Love in the Work of Writing

I write about love because I tell stories; and it is impossible, I believe, to tell any kind of powerful or valuable or meaningful story without writing about love.  And, too, I have found that it is impossible to write a story without love.  The writer must love her characters, must open her heart to them, give the whole of herself to them, in order for those characters to give themselves back to her.
                                            –Kate Dicamillo, “Characters who Love Again”

Today I’m pondering love’s role in the making of literature.  Love is a basic ingredient, like water in a soup.  Without water, you have no soup.

Before there’s any hope of writing well or of an audience appreciating your work, you must love writing itself.  You must love being alone, tending the wondrous workings of your own mind and heart. You must love questions.  You must passionately love the way silent stirrings inside you take form when given language.  You must adore words.  You must open your being to the many ways words change you.

Before there’s any chance of rendering your material with accuracy and interest, you must love it.  You must love people, in all their grit and grime and brokenness and inconsistency.  You must be willing to look as directly as you can at what is, and not shy from representing this truth to others.  You must love the truth.

If Kate Dicamillo is right and it’s impossible to tell any kind of meaningful story without writing about love, love itself must be our centerpiece—desire for it, lack of it, how it malfunctions, how it transforms, why we deny it, how it surprises, where it originates, how it ends…  Isn’t this the stuff of literature?

To connect well with readers you must love connecting.  You must love the intimacy of entering another’s story, and you must love welcoming others into your own story.

All this makes me wonder:  Couldn’t learning to write well, then, be an exercise in learning to love well?  Or the reverse:  Mightn’t learning to love well benefit our work?  Is it possible that writing instructors have been misdirected, giving our attention to teaching craft when in fact we should be working through the craft on the human heart?  Or is it possible that craft itself is our means for learning to love?

“Look,” writes Brian Doyle.  “I don’t know much, but I know these things uncontrovertibly and inarguably:  One: stories matter waaaaay more than we know.  Two: all stories are, in some form, prayers.  Three: love is the story and the prayer that matters the most.”

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Four Excuses Not to Write Spiritual Memoir, and One Invitation

(This blog post is reprinted after appearing in The Loft’s “Writer’s Block.”)

“I’m not interested in spiritual stuff.  I just want to write stories.”
A friend—a thoughtful, church-going friend—said this to me in passing the other day.  Since she couldn’t hear my internal temper-tantrum, I’ll give it here:  What in tarnation is more spiritual than stories?!  Every story, from a child’s imaginative play to an adult’s crafted composition to an elder’s reminiscing, contains both the muddy mundane and the spark of mystery.  When we humans want to understand our world, we make stories.  It’s how we compose and are composed by meaning—Sharon Daloz Parks’ definition of faith.  Dabble in stories, friends, and you work with the most intimate orientation of your heart.

All writing’s spiritual.
My point exactly.  So what are you going to do about it?

Sunday morning golfers like to joke that they pray on the putting green.  Some feel the sun sinking into their exposed necks, they appreciate the grace of their golfing companion’s swing, they come alive with the hearty competition.  Others just golf.

Nothing’s wrong with just golfing.  It’s fun.  But intention can change our experience, and intention is what distinguishes spiritual memoir within the broader genre of memoir.  Three qualities make spiritual memoir unique:  First, the writer uncovers, probes, and honors what is sacred in his or her life story.  Second, the writing process itself is a means of spiritual growth.  And third, the end product makes the experience of the sacred available to the reader.  In other words, the writer’s curiosity about and participation in the great, pulsing mysteries of our universe take center stage.  They are the work’s subject, the manner in which it is created, and its relationship with an audience.

So, yes, all writing is spiritual.  You can choose to explore the spirit’s life in your memories, in the writing process, and in the reader’s experience…if you want.

No one can describe the indescribable!
Oh, tell me about it.  Any writer’s job is impossible, but the spiritual writer’s is doubly so.  The dictionary defines “spiritual” as “not tangible or material,” and we all know that disembodied, ungrounded writing is, well, bad.

Yet we try regardless.  “What matters most in our lives is unsayable,” Mark Doty said.  “We’ve got to attempt to make meaning out of death.  Of course it’s impossible, but if we don’t, we despair.”  Trying matters.  It matters to us, because words that fail to do justice to, say, the miracle of your son’s birth or the crazy transformation wrought by your bout with cancer, nonetheless illuminate these experiences.  The attempt and the failure change us.  Written with care and craft, such stories can change an audience, too.

While no author and no religious tradition has successfully put into words the exquisite mystery of our existence, we’ve still got some darn good literary attempts and some enduring, guiding sacred texts.  We humans, all of us, are capable of almost naming the unnamable.  When we almost do, it’s thrilling.

And valuable.  Who among us doesn’t need reminding about what really matters?

My life?  Nothing sacred there.
Use the word “sacred” and people reflexively distance themselves.  Holiness is Other; it’s alien to our sweaty, busy, mistake-prone, fleshy selves.  I won’t delve into the centuries of dualistic Christian thinking that have caused western cultures to separate the earth from the heavens and our bodies from our spirits.  Suffice it to say we’re steeped in a philosophy that’s worth calling into question.

What if you want write about learning to ride a bike, or the first time you were betrayed by an adult, or the loss of a dear friendship?  Most of us don’t consider such ordinary experiences holy.  Yet we remember these events because they have emotional significance, and even the smallest emotional impact affects the life of the soul.  Your fundamental being, your life-force, your essence, participates in humdrum moments just as your body and mind do.  Your soul has its own version of the story.

