Angelina Jolie and the Burden of Our Neighbor’s Glory

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When Angelina Jolie announced her elective double mastectomy surgery, my mother-flesh cringed. She did it for her children. Who will not laud Jolie’s courage, and, if nothing else, at least her intent? Only those who have not felt the weight of their neighbor’s glory.

Our neighbor’s glory is heavy, and it presses upon us everywhere, even in the most joyous moments and places.

This spring, I felt its weight again. At my son’s college graduation, I almost could not lift my chest for air, nor could the other thousand parents sitting in graduation finery beneath the California sky. The moment we all feared came at last: his name was read, and his parents walked slowly to the dais, took the offered diploma and stumbled down while we crumpled our programs under his absence. Just months before graduation, he was killed in an accident near campus. We could hardly bear the weight of even the thought of such grief, but I saw prayers running down faces beside me, prayers pressed into clenched programs, prayers kneaded into tissues. Every one of us watching carried those parents across the stage.

There is more. The dignified woman calling each graduate’s name with such gravity and care, who had proudly handed diplomas to twenty classes, had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, one of the most terrifying diseases known. This was her last graduation. We lifted her with our eyes and helped her speak each name.

And most of us knew that this year the women’s basketball coach lost her husband to cancer just before the birth of their first child. 

This is our daily witness, is it not? Finality and commencement, beginning and ending, sorrow and celebration, risk and sacrifice lock hands over a diploma, a basketball, a surgeon’s knife.

We do it for the other. For the many others who live with us and beside us, our neighbors.

After the ceremony, later that day, we met our son and his six roommates and all their families at the beach and one hour later, we were building human pyramids in the sand. What a silly thing to do, I thought, what a California cliche, even as I laughed and snapped photos of these young men kneeling on their fathers’ backs.

And then the fathers kneeling on their sons’ backs.

And wait! The mothers were not forgotten. We, too, pressed our knees into our sons’ backs and held steady in the sand for a moment.

Moms and sons pyramid

I don ‘t know if we were just having fun—or if we were enacting something more that day. I think maybe something more.

This is truly how we stand in this world: our knees pressed in the bodies of those who have gone before us, beneath us. Our childrens’ knees in our own backs. The Bible talks about this as the “cloud of witnesses” whose words and lives hover over us and form the foundation beneath us.

These silly photos, then, are the truth of our lives. We neither stand nor kneel alone, no matter how much independence and self-reliance we claim, and I have claimed a lot. There are so many beneath us. So many noble, humble, simple, wise people. Even the ones who have hurt us, whose weight and knees have broken our backs, or whose substance has crumbled beneath us. We would not be ourselves without them. We would not be our limping but still kneeling selves without them. And we would not offer our backs to others without them.

C.S. Lewis writes, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back; a load so heavy that only humility can carry it and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I hope as I write and as I live that I can keep my place, steady. I hope I am not too heavy for those carrying me. I hope I am humble enough to hold strong for those I am bearing.

I hope all these things for you, as well.

And while we get tired sometimes—yes, often, every day—the photos tell the fuller truth:

Who is lighter than our children, for whom we would cut off even our flesh?

Who is lighter than our neighbor?

Whose back and knees are not made exactly for this?

Shameless: How to Fail a Book Signing (but Not the Writing Life)

“Art is born out of humiliation.”  W.H. Auden

I had a fantastically unsuccessful book signing in a big box store not long ago. (Yes, signings still occur, despite the takeover of social media.) Afterwards, licking my wounds, I turned to a book on my own shelves, Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame. In it, Margaret Atwood, Rick Moody, Billy Collins and a constellation of such literary brights offer up the most companionable ignominies and embarrassments. (Fittingly, I bought the book used, online, for a penny.) My own parade of humiliations that night were paltry next to theirs. Still, couldn’t I do better?

Two weeks later, an Internet search on “book signings” confirmed my suspicions. According to several book signing experts, I did indeed do everything wrong. First, I missed the Webinar on “The Seven Steps to Turn Yourself into a Celebrity.” In another  article, I violated nearly every one of thirteen steps, beginning with, “Decide, in advance, what sort of clothing you want to be seen wearing by your reading public.”  (Did I do this? No.) Step #6 advised bringing along a printout of your manuscript for fascinated readers. (Really?)  My most egregious error was the last step: my failure to inform the store managers that I would be the bookstore’s official greeter while I was there. Nor did I walk around with several copies of my book introducing myself to everyone in the store, as he advised, pressing my own books and bookmarks into their astonished hands.

