Spiritual Memoir

An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Writing as Sacred Journey (page 1 of 2)

Silence: A Writer’s Source

Recently I attended a secular conversation at which the word “Source” was batted around the way religious folks use the word “God.”  I find “Source” a helpful term, although perhaps not big enough to encompass my sense of divine presence.  But it got me thinking:  What’s a writer’s source?  What grounds us and inspires us?  From where do we draw our creative energy?

Of course there’s no single answer to this question, but among the many answers is silence.  “Silence is where we locate our voice,” Terry Tempest Williams said in an interview with Lorraine Berry.  “In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin.”

Writing is essentially a contemplative practice.  The writer must settle down and listen through the emptiness of the blank page and the echoing mind to the small stirrings of the heart.  I’ve always loved Anne Frank’s bald statement of longing:  “I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”  The impulse to write is a manifestation of our human desire to bring the silent, inner movement of the heart out into the world.

Writers’ relationship with silence is key.  Silence makes us squirm, it leads us to despair, it can overwhelm us, and yet every worthwhile word ever written emerges from it.  Silence is the source of creation, and more—it’s also the source of human transformation.  Mark Rothko commented that artists search “for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow.”  Isn’t that what happens when we write?  We encounter a tiny pocket of internal quiet, root a tiny part of ourselves in it, and grow from there alongside the emergent words and ideas.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a pastor and seminary professor, wrote to her fellow clergy-people:

“If we simply dip our cups into the noisy torrent of the world and serve it up with a little theological parsley on top, people will learn to look elsewhere for food.  At the very least, we owe them words we have dug up with our own hands, words we have brought back from our own encounter with the silence.  Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent.”

I believe all writers have this same mandate.  Our parsley of choice might be humor or cynicism or environmentalism or cuss words, but regardless, it won’t satisfy.  Language and stories and reflections that nourish readers come from a bigger source, one we barely recognize and can’t begin to understand but know, intimately, every time we sit in silence, pen in hand.

A Fresh Look at Writing as a Spiritual Practice

Karen Hering’s new book, Writing to Wake the Soul:  Opening the Sacred Conversation Within, hits the bookstores next week, and I want to encourage everyone interested in writing as a spiritual practice to get a copy.  In her role as literary minister at a Unitarian Universalist congregation, Hering developed what she calls Contemplative Correspondence, a practice of writing from prompts around theological themes like faith, prayer, sin, grace, and redemption.  If this sounds heady or dull or too religious, hold your horses.  This book is far more than what you might expect.

Karen’s reflections and prompts are meant to exercise our metaphor muscles—our capacity to make connections between disparate images or ideas, and therefore our ability to communicate across differences, resolve paradoxical problems, and relate to mystery.  Her choice of tough theological terms is deliberate.  We need to reclaim the language of mystery; we need to remember language’s capacity to connect humans to our sacred source.  So we take hard words that have been used to drive wedges between people and soften them.

How?  By listening deeply; by exploring memory; by writing stories.  “What makes some writing a spiritual practice and not others,” Karen writes, “is less a matter of form than it is an orientation and intention. Writing becomes a spiritual practice when it serves as a personal correspondence with “the still, small voice within,” a way of listening to one’s inner voice and truth, and to the sacred source of that truth.”  Karen’s exercises help us connect the dots of our experience to see what Thomas Merton calls “a hidden wholeness.”  She chooses big words because our small stories are windows onto universal truths, and she wants us to remember this.

“But the practice does not stop there. It also insists that our story is only powerful and meaningful to the degree that we are willing and able to engage it in conversation with larger, open‐ended narratives. It calls upon us to listen for the stories and the presence of others.”  What I most love about Karen’s book is its insistence on our connectedness.  Rather than framing the spiritual practice of writing as simply a private conversation with the holy, she pushes us outward, into dialogue with others, with voices present in religious teachings, and with the emergent, collective narrative of our culture.  She understands the Sacred as both personal and corporate, in and through history, within and beyond language, and still emerging in our life experiences.