Some lucky people get mountain-top, knock-your-socks-off spiritual experiences.  But even these folks come down from the mountain to muck around in the daily grind.  “After the ecstasy, the laundry,” writes Jack Kornfield.  Part of the delight of writing spiritual memoir is discovering that even laundry can play a role in the soul’s journey.  It can in the moment of washing, or it can as we reflect back on the chore within the context of a bigger story.  “To write about one’s life is to live it twice,” writes Patricia Hampl, “and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form.”

Stories work magic.  They shed light on mystery we didn’t know was there.

The Invitation
Try it.  Try writing about the laundry, your morning golf round, a memory of an adult’s betrayal, or any moment that sticks to your bones.  Write it in all its bodily detail.  Then imagine this story as a window onto unspoken meaning, hidden vitality, and the unpredictable unity that pulses within creation.  What do you see?  Remember that even the smallest inspirations bring the spirit in—they give a breath of life to your work and our world.


Windows onto a Wider World

The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness.  Memoirists use the self as a tool.            –Patricia Hampl

Perhaps because I’m entering my twenty-third year of teaching writing, I’m getting curmudgeonly about memoir.  I still revere fine examples in the genre, but the vast majority of memoir seems myopic and disengaged.  Published works irritate me the most; I read a memoir like Sheryl Strayed’s Wild and run screaming back to the classics to recover.  Memoirs-in-process at least contain the possibility of improving.

The amateur writers I work with fear that memoir is selfish, but this isn’t my gripe.  “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!” writes Carol Bly.  The self is a wonderfully worthy subject.  Perhaps what grates on me is a distinctly American understanding of the self, obsessed with personal pain and disturbingly isolated.  I am interested in the self defined by and defining its surrounding community; the self as a pawn of and player in history; the self in dialogue with others—neighbors and readers and those long dead and those yet to be born; the self as an inhabitant of the natural world; the self as a window onto our shared humanity and our extraordinary differences.  We are each so broken and insignificant, and yet also magnificent.  I’m interested in the paradoxes and revelations of the self.

Memoir works best when the self becomes a lens—a consciousness, as Hampl calls it, especially consciousness of material beyond the self.  Another way to say this is that memoir succeeds when it shows the self in relationship to some subject, aware of this relationship, and exploring the relationship with curiosity and acumen.

As a culture we desperately need literature that connects our small lives to larger stories of struggle and meaning.  I’m beginning to believe that writers have a moral responsibility not just to craft good stories but to create stories that build connections between people rather than breaking them down.  On second thought, morality has nothing to do with it.  The stories that build connections are simply better stories.

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 (  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.

You Are What You Write

When I teach, I often ask the question, “What’s at stake for you in this story?”  I’m not alone; it’s a common question in the world of writing.  Students are puzzled by it, however, and usually ask me to explain.

Really I’m looking for the intersection between the writer’s heart and the words on the page.  How does this subject terrify you, compel you, wrap its sweaty hands around your longing and jerk you into unexplored territory?  When a story nags, it always shares some fundamental passion with the writer.  It always taunts the writer with the promise of discoveries that cannot be made in any other way.  How does this project set you on edge?  What’s the rabbit hole you’ve been skirting?  Your writing will take you down.

For people who keep journals and new writers, writing is a natural extension of the self.  We don’t recognize any separation between the passion thumping in our chests and those black marks on paper.  The more we write and the more we learn the craft of writing, we find that our work isn’t us; it is a creation, it’s separate from us.  This is a good thing.  Only as we gain mastery over language and our ideas do we learn to craft our writing, shaping it to interact with audiences beyond our control.  We need a healthy detachment from our work for it to stand on its own two legs.

That said, I’m beginning to realize (through my own writing and my coaching of others) how easily we lose our initial, passionate, full-throttle, full-stakes relationship with writing.  Concern for how our work will satisfy an audience sucks the life out of our creative energy.  We forget our stake.

Recently I found this passage in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing:

The core of your creativity should be the same as the core of your story and of the main character in your story.  What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed?  Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator.  (43)

Oh, yes!  We don’t want our writing to flirt with our life, we don’t want casual dating, we want head-over-heels love leading to a life-long marriage.  So the question, “What’s at stake?” isn’t strong enough.  “How does your life depend on this piece of writing?” is more apt.  Answer that question and you’ve got it made.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

What’s At Stake?

Perhaps the most important question for every creative writer to ask—and definitely the hardest question to answer—is “What’s at stake for me?”  For writing to work well, the writer must care deeply.

On the surface this question seems simplistic; our care is instinctive, compelling, and unspoken.  In practice, the journey through revision is an excavation of the author’s stake, digging below external reasons (“I want to help others; I want to be published”), below the outer story (“I want to explore this memory, character, or idea”), to some subconscious, undercurrent of longing.  Our stake is always found in our emotional relationship to the subject matter.  Without some connection to our content, we might convey the content to a reader but we’ve no reason to explore it.  And passionate exploration is what makes writing great.

What’s in question?  What are you risking?  What of your heart have you invested?  A writer’s stake in a project is a fiery furnace that fuels the steam engine and makes it move.  When I ask writers, “What’s at stake?” they frequently have no idea.  The writing process is their heartfelt search for that single burning coal.  Sometimes writers have an answer that changes with time and revision, a sign that their work is gaining dimension.  Sometimes writers continue to learn about their stake long after the project is done.  Only when writers have a definitive, unchanging answer do I grow concerned for their work.

I believe every project is an attempt to give words to an inarticulate relationship between the author’s heart and his or her subject matter.  Our struggles naming this relationship are understandable:  It changes by virtue of being written.      –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew