What toilet paper art is teaching me about life and creativity

by Jonathan

Every evening, my little girls create.

Every evening, my little girls take the cardboard innards of toilet paper rolls and they create beauty. In the bathroom.


Every evening they create, and every morning I find the dried up pieces piled up on the floor.


They don’t seem to notice the great impracticalities of their efforts. They don’t seem to care that no one will see their work or admire their skills. They just do it for the joy. They do it because they like it.

And they remind me that it’s possible to make even a bathroom in Cambodia a place of art. It’s possible to see beyond the leaky sink, the bare light bulb, the plastic door, the smelly drains, the cracked tile, the rusty doorknobs, and see beauty.

I want to be like that. I want to create for the joy of it. I want to write and speak from the fire and joy inside, not for the acclimation or accolades from the outside, and regardless of whether or not the space is perfectly designed for creating.

I want to speak laughter and joy into the mundane.

And when the internet gets a bit tense and people get a bit fired up, I want to remind people that “toilet paper art on plastic door” is a thing.

And whether anyone notices, and whether my work ends up in a pile on the bathroom floor tomorrow morning, I will still create.

Will you?



*In our house in Cambodia, the bathrooms consist of one small room made entirely of tile. The toilet, sink, and shower occupy pretty much the same space, and the door’s made of plastic.

Creating with the Creator {how to start writing with God}

Recently someone asked me how I got started with writing and if I could give any advice on how to begin. Here is the bulk of what I wrote in reply, cleaned up a bit for the blog. ~Elizabeth


I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability. But you should know I don’t make money from writing; it’s all ministry. I don’t know if that affects anything for you.

To answer how I got started in writing: it was an “accident,” almost like a cosmic joke. Seriously though, I never thought of myself as a writer. But when we started the missionary journey, I started writing some in our newsletters. Then when we actually made the move, I would just record funny or crazy culture shock stories, anything that was going on.

By the end of the first year in country I realized not only did writing do something for my soul, I was seeming to connect with people through it. I began to take it seriously and tried to set aside a bit of time each day to do it. Then in that second year I was asked to write an article for our organization’s annual magazine.

At the beginning of our third year in Cambodia Jonathan and I were invited to write for A Life Overseas. Then a year later I was invited to write for Velvet Ashes. So it all just kind of snowballed from the initial recording of daily life here. I do still find it life-giving, especially when I write for my own blog, as there is less internal pressure to “get it right” or to be inspiring. But I also see writing as a ministry of encouragement.

That’s the formal part of my adult writing story, but I can pick out the threads of this tapestry many years into the past. I remember as a young child wanting to be a fiction writer when I grew up. In high school I wanted to be a Christian singer/songwriter, and I tried my hand at writing lyrics. But I don’t think they were any good! At university I served in youth ministry, and for one teen girls’ class I wrote plays about the women we were studying in the Bible. I had so much fun with that, and so did the girls. It’s a pity I lost them!

I never would have considered myself a writer, though I remember emailing silly stories about young motherhood to my best friend when I was a young mom and still lived in the States, and she once told me I was so good at that and how she wished I could use that skill someday. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it must have been more than a bit prophetic. So I think the writing has always been there inside me in some capacity.

Which brings me to something important: if you are a writer, because that’s who you are and who God made you to be, you will always be a writer. The size of your audience doesn’t affect your identity as a writer. I think that’s massively important, and I borrowed that bit of wisdom from International House of Prayer musician Misty Edwards. So much of what she says about prophetic singing and worship leading applies to writing too, and I’ll type my notes from her onething 2015 breakout session at the end of this note.

For me writing is vocational – “an expression of worship,” just as you said. And I personally try to write out of the healed places in my life, not my current, gaping woundedness. I have definitely gone through un-free seasons, seasons where I was bound by fear of others’ opinions of me, seasons where I really had to seek God about my social anxiety and my need to please others. For the most part now I do feel free of that crippling fear, and it is a wonderful feeling. But of course I long for all of us to be free of competition and comparison, of envy and jealousy and insecurity.

So advice on getting started? Write. Just write. Write what’s on your heart and do NOT think about the audience. The audience comes later. The art comes first. Don’t think about who’s going to read it, don’t think about whether it’s any good. As you practice, you’ll get a feel for which types of writing you enjoy and which types you might be better at than others. You’ll find your distinctive voice.

Later on, make sure you’ve got a good grammar handbook (The Elements of Style is a good one), and make sure your style is following the rules where necessary, only “breaking” the rules on purpose, and also easy for a reader to follow. I am very picky about grammar, spelling, and punctuation (which is how I got the role of editor at A Life Overseas, which I love, but also another accidental job). And the rules of writing are important. Those things kind of reside in my gut now, because I wrote a lot of essays and reports in both high school and college. They are not automatically gut-level, but they can be trained into us.

