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 (http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2011-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.

5 Comments

  1. Elizabeth-

    I don’t know if you remember me, but I’ve taken a couple of your classes at the Loft!

    I very much appreciate your comments above about the lack of women’s perspective in the spiritual writing sphere. I think that some of this lack is due to our own oversights as women. I see that women buy up volumes of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert, who are both good writers, but they usually tend to wallow in their own weakness and struggle forever. That kind of writing is relatable, but doesn’t draw us out into the possibilities of our own transcendence. If only more volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water” or Kathleen Norris’ “Dakota” were flying off the bookstore shelves as quickly as “Eat, Pray, Love.”

    And also, I agree with your experience of holiness in daily things like toddler underwear. I am a new mom myself, and I find such joy in bathtime and such tenderness in brushing teeth together. Lately, when I write each morning, I keep trying to write about moments of great transcendence and fail as I try. I thank you for the reminder to bear witness to these little moments that often seem so simple, but yet they define my life! This new love for this tiny toddler defines my life.

    Thank you for continuing to seek truth through writing. I am grateful for all that you have taught me.

    May you be well,

    Melody

    Reply
  2. Well, I guess I am one of ‘those women’ who struggle to have my voice heard above the established voices in the heavily business world of publishing. I am by no means a business person, but like you I believe that the spiritual realities that grow in our gardens and nurseries and the unique events of our lives nurture springtime for our souls. I believe that it is in the dust of our lives that God writes His eternal Love Story. My spiritual suspense memoir, Graffiti On My Soul, follows my journey from my life as a nun into married life, motherhood, and then catapults into a living nightmare. Is faith necessary in our lives? My story leaves little doubt. Raw, lyrical, funny, mystical it is a testament to God’s presence flowing like an underground river fuelling our laughter and absorbing our tears. Although Graffiti On My Soul is published and on the major engines like Amazon, it is also unknown and buried deep with a million others. If it speaks to you, I would much appreciate your support in any way you see fit to offer it! Thank you! Jan (aka Johanna)

    Reply
  3. I just recently came across these VIDA stats myself and I was appalled. How can this be, in the 21st century? And, if all of the journals publishing spiritual material are edited by men, why don’t we start one edited by women???? Anyone interested?

    Reply
  4. Just a quick comment–St. Teresa of Avila, a woman who was quite familiar with ecstatic spiritual moments, talked more about finding God “in the pots and pan” and all of the other minutae of daily life (including the laundry, I’m sure!). Elizabeth, you are both my favorite writer and my favorite teacher. Please keep the blog posts and writing exercises coming!

    PS I have tried to take several of your classes at The Loft and always had to drop out because of chronic illness. I am doing much better, have almost finished my Master’s in Theology at St. Kate’s, and still planning on getting my spiritual memoir written!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Barbara! We all need regular reminders that holiness can be found in everyday moments. Glad to hear you’re still working on your memoir. I’ll look forward to reading it someday!

      Reply

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