I don’t really know where to start this story. Julie Andrews says we should start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

So maybe I should start in 1995, when I was a junior in high school and I visited Kiev, Ukraine for the first time. While there, I was invited to dinner at the friend of a friend’s house to meet her grandmother, a World War II survivor.

That dinner changed the course of everything.

I sat at the table of a small, grey haired babyshka named Maria who told me her story of survival in a German slave labor camp. Maybe it was the twinkle in her eye, or the way the light glimmered in her silvery hair, but something happened inside me that evening.

That was the night I fell in love with the Ukrainian people – the night the story was born.


But maybe I shouldn’t start there. Maybe I should start 1999. I was twenty-one, and I sat behind the desk as the professor explained the goal of our two semester course.

We would leave Baylor with a finished novel.

He encouraged us to begin brainstorming what we’d like to write about, but I already knew. I wanted to tell the story of Ukraine, of the devastation at Babi Yar, the darkness of those desperate years, and the partisans who pushed back against the Germans.

I also wanted to encapsulate Maria in a character, right down to the way she tutted over a plate of food.


Of course, I could easily start the story in 2003, when my mom and I (and my five-months pregnant belly) hopped a couple of planes and returned to Ukraine where we would tour the country for a month interviewing countless veterans as I continued on my quest to publish this book of stories.

I already had a publisher lined up at that point. It would all end up falling through at the last minute, but the stories I pulled in that month would simmer a little longer. They waited for me through the birth of three children.

The story needed me to tell it, but first I had to live a little.


Technically, I could start the story in 2011 when I finally found the voices of each character. I knew, in the flourish of a few sentences, that the book was taking the shape it was always intended to take.

I tapped away at the stories in the tiny slivers of my day. Nap time. Early morning before the kids woke up. The occasions now and then when I was able to sneak away and write. It was a slow process.

Signing Contract1

I guess I could start the story in 2012 when I attended the Blissdom conference, and I sat in Jeff Goin’s break out session on writing. I sat at a table with Anne of The Modern Mrs. Darcy, Megan from Sorta Crunchy, Ruth from The Better Mom and Laura, the Hollywood Housewife, and I sort of vomited out my dream of finishing this book and having it published.

They were all beyond encouraging, and supportive, and genuinely sweet. And perhaps slightly baffled by my tangle of words trying to explain my need to finish this project?


I can’t tell the story without looking at 2013 when we saw the collapse of our adoption. Writing was the only thing that pulled me out of depression. Tapping into the heartache of others healed my own wounded heart. I typed THE END in 2013.

Signing Contract2

The only other place I could see beginning this story is last fall. Two years after finishing the book, I still hadn’t been picked up. I’d queried so many agents and publishing houses, and was always met with the same comment:

“Love the concept, and the writing is great. But fiction is a hard sell.”

So I waited, and I sent more query letters. So many queries. And last fall, someone took a chance on me. A literary agent saw potential, and she appreciate my passion. She took the manuscript cautiously, and two weeks later I received a text:

“Just finished your book and WOW can you tell a story. We’re going to see what we can do with this.”


But that’s a lot of beginnings, so maybe I should just begin with the phone call I took three weeks ago with Kregel Publications when they told me they would be publishing my book next spring.

Did you hear that?!

My novel will hit bookshelves in the Spring of 2016.

After our conversation, in which we spoke of the novel and topics for potential future books, I hung up and walked out to the kitchen. As soon as I saw Lee, I burst into tears.

It all felt overwhelming. Twenty years of dreaming, of writing, of perfecting and refining the story all came to fruition in a minutes long phone conversation.

I’m a novelist.

I can’t wait to share this book with you all. Stay tuned for more information!

(And for more on my publishing journey, check out this post where I share the news that my second book will release in September next year. 2016 is going to be crazy!)


Pulling Away to Create

I signed a contract to write a book last week, and in the time since I made it official, I have had zero opportunity to write.


I haven’t been able to blog, to work on the book, or to make edits on another project. We’ve been on vacation, and I purposed this year to be fully engaged in that vacation. In the past, I’ve always pulled away to blog, feeling as though I had to keep the ball rolling so as not to lose momentum.

This year, I had to stop.

Babies change things. Having another baby makes it harder to pull away and work. I’m obviously okay with this, because have you seen how desperately cute that baby is?!