I would rather demonstrate the wonders of Balinese kitchen knives through the Christmas season at Walmart than resort to such tactics.

We all know we need to successfully promote our own work. But when we sacrifice leisure, sleep, money, and most costly of all, time with our families so that we can write, none of us makes these difficult choices to be stalkers or hawkers with a leer and a bookmark. We write because we believe in our deepest-down spirit that God has called us to keep naming the world. We write to serve a meal to the famished, to dress the wounds of the betrayed and lonely. We write to offer hope and a story to the depressed. We write to offer clear thinking in a muddled marketplace. We write in humility, in insecurity, in desperate prayer.

And when our book releases, shall we then don our best barracuda suit, polish our teeth, slick back our hair and begin the hard, shiny sell, suctioning ourselves to every unfortunate person who innocently wanders into a bookstore? Did any of us sign up for this?

Let’s take a breath. We don’t need to sell. We don’t have to sell out or sell ourselves short, or sell our own snake oil. We need to offer. We’ve just spent two to three years composing, listening for God; we do indeed have something to offer. We offer our work, and, more importantly, we offer ourselves. In all of our promotion, we need to think, how may I serve others? How may I serve my readers? We might end up giving books away—a lot of books. We might do some speaking gratis. We might end up on the short end of the accounting sheet. We might end up praying with a stranger. But at the end of the day, the year, the decade, we’ll count it differently:

We got to give. We got to give more than we knew we possessed. We got to be part of a global conversation. We got to know new readers, who taught us more than we knew. We got to pray for strangers who became friends.

Don’t listen to “sell-a-ton-of-books” schemes when they violate who you are and what you’re to be doing in this world. Go ahead and “fail” a book signing if you must. Be a real writer, without shame.

They Also Serve Who Drink and Weep

Coming home .. .. The writing life takes me away from home often. I write this the day after returning from 2 weeks of travel, home to Kodiak Island, to my husband and sons and daughter and Yorkshire terrier who badly needs a groom. I walk through my door and want everyone to kiss me as if I have just been born, as indeed I have.

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I am home, but I cannot stop thinking about her, the woman I met on the plane. It was the fourth and last plane of the trip. I was almost there. I edged down the aisle and saw her—crying. Sobbing on her phone. My eyes went dark, my heart tightened. As I stepped past her, I heard her say, “They just told me. I have pancreatic cancer. He gave me 3 – 6 months to live. I don’t want to die!” and she dissolved again into weeping, running her hands through her hair.

She was beautiful, dark-skinned, dressed in expensive jeans, a leather jacket. Her phone was pink. She gripped it so hard, hanging on to whoever was at the other end. My seat was one row back and one row over. I could see her profile, hear every word. I looked around desperately. A woman was dying! And we were calmly sitting in our seats, buckling our seat belts against death—and would soon follow all the safety requirements, while she was no longer safe. What do I do?

a woman with hands covering face

Men sat in front of her, and in back, each one with the bland face we wear when we pretend we don’t hear because we too are afraid. I wanted to do this too, but there was an empty seat beside her. She would be alone this entire flight with no one .. .. And how could I forget what I had prayed that morning? In the hotel room, on my face, wanting this day, this one day, to have a pure heart, to serve someone . . . “May your kingdom come, Your will be done .. May I hear you and serve you this day . . ..” and off I went into another day of terminals and planes—and there she is near me, still crying, the seat beside her empty.  I have work to do—a chapter is due, edits for an article are due, but the seat beside her is empty.

airplane seat

Shaking, I unbuckle my seatbelt, lift my bag and stand beside her. “Is it okay if I sit beside you?” I smile. She looks up at me, surprised, with her ruined face and nods, trusting, like a child, her eyes again filling with tears. I sit, she watches me settle. “What has happened?” I ask her and it pours out, but there are hands now to catch what falls, our shoulders touch, I stroke her arm, and we mourn and grieve and sit together in the shock of it. She is young. She knows Jesus, but she doesn’t want to die she cries again and again through a twisted mouth. I silently scream to Jesus to give me the words. I need them when I am writing, but I need them even  more now … .and they come. At one point she grasps my hands and says, “God sent you to me.” Mostly I am there to cry with her, to drink chardonnay with her. I know the chardonnay will wreck me, but had she offered me whiskey, I would have drunk that too.

It wasn’t much. I write all this not for anyone to say, “Oh, what a great servant you are!” Because I am not. How many people have I not seen and walked past? How many have I seen and still walked past? But this is instead about this wondrous, terrifying God we serve, who has asked one of his daughters to die a hard, early death, and who asked another selfish frightened daughter to sit with her in her fear and aloneness for a short time. It was so little. And she staggered off the plane to walk into the end of her life—and I staggered into a car taking me to stages and microphones.

Here is what I remember : “They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton wrote in his sonnet “On His Blindness.” I was going to speak on podiums, in many places, before many people for two weeks, but none of that mattered then. Of all I did on that trip, perhaps this mattered most: “They also serve who only sit and weep.”

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Can tears really be enough? For that day, for that hour, yes. God will provide another servant, and another for every empty seat beside her.

Do we dare ask this each morning? “May I hear you and serve you this day.” Yes, dare. Then watch for the empty seat. Bring tissues. Drink wine if you must. Become a child. Give whatever you’ve been given. Sometimes it will be words. More, it will be your presence and your tears.

And the kingdom of God will come near.

A Note to Young Writers: Honor Your Obscurity

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In the last month, I spent time with two younger women, both of whom had just released their first book. Sarah and Andrea are both fine writers whom I expect will continue to write and publish books. In the short time I had with each of them, I found myself dumping all my writing and marketing advice, talking about websites, blogging, Facebook, twitter. But I forgot to say the most important thing of all: honor your obscurity.

Very few young writers, musicians, artists value their obscurity. For good reason. We know if we’re to be published in any form, we need an audience, a sizeable audience. We know that most of the time we have to find that audience before that first book contract even lands on our desk. And once it does, and the book is out, we’re tasked to keep racking up bigger numbers. But how do we catch the eye and ear of a world that so often chooses the flippant, the crude, the gaudy spectacle over the good, the authentic, and the true?  If we’re the praying sort, we may resort to prayer, remembering the words another writer made famous a few years ago,

“O, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.”

(Oh, dear Jabez, I want to say. How did you get away with that prayer?)

But we do it too, I suspect. The artists’ version would go something like, “O, that you would bless me and enlarge my platform, increase my followers, expand my twitter peeps and keep me from publishing harm so I will be famous, free from the pain of falling out-of-print.”

woman praying--parodic

I can write this prayer because I know these desires. An hour ago I was on a nationally syndicated radio show, and I find myself, now, against my better will, glued to numbers, trying to measure “impact.” While guiltily number-stalking, a stranger writes me on Facebook immediately after the broadcast and asks how he can become a writer and speaker, like me. (He’s in his twenties and he hasn‘t written anything  yet . . .)   Someone else writes to ask me how to build a fan base for her blog.

I do have advice: if you want others to read you and listen to you, you must listen to others. Do for others what you want them to do for you. That will not make you famous; that will make you better informed and more humble.


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And second, fame is not what you think. Admittedly, I am not the best source here. My moments of “fame” are modest and sporadic. But I still know this: it isn’t what you think. It’s often over in a moment. It brings more responsibility than freedom. And if you’re not careful, it can pollute or paralyze your writing. I have a friend whose first book shot to the New York Times bestseller list.  His agent, his readers, his global fan base now hold their collective breath for his next book. “How do I write under this weight?” he asks me. He has so many others he must now heed and please.

“Honor your obscurity” is another way of echoing Bill Roorhbach’s charge to “honor your apprenticeship.”  Value these months, years of laboring toward your best work with fewer listening in than you would like. This quiet is your wilderness, your blessing. Here you will sharpen your art. You will lean closer to the sounds around you, for the fragile people who haunt the forests you watch, for the small voice that whispers names you didn’t know.

Enjoy the purity of your efforts, making art and worlds and essays out of the sheer love of words, of theatre, of longing and of hope. Enjoy it now before a woman or a publisher sits down beside you filling your notebook with a thousand necessary tasks, few of which have much to do with why you began writing in the first place.

Finally, what do you imagine fame will bring you? For me (and for many writers I know) I hope mostly to be able to keep on writing, to keep using “that talent which is death in me to hide,” as John Milton writes. If you’re doing this now, pouring life into the truest sentences you can make, you’re already famous.

