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.