Praying Like a Novelist

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…)

Open My Ears That I Might Hear

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…)

Faith and the “Poopy Growth Mindset”

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…)

Tunneling Through Anxiety

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…)

Yours, for Keeps

After Emily and I got an estimate to have a professional paint our stairwell ($10,000?!), we asked our neighbor Kurt who makes his living hanging wallpaper for his advice. Could we paint it ourselves? You bet. Kurt set us up with scaffolding. He even jumped on it, thereby proving it was trustworthy. He also examined the ceiling with its strangely peeling paint, the rim of painted-over wallpaper along the top edge, and the long horizontal crack running the length of our hallway wall. For ten grand the pros would have fixed these. Kurt waved them off. He ran his hand along the jagged split in the plaster. “Nope,” he said. “That’s your crack. It’s for keeps.” (more…)