About Ellayne Shaw

woman of faith | writer | mentor | bilingual world-traveler | coffee drinker | wife | mother | avid reader | language lover | photography dabbler | aspiring speaker | lifetime student

Saint Dolly and Literacy

It’s rather an open secret that Dolly Parton is a champion of children’s literacy. Her “Imagination Library“, which started in 1995 with only her home county in Tennessee in mind has grown to spread across the United States and abroad to Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia. Partnering with local organizations, the Imagination Library has managed to give millions of children books.

I was so happy when I learned that the Imagination Library was going to partner with a local nonprofit in my county here in the PNW because I finally had kids of my own who could benefit from the program. I’ve been so pleased with the books my two littles receive every month. There has been a wide variety of topics and features a diverse cast of protagonists with authors of all kinds of backgrounds. The stories range from The Little Engine that Could to Hair Love to This Beach is Loud! to A Father’s Love. Again, so pleased with the variety and diversity, especially because I work to ensure my kids read widely and not just about children who look like them and have their same experiences.

Have you ever been a recipient of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library? What do you think of it? What other ways do you know of to get books to children? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Isolation Reads

You know how sometimes you pick up a book and it’s the exact right book for the moment? It doesn’t have to be deeply meaningful or change your life forever, but maybe it fits a mood or scratches a hard-to-reach reading itch or…? Y’know? Well, somehow, I’ve stumbled across a few of these since the beginning of March when my corner of the world succumbed to C19.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Pexels.com

In no particular order:

  1. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (audiobook)
  2. Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao (sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns)
  3. Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary
  4. The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch
  5. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (audiobook)

The two audiobooks have been especially comforting, and I think the narrators’ voices have a lot to do with that. The material covered in both is somehow nostalgic and cozy, and I honestly can’t put my finger on why. I’ve seen The Neverending Story movie, but of course, the book goes into a great deal more of the narrative, and this is my first time reading it. It was also my first time reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, so again, not sure about the nostalgia factor there. Regardless, they both gave me the feeling of being wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket, drinking tea, near a fire–probably with a good chocolate biscuit on hand. (Why my idea of coziness must include a British sweet and not an American one, I don’t know.)

I’m curious. What books have you enjoyed lately? What else are you watching, doing, etc., that gives you that feeling of cozy nostalgia?


On Drowning

Three pictures of yours truly at three different times in my young adult life. The first photo was a headshot taken during a college production of The Nina Variations, which I co-directed fall semester of my junior year. I’m still proud of that production. The next photo is of me towards the end of my first year teaching abroad. I’m smiling in the midst of an exhibition showcasing my host school’s (and its two sister schools’) many projects from the year. I felt professional and proud of what I’d contributed to the student body (and oh so impressed by my students’ talents). In the last photo, I’m smiling at my firstborn’s sweet face while waiting for church to start. Three smiling faces, three sets of dimples, three different years. The common thread between these pictures is that I was depressed and suicidal in all three of them.

Experts say that drowning doesn’t look like drowning. We have this cinematic idea that drowning is dramatic arm flailing, excessive splashing, screaming, etc., but in reality, a drowning person doesn’t look anything like that, which is why lay people don’t notice when someone is drowning next to them but a lifeguard will spot it across a crowded swimming pool. According to Wikipedia, this is what drowning is actually like:

While distress and panic may sometimes take place beforehand, drowning itself is quick and often silent. A person close to the point of drowning is unable to keep their mouth above water long enough to breathe properly and is unable to shout. Lacking air, their body cannot perform the voluntary efforts involved in waving or seeking attention. Involuntary actions operated by the autonomic nervous system involve lateral flapping or paddling with the arms to press them down into the water in the effort to raise the mouth long enough to breathe, and tilting the head back. As an instinctive reaction, this is not consciously mediated nor under conscious control.

The lack of leg movement, upright position, inability to talk or keep the mouth consistently above water, and (upon attempting to reach the victim) the absence of expected rescue-directed actions, are evidence of the condition.

So what we can gather is that distress is different than drowning. I’ve been in distress in water, and I’ve come close to drowning once as a very young child, and the experiences were quite different. I don’t remember the near-drowning, although I remember the fear of being in trouble in water. The fear was paralyzing, and I couldn’t think of what to do to get out of trouble. Fortunately, in both situations, I’ve been near people who realized what was happening quickly enough to intervene and rescue me.

