Spiritual Memoir

An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Author: Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew (page 1 of 10)

Delivering Hannah

Hannah DeliveredI don’t understand how anyone, myself included, can create a dynamic story. Stories have a life all their own—their own wisdom, their own flaws, their own power. Today is launch day for Hannah, Delivered, and to celebrate I want to kneel down before the mystery that is story.

As you can imagine, I’ve been riding an emotional rollercoaster as I prepare to put a decade’s worth of effort into the public eye. One reader weeps, she’s so moved by the novel, and I’m elated. Another reader is furious about a mistake in the book, and I feel miserable. And so it goes, up and down, until I’m driving my family berserk.

When I’m having labor pains like this, my partner Emily sometimes asks me, “What would Hannah do?” The question makes me laugh, but it’s right on. Really she’s saying, “Consult something other than your mercurial feelings. What does the story say?” Continue reading

Going Virtual, Staying Real

origin_2435823037In case you’re wondering, I’m writing this (at least the first draft) by hand, in a spiral notebook with a fountain pen. My laptop makes a great lap desk. I like the new paper against the back of my hand and the ink easing from my pen tip. Writing can be a calming, sensory delight.

These days I’m spending more of my day than ever before on the computer—on the internet, even, where privacy doesn’t exist and stimulation is the rule. Continue reading

Author / Authority

large_4485740950What gives YOU the authority to write?  Not a nice question, but it’s certainly one writers ask ourselves.  I’m asking it afresh as Hannah, Delivered heads to the book stores next month.  Was I deluded to think this novel belongs in the world?  Surely I’ll be found out to be a fraud!

I’ve yet to work with a writer who doesn’t question his or her right to tell a story, or to devote tremendous time revising it, or to launch it into the world.  A colleague of mine wrote a gorgeous memoir which her agent had difficulty selling.  At long last she got bids from two different publishing houses.  Later she told me how relieved she was.  “If I’d only gotten one offer, I’d have thought they made a mistake.”  I found my colleague’s comment deeply disturbing, but indicative of the strange mental games writers play with ourselves to convince ourselves we really do have authority.  One pat on the back’s not enough, but two?  You’re in! Continue reading

Penny Friend

penniesAnnie, my neighbor one block over, bends down to the curved rut running the length of the alley and scrapes a penny out of the sand. She brushes its scratched surface against her blue-jeans, then presses it into my palm. “You’re the lucky one today,” she says.

I slip the rough penny into my pants’ pocket, laughing at our odd ritual. It’s not strange that Annie bothers to pick up a penny; she is Buddhist and a poet, a woman who treasures details and is as frugal with resources as she is with words. Even one cent, tarnished and of little value, gains significance by our attention. Continue reading

The Story about the Story Revisited

large__11336221185I’m in the marketing trenches now, preparing to launch Hannah, which means, strangely, that I’m reading books like Seth Godin’s All Marketers are Liars and I now actually know what The Long Tail is.  The majority of writers reading this will probably think, “Marketing?!  I’m not there yet.  I’m still in the private stages of writing.”  You’re absolutely right to protect your tender, beloved process.  I’m with Rilke when he told the young poet:

“You ask whether your verses are good… You send them to magazines.  You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts.  Now…I beg you to give up all that.  You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now.  Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody.  There is only one single way.  Go into yourself.  Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.”  –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What has surprised me about marketing a book this time around is how often I’ve had to “go into myself” and “search the reason that bids me write” as a key part of an effective book launch.

Here’s one example.  Seth Godin says you need to wrap a story around your product; you need to sell the story.  When I launched On the Threshold, I did what publishers have always done:  I said to the world, “Here’s a collection of essays about the spiritual dimensions of making a house a home.”  I described the story.  Now I know I must create a story about the story for potential readers.  (You can see my story for Hannah below.)  Just summarizing the product isn’t effective.  So I had to “go into myself”, back to that quiet space of deep listening.  I had to identify the book’s heartbeat—it’s life force, which is also, in part, my own.  Then I had to articulate it in a way (hopefully) links it to others’ hearts.

Here’s another interesting example, again from Godin:

“If a consumer figures something out or discovers it on her own, she’s a thousand times more likely to believe it than if it’s just something you claim. … But then you have to tell a story, not give a lecture.  You have to hint at the facts, not announce them.  … The process of discovery is more powerful than being told the right answer—because of course there is no right answer, and because even if there were, the consumer wouldn’t believe you!”  –Seth Godin, All Marketers are Liars

Doesn’t this sound like the creative writing advice, “Show, don’t tell”?  And anyone with experience showing knows that it’s a process packed with surprise for the writer.  So the writer’s surprise—and personal growth—continues beyond the bounds of the book into the terrain of marketing.