The other part of style, the overall content and flow, is probably also trainable, but I find it to be gut level too. I like pretty words, and I like pretty paragraphs. I do think there are guidelines for developing those things, but I tend to function by gut anymore, so I might not have great advice on that. I know you can take workshops for that kind of thing in some places. The best advice I have is to read quality writing and literature, and you’ll start to get a feel for good structure and flow.

Then how to go public with it? That I have even less advice on! My writing journey was all accidental. Jonathan bought our blog domain six years ago only as a way to disseminate our newsletters. We never meant for it to take on a life of its own like this. But that meant that from the very beginning I had a place to write, with a few prayer supporters to read it. It grew organically, I guess. And then writing on other bigger blogs helps expand your personal reach and it all becomes one big muddled mess that I can’t tease the particulars out of!

So should you get a blog domain? I don’t know! People nowadays also use Facebook as blogging. You know, the long statuses where people don’t have to leave the Facebook app. Anne Lamott is famous for those. (She’s got some salty language, but her book on writing, Bird by Bird, is an absolutely essential manual.) So you could dip your feet in the waters by sharing your writing, the writing you feel really confident about, in a Facebook status. You might even say you’re just starting out and wanting to share things.

Or you can submit various pieces to various collective blogs (those are usually non-paying) or print magazines or newspapers (which sometimes pay — my best friend is a writer who does that sometimes, but I don’t really know anything about that personally).

Don’t ever forget that some things are just between you and God, and that’s still writing. I’ve got lots and lots of words that never see the light of day. They are just for me and God in the secret place.

In the same vein, just because something is uber-personal and you think it’s just for you and God, don’t assume it’ll never see the light of day. A lot of writers say some of their most impactful work is stuff they thought was just for themselves. I remember a story like that about Twila Paris and “The Warrior is a Child.” I wrote a poem on grief that I thought would never be public either. Jonathan has published things like that too. So keep writing privately no matter what, and you never know what might be of the greatest use to someone later on!


The following Misty Edwards quotes were recorded as quickly as I could write them down, so they may not perfectly represent her teaching or her message. If so, the mistake is all mine — but even so, I received so much encouragement from her talk and am grateful to have heard her speak.

“God could speak Himself audibly. But He chooses to speak through us. He chooses to use our voices and He chooses to break in to our world with words.”

“The main way He speaks to us is language. Mental images, pictures, words, imagination, that’s how God speaks.”

“We must be familiar with the language of scripture.”

“If you are an artist, because that’s what God made you to be and that’s who you are, it doesn’t matter who is watching, you are still an artist.”

“When you’re doing what you’re called to do, you feel alive and connected to God.”

“Don’t worry about the source of your inspiration if it’s grounded in Scripture.”

“Sing like yourself. It’s easier on your voice. Don’t damage it by singing like others! And breathe from deep within your belly, not your head.”

“This is all something we practice.”

“Don’t be afraid to collaborate.”

“Create. Don’t copy-cat.”

“The quality of our art is important.”

“What to do when you mess up? Because you will mess up. Find safe people, to get some perspective, to get out of your head. Laugh at the little mistakes. When you don’t, you put yourself in a prison. Don’t quit. And remember that God is not displeased.”

“Major on the majors, minor on the minors, don’t argue about small details, don’t lose friendships over arguments.”

3 Things I Know About Creativity

by Elizabeth

I never thought I’d be a writer. I certainly never thought I’d be an editor. Yet here I am, as both a writer and an editor, loving both.

I love writing. I love typing out words and twirling them around on the screen. I love figuring out what my story means. I love speaking from the heart and being understood by others. I love the feeling of connectedness when others relate to my experiences. I love realizing that my words may have helped someone somewhere along the line.

And I love editing (or as I like to call it, collaboration). I love empowering people to tell their own stories. I love the privilege of peering into people’s souls and of being able to say, “I see you.” I love finding the gold and precious stones in their words and chipping away at the rough edges until the work shines just so, until we’re ready to present it to the world. And then, after we’ve finished working together, I love the thrill of watching a fellow writer be understood and accepted by their readers.

As I’ve practiced the art of writing over the last four years and, more recently, entered into the world of editing this year, I’ve come to realize three essential ingredients to creativity. There are perhaps more. I only know creativity has these three needs:

  • To live life. If I want to write, I have to go outside my door. I have to live life and collect some experiences. I can’t write about something I haven’t lived, and I can’t just stare at a screen all day. It’s not good for my neck and back muscles (or homeschooling, for that matter). I have to let my mind wander and my soul breathe. Usually it’s when I am having the most difficulty at a project that I most need to get up, shut the laptop, and do something else. A new arrangement of words and ideas generally comes while I clean the kitchen or take a shower.
  • To be alone. Art is created in solitude. I need time for both contemplation and the actual creating. If I want to write, I need quiet. Not silence – a life with four kids in Phnom Penh is never going to achieve that. But I need to get away by myself to write, even if it’s just another room (which is what it usually is). And I need to get away to talk to God. For me, writing only flows when I’m in communion with my own Creator and my soul is at peace. And I need time alone for that, too.
  • To be in community. Art may be created in solitude, but it’s refined in community. When we share our intimate thoughts and vulnerable moments with others, we need both encouragement and constructive feedback. We need feedback so we can tell our stories more clearly and more fully. More resonantly. And we need trusted people to take in our work and to affirm us. Community gives us the confidence that what we have to offer the world is good and valuable, and that in and of itself is good and valuable — and that is what I love about editing.