Let’s circle back around to the point of this post. Depression and drowning are awfully similar, and it’s common enough to see writers describe depression as drowning. You feel helpless in the midst of that kind of depression. You know something’s wrong, but you can’t get outside of your own fear, sadness, or panic to know what to do about it. It’s hard to ask for help when you can’t figure out what’s wrong, and sometimes, you get to the point where trying to tread water is too much and you’re willing to drown just to catch a break.

The first picture of me was taken during my hardest semester of undergrad. I had a full academic load with some especially challenging classes, I was co-director to a student theater production, I worked a part-time job, I was in a floundering dating relationship, and I was in weekly counseling sessions to deal with childhood trauma. So many things came to a head that semester, and I stopped taking care of my physical body (little sleep, too much caffeine, minimal nutritional intake), which contributed to my already crumbling emotional and mental health. I cried. A lot. I listened to depressing music. I withdrew a lot. I started cutting. I thought about how much better life would be if I were no longer in it. I was lucky that my roommate and boyfriend intervened and helped me get the help I needed.

The second picture was taken the spring of my first year teaching abroad. Towards the end of my first semester, my spouse and I discovered that I was pregnant. We made it through the first trimester, announced the pregnancy to all, and found out at 18 weeks that although the baby had died approximately a month before, my body hadn’t miscarried naturally. Needless to say, this was traumatic, as was the subsequent D&C and week-long hospital stay to clear up the infections in my body. Initially, God gave me a lot of peace over the whole situation, but then I questioned everything. Why did this happen? What did I do that caused this? I loathed my body for this betrayal and felt deep guilt and grief. I withdrew again. Nearly all of my free time I spent in some kind of fantasy: books, Netflix binges, writing for my Master’s program. Once again, I debated ending my life, but I knew I couldn’t do that to my husband while in a foreign country. Bizarre logic, perhaps, but that kept me going.

A year and a half later, we had our rainbow baby boy, and I couldn’t have been more overwhelmed. I knew I was at risk for postpartum depression because of the previous pregnancy loss, but I couldn’t have predicted how it came about for me–several months after delivery, and with fits of irrational rage coupled with dark intrusive thoughts. I never wanted to hurt my baby or myself (and I didn’t, thank God!), but I would often have a scene play out in my head of throwing my baby against the concrete wall of our fifth floor apartment then go to the window and jump because who throws their baby at a wall?! In this third example, I reached out to someone in our organization who began meeting with me in person weekly and checking in on me via text throughout the rest of the week until I could see a professional for talk therapy and medication. I’ve been on Zoloft ever since and don’t anticipate weaning myself off the antidepressants anytime soon.

Why do I share this with the internet? Well I suppose the first reason is to explain some of my absence from this blog over recent years, and some of it is to let others who struggle with depression and anxiety to know that they aren’t alone and that help is out there, but I think the biggest reason I want to post this is to let people who’ve never struggled with their own mental health to know that often, a mental health disorder doesn’t look like how you think it looks. Whenever a celebrity dies from what appears to be suicide, I see the same sorts of sentiment circulate on social media: check up on your friends who are struggling. And yes, if you see that your friends and family are struggling, step in and help as they allow. BUT ALSO check in on your friends and family who look like they have it all together. I could argue that I looked like everything was fine in each of those photos above, but I was really drowning and it’s by God’s grace and human intervention that I am still here today.

Learn what drowning looks like.

Goodreads Reading Challenge: Update

It’s the middle of April, and I am behind schedule by 5 books. I’m not pleased with this because I’m not sure I’ll be able to catch up at this rate, but I’m also not giving up hope either. So far, like the normal train of my thoughts, the books I have read this year are an eclectic hodge podge.

  • A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
    • I am now about halfway through A Feast for Crows. Martin tells a good yarn!
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
    • I laughed so hard when I was reading this book, which I mostly read in various coffee shops while on vacation. I’m sure people thought I was weird.
  • Forever by Chanda Hahn
    • Finally wrapped up this YA series!
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
    • Recommended during my thesis courses. I thought it was great!
  • The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks
    • Also recommended during my thesis courses since I have an assassin character and this book revolves around special assassins (called “wetboys” in Weeks’ world). This was a good read but also a difficult one. Like Martin, Weeks doesn’t shy away from the gritty reality of human nature.
  • Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
    • I have a love/dislike (not strong enough to “hate”) relationship with this book. Gaskin has a ton of experience in childbirthing, but she holds what feels like a pretty biased perspective on natural birth vs. hospital birth.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
    • Again, laughed out loud a lot while reading this book, and the last quarter of the book held me riveted.
  • Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World? by Eugene Cho
    • Cho writes about social justice from a Christian perspective and lays out the pitfalls of good intentions. Although I thought I knew a lot about this topic, I still felt convicted to change some of my own approaches to justice.

