Developing the Inner Witness

Here is sure evidence that I am a born writer: By high school, I couldn’t walk down the hallway or open my locker without a little story-teller voice whispering in my ear, “With stealthy steps, Elizabeth paced the institutional hall, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead, until she stopped, suddenly, at a combination lock.” My every lived moment was instantly narrated. Call it a self-consciousness, psychosis, or literary genius, regardless, I had an instinctive, even impulsive need to relate events which was only released by writing.

Over the years my inner narrator has served me well, mostly because I’ve learned to work with her. She’s the story-teller in me as well as the essayist, the self that happily hops on a train of thought and rides it across the page. As a teacher, I’m particularly good at facilitating the development of my students’ reflective voices. “What’s your story?” is a great question to begin with, but it must be followed by “What do you make of your story?” before creation really begins. What do you think—and feel and wonder and deeply know—about your experience?

In memoir I like to distinguish between the character-self, who is the younger version of you about whom you’re writing a story, and the narrator-self, who is you located at a later moment in time, often today, writing the story. In the first paragraph of this blog, the character is high school Elizabeth and the narrator is the voice of me, today, looking back. But here’s the catch: Both character and narrator are created, two-dimensional personas. Neither is me, the flesh-and-blood human being—the author. Decades of writing memoir and essay have exercised in me the capacity to represent my younger and present-day selves with integrity and clarity while simultaneously acknowledging writing’s ultimate inadequacy to do myself (or anyone or anything else, for that matter) justice.

These days I practice contemplative prayer fairly seriously. As in most meditation practices, Centering Prayer develops an inner witness—a presence able to attend to thoughts or emotions or the body without attaching. If my knees hurt, I can obsess about it and make pain my momentary identity, or I can release it and, if only for an instant, know a Self separate from that sensation. The exercise is difficult, worthy, and strangely familiar. It uses the same muscles I’ve been exercising all along. Just as language can never fully represent me on the page, I, in all my thinking, breathing, creating glory, can never fully represent my ultimate Self. And so I let the little me go.

Once again I’m astonished by the potential of the writing process to facilitate spiritual growth. And by the beautiful, hilarious paradox in writing and life that, while failure is inevitable, it’s worth trying anyway.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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This fall is brought to you by…revision!  Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice comes out in October.  You’re invited to help me celebrate on the evening of November 17th at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, when I’ll host a Revision Revival with testimonies from Susan Power, P. S. Duffy, Kyoko Katayama, Vanessa Ramos, and many others.  Save the date!

Also forthcoming:

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

September: Courage and Truth-telling
October: Mysticism
November: Holy Sexuality
December: The World Boiled Down to a Drop

September 25:  Talk on memoir at the LEAFS Life Enrichment Adult Forum, Christ Lutheran Church, Blaine, MN.

September 30, 9 a.m.-noon:  Writing the Sacred Journey:  An introductory workshop on writing spiritual memoir, at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

October 2-6: Alone Together: Living Revision Retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

October 25, 6:30:  An evening exploring spiritual memoir at The Retreat with Women In Recovery.

October 27: Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice day-long workshop at the Loft Literary Center.

September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

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