Review: The Complicated Heart by Sarah Mae

I was invested in the concept of this book before it was even available as a book. I’ve been listening to author Sarah Mae’s podcast, The Complicated Heart, for the last year. She does such an excellent job of meeting professionals and subject matter experts who live and work at the intersection of mental health and faith. When Sarah Mae mentioned that she was writing a book on the theme that inspired the podcast, I knew I had to read it.

In the introduction to her book, Sarah Mae writes:
This is our story, the story of Mom and me, but it’s also your story, and how even in great darkness light finds a way in, comforts us when we can’t see, and leads us out into the fullness of day where redemption and freedom and healing are waiting for us.

I think this is an accurate and beautiful lead thought to share her aim and what she delivers on in the spiritual memoir. She explores, through her own memories and letters and diaries written by her mom, a difficult relationship, compounded by her mother’s own brokenness and alcoholism that manifests in abuse and neglect of Sarah Mae. The glory story in all of this is a true reconciliation of hearts. Not a perfect redemption of them as we know we will not experience perfect wholeness this side of Heaven.

Sarah Mae is an excellent writer, that should be of great importance to anyone buying a book. This one was written and organized with care. Some of the stories throughout could have been given a little more texture (more on this later) but on the whole, I think the book is very complete.

The stories in the book are certainly difficult to read in terms of what this young woman experienced with very little support at the time she was going through it all, e.g. an abortion, molestation, etc. But they are not written gratuitously, and all are part of the ultimate story of redemption. The recollections Sarah Mae shares are written often from her point of view at that particular time in her life. So when she recalls being molested by an ex-stepbrother, it’s from her POV as a young teen. This aspect of the book did not work for me. I think there was too much to unpack; it felt like a missed opportunity to delve deeply into how these events shaped the author, rather than glossing over difficult episodes and treating them only as if the wisdom of time had not been granted. Others may find it’s actually a virtue of the book because the author is faithful in all the ways to being a reliable narrator. She didn’t know then what she knows now.

The biblical wisdom in the book is not heavy-handed but helpful, I think, in offering context for how the author wants to frame her own healing and what she believes is possible for others.

The most compelling part of the book for me was at the very end. The author includes an entire chapter on tactical approaches to identifying and rooting out the core lies and core fears that plague our own complicated hearts. She offers spiritual insight on the symptoms and hazards of clinging to these core lies. Many of her podcast episodes have addressed these in different forms but I was very grateful to see the full material in written form, almost like a psycho-spiritual instruction manual.

I would especially recommend this book to anyone who has fought to have a healthy relationship with a parent or felt enmeshed and unable to establish firm boundaries with a family member. Sarah Mae’s willingness to share her story in a vulnerable, accountable way is as inspiring as it is instructive to all who want to explore the complexity of our hearts.


I received this book as a digital edition courtesy B&H Publishing in exchange for my honest review of the book.

Review: CreativeLive class - "How to Write a Full-Length Memoir" with Joyce Maynard

I received a free class from CreativeLive in exchange for an honest review. I have taken other self-paced online classes and even have taught a lit-based online course. I enjoy the format of being able to watch and rewatch lessons and to piecemeal my learning where and when it is relevant.

I chose Joyce Maynard’s How to Write a Full-Length Memoir for a number of reasons. I had read her At Home in the World about her love affair with J.D. Salinger and early career and first marriage. I thought it was an excellent memoir, honest and elegant and unapologetic. I have also written a couple of memoir drafts and struggled to make the chapters cohesive. I’m so tremendously glad I chose this class. It was truly more than I expected. The class itself is actually exhaustive learning—I had to take a few days to go through the lessons as they are full of vulnerable stories and practical methods that I’d never used before.

The initial high-level advice about memoir writing Maynard offers isn’t very revolutionary. You can find much of the same advice in Susan Shapiro’s book The Byline Bible on personal essays. I agree with much of the advice, such as not writing to burn someone and not writing about every detail that happens to a person in a season. I just didn’t find it groundbreaking.

The setup works for the digital student but the “audience” setup for the class seemed a little clinical. I wasn’t sure if this was an episode of “The Doctors” with a studio audience watching Dr. Joyce do surgery on their sentences. But once she put the students in the chair next to her, it felt much more intimate. I LOVED the session - Lesson #14 “When you aren’t used to being centre of attention” - with sports journalist Tom Callahan. As a writer, Callahan was working with fascinating material. As a student of memoir, though, Callahan benefited from Maynard helping him find his central theme and throughway for shaping his book.