So that’s where I am. Currently, I’m also actively in the middle of these books:

Any books you would recommend that I read this year?

cat military strategy



Something to think about on this Sunday:

“Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye*

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

naomi-shihab-nye*If you want to read more of Nye’s poetry, I strongly recommend her book of poems Transfer. Alternatively, you can check out this list of poems, articles, and more at the Poetry Foundation.

“Christian Fiction”

I’ve wrestled with this topic for awhile now mostly because I’m trying to figure out my niche as a writer. I am a Christian, and I write fiction. Does that mean that I need to write “Christian” fiction? Or, can I be a fiction writer who also happens to be a Christian?

You probably understand what I mean when I differentiate between these two labels. It’s the same as “Christian music” versus musicians who are Christian. When I think of “Christian music,” I think about musicians like Steven Curtis Chapman, Kutless, Third Day, Jars of Clay, and the like. There’s nothing wrong with the way that these artists create their music. They have a very specific audience. Some would argue that their work is not creative, that contemporary Christian music all sounds the same, etc. When I’m in a bad mood, I tend to agree with extra doses of cynicism. When I’m in a better mood, I realize that a lot of people enjoy and appreciate this kind of music, and it fits a specific purpose. There’s nothing wrong about it; it’s just not my cup of tea most of the time.

However, there are also musicians who are Christian who write music very differently. Some representative examples from this camp are Sufjan Stevens, members of U2, Mumford & Sons, Denison Witmer, etc. Inevitably, their faith bleeds into their music, but their music is also open to a much wider audience because their honest expression appeals to people who fall within and without of the circles of religion. Let me note here that I am not saying that contemporary Christian musicians are not being honest in their musical expression. It’s just different. (Please don’t get your knickers in a twist.)

Growing up in an evangelical home, I read more than my fair share of Christian fiction. Frank Peretti, Brock and Bodie Thoene, Janette Oke, Francine Rivers, Gilbert Morris, and many more were common staples in our household library. I haven’t read any books by any of these authors in years, but I have good memories of their vivid storytelling. Honestly, a lot of their writing inspired me to write. So again, I can’t really knock Christian fiction.

At the same time, I’m just not sure that I have it in me to follow in these authors’ footsteps. I feel like too often, Christian authors (not necessarily those named above) are under pressure to produce feel-good stories that don’t really capture the reality of life around us. Honestly, life is hard, and it frequently sucks. (Yep, great descriptor, I know.) For me, even though I have a penchant for writing fantasy which is decidedly “non-real”, I still don’t see the point in sugar-coating the human experience. The Bible doesn’t, so why should I? Perhaps this is a general trend within the American church that is impacting its artists–the idea that we want comfort and don’t want to deal with harsh or painful matters.

Anyway, there is so much more to be said on this topic, and it’s something that I’ve been muddling through for years, really. I’ll be posting more about this topic in the near-ish future.

What are your thoughts about Christian fiction?



[Originally written for an assignment having to do with details and the five senses. I haven’t posted anything specifically creative–of my own–in awhile so I figured I’d drop this in here.]

As Silver pushed the canvas flap out of her way, the smell of roasted peanuts and freshly popped corn wrapped warmly around her and slithered away to leave her cool in the night air. Inside the crimson and ivory striped tent, the audience continued to roar, still dazed by the aerialist’s death defying act. Every crowd was the same. The tinny accompaniment never changed. The same costumes, the same tricks… Silver could do her act with her eyes closed and often performed with a blindfold, but life had snuffed the thrill of her art out long ago.

Walking across the circus grounds to the airstream trailer she shared with Madge, she breathed in the chill and exhaled a damp cloud. Every step was a monumental effort. By the time she reached the trailer, her arms covered in gooseflesh, all she wanted was to crawl into bed and feel the embrace of a sleeping pill, but Madge’s sharp eyes would notice something was wrong.

“You look like the elephants trampled you,” Madge said, her throaty voice raspier than usual, the ubiquitous Virginia Slim clamped between her index and middle finger. “What’s wrong, princess?”

“Just tired, I guess,” Silver said, managing a gloomy smile. “I think I might be pms-ing.”

Madge squinted at her then raised one painted eyebrow skeptically. However, she only added, “Best get some rest then. Go ahead and get cleaned up, and I’ll make some hot cocoa.”

