An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Audience

A Midwestern Identity

What does it mean to be a Minnesotan writer?  In this age of placelessness—sitting in a Starbucks or Motel 6 or airport lounge or on a Facebook page, you could be anywhere—even our literature is without landscape or regional identity.  Especially literature from the Midwest, which, when compared with New York City writing or the work of Southern writers seems bland in its vernacular and hard to locate.

“There is nothing worse than the writer who doesn’t use the gifts of the region, but wallows in them,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, the ultimate advocate for regional voices.  “An idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character.”  What is Minnesota’s idiom, our social fabric?  Many years ago I read an essay by David Mura in The View from the Loft; it struck me so much, I’ve lived with this quotation on my desktop ever since:

I am calling then for a change in focus:  we must begin comparing Minnesota values and language with the rest of the country and the world; we must see what in our culture here can provide answers (or at least questions) for the country and our species. 

As a transplant to the Midwest, I have deliberately claimed this place.  Mura challenged me to claim it in my writing as well—the flat, ravaged prairies, the heritage of occupying land and ousting its native peoples, the wholesome Scandinavian culture with its dark underbelly of silence and denial, our earnest civic engagement, the farms that feed us and destroy our land, the thousands of lakes, the Somalians and Hmong and Mexicans who are shaping our cities…  So I set my novel firmly in Minnesota, doing my best to sink my literary roots here and see what nutrients they drew from our black, black soil.

Why does this matter?  I could ignore my place, inhabiting instead the psyches of my characters or the drama within a household.  But O’Connor would say place makes the people, and their language; we need to locate our characters for them to become real.  The correlation for us humans today is important:  Perhaps we are less real because we are so disconnected from place.  So we need our literature to reconnect us, to remind us about the butterfly weed growing in ditches, about the migration corridor over the Mississippi, and about Minnesotans’ propensity to return their friends’ canning jars or stick political lawn signs in their yards or carry slippers when they go visiting in the winter.

This matters for us and it matters, as Mura argues, for “the country and our species.”  The brokenness and bravery of our history, the complexities of agricultural communities’ relationship to the land, our particular brew of immigrants, and all the dimensions that make Minnesota unique can provide answers, or at least questions, that the world needs.

Love in the Work of Writing

I write about love because I tell stories; and it is impossible, I believe, to tell any kind of powerful or valuable or meaningful story without writing about love.  And, too, I have found that it is impossible to write a story without love.  The writer must love her characters, must open her heart to them, give the whole of herself to them, in order for those characters to give themselves back to her.
                                            –Kate Dicamillo, “Characters who Love Again”

Today I’m pondering love’s role in the making of literature.  Love is a basic ingredient, like water in a soup.  Without water, you have no soup.

Before there’s any hope of writing well or of an audience appreciating your work, you must love writing itself.  You must love being alone, tending the wondrous workings of your own mind and heart. You must love questions.  You must passionately love the way silent stirrings inside you take form when given language.  You must adore words.  You must open your being to the many ways words change you.

Before there’s any chance of rendering your material with accuracy and interest, you must love it.  You must love people, in all their grit and grime and brokenness and inconsistency.  You must be willing to look as directly as you can at what is, and not shy from representing this truth to others.  You must love the truth.

If Kate Dicamillo is right and it’s impossible to tell any kind of meaningful story without writing about love, love itself must be our centerpiece—desire for it, lack of it, how it malfunctions, how it transforms, why we deny it, how it surprises, where it originates, how it ends…  Isn’t this the stuff of literature?

To connect well with readers you must love connecting.  You must love the intimacy of entering another’s story, and you must love welcoming others into your own story.

All this makes me wonder:  Couldn’t learning to write well, then, be an exercise in learning to love well?  Or the reverse:  Mightn’t learning to love well benefit our work?  Is it possible that writing instructors have been misdirected, giving our attention to teaching craft when in fact we should be working through the craft on the human heart?  Or is it possible that craft itself is our means for learning to love?

“Look,” writes Brian Doyle.  “I don’t know much, but I know these things uncontrovertibly and inarguably:  One: stories matter waaaaay more than we know.  Two: all stories are, in some form, prayers.  Three: love is the story and the prayer that matters the most.”

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Writing from Deep Gladness to the World’s Deep Hunger

As I move to the close of my second decade of teaching creative writing, I’m experiencing a dramatic shift in my philosophy.  Writing has always been for me a means of personal discovery; I came to understand and claim my identity as a bisexual Christian when writing Swinging on the Garden Gate, and then melded my spiritual direction training with writing coaching to support others in profound personal healing and exploration through writing.  I’m a firm believer in the power of privacy at the start of a writing project.  If a writer’s heart isn’t on the line, what that writer writes hasn’t much chance of mattering.

