An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Content (Page 1 of 2)

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

Four Excuses Not to Write Spiritual Memoir, and One Invitation

(This blog post is reprinted after appearing in The Loft’s “Writer’s Block.”)

“I’m not interested in spiritual stuff.  I just want to write stories.”
A friend—a thoughtful, church-going friend—said this to me in passing the other day.  Since she couldn’t hear my internal temper-tantrum, I’ll give it here:  What in tarnation is more spiritual than stories?!  Every story, from a child’s imaginative play to an adult’s crafted composition to an elder’s reminiscing, contains both the muddy mundane and the spark of mystery.  When we humans want to understand our world, we make stories.  It’s how we compose and are composed by meaning—Sharon Daloz Parks’ definition of faith.  Dabble in stories, friends, and you work with the most intimate orientation of your heart.

All writing’s spiritual.
My point exactly.  So what are you going to do about it?

Sunday morning golfers like to joke that they pray on the putting green.  Some feel the sun sinking into their exposed necks, they appreciate the grace of their golfing companion’s swing, they come alive with the hearty competition.  Others just golf.

Nothing’s wrong with just golfing.  It’s fun.  But intention can change our experience, and intention is what distinguishes spiritual memoir within the broader genre of memoir.  Three qualities make spiritual memoir unique:  First, the writer uncovers, probes, and honors what is sacred in his or her life story.  Second, the writing process itself is a means of spiritual growth.  And third, the end product makes the experience of the sacred available to the reader.  In other words, the writer’s curiosity about and participation in the great, pulsing mysteries of our universe take center stage.  They are the work’s subject, the manner in which it is created, and its relationship with an audience.

So, yes, all writing is spiritual.  You can choose to explore the spirit’s life in your memories, in the writing process, and in the reader’s experience…if you want.

No one can describe the indescribable!
Oh, tell me about it.  Any writer’s job is impossible, but the spiritual writer’s is doubly so.  The dictionary defines “spiritual” as “not tangible or material,” and we all know that disembodied, ungrounded writing is, well, bad.

Yet we try regardless.  “What matters most in our lives is unsayable,” Mark Doty said.  “We’ve got to attempt to make meaning out of death.  Of course it’s impossible, but if we don’t, we despair.”  Trying matters.  It matters to us, because words that fail to do justice to, say, the miracle of your son’s birth or the crazy transformation wrought by your bout with cancer, nonetheless illuminate these experiences.  The attempt and the failure change us.  Written with care and craft, such stories can change an audience, too.

While no author and no religious tradition has successfully put into words the exquisite mystery of our existence, we’ve still got some darn good literary attempts and some enduring, guiding sacred texts.  We humans, all of us, are capable of almost naming the unnamable.  When we almost do, it’s thrilling.

And valuable.  Who among us doesn’t need reminding about what really matters?

My life?  Nothing sacred there.
Use the word “sacred” and people reflexively distance themselves.  Holiness is Other; it’s alien to our sweaty, busy, mistake-prone, fleshy selves.  I won’t delve into the centuries of dualistic Christian thinking that have caused western cultures to separate the earth from the heavens and our bodies from our spirits.  Suffice it to say we’re steeped in a philosophy that’s worth calling into question.

What if you want write about learning to ride a bike, or the first time you were betrayed by an adult, or the loss of a dear friendship?  Most of us don’t consider such ordinary experiences holy.  Yet we remember these events because they have emotional significance, and even the smallest emotional impact affects the life of the soul.  Your fundamental being, your life-force, your essence, participates in humdrum moments just as your body and mind do.  Your soul has its own version of the story.

Some lucky people get mountain-top, knock-your-socks-off spiritual experiences.  But even these folks come down from the mountain to muck around in the daily grind.  “After the ecstasy, the laundry,” writes Jack Kornfield.  Part of the delight of writing spiritual memoir is discovering that even laundry can play a role in the soul’s journey.  It can in the moment of washing, or it can as we reflect back on the chore within the context of a bigger story.  “To write about one’s life is to live it twice,” writes Patricia Hampl, “and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form.”

Stories work magic.  They shed light on mystery we didn’t know was there.

The Invitation
Try it.  Try writing about the laundry, your morning golf round, a memory of an adult’s betrayal, or any moment that sticks to your bones.  Write it in all its bodily detail.  Then imagine this story as a window onto unspoken meaning, hidden vitality, and the unpredictable unity that pulses within creation.  What do you see?  Remember that even the smallest inspirations bring the spirit in—they give a breath of life to your work and our world.


