Writers often say that if they knew how much work a book would take, they’d never have started to write. Denial sets us on a path of creativity and growth and change, and this path can then gradually open our eyes to reality in a way we can bear. ...

 

Warning: Writer in Denial! and more...




Warning: Writer in Denial!

Three years ago, after a magnificent evening launching Living Revision, my daughter asked me what I was going to write next.

“All I know,” I told her, “is that I’m not going to write about writing.”

How is it that I’m neck-deep in another writing text?! I have two dozen essays on various back burners but I find myself, almost against my will, writing about the final stage of writing. Ugh. If ever there’s a self-referential subject, this is it.

When this latest idea arrived, I figured I could take care of it in the course of a summer. What I had to say could fit into a pamphlet that I’d then distribute to my classes.

Three months of drafting later, I admitted that my idea needed more space. Maybe this is a downloadable booklet, I told myself, and kept writing.

Three years later, having recently run my eighty-page “booklet” past two dozen beta-readers, I’m humbled once again. Dang it all—I’m writing a book, almost against my will. Which means I’m doing a major overhaul and expansion now. I’ve moved a huge soup pot onto the front burner.

Now I’m a pretty experienced writer. How is it that, after all these decades, I’m still delusional about what I want to write, what form it will take, and how much effort it will require? Writers like to make fun of doctors who say, “Someday I’ll take a few months off from work to write a book,” retorting, “Sure; and someday I’ll take off a few months to learn brain surgery.” But we know this same ignorance, denial, and deception daily.

Isn’t it curious that, in the creative life, as in marriage and parenting, some portion of delusion is good? We don’t see reality clearly, and this allows us to enter the fray. We’re all painfully familiar with the damage too much delusion can do (look at what a post-truth era has done to democratic process), but is it possible that a tiny bit can do good?

Writers often say that if they knew how much work a book would take, they’d never have started to write. Denial sets us on a path of creativity and growth and change, and this path can then gradually open our eyes to reality in a way we can bear. So inasmuch as delusion and denial keep us on the journey, they’re doing good work.

I suspect a similar dynamic is at play with faith. Maybe faith in a divinity or in humanity’s ultimate goodness or in evolution’s movement toward wholeness or in your capacity to write a book is completely delusional. If living with faith locks you down into a creed or despair, fine, get rid of it. But if living with faith opens you up to vitality and creativity, if it sets you on a journey that helps you see reality more clearly, and especially if its fruits are generous and nourishing, isn’t it worthwhile?

Maybe reality isn’t static or final. Maybe we get to make reality by participating in it. That certainly seems to be the case with writing.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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Dear faithful blog readers,

Beginning mid-October, I will combine my blog and newsletter.  This will help me eliminate an extra publication and streamline my mailing lists.  It won’t effect you unless you use a blog subscription service and are not already on my newsletter mailing list.  If that’s the case and you’d like to continue reading my blog, please sign up here.

I deeply appreciate you!  Know that I draw inspiration and encouragement from you, and hope that my words are able to give you the same in return.

Warmly,
Elizabeth

UPCOMING:

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.:  Wisdom Ways Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions.

October 11:  Writing as Contemplation
In the city fields
Contemplating cherry trees…
Strangers are like friends

Contemplation, as the Buddhist priest and poet Issa illustrates, is a field of intimacy, and writing is one entrance.  Guest writer Kyoko Katayama will share observations about writing as a mindfulness practice and lead us in writing exercises that encourage deep listening, responsive creating, and open-hearted becoming.

November 8: Embodying Holiness
Our bodies are trustworthy sources of memory and wisdom.  Together we’ll write from our bodies, about our bodies, to our bodies, and with our bodies as a practice of welcoming the Spirit.  We’ll also delve into sensory description as a literary technique that invites the reader deep into our experiences.

December 13: Becoming the Stranger
We use the metaphor of a journey to describe the soul’s path because the risks, challenges, and surprises of spiritual growth are so similar to travel.  We’ll write memories of leaving home, visiting new landscapes, and becoming the stranger.  We’ll also explore how and why writing becomes a spiritual journey.