Because I’m well-trained as a feminist, I know the personal is political.  So I’ve always trusted that deeply private explorations play a powerful role in public discourse.  By reconciling my sexual identity with my faith, in my heart and in Swinging, I believe that, in a small but effective way, I helped make space for such a reconciliation within our culture.  Many of the memoir writers I work with question the value of such personal writing.  I don’t.  I know its intrinsic, healing value for the writer, and I believe truth-telling of any sorts is constructive for our world.

But recently I’ve begun to feel a sense of urgency about our world’s needs.  Perhaps I’m waking up to my responsibility to address inequality and injustice.  Certainly I feel pressured by impending climate change.  Somehow, listening to the movements of my heart, following them onto the page, and trusting these stories to bring about social change seems slightly passive.  Irresponsible, even.  If the pen is mightier than the sword, shouldn’t I be wielding it intentionally, for the common good?

Nothing is more taboo in American letters than an “agenda.”  We all know that a message, political or theological or social, can knock a story dead.  I’m beginning to wonder, though, whether American writers have avoided addressing social issues—and our responsibility as culture-makers—for the sake of staying safe.

So I’m positing this question:  How can writers connect the intimate material of their hearts to the broad social issues of our times in a way that’s artful and effective?  We know it’s possible.  Shakespeare did it.  Tolstoy did it.  Adrienne Rich did it.  Karen Connelly and Arundhati Roy and Tracy Kidder are doing it.  This is what I want for myself and the writers I support.

I can’t help but think of Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation:  “The place God calls you is to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Whether or not God’s in the picture, I’m increasingly convinced that this nexus between deep, private gladness and the world’s deep hunger is where we writers need to work.       –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Write–Or Be Written.

This past weekend my sister married the man she loves in a sunny meadow.  Because this was her second marriage, she had resisted it mightily—“marriage” is a story the culture imposes on couples, and it doesn’t necessarily work.  You have to understand—Marcy is a woman who, on her own, adopted two boys from Guatemala; she started a community farm and has midwifed countless babies into the world.  Her performance artist sweetie moved in two years ago; the boys already call him Dad.  Why bother with marriage?

Eventually Marcy conceded that a wedding would give them a communal and sacred blessing.  The couple created a “family union” ceremony with their Lakotan spiritual leader that involved the guests hiking across a canyon, drumming, washing in a stream, and making vows to one another and the boys.  The guests cried and danced.

What made my sister’s wedding powerful?  It was faithful to tradition and it arose from the particulars of her family’s story.  She and her partner stayed true to their tradition’s form of a wedding but recreated it to reflect their personalities, their history, their community, their needs.  This union resulted from years of hard work.

It reminded me, strangely enough, of writing a book.

“Write or be written,” the author Elissa Raffa signs her books.  “If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past,” Patricia Hampl writes of memoir, “someone else will do it for us.”  When I think of all the thoughtless, formulaic weddings I’ve attended—ceremonies that follow prescriptions of tradition or culture, which provide a shallow form for the couple to conform to—I realize the transformative power of creating from the inside out.  Form plays an important role, but we must fill form intentionally, with the essence of our being.  In this way we become authors—of our lives and of our creations.

Because my circle of friends is comprised almost entirely of people working for social change—advocating for the environment, promoting rights for GLBT folks, strengthening communities, finding nonviolent solutions to conflicts—I sometimes question the value of my work as a writer and writing teacher.  Given the pressing needs of our times, why do I help writers dedicate years to crafting their personal stories?  But moments like my sister’s wedding remind me that the most powerful forces in our world are clear and honest hearts, and real change in our culture, as in our relationships, always begins with genuine stories.  When we tell our own version of our story with great integrity, we step out into society hand-in-hand with our essential truth.  And that’s when the tears and dancing begin.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

You Are What You Write

When I teach, I often ask the question, “What’s at stake for you in this story?”  I’m not alone; it’s a common question in the world of writing.  Students are puzzled by it, however, and usually ask me to explain.

Really I’m looking for the intersection between the writer’s heart and the words on the page.  How does this subject terrify you, compel you, wrap its sweaty hands around your longing and jerk you into unexplored territory?  When a story nags, it always shares some fundamental passion with the writer.  It always taunts the writer with the promise of discoveries that cannot be made in any other way.  How does this project set you on edge?  What’s the rabbit hole you’ve been skirting?  Your writing will take you down.

For people who keep journals and new writers, writing is a natural extension of the self.  We don’t recognize any separation between the passion thumping in our chests and those black marks on paper.  The more we write and the more we learn the craft of writing, we find that our work isn’t us; it is a creation, it’s separate from us.  This is a good thing.  Only as we gain mastery over language and our ideas do we learn to craft our writing, shaping it to interact with audiences beyond our control.  We need a healthy detachment from our work for it to stand on its own two legs.

That said, I’m beginning to realize (through my own writing and my coaching of others) how easily we lose our initial, passionate, full-throttle, full-stakes relationship with writing.  Concern for how our work will satisfy an audience sucks the life out of our creative energy.  We forget our stake.