I’m beginning to believe that effective outreach, be it commercial or humanitarian, begins in the heart and lands in another heart.  So the quiet, soul-searching work that happens while we draft and revise a work isn’t over when the book hits the stores.  It can continue, if we’re willing.

photo credit: Thomas Geiregger via photopin cc

Faith and Fairies

fairy“I believe in fairies,” Gwyn tells me.

“Me, too,” I respond.

In our house we tell stories incessantly, and they’re all true.  They began with Special Baby, Gwyn’s imaginary friend when she was two years old.  Special Baby could do everything Gwyn couldn’t, like go to the library when it was closed and eat extra servings ofdessert.  Then came Lilly the Lilac Fairy who lives in the gnarled lilac tree over Gwyn’s sandbox and who is too shy to show herself to grown-ups.  Continue reading

A Writer’s Polar Vortex

medium_3020250442Here is one of the secret ironies of being a published author:  As you move toward launching a book, your writing life is decimated.  Those quiet, searching hours of half-starts and rambling experiments, those blessed days of research and play and discovery, those driving weeks of inspiration—as well as months of paralyzing self-doubt that this mess of words you’re accumulating will ever amount to anything—are replaced with two-hour conversations with your copyeditor about the proper formatting of ellipses and coaching sessions on how to use Pinterest to market your new book and the seemingly exciting but actually grueling work of setting up readings.

I could whine about all this, but instead I want to make a point:  It’s hard to stay balanced—it’s hard to keep writing—when you’re also publishing.  Launching a book is its own creative endeavor, as I’ve explored in earlier posts, but it is not writing.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in writing classes who don’t really want to write, they just want to be published.  I understand this; having a book in the world communicates something essential about yourself and gives that self credibility and influence.  I like creating something beautiful of my questions, memories, and imaginings and then getting a chance to be in thoughtful conversation with readers.  I really like being published.  I, too, want to be an author who participates in our culture with my work.

But what makes me a writer is not any of these recognizable successes.  What makes me a writer is that I like writing.  And right now, being an author is getting in the way of being a writer.

My attempts to stay balanced include a daily dose of journaling, and maintaining (barely—this is 11 days late!) my two blogs.  I read a bit of theology each week, which is my way of fueling my creative life.  And I hold onto the hope—I try to have faith—that my beautiful, uncomfortable, language-saturated time will return.  It will.  The writing life has its seasons.  For me now, the author side of my world is turned toward the sun and the writer side is enduring a polar vortex.  But the world is still spinning.

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

Church: The Third Parent

I regularly dream about the church where I grew up:  A soaring Protestant-plain structure built in the early 1800’s with a handful of parishioners clustered in the first few pews.  I doubt more than twenty people have attended a Sunday service in the last three decades.  The congregation was vibrant when I was eight but then got hit by a parade of inept and at times unethical pastors.  By the time I was in high school, the church probably should have shut its doors.

That congregation loved me and raised me in the faith.  They were my first community—adults who winked at me during the service and attended my piano concerts and taught me about the Bible, youth who dared one another to explore the endless basement or climb up onto the roof, a family broader and stranger than my immediate family but just as reliable.  I see the same thing happening for Gwyn, who at five helps the usher light the candles and converses with grown-ups at coffee hour.  Church throws a wide blanket of people around my daughter.  She may someday stop attending or reject its teachings, but she’ll never not know this family.

I once had a therapist say that, for those raised in the church, the church is like a third parent with all of the psychological and emotional baggage of any dysfunctional family.  I worked through most of my unhealthy relational patterns with my own parents decades ago, but the church?  The church still haunts my dreams, triggers inexplicable emotions, and won’t let me go.  As infuriated as the institutional church and the messy local church make me, I can’t leave.  Church is in my blood.  I’m glad enough for it that I’m inflicting it on my daughter—and gracing her with it.  When she grows up, like it or not, she’ll have this foundation.

Last night, I dreamt that the church of my childhood was full of a great diversity of people.  The pastor led a processional; there were huge palm trees and singing.  In the dying church of my psyche, something new is happening.  I hope to God it’s life-giving and fruitful.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Pigeon Holes: How Labels Hurt Writers and Writing

This Christmas my mother gave me a fantastic, hilarious collection of poems called God Got a Dog.  In one, God goes to beauty school, falls in love with nails, and opens a manicure parlor.  The poems are deceptively simple.  Theologically, they’re out in left field, playing with our notions of holiness and embodiment and images of divinity.  They are smart, adult explorations of how God works in the world.  I adore them.