Windows onto a Wider World

The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness.  Memoirists use the self as a tool.            –Patricia Hampl

Perhaps because I’m entering my twenty-third year of teaching writing, I’m getting curmudgeonly about memoir.  I still revere fine examples in the genre, but the vast majority of memoir seems myopic and disengaged.  Published works irritate me the most; I read a memoir like Sheryl Strayed’s Wild and run screaming back to the classics to recover.  Memoirs-in-process at least contain the possibility of improving.

The amateur writers I work with fear that memoir is selfish, but this isn’t my gripe.  “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!” writes Carol Bly.  The self is a wonderfully worthy subject.  Perhaps what grates on me is a distinctly American understanding of the self, obsessed with personal pain and disturbingly isolated.  I am interested in the self defined by and defining its surrounding community; the self as a pawn of and player in history; the self in dialogue with others—neighbors and readers and those long dead and those yet to be born; the self as an inhabitant of the natural world; the self as a window onto our shared humanity and our extraordinary differences.  We are each so broken and insignificant, and yet also magnificent.  I’m interested in the paradoxes and revelations of the self.

Memoir works best when the self becomes a lens—a consciousness, as Hampl calls it, especially consciousness of material beyond the self.  Another way to say this is that memoir succeeds when it shows the self in relationship to some subject, aware of this relationship, and exploring the relationship with curiosity and acumen.

As a culture we desperately need literature that connects our small lives to larger stories of struggle and meaning.  I’m beginning to believe that writers have a moral responsibility not just to craft good stories but to create stories that build connections between people rather than breaking them down.  On second thought, morality has nothing to do with it.  The stories that build connections are simply better stories.

The VIDA Count and Spiritual Writing

Recently, while reading yet another volume of Philip Zaleski’s Best Spiritual Writing, I grew increasingly annoyed at essay after essay of heady language about grandiose meditations and abstract ethical conundrums.  My spiritual life, lived out as I potty-train my daughter, lift canned tomatoes from a boiling bath, struggle to remain a loving member of my bickering church community—in other words, lived out in details and increments—was absent from this collection.  I thought of the hundreds of times I’ve folded my daughter’s trainer undies, printed with delicate pink roses; I hold their warm cotton to my cheek, imagine them snug on her sweet behind, and my knees go weak with adoration for this life.  Underwear can be holy, too! I wanted to shout at Zaleski.

Fortunately I’d also recently read the 2011 VIDA count (  VIDA, an online organization serving women in the literary arts, takes an annual survey of how often women are published in our country’s most respected literary journals.  The statistics are not good; women simply aren’t published as much as men.  In Zaleski’s anthologies and the journals they cull from, women’s writing is downright rare.  The major literary journals that publish spiritual writing—Image Magazine, Portland Magazine, The Sun, St. Katherine Review, Riverteeth, The Other Journal—are all edited by men.  Good men, men I admire for their dedication to fine writing about the Spirit, but men with enormous blind spots nonetheless.

No wonder my spiritual life seems underrepresented.  Women’s particular experiences of holiness, shaped by bleeding and childbirth and multitasking and friendship, don’t make it into print.

This fact makes me doubly mad when I consider the population I teach.  I’ve offered spiritual memoir writing classes for almost twenty years now, and the overwhelming majority of my students have been women—eighteen women for every man, I’d estimate.  Men certainly publish work with spiritual content, so I suspect they simply don’t take classes or hire coaches.  Fine.  But what’s happening to the work by all these women?  Do women lack the resolve to push their creations beyond the private sphere?  Do they lack the time it takes to develop their skills or see a project to completion?  Or are all these women banging their heads on a glass ceiling?  Perhaps women face the double-whammy of having their literary sensibilities under-appreciated and their theological insights dismissed.

All this stewing gives fresh direction to my work.  I’m committed to supporting writers in their exploration of the sacred, whatever their gender, but now I feel fresh urgency in my support of underrepresented populations.  When our literature limits holiness to mountain-top experiences or intellectual exercises, we forget the pervasive, earthy, utterly present and thoroughly absent mystery which is God.  We need many voices to name what’s holy and sing its praise.

We need your voice.

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

What’s At Stake?

Perhaps the most important question for every creative writer to ask—and definitely the hardest question to answer—is “What’s at stake for me?”  For writing to work well, the writer must care deeply.

On the surface this question seems simplistic; our care is instinctive, compelling, and unspoken.  In practice, the journey through revision is an excavation of the author’s stake, digging below external reasons (“I want to help others; I want to be published”), below the outer story (“I want to explore this memory, character, or idea”), to some subconscious, undercurrent of longing.  Our stake is always found in our emotional relationship to the subject matter.  Without some connection to our content, we might convey the content to a reader but we’ve no reason to explore it.  And passionate exploration is what makes writing great.

