Posts Tagged ‘writing’
I don’t often share chatty posts just to catch up here, because this blog acts more like a vehicle for sharing more in-depth reflections, along with a bulletin board reviewing what I’m reading. My reflections have grown a little thin lately and are about to get thinner, so I wanted to share why.
In the last several months, I’ve been invited to preach and speak for several special events beyond my local congregation, so I have been engaged in an enormous amount of writing shared in other places. I have been keeping up monthly posts at Practicing Families, and you can find my latest reflections about “A Day of Yes,” “Protect or Prepare?” and “Grace Rules.” With encouragement from many of you who read this blog regularly, I’ve also been investing some time and energy in trying to submit materials for publication.
The title of this blog has always been For the Someday Book. In an effort to get “someday” here a lot sooner, I have signed on to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. NaNoWriMo is an online community of people who commit to writing 50,000 words in the course of the month of November. No, I’m not writing a novel, but I am tagging along to the community challenge to try and create a book’s worth of reflections in the next 30 days. I don’t know if I will succeed at getting 50,000 words (there are prizes if I do!), but I know it will bring me a lot closer than I am now. My username is RevJMK, and I believe you can visit my page here as I report on progress. All words of encouragement and support are welcome, now and all month long!
As you might have guessed, I don’t anticipate posting much (if anything!) here on the blog for the next month, as I’ll be digging deeper into the book-length project. If I manage to finish reading any of the books I’ve started, I’ll hope to get a review up, but that’s about all. I’ll be back again in December, I’m sure.
Thanks for reading, and for your encouragement on the way. Let me know if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, too. You can find me and sign up to be my buddy.
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, Baughan Publishing (Peterborough, NH), 2011, 367 pp.
I recognized the title line immediately, from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and loved the way the author had plucked it from its context of sexual seduction to entice us into a contemplation of slowness. McEwen’s World Enough and Time is a series of carefully considered essays on slowing down, and the necessary relationship between slowness and creativity. I see myself as a creative artist with both my preaching and my writing, and I know that neither one is possible without making a life that is spacious and slow. I struggle to preach on Sunday if I don’t have a quiet day off on Friday. The slow time matters, even if I am not working on the sermon itself. With that in mind, I was eager and receptive to read this book, which was given as an assignment by my Macedonian Ministries group.
McEwen begins with a basic case for slowness and a compelling indictment of modern American life, which she diagnoses with “hurry sickness.” Hurry sickness is a feeling of time poverty, so that life is lived in constant motion without the chance to linger, reflect, absorb or tarry. I have read many books on this theme, with corresponding statistical or theological or sociological analysis. McEwen offers none of those. She simply points out, with a poet’s care and sharpness, what we all know: a life full to the brim with activity is often empty of meaning, depth and relationship.
For the remainder of the book, she devotes a chapter each to a varied list of slow activities, slow gifts and slow ways of being. In each chapter, McEwen looks at the lives of artists and practitioners in those areas, combing their lives and art for quotations and insights about the process of creativity and slowness. She examines the gift of a long conversation with a friend, childhood experiences in nature, walking, reading, writing (especially reading and writing poetry), silence, sabbath, storytelling and meditation. Two of my favorite chapters were the ones on dreaming and on looking.
In “The Art of Looking,” McEwen talks about the cultivation of the eye in artists. A great work of art does not come from the technique of the hand, but from the eye of the artist that is able to see and illuminate something that the rest of us cannot. Such art requires enormous time spent observing the world with great care and attention, time that might appear idle and fruitless to others. I am not a visual artist, but I connected with this passage as a preacher. My sermons require a lot of time spent staring out the window, looking off into space, or letting my mind wander. It’s the only way I can “see” what I am supposed to say each week. McEwen quotes from several others who speak to the path to seeing something new:
“To learn something new,” said the naturalist John Burroughs, “take the path today that you took yesterday.” All professions have need of such devoted practitioners, willing to push past their own boredom, their own comfortable familiarity, in order to arrive at something new. As Proust once said, “The true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes.” (121)
Every week, my journey with the Gospel is a quest to see it with new eyes. The stories are familiar and many are well-worn. Yet, when they are seen with fresh eyes, they give us new life.
