Category: Content (page 1 of 5)

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.

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