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Other wonderful high points for me:

  • Very generous analysis of one critical scene in At Home in the World - super gripping and a good scaffolding of how the scene works

  • Lovely and generous live critiques of her students’ work - first sentences shown on a projected screen. Maynard does a great job procuring from the students why the information is important, what the material means, how they can stretch themselves as writers.

  • Helping the students to identify a theme that runs throughout their stories is very actionable and is certainly something I took away from this class as I could see how one susses it out from an ordinary paragraph full of sequential events and other information.

  • The way Maynard shows how she categorized themes for her memoir The Best of Us was an excellent tactical show-and-tell.

The pricepoint for the class, roughly $150, seems more than fair given the material, the rare and intimate looks Maynard offers on her own writing and the coaching she does for several writers in various stages of memoir writing. The course contains 25 live lessons — that’s just over $5/lesson with a master teacher. The added benefit of being able to rewatch the videos makes CreativeLive such an excellent venue and I am considering purchasing Maynard’s Personal Essay course next.

If you’re interested in becoming a CreativeLive affiliate, as well, you can!

You can also take $5 off your first class using the code JOINUS.

Who are these “Spiritual Gangsters” on the prowl?

The “Spiritual Gangster” athleisure brand caught my attention, as it was created to do.

I first saw the Spiritual Gangster apparel as a walking advertisement worn by the women, most of them white, at the yoga studios I frequent. Apparently, Deepak Chopra also proclaims himself a Spiritual Gangster, along with celebrities such as Gwen Stefani and Katherine Schwarzenegger. There really seemed to be a great spectrum of folks who were a self-proclaimed part of this spiritual gang.

Yet, spiritual people, it would seem, do not need to announce it.

And gangsters, it would seem, would not be interested in yoga.

What was I missing? Further, what does it mean to be a wearer of the SG swag, to proclaim the so-called gospel of gangster threads?

Spiritual Gangster Holdings, Inc. is a private company, founded by yoga enthusiasts. The company purports to be a “a gang of spiritual people who want to make a difference.” They consider themselves spiritual in their dedication to the practice of yoga, and their behavior of banding together to support philanthropic causes, such as Feed the Hungry, from which a portion of their athleisure proceeds are donated, is where the gangster piece derives. 

So, as I distill it, the brand is about being a gang united by yoga and philanthropy. In effect, they are seeking to flip the script on “gangster” and what an intimidating band of people hellbent on a cause can do--for good.

“Spiritual Gangster,” as monikers go, is an oxymoron. To be spiritual can be manifested - or not - in a myriad of ways, most of them peaceful (though I’m sure plenty of jihadists consider themselves deeply spiritual). To be a gangster, in my view, though, commands some measure of perilous arrogance, whether one simply hails from a a rough and tumble territory, or truly makes her business preying upon the lives of those deemed enemies.

As a yogi, I like a good pair of yoga pants that keep my organs from spilling out of place when I’m in downfacing dog. I’m not particular about brands with yoga; I sweat all over them anyway. But the Spiritual Gangster brand continues to give me pause, long after I found out that they sell a $98 sports bra. Because I’m not sure if I’m bold enough in either of my practices -- yoga or do-gooding; spirituality or philanthropy; inwardness and togetherness -- to make the kind of statement that this athleisure wearers everywhere are making.


Perhaps it’s hubris that I lack, or perhaps it’s humility that I want to attain, but I feel both admiration and envy at the yoga gangsters who aren’t afraid to say who they are, of what they strive to be a part.

I think upon the times when Jesus told witnesses to his miracles not to tell anyone what they had seen. But, almost in the same breath, Jesus tells his apostles to be unapologetic about who they are and if any dismiss them, to shake the dust off their feet as they make their swift exit.

Even Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is, at its core, a denial of core identity. Peter denies that he is friends with Jesus. That he was part of his spiritual gang, as it were. 

At the beginning of many a yoga class, the teacher will tell students to set their intention. For the class, for their day, for their lives. I usually say to myself that I hope I’ll not give up and try to complete the whole class.

The next time I’m on the mat, though, I think I’ll modify my intention, perhaps to be both more spiritual and more gangster. Even if no one can tell.