In “Across the Bridge of Dreams,” she catalogs the relationship between creativity and dreams. I don’t usually share this, but this book has given me courage. Dreaming is a critically important part of my sermon writing process. I concentrate and work at the computer to research and think and analyze, but the mystical presence of the Gospel good news only comes to me when I sleep. I lay down in prayer with the sermon in my mind, and in that hazy place between dreaming and waking, the Spirit does its work to bind it all together for me. Sometimes, I will awake in the night to make notes. Other times, I dream it over and over again so that by morning it is all clear and ready to transcribe. According to McEwen, I am not alone. She shared that Samuel Coleridge, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabelle Allende, William Styron, and Robert Louis Stevenson all described writing in through their dreams, and included dreams in their process much the same way that I do. (245-249) It’s not simply paying attention or gaining insight or journaling about my dreams–the dreaming is an essential part of the writing process for me. I have to work it out in the dream. The same was true for them.
World Enough and Time was a rich experience from beginning to end. The book demands slowness in the experience of reading, so that you might contemplate and ruminate on all the things McEwen brings together. It also invites a re-reading, as a whole or just a chapter that piques your interest for a time. It is a book that invites you to dive in and surface again, to splash around here and there rather than simply consuming it from one end to the other. If you ever needed a compelling case for slowing down and creating space in your life, especially if you are an artist in any way, McEwen’s World Enough and Time is just what you need.
The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1993, 180 pp.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s writings and reflections are always rich and beautiful. The Preaching Life is no exception. The book talks about her own life and relationship with preaching, which is insightful for anyone engaged in preaching or listening to sermons.
The book is divide into two sections, “A Life of Faith” and “The Preaching of the Word.” The first is her reflection on her own call into ministry, the role of the church, and the task of preparing sermons. The chapters follow a simple trajectory: A Church in Ruins, Call, Vocation, Imagination, Bible, Worship, and Preaching. The second section includes 13 sermons, mostly on the Gospels. I read the book more for the reflection than the sermons, so I will focus on that in my comments here. Taylor’s sermons are always thought-provoking, as she has a way of drawing us into the intersections between the life-world of the Bible and our own.
I especially appreciated her perspective on preparing sermons that attempt to join the timely pastoral concerns of the congregation and the timeless stories of scripture. Sermons reside in the space between pastor, congregation and God, and they always emerge from the preacher’s reflections on the relationships between all three.
Preaching becomes something the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. (33)
Later, she likens the preparation of a sermon to being Cyrano de Bergerac, “passing messages between two would-be lovers who don’t know how.”
What is called for, instead, is a sermon that honors all of its participants, in which preachers speak in their own voices out of their own experience, addressing God on the congregation’s behalf and—with great care and humility–the congregation on God’s behalf… Down in the bushes with a congregation who have elected me to speak for them, I try to put their longing into words, addressing the holy vision that appears on the moonlit balcony above our heads. Then the vision replies, and it is my job to repeat what I have heard, bringing the message back to the bushes for a response. (83)
From the beginning, she speaks about call and vocation as they apply not simply to preachers and clergy, but to all of the baptized—we are all called to live our lives for God through our work and our service. Her approach to preaching echoes that theology throughout.
And finally, just an eloquent word on God and the life of faith:
Then I remember that God’s power is not a controlling but a redeeming power—the power to raise the dead, including those who are destroying themselves—and the red blood of belief begins to return to my veins. I have faith. I lose faith. I find faith again, or faith finds me, but throughout it all I am grasped by the possibility that it is all true: I am in good hands; love girds the universe; God will have the last word.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books, 1994, 237 pp.
I went through a real fascination with Anne Lamott a few years ago. I read Traveling Mercies and Plan B, and then I went out and got all her novels to read and I loved them all. Then I read Grace (Eventually), and gushed all over it because it touched all my vulnerable new mother buttons. Then she published Some Assembly Required, which I did not read because it seemed such an exposure of her child and grandchild, and I just got turned off. When I returned to find the gems from her earlier works, they were not as good as I remembered them to be. While Lamott was still clever and quippy, I realized her neuroses were no longer interesting and her theology not as fresh or deep as I had previously thought. So I found myself feeling quite grumpy toward Anne Lamott for awhile.
However, since I began writing more seriously, everyone has recommended Bird by Bird as one of the best books on writing that is out there. I decided that I could not consider myself a writer if I had not read it, and my writer’s group urged me on. At first, all my gripes got in the way of appreciating Bird by Bird, especially since it seemed geared specifically to fiction writers and those trying to make a life by their writing. It probably didn’t help that I had already heard other people tell me about the best parts, which took away the power of their punch. Like Lamott, though, I found grace (eventually), and grew to appreciate Bird by Bird more as I made my way through to the end. There is much that is simply alright, punctuated by phrases, paragraphs or insights that are brilliant and powerful.
Some favorite insights:
On folk sayings and cliches:
Most people’s intuitions are drowned out by folk sayings. We have a moment of real feeling or insight, and then we come up with a folk saying that captures the insight in a kind of wash. The intuition may be real and ripe, fresh with possibilities, but the folk saying is guaranteed to be a cliche, stale and self-contained. (113)
This is one of my pet peeves in preaching, and writing, as well as in pastoral situations with people. I have not been able to say why nearly so well as she has.
On writer’s block:
The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. (178)
Connected to the emptiness, she offers this wisdom about giving of oneself in writing:
If you give freely, there will always be more… It is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of the full presence… You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward.
This talk about giving is connected to one of the most helpful themes throughout the book: the difference between the rewards of writing and the rewards of being published. Many people want to get published, but that’s not the same as finding joy in the work of writing. Writing is a lot of work, but you have to find your joy in the work and the words it produces, not in the external recognition of publication. While the importance of publication has shifted in the self-publishing world of blogs and internet publications, her point remains: it should be about the writing, not the validation.
I know that’s true for me in this little blog space—it’s best when I am writing in order to give, to work things out with others, and not seeking to create something that creates lots of hits and Facebook shares. Thanks, Anne Lamott, once again for reminding me.
I recently joined a writers’ group, and this was our first assignment, as a way to get to know each other. I wrote on this topic awhile back, on the first anniversary of this blog. I am sharing this new version, because I realize that I am not writing for the same reasons I did two years ago.
I started writing as a way of remembering. My earliest writings can be found in a pink diary with a built-in lock. For years, I wore the gold key on a chain around my neck. My diary contained all the secrets of a lonely girl, and all the daily dramas I wanted to remember forever. I tried to write every night, an earnest attempt to capture every moment of my life and carry it with me into the future. When I didn’t have the energy to construct a narrative of the day, I made lists of things to write about later. I fancied myself in the tradition of Laura Ingalls, Anne Frank or Go Ask Alice. I imagined that someday my life would be interesting, and that I would want to remember back to the days when it wasn’t.
In college, I majored in English and history. I studied expository writing as an academic pursuit, a way of making a case or telling a compelling story or unfolding an analysis. While I knew I could write clearly and well, I did not consider myself a writer. Writers created worlds. Writers gave birth to characters and invented moments. I could only report on the world or analyze a character or explain a moment, which was not the same.
I write because it is a way to think and to pray. Sometime in junior high school, I discovered paper’s patience. Sharing feelings never came naturally to me, but I trusted paper to hold all my vulnerabilities and heartbreaks. I tamed my feelings and gave voice to my fears in the pages of my journals. I discovered that writing did not just hold my feelings, it healed them. Writing often became an outpouring of prayer.
My journey from adolescence into adulthood happened in writing. I wrote myself into being, trying on voices and identities until I figured out who I was becoming and who God was calling me to be. I could write about things long before I had the courage to do them, and the bold words on the page pushed me to bolder living in the world.
As I entered adulthood, I wrote because I had something to say. My calling into ministry meant that God had a purpose for my voice. I study and contemplate and read and realize I have a lot to say. In sermons, in papers, in pastoral messages, I write to console, to teach, to reveal, to inform, to coach, to call, to convey, to evoke. What I write, by the Spirit’s grace, can sometimes even connect people with the presence of the Holy.