What’s in question?  What are you risking?  What of your heart have you invested?  A writer’s stake in a project is a fiery furnace that fuels the steam engine and makes it move.  When I ask writers, “What’s at stake?” they frequently have no idea.  The writing process is their heartfelt search for that single burning coal.  Sometimes writers have an answer that changes with time and revision, a sign that their work is gaining dimension.  Sometimes writers continue to learn about their stake long after the project is done.  Only when writers have a definitive, unchanging answer do I grow concerned for their work.

I believe every project is an attempt to give words to an inarticulate relationship between the author’s heart and his or her subject matter.  Our struggles naming this relationship are understandable:  It changes by virtue of being written.      –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Life Behind the Writing

A critical but usually unspoken component to writing well is the quality of the human being who writes.  Is he or she smart?  Thoughtful?  Curious?  Provocative?  Original?  Has he or she done emotional research to undergird the story?  “Living a conscious and reflective life is a prerequisite for writing a memoir of substance,” writes Judith Barrington.   Likewise with poetry and fiction.  The written word may be wiser than the human who wrote it, but never by much.

Writing classes don’t address these questions, for good reason; little can be done in a school setting to address a student’s basic nature.  Perhaps when writing teachers despair of ever being effective, this is why.  Unfortunately, many writing teachers shy away from teaching revision as a result.  Creating writing prompts is easier than helping writers to jettison egos, generate new narrative structures, and discover the emotional undercurrents that will become unifying themes.

But to never address the inextricable link between creative writing and the human creator is a mistake.  We write, innumerable authors claim, to find out what we think; personal discovery is intricately interwoven with the effort to make art.  Fiction writers are consciously or unconsciously engaged in exploring the workings of the human psyche; memoir writers thrive on the interchange between memory and the present; poets understand poetry to be not just a craft but a lifestyle.  A writer genuinely interested in improving his or her craft won’t get far without also striving to see the world (and therefore live in the world) afresh.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Process & Product

I’m a tender-hearted gardener.  When last year’s cherry tomatoes reseed themselves, I don’t have the heart to pull them out.  And so I end up with an abundance of late-ripening cherry tomatoes.  What to do?  Make tomato sauce.  But cherry tomatoes are a hassle to peal, even after blanching, so I choose the lazy route, slice them with skins on and throw them in the pot.  The resulting tomato sauce is tasty, but a bit watery and swimming with skins.

The process by which we create something helps shape the final product.  Our exuberance, laziness, playfulness, discipline, patience, bull-headedness, kindness, skill, and all the other qualities we bring to the writing process play a part in the text we finally create.  Just as my choice to give the cherry tomatoes room in the garden rather than planting good saucing Romas contributes to the quality of my spaghetti sauce, each choice we make in the course of writing contributes to the reader’s experience.  Even those choices we reverse, I would argue, build up like layers of paint to affect the final, aesthetic read.

Other factors contribute to our final product’s shape, especially the content of our story and the voice or persona we use to tell the story.  But our process—all the steps of creating literature and quirky personality who takes these steps—is the factor most often ignored, and from which we can learn the most.

For example, I worked with a skilled writer who set out to write her memoir of growing up with a father who was the only one of his vast extended family to survive the Holocaust.  His grief and depression profoundly shaped her childhood.  She was adept at writing beautiful narrative chapters about periods of her life, and amassed about 150 pages like this before realizing that she’d avoided writing about her father.  But when she tried to focus on life as his daughter, she got stuck.  “I just can’t find my groove,” she told me.  “All I’ve got are these fragments.”  I suggested she change her process.  Instead of writing long, chronological stories, simply write the fragments.  At first this felt awkward, but eventually the fragments took on a form all their own.  They now act as glimpses into a painful relationship.  Their form—fractured, brief—mirrors their content.  But the writer discovered the form by accommodating her process to the material.

What works?  What techniques squeeze the content out of you and onto the page?  When I set out to write On the Threshold, I was primarily motivated by abstract questions about spirituality—What does it mean to live a spiritually grounded life?  I sat at my desk and looked around the tiny bungalow I’d just bought.  When I’m stuck as a writer, I can usually get going again by writing about the setting.  I describe place easily and well.  So I wrote about buying that first house and what it took to make it into a home.  My house became my means to explore spiritual questions because it was a process that worked for me.