Friday, November 19, 7:00-9:00 p.m.:  Writers Unite!  Building a Writing Community

In this evening for creative writers, Lisa Brimmer, Michael Kiesow Moore, and I  will share the wide range of possibilities for forming writing community and offer advice on what makes groups or partnerships sustainable.  Participants will get to know one another in a series of small-group conversations, connecting around shared genres, levels of experience, interests, and location. We’ll end with social time so participants can exchange contact information and formalize plans.

 

When Your Body’s Your Teacher

A bout with neck and back pain recently sent me to a few different body-workers (physical therapy, Feldenkrais) who promptly identified the source of my problems as sitting. Too much time on my rear end, hunched over the keyboard. Contemporary work demands things of our bodies that they’re not evolved to do, and I was suffering the consequences.

I’m working around the pain with exercises, a standing desk, stretches, a commitment to not stay in one position for too long, and by sitting the way I was designed to sit. I have these sitz bones that support me like concrete footers for my spine. I just need to sit on them.

Which is ridiculously obvious except that the vast majority of chairs in our culture don’t allow us to do use this foundation and instead force us to lean back. I was shocked the first time I paid close attention to a healthy seated position and then got into my car; the seat dictated that I curve my spine and hunch my shoulders. It prevented me from sitting properly.

After that I started paying attention, to the folding chairs at meetings, the pews at church, the easy chairs in friends’ houses, the seats in the classrooms where I teach, and slowly came to see what I suspect most body workers know: Our culture molds our bodies. Forces much larger than me subtly shape me. This includes the design of our chairs but also the necessity of working at a computer for hours at a time and cultural assumptions about comfort and social expectations about posture. My Feldenkrais teacher told me about working with a tall female metal-worker; when she started standing straight on the job, her male co-workers began harassing her for being “uppity.” Women swim in a sea of expectations that contort our bodies. Cultural influences are insidious, subtle, powerful.

Just when I think I’m aware and making conscious choices, something—Richard Rohr would say either great love or great suffering—spurs me to open my eyes even further and another layer of illusion falls away. For almost fifty years I’ve been sitting, and only now do I deliberately choose how I sit. Strangely I’m grateful to my back pain (which I suspect will be with me for my remaining years) because it calls attention to my body as I work. As I release automatic patterns in favor of free choice, even sitting has become a contemplative practice.   –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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NEWS

In case you haven’t yet see it, The Other Journal published this essay of mine on writing and authority, “How the Light Gets In.”  Here’s an excerpt:

“Write for the love of it. Let go of others’ expectations and your self-serving ambitions and your well-meaning desire to do good or create art or make a difference. Show up at the desk. You have to love to be moved by love and to move others with love. So you consent to love.”

OPPORTUNITIES

Programming at Wisdom Ways is in full swing!  If you’ve always wondered what I’m blathering on about when I mention spiritual memoir, join me for this intro morning.  Or if you’d like support for your spiritual memoir practice, drop in at one of the second Friday sessions.  Lonely writers of all genres, consider coming to the Writers Unite! mixer in November and we’ll do our best to hook you up.

Saturday, September 28, 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: Writing the Sacred Journey: Introductory Workshop in Spiritual Memoir

Spiritual memoir is the practice of listening deeply to our life experiences through the creation of artful, true stories.  We come more alive when we accept how our experiences have formed us and when we form something of what we’ve experienced.  By writing memories with intention, we can find holiness in the details, patterns that unify our sense of self, and deep personal healing.  By crafting our stories to engage the inner life of readers, we can participate in transforming our world.

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.:  Wisdom Ways Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions.

October 11:  Writing as Contemplation
In the city fields
Contemplating cherry trees…
Strangers are like friends

Contemplation, as the Buddhist priest and poet Issa illustrates, is a field of intimacy, and writing is one entrance.  Guest writer Kyoko Katayama will share observations about writing as a mindfulness practice and lead us in writing exercises that encourage deep listening, responsive creating, and open-hearted becoming.

November 8: Embodying Holiness
Our bodies are trustworthy sources of memory and wisdom.  Together we’ll write from our bodies, about our bodies, to our bodies, and with our bodies as a practice of welcoming the Spirit.  We’ll also delve into sensory description as a literary technique that invites the reader deep into our experiences.

December 13: Becoming the Stranger
We use the metaphor of a journey to describe the soul’s path because the risks, challenges, and surprises of spiritual growth are so similar to travel.  We’ll write memories of leaving home, visiting new landscapes, and becoming the stranger.  We’ll also explore how and why writing becomes a spiritual journey.