All those reasons for writing are still active in my life. I still write to remember. I started blogging three years ago when my son was a toddler, because I wanted to capture the experience of parenting and create a record of his early explorations. I still write to tame feelings. I have a journal on my shelf that contains all my recent heartbreaks and most vulnerable moments. I write in it when I am broken and need to knit myself back together. I still write because I have things to say. My ego is big enough to believe that I have something meaningful to contribute to the world.
My best writing happens when all those reasons come together—when I capture a true moment, explore my own thoughts and feelings about it, then connect it to something deeper beyond myself. I want to write more from that place. When it happens, it feels transcendent.
Tomorrow marks the two-year anniversary of this blog, and of my turn (return) toward writing as a spiritual practice. Last year, I reflected on why I write. This year, I am reflecting on the treasures created by the act of writing.
This week I spent a lot of time rereading old posts as I searched for appropriate writing samples to submit for a new opportunity to expand my writing work. I was amazed to discover what a memory bank this site has become, in just two short years. There are stories of ministry, motherhood, personal growth and random humor that would have ceased to exist by now, if they were solely dependent on storage space in my brain cells. Other stories would have been remembered, but without the solid detail and vibrancy that the writing created. There are also real and wonderful memories of events sparked by the blog writing itself. That Evangelism Flash Mob that I wrote about last November? It really happened—at an outdoor venue in Tampa, and on the floor of General Synod. It resulted in new friendships and one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.
I also browsed through the “drafts” section of my dashboard, and realized that some memories I had wanted to hold on to have already flown away. I made notes to myself about a story or event when it happened, but I never got around to writing the story more fully. Now the energy and vitality of the moment is gone. I wish I had devoted more time, or had more time to devote.
All of this brings to mind one of my favorite songs from Sweet Honey in the Rock.
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty of the world through my own eyes.
–Y.M. Barnwell, Sweet Honey in the Rock
Writing here teaches me to see the beauty of the world through my own eyes. It creates memories of joy and delight and the presence of God in the things of everyday life, ranging from interactions with my son to strange ministry happenings to moments of transcendence and illumination. It’s addictive, and I’m only wanting more. Here’s to “more” in year three—more time, more writing, more memories, more God.
Today marks exactly one year since I started this little blog project. When I look back over the year, it is the thing I am most proud to have accomplished. I am pleased not because I think I have created masterful works of literature, but because I have returned to writing as a spiritual practice.
I write myself into being and I write myself into the presence of God. When I was a teenager and young adult, I poured my heart out into journals. Through those critical identity-forming years, I wrote in order to try on ideas, to sort through questions, to ponder faith, to pray, to figure out who I was. When my relationship with God fractured along the way, I wrote the angry, angst-ridden missives to the Spirit to give voice to my aching spiritual loss. God came to me and our relationship was repaired as I put paper to pen and imagined God’s responses in love.
As I got older, I drifted away from writing as a spiritual practice. When I fell in love and got married, conversation with my partner took the place of my journal as the place to process and heal from daily events. When I entered ministry, my writing became my work, a public project for worship and preaching instead of a private place for prayer and contemplation. After 13 years of marriage and nearly 10 years of ministry, I am glad for both the ongoing conversation with my spouse and the public voice I have cultivated in ministry. But something was lost when I stopped writing just for me.
A year ago, when I started this blog, I had a surplus of ideas and stories and concerns and questions. I wanted to dedicate time and concentration to reflecting on them. I needed to write about it all, to talk it through, to sit with words, to feel the Spirit move to sort and challenge and synthesize. I also realized that I wanted other people to participate in that conversation. I wanted to do my own reflection, and then invite others to weigh in. I made the move from private journaling to public blogging.