“Thanks, Madge.”


Silver examined her reflection in the three-paneled mirror ringed in bright bulbs. She had already washed off her stage makeup in the sink, and her features looked pinched and sickly in the bright lighting. What had happened to her? A year ago, her eyes would have sparkled, and her cheeks would have been rosy from the rush of performing. In fact, she would probably still be in the circus tent, watching the rest of the performance like an eager child.

She turned abruptly from the mirror and picked up a bottle of expensive lotion—a gift from an admirer. Flicking the cap open, she breathed in the cherry almond scent and felt tears prick her eyes. As she moisturized, her gaze lost its focus, and she saw her mother sitting at a dilapidated vanity, slathering on cherry almond lotion as if it would miraculously spin back the hands of time.

“Always moisturize,” she said in her soft Southern drawl. “If there’s anything your grandmother ever taught me, it was to moisturize religiously.”

Sitting cross-legged on the foot of the full bed they shared, Silver picked at a scab on her knee and wrinkled her nose. “But why?” she asked, confused by the nightly ritual.

“Because you only have the one skin,” her mother replied. “When your grandmother passed, she looked not a year over forty-five.”

Snapping out of her reverie, Silver muttered, “And what good is young looking skin when cancer takes you?” She slammed the lotion onto the vanity. “What good is it if you’re dead?”

Her mother’s funeral had been on a chilly night like this one. Only a scraggly handful of mourners were in attendance. None of them said anything. Silver’s eulogy was choked, and the cloying smell of too many lilies—her mother’s favorite flower—sent her into a coughing fit.

In her cheap casket, Silver’s mother looked even more drawn than she had in her last days. The cancer had wasted her body, performed a deadly liposuction, and taken even her dewy skin. Silver could hardly bare to look at the corpse before the funeral director closed the lid of the coffin. With all the arrangements paid for from her earnings with the circus, Silver did not linger. There was nothing left to mourn.


Madge slid a steaming mug of hot cocoa across the table to Silver, watching as the younger woman held it tightly between her hands. “Don’t burn yourself,” Madge warned, lighting up another Virginia Slim.

“Don’t,” Silver spat.

Madge froze, cigarette halfway to her mouth. “Don’t what?” she asked.

Wordlessly, Silver took the cigarette and stubbed it out in the ash tray. “That’s what killed my mother.”

Madge made a fluttery move to protest, then settled on holding her own cup of cocoa. “I didn’t know.”

“No one does,” Silver said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. She took a scalding sip from her mug, wincing at the pain but appreciating the clarity it brought her mind. “What does anyone really know about me anyway?”

Madge kept silent.

Silver took a more cautious sip, swirling the liquid around in her mouth, tasting the sweetness. Her mother, older, with thinning hair from the chemo, stirred a battered saucepan on the hot plate. A teenaged Silver observed the process, taking mental notes.

“Use good chocolate, Silver,” she was saying. “Belgian or Swiss if you can find it.”

Silver watched as the tiny chunks of broken Hershey bar disappeared into the heavy whipping cream in the saucepan.

“And never heat it too high or you’ll burn the milk. Nothing quite so unforgiving as burnt hot chocolate.” She smiled at her daughter. “And then what do we add?”

“You added nutmeg,” Silver said with surprise.

“I thought I would try something different,” Madge commented proudly. “I’ve been reading those Martha Stewart magazines, and she’s always dressing up the basics. I figured I’d give it a whirl.” Her smile faltered. “Do you…not like it? I can make some more without the nutmeg…”

Silver shook her head. “No, no…it’s wonderful, Madge.” Her roommate beamed. “It just reminds me of my mom.” She began to cry, wiping at her tears ineffectually.

“Oh…” Madge got up and knelt awkwardly next to Silver, putting one of her bony arms around her. Silver could smell stale cigarette smoke on her. Rather than be repulsed, she turned into the awkward embrace and buried her face in her friend’s ratty bathrobe and cried as she had not cried at her mother’s funeral. She cried for the loss of her mother, and she cried for the impossibility of new memories. All she had was the smell of lotion, the taste of nutmeg in hot chocolate, the smell of lilies and cigarette smoke. It would never be enough.

Alif the Unseen – favorite quotes

One of the best books that I read last year was Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. It’s an unconventional story about a modern-day hacker in the Middle East who stumbles across a magical tome and finds himself caught between a totalitarian government and a world of supernatural beings who belong in myths more than reality. The premise alone was enough to get me to read the book, but I found some wonderful gems along the way that kept me thinking long after I finished reading. One of those quotes came from an imam in the novel who was imprisoned for his connection to the hacker protagonist. It follows:

“I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.”