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What Do I Write About? Tendering Your Witness

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Like many of you creative writerly types, I have a new book or essay idea about once a week. Any casual observer will know when this happens. My eyes gain x-ray vision, I will wear mismatched clothes for a day or two. I’ll start pulling books from my library, organizing them into Useful Research Piles, and I create a new folder on my computer, into which I start shuttling and dumping uncountable necessary articles and links.

But it is not long before the writing deadlines I am already under reassert their authority. I follow meekly to my office to tending my previous fires that once sent me into fevers, but with a new light gleaming from my forehead.

Some of those gleams turn into books, essays, and blog posts. But some of them sputter into oblivion, snuffed out by the realities of life, the most pressing of which is—There Is Never Enough Time.

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The question we all face is: Out of a plenitude of possibilities, yet with limited time and energy, what do we choose to write about? How do we decide?

The stakes are high. If it’s books we’re talking about, for me it’s at least 2 years of immersion in the writing, and then once the book is released, several more years follow of spreading the word. So I had better love it, believe it, and be willing to soap any box with its message.

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How do we decide, then? I have followed a simple rule most of my writing life: TENDER YOUR “BURDEN OF WITNESSING.”

The phrase here is not mine. I’ve lifted it from Patricia Hampl’s wisest of words, “ . . .  For we do not, after all, simply have experiencewe are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”

What has God entrusted to you? What “burdens of witnessing” have been given to you?  Start here.  My first book of prose was about commercial fishing women, because there I was, in the midst of a life I was trying to live and understand, mostly unsuccessfully. I moved to memoir next, writing about my life on a wilderness island in Alaska, then onto other topics I had “witnessed”: motherhood, unplanned pregnancy, the spirituality of food, forgiveness of my schizoid father. I have never regretted a single project.

When you write as a witness from these hard places, you immediately avoid one of the greatest weaknesses of beginning writing, and even “successful” writing: writing without “mattering.”  Over the years, I’ve met students and writers who can fashion beautiful sentences in their sleep—–but talent and beauty alone does not make them “matter.” Without heart, without an urgency that comes from deeply lived experience, your words on the page will only be words on a page. (And, take note: Because they matter to you doesn’t automatically make them matter to your readers. You must make them matter to the reader as well.)man reading book

There is yet another reason for doing this. And forgive me now for going sermonic on you, but I pull it out now because I know you are reluctant to excavate the stash under your bed and in your closets. One of the graces of believing in a God who inhabits the hearts of his people is the certainty that all events—celebrations, dirges, dangers, and feasts—come to us through His hands, and they are hands with purpose. They are hands that intend our trials to be tended and eventually tendered for the good of others. The New Testament spells out the program: God, who is the “God of all comfort,” comforts us in our troubles for this purpose, “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” Pass it on, brothers and sisters.

Don’t worry if there’s blood. As Red Smith has written, “For my money anyway, the only books worth reading are books written in blood . . . “ [Red Smith].     bloody book

Write about what you MUST write about. Write about what has been entrusted to you alone. Write about what matters most to you. Write about the things you cannot turn away from. Write about the hurt, the cheating, the doubts, the hopes, the comfort, the sickness. Our time is short—make it count.

Tender the witness you’ve been given.

All the World’s A Page: The 9 Woes of the Writing Life

At work in the world, on the world of the page.
At work  on the world of the page.

Recently at the end of a creative nonfiction class I taught, a student came to me with a helpless shrug of her shoulders. “I want to write. I want to be a writer. That’s what I want to do with my life.” I felt a gush of pride that I had managed a convert, but pity came next, then fear:  What had I done? I immediately knew I needed to fill in what I left out from the class script, the off-stage notes that turn out to be the most important. To her and to any other aspiring writers, I offer the cheerful remainder here (to be read in a sonorous voice, because the warnings are real):

 Woe #1: You will see too much.

You will no longer be able to ignore the woman in El Salvador sitting among the garbage, the man carrying a sink onto a bus, the arguing couple behind you in the restaurant. A writer is charged with keeping attention, with bringing words to the invisible, the unspoken, the troubling, the ridiculous. But even as you take note, do take note: the best words you find will not be enough.

Woe #2: You’ll lose a lot of sleep.