Friday, November 19, 7:00-9:00 p.m.:  Writers Unite!  Building a Writing Community

In this evening for creative writers, Lisa Brimmer, Michael Kiesow Moore, and I  will share the wide range of possibilities for forming writing community and offer advice on what makes groups or partnerships sustainable.  Participants will get to know one another in a series of small-group conversations, connecting around shared genres, levels of experience, interests, and location. We’ll end with social time so participants can exchange contact information and formalize plans.

 

Memoir’s Small Frame

(I’m on a hiatus from writing about writing. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from Writing the Sacred Journey.)

Memoir revolves in an orbit of its own choosing, and therefore its pieces are often unified by a theme or period of time. The material is always the author’s life, and the narrator, (the speaker, or “I” voice), is always the author. Unlike autobiography, which attempts as complete an account of one’s life as possible, starting from the beginning, memoir begins where it wishes and concludes when its story is told. Memoir is more elastic, unpredictable, and crafted than autobiography. Because memoir does not strive for a complete accounting of one’s life, it depends on other elements, typically themes, to give it form.

Because memoir, by its very nature, is only a small window into the author’s life, one of the delights of writing memoir is discovering the best frame for that window. I remember an afterschool art class in which we were given a view finder (a black cardboard mat of about six square inches with a one-inch square hole cut in the center). We walked into the woods holding our view finders in front of our faces, looking for a view. Eventually I found a mossy root that entered and exited that small window in a way that intrigued me, and I sat down with a sketchbook to draw it.

Memoir is similar. A small scope is all that’s necessary. Some memoirists choose to write only about their depression, or their travels, or their cultural identity. Spiritual memoirists choose their sacred journeys. You can select a significant portion of your life, or a few years, or a single day. Regardless of the frame, some material comes into focus and other material—the majority of the woods, in fact—is left out of the picture. And that’s okay. Despite my drawing’s small scope, it conveyed the lush and creeping wooded environment. Whatever cross-section of life you choose to portray reveals the essence of the whole.

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This first week back to school is one of my favorites–new clothes, new pencils, new routine, and excitement about learning. You can join in the fun with any of these upcoming offerings:

Friday, November 19, 7:00-9:00 p.m.:  Writers Unite!  Building a Writing Community

In this evening for creative writers, Lisa Brimmer, Michael Kiesow Moore, and I  will share the wide range of possibilities for forming writing community and offer advice on what makes groups or partnerships sustainable.  Participants will get to know one another in a series of small-group conversations, connecting around shared genres, levels of experience, interests, and location. We’ll end with social time so participants can exchange contact information and formalize plans.

Saturday, September 28, 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: Writing the Sacred Journey: Introductory Workshop in Spiritual Memoir

Spiritual memoir is the practice of listening deeply to our life experiences through the creation of artful, true stories.  We come more alive when we accept how our experiences have formed us and when we form something of what we’ve experienced.  By writing memories with intention, we can find holiness in the details, patterns that unify our sense of self, and deep personal healing.  By crafting our stories to engage the inner life of readers, we can participate in transforming our world.

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.:  Wisdom Ways Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions.

September 13: Making Connections
Just as contrasts in flavor make an exciting dish, great writing often emerges when we bring together disparate subjects.  We’ll experiment with this, conjoining memories from different eras of our lives and making leaps between objects and ideas, belief and doubt, narration and reflection.  Making connections across difference on the page can strengthen our capacity to do the same in our lives.

October 11:  Writing as Contemplation
In the city fields
Contemplating cherry trees…
Strangers are like friends

Contemplation, as the Buddhist priest and poet Issa illustrates, is a field of intimacy, and writing is one entrance.  Guest writer Kyoko Katayama will share observations about writing as a mindfulness practice and lead us in writing exercises that encourage deep listening, responsive creating, and open-hearted becoming.

November 8: Embodying Holiness
Our bodies are trustworthy sources of memory and wisdom.  Together we’ll write from our bodies, about our bodies, to our bodies, and with our bodies as a practice of welcoming the Spirit.  We’ll also delve into sensory description as a literary technique that invites the reader deep into our experiences.