And a quote that made me chuckle:

“You’ve got Internet in the Empty Quarter?” he asked in an awed voice.
Cousin, said the shadow, we’ve got WiFi.



braveheart freedom


I wrapped up my MA program on Monday morning (my time), and I have to say it’s a little surreal. It’s also a little sad to be out of a program where I was able to hang out with a bunch of other writers and supportive, helpful professors. Suddenly though, I have…free time. My husband and I celebrated my degree completion by ordering pizza and playing the Borderlands Pre-Sequel. It was glorious. [Side note: playing Claptrap is both hilarious and infuriating, especially when using your action skills because you never know what is going to happen. You’ve been warned.]


The fact of the matter is, although I feel like I have all of this time now–and I really do in a lot of ways–I also really don’t have that time available to screw off. Even though I finished my program and submitted a thesis that met all the assignment requirements, I still have an incomplete novel on my hands. I also have a major deadline coming up at the end of May. That deadline? A baby. Not a metaphorical novel-baby, but a real-live human baby that is going to demand a lot of my attention.

aladdin start panicking.gif

(also me)

So with that in mind, my goal is to have a working draft of my novel completed by the end of May. Currently, I’m not sure how long this novel is going to be. Since it’s fantasy, I am aiming for ~100k words; however, I am also wondering if this novel might be best split into two or three shorter novels. That wondering is only going to be answered once I get the entirety of the novel out and can see where I need to split it up or even if I need to split it up at all. I have not quite 27k words written, so I definitely have my work cut out for me.

I recently discovered an app called Write-o-Meter which gives me the ability to insert a writing project, set a deadline, and work within realistic goals. It also prompts me to write at a certain time each day, which is great for someone like me. I still have to decide to respond to that prompt, of course, but it’s been a nice way to keep track of things and follow where I’m at on a graph since I’m something of a visual processor.

As I’m working towards this deadline, I do hope that I will remember to post here and on my other social media platforms more regularly. Sometimes I forget that I exist elsewhere on the internet, honestly.

Until next time,


Reading in 2015: Wrapping Up

I recognize that it’s almost February of 2016, but I never returned to my 2015 reading challenge to explain which books I finished or how I did. I didn’t actually read all of the books that I had hoped to read, which was a disappointment, but I ended up juggling a lot* of other things by the end of the year and reading for pleasure took a bit of a back burner. Still, I enjoyed a lot of the books I did read and discovered that free books on Kindle really are a hit or miss situation.

Here are the rest of the books that I read last year:

  • The Lake by AnnaLisa Grant (meh)
  • Jumper by Stephen Gould (read as surprisingly modern)
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  • A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
  • A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (didn’t quite finish this in 2015…it was long!)
  • The God Engines by John Scalzi
  • Ash by Jason Brant
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore (no, not the stew)
  • Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present by Lex Williford
  • The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present by Phillip Lopate
  • Darkangel by Christine Pope
  • Twin Souls by K.A. Poe
  • The Girl by Lola St.Vil (I don’t understand why YA heroines must have oddly colored eyes, be socially awkward/unconventionally attractive, and yet MUST attract the attention of a brooding love interest who is “so clearly far above them.” Why do these tropes continue to exist?!)
  • Rest for the Wicked by Cate Dean
  • Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (SO GOOD!!)
  • Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip (a reread from several years ago but still as good as I remembered)
  • Drowning Mermaids by Nadia Scrieva
  • Wolves by C. Gockel (This was one of the few free Kindle books that I thought was both unique and entertaining.)
  • This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley (highly recommend)
  • Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern (highly recommend)

As you can see, there is a mish mash of many different genres and a bunch of textbooks that I read for my program. A lot of these books were free on Kindle and most of those free ones weren’t really worth my time, but I feel ok not having paid to read them.

I’ve challenged myself on Goodreads again this year, but I’m cutting back the amount of books by five to see if I can actually achieve this goal. So far, I’ve finished a couple of books and am in the process of reading several others at the same time. If you have any ideas of what I ought to read this year, feel free to leave suggestions in the comments! I am especially interested in expanding my reading list to include more writers of color.



*By “a lot” I mean the following: thesis courses, ongoing illness, pregnancy, full teaching workload plus extra tasks, language lessons, and daily living.