As we revise we’re always seeking some structure, some container, to hold our exploration.  But more often than not, the structure emerges through the process.  As committed writers, we must cultivate a lively, healthy means for writing because that means embeds itself in our text.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Inevitable “I” Part 2

In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, she writes:

The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void.  The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.

The world—the context within which the author’s life plays out—must show up in our story as well, and this inclusion requires memoirists to “move toward wisdom”, or, as I would put it, draw connections between one’s private life and the human experience.  The connections are both inherent in the lived experience as well as created in the writing experience.  Gornick goes on to say:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom.  Truth in a memoir is achieved…when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.  What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

…When Rousseau observes, “I have nothing but myself to write about, and this self that I have, I hardly know of what it consists,” he is saying to the reader, “I will go in search of it in your presence.  I will set down on the page a tale of experience just as I think it occurred, and together we’ll see what it exemplifies, both of us discovering as I write this self I am in search of.”  And that was the beginning of memoir as we know it.
So the very movement through the self to some mystery lurking beyond is key to good literature.  “Autobiography is the most fascinating thing you can do because you get to touch the human condition,” writes Jim Dine.  “And in the end, what else is there?  To me, it’s the ultimate affirmation of life, and a miracle of this transient, extremely fragile organism.  To celebrate that, I think, is a noble thing to do.”      This touching of the human condition is the opposite of the naval-gazing beginning memoirist fear; it is a profoundly contemplative, creative, and connective act.  When we peer through the details of our lives to address basic human questions—who am I?  what gives my life meaning?—we engage in myth-making, that fundamental act of explaining the universe.

Conversely, when we bypass the self (out of embarrassment, humility, disinterest, or concern for the reader) hoping to arrive more quickly at some nugget of wisdom, we deny our readers the journey—and the journey is what readers most want.  Sure, we’re curious about what lessons you’ve learned from your breast cancer, your recovery from addiction, your climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.  But we’re more interested in how you learned these lessons, because in reading your story, we might learn them as well.

Once again, this isn’t just a literary trick to please the reader.  Genuine insights and revelations emerge when we include ourselves, so the experience of writing is more exciting—and scary.  The more we show up in our stories, the more we have at stake.  By this I mean that our investment is greater; we care more deeply about the questions our writing asks and the discoveries the process discloses.  Our work becomes less about posturing and more about the ongoing formation of self, which never exists in isolation.

In story-telling, the personal doesn’t sit at one end of a see-saw across from the universal.  Rather, the see-saw bends in a surprising circle.  The more heart we put into our stories, the closer we come to the heart of the matter.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Inevitable “I”

If we show up in our stories as a character, our memoirs are stronger.  Why?  A reader entering a story needs shoes to walk around in and a pair of lenses to see through.  We are embodied creatures.  Even in the two-dimensional world of language, we need bodies or, at the very least, personality.  Every reader of creative nonfiction is aware of the author lurking behind the story and brings to reading the expectation that the author will appear, either as character or narrator.  Graham Swift wrote this about his fiction:  “I favor the first person.  One reason I do so is that I do not want simply to tell, out of the blue, a story.  I want to show the pressure and need for its telling—I am as interested in the narrator as in the narrative.  I want to explore the urgency of the relation between the two.”

Swift’s words are doubly true for memoir.  Readers may be interested in the story’s plot, but they’re equally (and often more) interested in why the author’s telling this story, how he or she feels about it today, and what meaning it holds.  Likewise, as Swift implies, “the pressure and need” for the story’s telling proves to be exciting territory for a writer.  So much of the mystery of our material resides not in what happened but in what we make of what happened.

One of the reasons beginning writers don’t show up in their own stories is that they feel self-conscious about placing themselves in the limelight.  Who wants to read about “me-me-me?”  As Alice McDermott writes, “the sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down a page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.”  (Carol Bly’s response:  “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!—but don’t keep the self-centered language.”) This brings me to my point:  While all creative nonfiction includes the self, the best writing uses the self as a conduit to some other purpose.  When those first person pronouns are the object of a story (or sentence), the result is naval gazing:  “Look at me!”  When they are the subject, they act as windows onto a wider world:  “I saw the northern lights.”  The self conveys the reader outward.  “The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness,” Patricia Hampl said in an interview.  “Memoirists use the self as a tool.”

Remember that old tidbit of writing class wisdom, “Write what you know”?  We each have a wealth of memories to draw from; we each have the capacity to revisit a memory until it’s fleshed out with details; and every memory has an emotional stake (why else do we remember?) that points beyond the details to some truth about what it means to be human.  The self isn’t just any tool; it’s our best tool.  Don’t be afraid to use it.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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