But I needed to make it a plan in my head that I wouldn’t steal time from my family to write words that may or may not be read. I needed to be present, fully, and I was. And it was awesome.

But today it’s time to get back in the swing of things.

Photo Courtesy of Tammy Labuda.

Photo Courtesy of Tammy Labuda.

Tonight, two of my creative besties will land in Florida. They’ll make their way across the country from California, and land on the hot tarmac here in Tampa. Tomorrow, the other three will join them, and the six of us will spend the rest of the week cheering one another on as we press toward our individual goals.

We’ll work on books, on photography, on lesson plans for the coming year. And we will do what we’ve always done best. Encourage one another.

Photo Courtesy of Tammy Labuda.

Photo Courtesy of Tammy Labuda.

This will be our 5th Annual Creative Retreat, and it will be different this year. We’re on a different coast, and we’re all in different places in our lives. Time will be spent less on creating the perfect meal, and more on the projects that beg for our time.

Tammy doing her thang at our 3rd Annual Retreat.

Tammy doing her thang at our 3rd Annual Retreat.

There’s been a lot of stress leading up to this year’s retreat. Coming in from vacation the day before you’re hosting such an event is not something that I would generally recommend. And it’s the first year my mom hasn’t been around to help with the kids, so a sitter is coming to the rescue.

We work at these retreats, yes. But we also rest, and rest is imperative for the creative soul.

We work at these retreats, yes. But we also rest, and rest is imperative for the creative soul.

All these things beg for my attention, threatening to steal the joy I feel when I surround myself with these talented friends of mine, but just as I had to purpose not to work during vacation, this week I will purpose not to worry while away from my family.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Labuda.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Labuda.

The kids will survive a few days without me, and Lee assures me he’s got this handled. Despite the stresses inside his own job, he’s given me a wide blessing to chase after this dream I have of writing books.

So this morning, I’ll get the baby settled for a nap, and pray she takes a long one. Then I’ll head out to pick up groceries, and I’ll prepare myself to leave for a few days. To step away into my craft.


It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we’re willing to pull away for a few days. Even for a few hours. I pulled away from blogging for almost the entirety of our twelve day vacation, and I found that the quiet spaces actually provided me time to think.

Imagine that.

All the words I need to write began to simmer in those pulled back days, and they’re ready to tumble out. At least, I hope they are. I really hope they are.

And pulling away from my family for just a few days will offer a similar peace of mind so that when I return I’ll have less of the book hanging over my head, and I can focus more fully on them as we continue to enjoy our Summertime Agenda of Awesome.


I’m looking forward to the refreshment of simply diving into the work this week. And next week?

Next week we play again.


When Someday Becomes Today, and THIS IS A HUGE ANNOUNCEMENT!

Fourteen years ago, the phone rang, piercing the silence inside my tiny apartment. Lee was at work, and I was preparing dinner, because we were newlyweds, and making food was still exciting to me back then.

I answered the phone, and her voice came across the line all buttery and warm.

“I hear you like to take tea,” she said, and I could hear the smile behind her words.

That was the beginning of one of my most cherished friendships. For the next year, Wendy was my confidant, my cheerleader, my prayer partner, and my sweetest friend. Our love for tea and scones wasn’t our only commonality, either.


Photo by Tammy Labuda:

We both shared a passion for encouraging other women through our creative pursuits. I was a writer and a singer, she an actress who penned poetic prose in her spare time.

In those early years, before children rounded out our families, Wendy and I dreamed of all the different ways we wanted to work together in some creative capacity. But as time marched on, babies entered the picture, and our husband’s jobs moved us to different coasts, the dream of working together felt a bit lofty and ambitious.

Until last summer

At our 4th Annual Creative Retreat, Wendy and I began to speak earnestly of our dreams to work together creatively. We spoke in depth of our heart for creative women, and for mothers living this creative life with little ones in their midst, and the time felt like now.

We put together a book proposal, and we met at the Allume conference in October where we found an audience with an agent who caught our vision and agreed to represent us in our writing pursuits.

So we started writing and praying for the right publisher, and the right timing, and the right audience, and…


This week Wendy and I signed our first publishing contract with Kregel Publishing, with a release date set for September of 2016.