Recently I found this passage in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing:

The core of your creativity should be the same as the core of your story and of the main character in your story.  What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed?  Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator.  (43)

Oh, yes!  We don’t want our writing to flirt with our life, we don’t want casual dating, we want head-over-heels love leading to a life-long marriage.  So the question, “What’s at stake?” isn’t strong enough.  “How does your life depend on this piece of writing?” is more apt.  Answer that question and you’ve got it made.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Dismissing, Then Welcoming the Audience

You must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants.  Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.

When I came upon these words in Strunk and White’s classic writing handbook, Elements of Style, I felt pleased as punch.  For years I’ve tried to convince writing students to surround themselves with a safe, protective bubble as they draft projects and begin revising.  We all know how concern for our audience can loom over our shoulders, pestering us with questions like “What will your mother think?” and “Who will give a rat’s ass about that?” and judging our language or ideas as inadequate.  As soon as we allow that dreaded entity, “the reader,” into our writing room, we begin censoring and performing.  We deny our brilliant but quirky inner voice the freedom to emerge.

“A careful first draft is a failed first draft,” Patricia Hampl writes.  What happens if you give yourself permission in a first draft to be messy, heretical, revolutionary, stupid, and otherwise embarrassing?  Your inclination may be to approach your second draft like Stephen King does: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”  And while I agree in principle, I’ve found that even the initial stages of revision benefit from a general disregard of audience.  How else can we ask the probing questions that will churn up more risky material?  How else will we feel safe enough to identify that pulsing heartbeat?  Often our real motivations for writing emerge after our material is on the page, and we need the freedom to be honest with ourselves without concern for our readers’ pleasure.

As every writer knows, it takes real will-power to set the future reader aside and “play to an audience of one.”  Whether at the beginning of a project or well into revision, this practice is about peeling away layers of deception to arrive at a core reality—one that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted, as Mark Twain is reported to have said.  Our work needs us to be fully present, not distracted by what others will think.  This is what gives the process of writing the quality of serious spiritual listening, and what invites us into our better selves.

The corollary to this intense privacy is equally valuable–for writing to flourish we must at some point welcome the audience.  If a writer only considers the self the primary audience, the work becomes solipsistic and sloppy.  Our own minds, however bright, are only so big; our own lives, however expansive, are inevitably limited.  When we write solely for ourselves, as we do in a private journal, we human beings have a propensity to navel-gaze and obsess.  Unedited journals almost never get published for this reason; there’s simply too much shlock for most readers.

If we never consider an audience as we write, our work’s growth remains stunted.  The discipline of considering the reader is absolutely necessary to the development of creative work.  All art is essentially dialogue—between the artist and the viewer, between the artist and all artists who have come before, and between the artist and society.  The artist’s awareness of this conversation is what launches a work from the private realm into the public.  In literature, it’s this awareness that helps a writer identify the universal elements in the particulars of his or her narrative.  By setting our work in the context of history, social movements, religious thought, psychological explorations, and other external forces, we link the smallness of our memories (or imagined world) to that web of commonality that connects us as humans.  We remove ourselves from isolation and participate in community.

I believe the best time to welcome the audience into our writing process is after the first or second draft, after we’ve searched for the heart of our work and risked exposing some truth.  Gradually, as we move through the drafts, we can begin to ask questions that might open our story to external readers:  Have I introduced my characters, my setting, my questions thoroughly?  Why might an anonymous reader be interested in this work?  How might I capture his or her attention and raise the stakes?  How might I make my experience (or my character’s experience) available to the reader, so he or she is a participant rather than an observer?  What in my story touches the human experience, that cord of connection we all share?

Every spiritual journey worth its salt brings the journeyer back into community, where the fruits of solitude can provide nourishment beyond the bounds of one individual life.  Likewise with creative practice; what’s born in privacy gains texture and merit by moving into the public realm.  The craft of writing well is really a rigorous discipline through which we open our internal world to another, or to the Other.  This, I believe, is essentially what revision is about—seeing our material again and again, with eyes other than our own or with sight broadened by the wider world.                        –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

From Rilke, With Love

Whenever I get swept up in the competitive, audience-seeking dimension of the writing life, I turn to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as an antidote.  Rilke returns me to my essential, life-giving reasons for writing.

What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.

Art-making both awakens and fulfills basic spiritual needs, Rilke says, and that this role is ultimately sufficient.

A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.

Out of the cacophony of writing advice out there, Rilke stands alone in emphasizing love as the central creative force in our work.  We must love our doubt, love our solitude, love the questions, love our subject, and make love our subject.  Even suffering in the creative process is worthy of love:

Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?

To Rilke the soul of a creative project is tender, solitary, and full of potential.  Only those readers who treat it with love are worth listening to.

Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism.  Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.

At the heart of Rilke’s letters is unabashed faith in the writer’s inner world.  Who else treats that silent life with such respect?

I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.

Who among us doesn’t benefit from this reminder?  We each have within us a potent, generative life-force that feeds our creative work, and attending this is the foundation of all art-making.  That said, I’ll sign off to enter that lovely private sphere.

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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