December 13: Becoming the Stranger
We use the metaphor of a journey to describe the soul’s path because the risks, challenges, and surprises of spiritual growth are so similar to travel.  We’ll write memories of leaving home, visiting new landscapes, and becoming the stranger.  We’ll also explore how and why writing becomes a spiritual journey.

 

Dreams You Don’t Remember

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.            –Emily Bronte

Some mornings, before I’m fully awake, I lie in bed swimming in a sea of dreams. Their images (a cup, a pew, a panting dog) float around me in nets of narratives but then dissolve as I climb into consciousness. Every rare once in a while I can pull one into the air. Once I realize I’ve done this, I repeat the dream to myself until I can reach pen and paper. Even if I have no idea what the dream is about, the fact of harvesting the dream feels significant. I’ve heard you, my remembering seems to say. The gift of you, I’ve received.

Most of the time, however, I break the surface of sleep, breathe, and look back with regret. Those intense encounters that happened while I slept, the objects shining with significance, the action that somehow worked on my interior, all sink beyond retrieval. I move through my day vaguely aware of having traveled someplace strange. Conversations with dream people echo under real conversations. Sometimes I’m listening to the radio or talking with a friend and a chance word will bring back a dream sequence, fully formed, almost as though what happened the night before has been lying in wait for this moment. Then the secret life of dreams intersects with ordinary life. I’m left humbled, wondering exactly what it might mean.

The pleasure of the dreamer, Isak Dineson wrote, rests in the awareness that in dreams “things happen without any interference” from our side, altogether beyond our control. Pleasure, yes, and terror. Something entirely other exists inside each of us. Dreams are a muted beacon signaling an alternate reality.

I try to remember my dreams because I need them to help me heed this other realm. When I do catch an image, write it down, and wonder about it, silent gifts percolate into my days, not because I can interpret the dream but because I can’t. The mystery of the dream’s presence grows. A Catholic sister I knew taught that dreams are an intimate, private form of scripture. Each dream is unique, composed just for you, written on your being. I’m sure she would have agreed with Aeschylus, who believed dreams, even the awful ones, always work toward our healing:

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart
And in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

My dreams are scriptural because they are oddly wiser than me. They know me and change me into a truer me, even when I don’t remember them.   –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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NEWS

Ever since Marilynne Robinson said something audacious, offensive even, to an audience at the Key West Literary Seminar, I’ve been pondering where authors find their sense of authority.  A big thanks to The Other Journal for publishing this essay of mine, “How the Light Gets In.”  Here’s an excerpt:

“Write for the love of it. Let go of others’ expectations and your self-serving ambitions and your well-meaning desire to do good or create art or make a difference. Show up at the desk. You have to love to be moved by love and to move others with love. So you consent to love.”

OPPORTUNITIES

Registration is open for Wisdom Ways’ fall programming!  This season I’m bringing back spiritual memoir workshops and introducing two new opportunities to form writing community.  All you lonely writers out there looking for colleagues, check these out:

Third Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30 p.m.: Wisdom Ways Writer’s Circle: Tending Writer and Writing
September 17, October 15, November 19, and December 17.

In this facilitated small group modeled after spiritual direction groups and Quaker clearness committees, the circle will magnify our listening and hold us accountable to the creative source. Unlike traditional writing groups which focus exclusively on the text, we will attend the aliveness moving within both writer and text.

Friday, November 19, 7:00-9:00 p.m.:  Writers Unite!  Building a Writing Community

In this evening for creative writers, Lisa Brimmer, Michael Kiesow Moore, and I  will share the wide range of possibilities for forming writing community and offer advice on what makes groups or partnerships sustainable.  Participants will get to know one another in a series of small-group conversations, connecting around shared genres, levels of experience, interests, and location. We’ll end with social time so participants can exchange contact information and formalize plans.

Saturday, September 28, 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: Writing the Sacred Journey: Introductory Workshop in Spiritual Memoir

Spiritual memoir is the practice of listening deeply to our life experiences through the creation of artful, true stories.  We come more alive when we accept how our experiences have formed us and when we form something of what we’ve experienced.  By writing memories with intention, we can find holiness in the details, patterns that unify our sense of self, and deep personal healing.  By crafting our stories to engage the inner life of readers, we can participate in transforming our world.

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.:  Wisdom Ways Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions.