A book.

A real book!

A real book written for women…

Written for creative women like us…

Creative women who are wondering if their creativity has a place in this intense season of motherhood.

Our book (which is tentatively titled at this point) is coming together beautifully. It’s been as much of a journey this past year writing this book as the past fourteen years of dreaming and living it have been.

Our goal is to encourage other creative moms to use their gifts and talents to make an impact in the world.

We’re writing this message as we live it ourselves, seven children between the two of us, while our husbands travel, and the intensity of living creative passions next to the hustle of growing families sometimes overwhelms us.

Kelli Stuart, Wendy Speake Announcement

Next week, Wendy and I will be together again for our 5th Annual Creative Retreat, exactly one year after this long-held dream took root. Our goal is to finish the rough draft of our manuscript, and after our week together is over, our husbands and children will join us, and we’ll all celebrate as one unit.

Because they are friends who have become family.

I’m not going to lie, my friends – this has been such a journey, and it’s not over yet! This is only the beginning of the exciting things to come. Because not so long ago, I surrendered this longing I held in my heart – a longing to see the words that flowed from my fingertips in print – and I committed to write simply for the joy of it.

But still I hoped. I longed for the day when I could sign my name on the line that validated my gift of words. And I realized that it’s okay to want it.


Today I placed the signed contract in the mail, and a long held dream finally grew wings.

There is a lot of work still to be done, and so much to learn, but isn’t it exciting? This life of living and dreaming all wrapped up tight with friends and family is a privilege, and I’m thrilled to share this journey with so many of you as well!

Creative Moms, don’t miss the release in fall 2016, sign up for email updates here at, or over at, and we promise to joyfully prime the pump in the next 15 long months with posts purposed to bless your creative hearts. We are really excited about the community of creative moms that God is going to knit together in the coming days!

I’m writing a book!

The Strength of a Woman

The baby’s cries pierced through the walls for the third night in a row. Just when we hit a stride in her sleeping patterns, she enters a new growth spurt and the nighttime feedings start again.

I’m weary. So weary.

I stumbled to her room and lifted her from her bed. Her warm, doughy cheek pressed into my neck, and the moment was everything I could hope it would be, except for the fact that it was two in the morning.

Yawning, I stuck the bottle in her waiting mouth and leaned my head back, mind running through the laundry list of things that needed to be done once the sun made her way high up into the sky.

So much. There’s so much to do. On any given day, I’m not sure how it is I manage to accomplish all the tasks in front of me. And for all that I manage to get done, it seems I forget half as much. I’m forever a step behind in life.

I stumbled back to bed and fell onto my pillow, and before I knew it the alarm jarred me, yet again, from my slumber. I had work to do, but first.


I’m trying to dig into my Bible before I open my computer. I’m not always good at it. Some days, the pull of work is just too strong. But on this morning, I pulled out my Bible and started reading. I landed in Proverbs and flipped to Proverbs 31.

This passage of scripture both inspires and baffles me. How does she do it, this Proverbs 31 woman? I know that this wasn’t the picture of a single woman, but rather the composite of a woman. But still. I’m forever dropping the ball, and I don’t even have to sew my children’s clothes from woolen materials!

But on this morning it hit me. As I read through this passage for the hundredth (thousandth? millionth?) time, my mind wandered back to the Maasai women in Tanzania. I thought of the hut built by a woman’s hand, and the village of women who birth the babies and raise the children, kill and prepare the food. What strength they possessed.

Then my mind drifted to the stories of the German women who picked up shovels and rebuilt their cities after the war. And the women of America who entered the factories and kept the country running while our men fought.

I thought of the Ukrainian girls and women sent to slave labor camps, forced to build artillery for the enemy.

And then I thought of my own mom, faithfully raising and loving two children. I thought of her bringing in her sister’s kids because that’s what family does, even when it’s hard. I thought of the way she flew half way across the world to stay with my children for eight days so that I could have an adventure.

Photo by Tammy Labuda:

Photo by Tammy Labuda:

And I read Proverbs 31 again with hot tears dripping from my eyes because it finally hit me.

Proverbs 31 isn’t the story of one woman, nor is it a composite of all the things I should be.