I still write just for me, about whatever it is that I want to consider, without trying to be entertaining or professional or focused or niche. As I wrote in the first introduction to the blog, some posts may eventually develop into more published, professional writing—but the goal is not the publication, it is the practice of writing itself. The Book Reviews and Sermon Saplings have blended the personal and professional in ways that feel organic and whole. Yet the blog still contains reflections on all aspects of my life. I simply open those conversations to others who might be interested in eavesdropping on them or participating in them. Today, I am taking another step toward making this writing public by attaching my real name, so that when you search for me on Google you will not only find out about my ministry and my marriage, you might find this page too.
Writing regularly has made me more attuned to the presence of the Spirit in my daily interactions with my family, my church, my work, my world. My eyes and ears are more alert to God and aware of God’s action. I have slowed down to contemplate life more, and sought escape and distraction less. I have met new friends in the blogosphere, and gratefully found others considering the same questions and concerns. I have been vulnerable to the fleeting ecstasies of praising comments and escalating hit counts, and to the cutting edge of trolls and detractors. I have put ideas out there, only to be filled with doubt and questioning. I have edited myself when I probably shouldn’t have, and spoken stridently when I probably should have remained silent. These experiences remind me always of God’s grace.
Writing regularly here has put me back into deeper, more sustained conversation with my spiritual self. It has opened my private prayer life in new ways and strengthened my public voice for ministry. It has connected me more profoundly to God’s presence around me and the ongoing movement of the Spirit. I am grateful for this space, and for the chance to share it with you. Thank you, and here’s to year number two.
It’s been a month since I’ve done any significant writing. It’s not because I haven’t had anything to say–I have a “drafts” folder full of ideas and starters for blog posts. It’s not even because I’ve been working too hard. Although it’s been a full time at church, that has not stopped me from taking time to write in the past. It’s because I’ve been on vacation. The wrong kind of vacation has left me bereft of energy for writing.
I spent a week at a very full conference with other young clergy in the UCC 2030 Clergy Network, then a week back home, then nearly two weeks in my hometown surrounded by family. All of these were good trips, filled with engaging conversations and plenty of material for reflection and good times with extended family. But I returned from this time of vacation feeling incredibly scatterbrained, stressed, depleted and overwhelmed, and I think I have finally figured out why: I am an extreme introvert who has taken extroverted vacations.
None of these trips have been stressful—there was no family drama, no major travel nightmares (although one came close), no frantic need for sight-seeing. Neither has the workload upon my return been overwhelming—just the normal catch-up work on visitations and preparing worship for vacation weeks. The stress, I realized, is coming from within, or, rather, from the inability to spend time within.
Because all these travels have involved a short amount of time and a long list of people to see, the days were packed with one visit after another. Many of them were intense, filled with passionate conversations and deep-hearted sharing among old friends. As an introvert, these conversations themselves—while often enjoyable and exciting—are also draining. For me to make sense of them, I need time apart to process things, think them over and be alone with my thoughts. During vacation, I just piled one conversation on top of another, until they all became a big blur.
Over the last 10 days since I got home, I have had plenty of time in the evenings to sit and write, but my mind has been too jumbled. All I could manage to do was watch television, clean house and go to bed early. It has taken me a week to recover my inner voice and mental space for writing, beyond the normal writing of sermons and prayers and newsletter articles.
My writing is not the only thing to suffer, however. My patient and pleasant personality is probably the far greater victim. I have noticed for years that I get testy and irritable when I go to visit family on vacation. I try to be nice, but I find myself snippy and snarky despite my best efforts. I think it all goes back to trying to be something I’m not: an extrovert. When I don’t take time to process, think, be silent and alone, I become a very unpleasant person.
I don’t know how to do it, but in the future I need to be more self-conscious about the impact these extroverted vacations have on me as a person and as a writer.
Now that this first piece of processing is written, let’s hope I can get back into gear and spend some time on that backlog of ideas in my drafts folder.
I had the opportunity to hear a colleague preach this week at an ecumenical Lenten service. He was preaching on the story of the Transfiguration, and Peter’s desire to capture the experience of being on the mountaintop to remember and return to it forever. He opened his reflections with a story about using a camcorder to capture precious moments when his children were small. He realized after a time that he was so busy looking through the lens of the camcorder to capture the moment that he missed being a part of the moment. What we want to be about, he said, is being fully engaged with the moment, because that writes the moment in our hearts, where the memory really matters. We can return to the experience of God in quiet and prayer. It was a good sermon.