The publishers list God Got a Dog as a children’s book.  Why?  There’s no way even a precocious five-year-old would enjoy these poems.  But they were written by Cynthia Rylant, a Newbery Award winning author, and illustrated by Marla Frazee, a beloved children’s book illustrator.  Rylant and Frazee have loyal followings among those who read kids’ books, so I imagine their publicist wanting to reach that loyal following.  And so my mother had to go to the picture book section of the book store to find this slender book of theology.

I’m thinking about how books get pigeon-holed because my first novel is flying down the chute toward publication, and I’m increasingly uncomfortable with assumptions the industry makes about it.  I’m having bad flashbacks of high school, how my good grades led the boys to assume I was undateable, the gym teachers to assume I couldn’t catch a ball, the academic teachers to assume I’d be well-behaved, and the girls to assume I was a snob.  Years afterward I ran into a boy from my class and had a nice conversation.  Later, his mother told me how surprised he was.  “Elizabeth’s really nice,” he’d told her.  “She’s pretty.”  The mother said she was glad he finally saw this.  Me, too, but couldn’t he have noticed when it mattered?!

I’ve always had ambitions to be a literary writer.  So when over thirty of my favorite publishers of literary fiction rejected my novel, I felt grave disappointment.  I’d failed.  The literary establishment did not endorse my book.  Then a commercial publisher took it and gave me an identity crisis.  Maybe I’m not meant for the upper echelons of literature.  Maybe I’m a writer of popular fiction.  Maybe ordinary people might enjoy reading my book.

The jury’s still out on that one.  In the meantime, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole stratification of literature is an adult version of teenage cliques.  Publishers and book sellers sort books into categories and then their authors form a sense of identity in response.  Personally I’m grateful when someone like Cynthia Rylant breaks out of the box the publishing industry has placed her in.  She’s a multifaceted person of varying interests unafraid to reveal her many selves on the page.  I like imagining her sitting back, following her interests wherever they lead, and honoring them despite the expectations of her frustrated agent (a book of theological poems will not sell like a children’s story) and her baffled editor.

It turns out I am dateable, I can’t catch a ball but am a decent swimmer, there are times when I behave miserably, and I’m only snobby about cheeses.  And I’m not as smart as everyone thought; I just got good grades.  In this strange in-between place before my book comes out, I’m working on accepting the writer I am, regardless of how others categorize me—regardless of how I’d like to categorize myself.  I have a feeling I’ll be a better writer for it.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Leaning Into God

In the days after a fire destroyed a six-bay garage at the ARC Retreat Center as well as three cars, two years’ supply of firewood, and all my belongings, I was numb; I wandered around wearing other people’s clothes trying to remember who I was and what I believed.  Had God abandoned me?  The ring of towering Norwegian pines surrounding the garage had been scorched; I put my hands in their blackened, seeping wounds.  For the first time I understood the significance of Jesus’ wounds after the crucifixion.  God is with us; God hurts with us, and God is far bigger than our hurt.

When I think back on the crises and tragedies of my life—that fire, the death of my nephew, my father’s two kidney transplants, and Emily’s two bouts with cancer—I’m struck by how formative and transformative they are.  The times when I’m most broken by grief are also the times when God reaches into my heart and profoundly reshapes it.  I’m grateful for who I’ve become as a result.  It’s strange; I wouldn’t wish these hardships on anyone, and yet the greatest gifts of my life have emerged from them.

Crises make us vulnerable, and when we’re vulnerable God is better able to work in us.  In the midst of hardship, this isn’t always comforting.  The devastation I felt as I touched those sappy, scorched wounds in the trees seemed to double when I sensed God crying with me.  But afterward I took in the significance.  Afterward we can recognize that creative force working on a scale and in a dimension we can’t glimpse otherwise.  Something new has emerged.  We’re forever changed.

I think about this as we walk into the mounting ramifications of climate change.  We will feel vulnerable.  We will recognize our weaknesses.  We will feel guilty.  We will grieve the loss of species and stable weather.  But these are opportunities to lean into God, to invite God’s bigger, transforming presence into our hearts and communities.  A mighty shift is possible, if only we’re willing.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

 

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