Proverbs 31 is the story of women – of womanhood. It is everything that we are, the collective whole of us. It is the strength that God knit into the very fiber of a woman’s heart.

This is the strength that carries a woman through back breaking labor, through childbirth and child rearing, through midnight feedings, never ending schedules, and days that stretch into nights with little or no opportunity to rest.

This is the strength that gets a mother through the year-long deployment of her soldier husband. It’s the strength that allows a woman to get up each morning and dig her heels into all that life has to offer – the good and the bad.

Proverbs 31 isn’t the unattainable goal of womanhood. Oh, no.

Proverbs 31 is a celebration of all that God has made us to be.

Sweet friend, are you weary tonight? Do you feel like you’re failing at every turn? Does life feel like it’s just a little too much?

Take heart, dear friend. He has knit into you a strength that cannot be explained. It can only be lived, one step, one day at a time.

You, dear woman, are stronger than you think.

“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.

She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue.”

Proverbs 31: 25-26

Living Creatively with Children


Summertime is ripe for creativity. When I think of summer, I think of adventure and exploration, of trying new things, lazy mornings, books by the pool, and popsicles at all hours of the day.

Summer is for creating. It’s for stepping away from the every day mundane that dictated your life, and stepping into something new and exciting – even if only for a time.

I try to offer my children a long creative rope in the summer. If I’m honest, there are times when I wish we lived at the edge of the Wisconsin woods, but those times are only in the summer months when the Florida sun is merciless, and the flat terrain leaves little to the imagination. But then we have evenings like the one we had Friday night, where we swim as a family in the great, big ocean, and I decide Florida’s not so bad after all.

But I do long to see my kids explore. I wish I could send them into the trees with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a roll of toilet paper, and firm instructions to stay outside and enjoy this beautiful day.

I may not be able to shoo them outside for an entire day, but I can offer them plenty of places to escape. Exploration isn’t limited to the forest. It can happen right here inside the walls of our home. Here are a few tips for widening your children’s creative scope this summer.


1.) Build Forts

Basically, when summertime rolls around, I take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s okay for the house to be messy. I like order. I really, REALLY like order.

But I have four children, so order is a laughable concept. Instead of sweating out the ever chaotic house, I choose to embrace it in the summer. And there is nothing more chaotic to me than a bedroom transformed into a fort – blankets strewn this way and that, kitchen chairs pulled into the room to hold up the “walls” of the fort.

It’s enough to give me an eye twitch.

But they love it. Reading books is boring…unless it’s done so lying back on a pile of pillows under the canopy of a bedroom fort.

If I’m willing to embrace the chaos, a bedroom fort is a heckuva way to celebrate summer.


2.) Keep Painting Materials Handy

Like fort building, watercolor painting makes my heart race, and not in a good way. The paint brushes that need to be cleaned. The drips of paint that find their way to my countertops and floor, the gigantic “masterpieces” that I must find a way to display – it’s all stressful to this orderly Mama.


The other day, my concrete, typically unimaginative second born pulled out the paints and tore off a giant piece of art paper, and she began to create. With her tongue stuck between her lips in quiet concentration, she dove into her painting, and when she was finished she held up her paper proudly.

It was gorgeous.

There’s something very calming and magical about putting a brush against the page. When the kids are arguing, painting is one of the first activities I suggest because is requires a deep breath…and minimal talking.



3.) Read Good Books

I don’t have readers. I wish that I did, but I simply do not. My children don’t like to read books. So I do what any good mother would do.

I bribe them.

Yes, I pay my children to read in the summer, but really I like to think I’m training them to enjoy the gift of words. There is nothing I love more than seeing my kids light up over a good story. And so we spend time in the library during the summer where they’re given the freedom to choose their own adventure.

This discipline of reading is two-fold, as I must also make myself slow down and read with them. I want to show them the beauty of getting lost in story, so I read as much as I can in the summer.

As much as I love reading, slowing down myself to do so is harder than it seems it should be, because usually when they’re still and quiet, my first response is to start cleaning up some of the messes.


That is my summertime mantra.


Summertime can be stressful with everyone home at once, all the live-long day. This is where our Summertime Agenda of Awesome comes in handy, as well as a willingness to let go of my need for order and control.

A little bit of chaos has the potential to produce some magical days. I’m looking for the magic this year.

Are you?