Sometimes a theme rises up from our days, uniting otherwise random events. Consider these, from my last week:
- I’m at a parenting class on how to use nonviolent communication with our kids. Like many parents I use coercion and shaming—instinctively, impulsively—and only recently am I coming to see this. The instructor draws a flow chart: Your kid does something that stimulates you. You can go down the path of control by judging the situation, thinking up a strategy, and demanding action, or you can go down the path of connection by observing, feeling your response, identifying your need, and requesting action. I’m amazed by how hard it is to take this second path.
- I’m reading my church newsletter. The interim pastor has written a column challenging us to ask ourselves during this time of transition, “What do we notice?” Our habit is to see a change and jump to an opinion or judgment. He encourages us to first simply observe.
- I’m leading a class in a tried-and-true writing exercise: Begin with an object from childhood. Describe it in detail. Only once you’ve brought it fully onto the page, allow it to lead you to other memories. The class, as always, is profoundly moved by what emerges.
- I’m doing Centering Prayer, my candle lit, my knees on the floor. Ideas for this column pop into my head. They’re good ideas, but I remember Thomas Keating’s advice: Even should the Virgin Mary Herself tap me on the shoulder, I’m to say, “Not now, dearie; I’m doing my Centering Prayer.” I observe my thoughts then let them go.
The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…
Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job! … There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” –Toni Morrison
Writers, this is our moment. Artists, truth-tellers, beauty-makers, people who make parts into wholes, all of us who connect the private, hidden stirrings of the heart to our complicated human communities, history now calls us. Now is the moment to put everything we’ve got into creative engagement. Why? Creativity is an act of love; it teaches us to believe in possibility, it trains us to revise (re-see) the world. It demonstrates that “the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world,” as James Baldwin wrote. We need all this. Now. (more…)
This morning I woke up in a cloud of birdsong. It was 5 a.m., already light out, and the air was filled with otherworldly music. I went downstairs, poured my tea, opened all the doors and windows, and sat for a while. The robins, orioles, finches, and who know what else poured their sparkling soundscape into me, into my home. So much chirping! The twitters seemed to resonate and carry, as though early morning acoustics were different from other times. All together, the sound felt round. It encompassed the city like a mystical, golden secret. I listened, and the chorus erased me. (more…)
Ask what I’m learning in the Living School and I’ll blather incoherently, enthusiastically, and at great length about the Christian mystical tradition, the significance of contemplation, and a complete overhaul of my faith. I was doing just that at Easter dinner a few weeks ago. My father-in-law asked, and all eleven relatives at the table stared at me blankly while I answered. Afterward, my brother-in-law quipped, “You should say you’re studying an ancient wisdom tradition. Calling it ‘Christian’ just throws everybody off.” Well, yes. (more…)
Anxiety is my familiar and unwelcome friend. In my early twenties when I was teaching seventh grade, I’d stand in the shower first thing trying to breathe in the warmth, the heat, the calm, while my heart pounding uncontrollably in terror at the day ahead. Before book releases, twice I’ve landed in the doctor’s office, hooked up to an EKG. The second time, my doctor asked, “Have you tried breathing deeply?” I hadn’t. When my mother died my foundation crumbled; I struggled with high blood pressure for months; I’d wake up in the night, unreasonably panicked and sweaty. (more…)