I am infinitely grateful for this book.

The Story about the Story

I’ve known for a while and repeatedly told my students that writing continues to offer us invitations to spiritual and personal growth even after we’re finished.  Publishing and publicity can become opportunities to deepen our integrity, expand our communities, and understand the world more accurately.

Of course in the mess of book production and the exhaustion of marketing, it’s easy to lose sight of this.  That’s why I keep returning to Seth Godin, who manages to stay steady, full of integrity, and intent on doing good in the world.

The idea of his I’ve been chewing on lately is that marketers do best to create a story around their product, and to connect that story with the community that most needs it and is most willing to talk about it.  We authors usually flinch when someone refers to our work as a product, but, hey—once a book is in the bookstores, that’s what it is, at least until a beloved reader cracks it open and is swept into our created world of words.  Applying Godin’s idea to books, authors and their publishers must create a story around the book, a much simpler and shorter and more compelling story than what’s told in the book, and this second story is what then interacts with potential readers in brief but crucial encounters.

In other words, we’re not done creating when we send in the final proofs.  Alone or with a publicity team, we have to create a story about the story using cover images, text, blurbs, summaries, web pages, tweets, Facebook posts…  Under normal circumstances the work of marketing makes me want to run for the hills, but framed as yet another story, I find myself curious.  How can I tell a brand new story about my novel that nonetheless points accurately and honestly to the novel’s contents?  What sort of story might not just survive but thrive in the overly crowded world of attention seekers?

I find myself needing to hunker down yet again in why I wrote Hannah, Delivered, and why I believe Hannah’s story is important right now.  Rather than straining outward to identify what audiences want, I have to ask what longings my book fulfills and then find the communities who share those longings.  I have to locate that thread of integrity that connects my heart to the heart of my book to the hearts of readers.  And then I need to give that thread a good yank.

How can this not be wrenchingly spiritual work?

How can we not emerge changed, however slightly?

–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

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.

 

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

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

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

Are you writing?

During a moment of discouragement this morning—others writers have better focus than me, more time to read great literature, no three-year-old pulling love and attention away from the page—I flashed back to college, to what I now realize is a seminal moment in my development as a writer.  The world looked bleak (Was it my miserable relationship with my boyfriend?  The overwhelming stress of senior year?  The overcooked green beans in the cafeteria?); I complained about everying in great detail to my friend Heather, a brilliant mathematician.  She finally interrupted me.  “Elizabeth, are you writing?”

No, I wasn’t.

I knew immediately Heather saw an equation I hadn’t:  Elizabeth minus writing equals misery.  Solitude, a pen and paper were key to my mental health.  From that moment forth writing has been an essential activity, saving me thousands in therapy bills.  (Thank you, Heather.)  Not that writing solves all my problems, but it does return me to a place where I can hear what I’m thinking and feeling and thus address my problems sanely.  It takes the scattered pieces inside me and binds them up.

Twenty-two years and three published books later, I sometimes forget this basic function of writing:  To return me to myself.  The distractions are different today; parenthood, sure, but also competition in the literary world, the terrible demands of social media, a career built on creative work that nonetheless seems feeble and unsteady.  Were Heather to ask me her question now I would answer, blithely, yes, and my answer would be a tiny bit dishonest.  I’m not always faithful to that fundamental function of writing.  I sometimes forget to write to become more myself.  And when that happens, I lose my moorings.

I believe—in fact, I know—that writing to become more me is the groundwork of every successful piece I’ve put into the world.  When I write to put my internal pieces together, I’m also rearranging external pieces and creating a whole beyond myself.  This isn’t a distraction from my literary ambitions but rather the essential first step.  It’s also the second and fifth and final steps, only it gets harder and harder to remember.

But now I can conjure up Heather.  She’ll squint her eyes at me and demand daily, “Are you writing?”

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