Throughout his story, I was reflecting on my (still relatively new) life as a blogger. Since I have been writing this blog, I have found myself thinking, “Oh, I have to capture this story on the blog!” or “I can’t wait to write this down!” I wondered if I am so busy thinking about how to remember my spiritual moments with God or special moments with B that I am not actually present to them.
In reality, though, I have found the opposite to be true. Since I have been writing regularly, I feel as though my senses have been heightened. I feel like I am slowing down and paying more attention to my life. All these blog entries were once just passing moments of closeness to God and people. They did not get remembered at all, much less written into my heart, because I was always rushing off to the next thing. Now I find myself noticing and then absorbing the details of an encounter, with an eye toward writing it later. Writing intensifies my mindfulness and awareness, deepens my experience of events, and implants the spiritual memories deeper in my heart. For example, I am pretty confident I would not remember anything about that Lenten sermon if I hadn’t been contemplating a written response!
Which makes me think there are two key differences between writing and recording. First, a recorder does not need to be present to the moment to record it—the camera does all the work. A writer must be fully present to the moment, because the mind and senses are the only recorders present to capture the experience. Second, what is captured by the recorder is qualitatively different than what is captured by the writer. The recorder is able to capture the moment in all its detail. In video, for example, the camera recalls the color of clothes and the condition of the room, the words that were spoken and the ambient noises, the order of events and the expressions on faces. The written word cannot handle all those lavish details without becoming cumbersome and overwhelming. What the writer captures is what it was like to be there–the feelings, the experience, the words and happenings that mattered most. A writer is reflective and selective. When I write about a moment, I am not trying to tell you exactly what happened, so that you can see it for yourself. I am trying to share with you the experience that I had in a moment, why it mattered to me and what made my heart sing. I am trying to make your heart sing too, in response. Video footage is raw, writing is interpretation.
To continue the example, consider the difference between watching a video of my colleague’s sermon and just reading my brief summation. I make no attempt to capture the nuance of his words or the richness of his outline–I only tell you what mattered to me, and why it spoke to my heart.
All this reminds me of the Bible. The Bible is writing, not recording. This is not a new insight–I long ago abandoned any understanding of the Bible as literal Word of God or factual recording of history. When I teach people about the Bible, I tell them that the Bible exists because people had an encounter with God that touched them, and they were so moved that they wrote it down to remember and share with others.
Then I realized, of course, that this is the same exercise I am participating in today. The technology has changed from parchment scrolls to WordPress blogs, but the act is the same. Encounter God and write about it, because the act of writing inscribes it in your heart and enables you to share the experience with others. I intend no arrogance or pretension by drawing a comparative line between my halting reflections and the words of holy scripture–quite the opposite. I am humbled to realize that I am doing nothing new under the sun, just participating in a long history of faith seekers and faith writers trying to inscribe the moment into their hearts and into the hearts of others, from behind the quill, the pen or the keyboard.
I love you, Anne Lamott. You open yourself and your life to us, wringing beauty and grace out of the confused and pathetic pile of feelings and mistakes and heartache that is this life. You make me want to be a more careful writer, a more mindful observer, a more generous friend, and a better person. Thank you for opening up your own brokenness so the rest of us don’t feel so alone and ashamed, and rendering beautiful the mess of it all.
The parts of this book about grace were a gift to me. I don’t know how you make yourself so vulnerable. It takes great courage to expose your inward panic and problems–but that vulnerability in life makes God’s grace possible, and the corresponding vulnerability on the page makes you and your writing a means of grace for me, your reader.
I was especially struck this time, this book, by the parts about motherhood. You capture the desperate floundering about that I feel in my own parenting, as well as the absolute joy and delight in my son’s life and discoveries. You give voice to my feelings of helplessness and worry over his well-being and my own, and your words were a beacon of grace to me. You made me feel like I’m not crazy. Or, better, that I am probably crazy, but at least I’m not the only one.
Thank you for the grace that flows through this book.