“Creativity does not truly come from the popularized image of the tormented artist, struggling with the muse. True creativity is born in community as men and women of God listen to each other and to Him: as we seek to understand each other’s woundedness and strengths.” –Michael Card


What about all you other creators out there? Does your creativity need other ingredients?

Birth & Art {A Metaphor}

by Elizabeth

Writing is a birth, of sorts.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I decided I wanted to give birth without medication. I was in love with the idea and informed my husband. He was enamored of the idea as well, and he bought books on the Bradley method of natural childbirth for us both to read. It was in those books that we learned about the emotional signposts of labor.

First, there’s excitement: Today’s the day! I’m having this baby today!

Then, there’s seriousness: Let’s get down to the business of birthing this baby. This is hard. I’m uncomfortable. I need to concentrate. And by the way, DON’T touch me.

Finally, there’s self-doubt: I’m done! I can’t do this anymore! This emotional signpost corresponds to transition. Transition is a nice-sounding word for the most difficult part of labor and signifies that birth is coming soon.

Even though I’d studied these signposts, the books still made birth seem easy, and I was confident I could give birth naturally. I was looking forward to it, in fact. The night my water broke, however, the contractions came hard and fast. I doubted whether I could handle the rest of labor. I did indeed survive my first labor, and I gave birth to a precious baby boy that night. But his birth wasn’t without pain.

Eleven months later, I became pregnant again. This time around, I wasn’t so confident. I’d been blissfully unaware of it during my first pregnancy, but during my second, I knew labor was going to hurt. I knew how bad the labor pains could get, and I wasn’t looking forward to the actual birth process. And I was right — it did hurt. Bad. I knew that I could give birth naturally, but I dreaded the pain.


Writing is a birth of sorts, complete with all the emotional signposts.

First, there’s excitement: I have an (invariably brilliant) idea!

Then, I pitch the idea to someone, most often, my husband. It’s (usually) met with approval.

I’m still excited. Until I start typing, that is, and the words on the screen begin to look like nonsense. They don’t communicate what I want to communicate AT ALL.

That’s when I decide that my “brilliant idea” is total, complete, and utter trash.

I determine that either

          a) the idea itself is bad or

          b) I have no wordsmithing abilities whatsoever and

          c) I should just quit now.


It’s at this self-doubt signpost that I’ve learned I need to close the laptop and put it away until tomorrow — a luxury not afforded one in active labor. Then I keep returning to it, day after day. This is the serious working phase, and requires concentration. I rearrange words, and rearrange them again, deleting whole sentences and even paragraphs, until I can read them out loud with relative satisfaction. Then, I birth it. I hit Publish and launch it out into the world. My hard work is done.

I used to forget this phenomenon between writing projects. I would forget how annoyingly hard the process is. They say Labor Amnesia is the reason people have second and third and fourth and even fifth babies. The pain of labor dissipates — we forget, and are willing to try again. Well, I had Writer’s Amnesia. Each time I attempted something new, I was surprised and frustrated by the difficulty of the task.

I worked hard each time, yet when I was finished, I still had new ideas I thought I could tackle with ease. (How very naïve.) But this same plotline has unfolded so many times now that I’ve come to accept it as part of the writing process. And I keep coming back to the craft because something inside me tells me there is more to be said, more to be written, more to be done.

Writing — and all art — is messy. It’s hard work, and it sometimes hurts. You might not know this ahead of time. The pain and heartache might take you by surprise, might sideswipe you. That is, until you’ve given birth to enough pieces that you can look back and see the pattern in your labors. Now, you know it will hurt. Now, you know the process is long and drawn-out. Now, you know you might regret your “brilliant” idea, and be tempted to give up. But by now, you’ll also know that you can’t give up, even when faced with the self-doubt signpost. Because something inside you propels you forward.

For the artist, for the creative person, conception of an idea is exciting. The gestation, however, is decidedly not. Your idea often grows much heavier than you expected it would. You reach the same emotional signposts each time you labor over an idea. But the beauty of it? Another day, you can birth another idea. And on a day after that, you can birth another idea. The emotions stay the same, but the ideas change. They are new. They are fresh.

They are invitations to create.