September 13: Making Connections
Just as contrasts in flavor make an exciting dish, great writing often emerges when we bring together disparate subjects.  We’ll experiment with this, conjoining memories from different eras of our lives and making leaps between objects and ideas, belief and doubt, narration and reflection.  Making connections across difference on the page can strengthen our capacity to do the same in our lives.

October 11:  Writing as Contemplation
In the city fields
Contemplating cherry trees…
Strangers are like friends

Contemplation, as the Buddhist priest and poet Issa illustrates, is a field of intimacy, and writing is one entrance.  Guest writer Kyoko Katayama will share observations about writing as a mindfulness practice and lead us in writing exercises that encourage deep listening, responsive creating, and open-hearted becoming.

November 8: Embodying Holiness
Our bodies are trustworthy sources of memory and wisdom.  Together we’ll write from our bodies, about our bodies, to our bodies, and with our bodies as a practice of welcoming the Spirit.  We’ll also delve into sensory description as a literary technique that invites the reader deep into our experiences.

December 13: Becoming the Stranger
We use the metaphor of a journey to describe the soul’s path because the risks, challenges, and surprises of spiritual growth are so similar to travel.  We’ll write memories of leaving home, visiting new landscapes, and becoming the stranger.  We’ll also explore how and why writing becomes a spiritual journey.

 

 

The Writer’s Three Priorites

Over the next few months I’m sharing excerpts from Writing the Sacred Journey so I can take a break from writing about writing to actually do some writing!

One spring I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was privileged to hear Jane Yolen speak. Yolen, the author of over a hundred children’s books, identified herself as a Jewish Quaker. She spoke on the hazards of addressing spiritual questions in books for children, explaining that children’s book buyers are primarily public schools and libraries, which tend to shy away from spiritually inclined literature. Nonreligious publishers are often unwilling to take on material that might prove controversial. Yet as Yolen pointed out, children ask spiritual questions: Where did Rover go when he died? Why do some people attend church and not others? Who is God? Yolen argued that we do wrong by our children when we censor stories that might aid them in their seeking.

After Yolen’s lecture a member of the audience asked, “To whom do you think children’s authors should be accountable for the moral quality of their books?” The questioner was concerned that indoctrinating content might wind up in her children’s hands. Yolen responded fiercely, “Every writer has three responsibilities: first to the story, second to yourself, and finally to your audience.”

I often think about Yolen’s three commandments. Although they apply to all creative writing, they hold particularly true for spiritual memoir. Thinking first about the audience rather than about the story or about yourself is a frequent but misguided habit among beginning writers. At some point (about draft three or four), it’s important to be accountable to your audience. You want your story to be welcoming, accessible, gripping, and transformative. Considering your reader’s response helps you construct a story that accomplishes these things.

But through the early stages of writing, your primary audience is yourself. Write to satisfy you. If you think first about your readers (about what you have to teach them, whether or not they’ll buy the book, or if they will like or condemn your message), you begin to mold your writing to your expectation of readers’ reactions. You do a disservice to yourself when you avoid risky topics or skirt deep levels of honesty.

What intrigues me about Jane Yolen’s priorities—and why I believe them to be particularly relevant to spiritual memoir—is her placement of the story first. What does it mean to be responsible to the story? For writers of spiritual memoir, story is not something born of the imagination or of history; it is the very stuff of our lives. It is the aching and questing of our souls. Although seemingly mundane, ordinary experiences contain within them a vivacity, a sense of wholeness, and a will beyond our own. In other words, our spiritual stories bare the world’s holiness. This ought to be obvious, but religious traditions of all persuasions have a tendency to canonize certain stories and certain people’s lives. In the process of honoring these stories, we forget to honor the revelatory qualities of our own stories. When memoir writers are responsible to the story, they honor that which is vital and true—the spirit—within their experience.
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Thanks to all who supported my July garage sale!  It’s been fun connecting with old friends, former students, and readers.  Even though the sale officially ends with July, I’ll take last-minute purchases through August 1.

Swinging on the Garden Gate:  A Spiritual Memoir.  $5
On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood, & Holiness.  $10
Hannah, Delivered.  $10
A set of all three: $20

Writing the Sacred Journey: $16
Living Revision: $18

FREE SHIPPING!  Order here.