to somehow serve our local community, to enter intentionally into relationships, to do small group discipleship, to connect with people on a soul level, and to teach about how the Gospel intersects with our daily life.

The Arrow to Community

After a time of listening, waiting, and resting, we decided to gather a small group of people together who we called our “Co-Listeners.” 

We invited them into our living room, fed them dessert and coffee, and were grateful as they listened to John’s desire and our fears and then helped to discern what might be next.

It was during that meeting that long-time friend and mentor, Mike Moses, spoke up.

“John, you know I’ve had a non-profit ministry for a long time here in Greensboro.”

In fact we did know. Mike’s ministry had a huge impact on John’s life and the life of our extended family many years ago. He’s been a fixed point in our Greensboro community for years, a trusted voice that always points to Jesus.

“And you know I’ve retired . . . “

Yes we knew this too.

“I haven’t used the non-profit for several years now. It has no money, no place, and no director. It’s basically vacant. But I’ve kept the name active with the IRS because Carol and I have been praying, asking God to bring someone along who might take it over.”

This we didn’t know. 

This was interesting.

And though it would be many months before all the legal and administrative details were taken care of, I knew in my spirit that very night as I sipped my coffee and ate my cake that this might be the next step in the journey.

And in fact, it was.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

John is now the director of Grace Discipleship, a 501c3 non-profit ministry here in Greensboro that exists to connect weary souls with the Gospel of grace.

What does that look like?

You can find out more about his ministry here.

I know I could have simply given you a link to John’s ministry website and sent you straight over, but I wanted to give you this background stuff for a few reasons.

First, many of you have prayed, sent emails and notes asking about John’s transition. This was so meaningful to us.

Second, I know a lot of you are in the midst of your own transitions, looking for arrows in your own life. I wanted to share what it has looked like for us to believe God often gives a vision of things before they actually come to be.

We still have lots of questions, new kinds of fears and hesitations. But we’re thankful his work now has a name, a shape, and even an office space!

Sometimes it looks like you’re going nowhere, or that you’re headed in the wrong direction. But maybe none of that is the point.

Grace Discipleship Greensboro

I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up as he is in who we are becoming.

Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog, more than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.

He loves us, wants to walk with us, and as we follow the arrows, they’ll always lead us close to his heart.

If you’re in a What now? kind of place these days, maybe it will help to remember Ann Patchett’s words, that “what now? can also be our joy.”

May it be so for all of us.

Learn more about John’s new ministry Grace Discipleship here or learn a little more about who John is here. He’s pretty much my favorite. You can sign up at his website to receive monthly updates directly from John.

If you would like to read more personal stories from me like this one, I tend to share those in my monthly newsletter – you can sign up here to get those each month in your inbox, as well as first-word news, my current reading list, and more encouragement to help your soul breathe.

3 Questions to Help Determine Success

The other day someone asked me a question that, at first glance, seemed like it should have been easy to answer. But when I couldn’t quickly respond, I realized the answer is waiting beneath some layers within me that will take some time to uncover.

redefine success

Here’s the question: How do you define success?

It was asked in the context of my work (writing and releasing books, in particular) but as I’ve thought about how to answer it, I’ve considered many aspects of my life.

I considered all the various ways I’ve measured success in the past:

When I was a student, success meant good grades, graduation, and living on my own.

When I worked as a sign language interpreter, success meant receiving my National Certification.

When John and I were dating and I knew I loved him, success meant marriage.

When our kids were small, I would probably have said success was having them sleep through the night.

It’s an important question to ask yourself but as I’ve thought about the various ways I’ve defined it throughout my life, I realize how tricky it can be to answer.

If I’m not careful, I will measure success based on something outside myself.

When my soul feels overwhelmed I can almost always trace it back to my trying to define success in terms of an outcome I can’t control.

For me, April has come in like a lion roaring: lots of deadlines, a hundred tiny decisions, longings I can’t quite articulate, and several creative ideas that I’m not sure where to channel.

So far this month, I’ve had to confront some of my own limitations, both as a writer and as a person. And while I know that the best place to meet Jesus is at the corner of my longing and my limits, actually standing at that intersection can feel disorienting, especially when I can’t fully discern how he’s going to show up there.

This morning I sat facing the window, palms open on my lap, breathing out the questions and breathing in hope. It’s counterintuitive to sit still when I’m feeling rushed on the inside. But the truth is that stillness is my souls greatest need.

Sifting through longing, activity, and expectation can feel like walking through a jungle, a canopy of leaves overhead, blocking out the sun. It takes real inner work in the form of silence and listening to find the open, sunlit field of my life in Christ.

Success for me is less about an outcome and more about that inner work. It has to be.

I want to base success on an outcome, but to do so betrays my souls deepest longing. And while I know there are times when real metrics have to be used to measure progress and that numbers aren’t the enemy, when my breathing feels shallow and my soul confused, I have to come back to these three questions:

Am I depending on my Father in ways I’ve not had to depend on him before? 

Am I bringing every care into the presence of Christ?

Am I becoming more fully myself?

Today, these are my metrics. For now, this is success.