You will welcome nightly visitations of the muse, inviting her with an open notebook beside your bed. You will be so hungry for words you will gladly trade your necessary rest for a single cutting sentence, a vivid metaphor, a line of pretty poetry. You will be tired often because of it and you won’t always be happy.

Woe #3:  You will gradually be divested of your most cherished stereotypes and grudges.

Your entrance into others’ lives and stories whether actual or fictional will bring a disconcerting complexity and humanness to the unlikeliest and unloveliest people. If you’re not careful, you may even be tempted to forgive.

 Woe #4:  You’ll give away your privacy.

All the world’s a page. To keep both of yours turning (world and page) you’ll need to appear on every platform you can beg, borrow and thieve, telling and giving all at any hour of night or day, without modesty or reserve. You will give most of yourself away. A special woe to those tempted to write memoir.

 Woe #5: You will read for pleasure less and you will like fewer books.

Once you take language and books seriously you will be unable to turn off your writer and editor’s eye. Writing that once offered distraction and escape will seldom survive the mental red pen, shrinking your list of favorites. You will give up on bestsellers. You will feel culturally stranded.

 Woe #6: You will spend far more money than you make.

For every writing project you undertake, you will buy a shelf or two of books and you’ll subscribe to literary journals and magazines as if they kept you warm and fed. Which they will, but the metaphor breaks down when the temperature drops below freezing and you’re eating oatmeal for dinner and the bills are past due.

 Woe #7: You will not be content to live in the present only.

In your pursuit of what is real and true, you will excavate the past as eagerly as the present, breaking down closet doors, piecing skeletons together, retrieving abandoned diaries. You will find nuance and revolution that disturbs the status quo. Others will be annoyed and will try to keep you quiet. You may not be invited for Christmas dinner.

Woe #8: You will no longer be satisfied in writing for yourself.

Once you find an audience, however small, you’ll write by an open window instead of a mirror. You’ll carry your readers with you. You’ll care too much about the truth for their sake. You’ll want to heal and help. You’ll see how small you are. You’ll keep writing anyway.

When I began a tentative writing life thirty years ago, I was never formally wooed nor “woe-d.”  If I had, would I have continued? I know the answer. It comes as the final “woe” and I write it now to my student, who is still watching me with undimmed eyes:

Woe#9: Woe to those who hear, who touch and who see, yet who drop the pen and turn away from the open half-written pages of a world still waiting to be finished. Many stories will be lost. Yours will not end as it should. This woe is far worse than the others.  

Extravagant Subsistence: Restocking the Writer’s Shelves (and Soul)

Our freezer is nearly empty. We’ve eaten all of last year’s fish and meat, which constitutes a near emergency. Tomorrow I’ll close my computer, ignore my writing deadlines and head back out by bush plane and boat to an island in the Gulf of Alaska where I’ve worked in commercial fishing with my family for 35 years.  We were so busy with the commercial season this summer we didn’t have time to put up our own fish for the winter, the wild salmon that will feed us luscious Omega-3 saturated flesh weekly through a long season of dark. We also harvest berries, venison, halibut and sometimes caribou. Putting up our own food stores, which goes by the shorthand term “subsistence,” is a normal and necessary part of most people’s lives in rural Alaska.

“Subsistence” is defined  as “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” In Alaska, however, where a subsistence lifestyle is as common as wool socks, it’s evolved into almost the opposite concept. We don’t hunt and fish and grow and harvest simply to live—we engage in subsistence to live well. We have access to cellophane-wrapped factory-farmed meat like everyone else—but it is expensive, saturated with antibiotics and hormones, and has been shipped a very long way to get here. We prefer to harvest wild-grown meat from our own piece of the land and sea. It’s one of the reasons we live here.

This last week I began another kind of subsistence: I started re-reading Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s wise and extraordinary novel. Her profound musings on the worth of life, as spoken through John Ames, an elderly pastor, remind me how empty my writer’s pantry has become. The authors who have sustained me through the decades—Frederick Beuchner, Annie Dillard, Richard Wilbur, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggeman, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson—have become strangers of late supplanted by blogs, social media, and research for other writing projects. These are all quick, short reads full of good information, but I’ve been achingly hungry without knowing it.

I realize that my writing life is little different than my food life. I’m often so busy on the commercial end of the work—the marketing, creating the next book proposal, the social media—that I forget to do the real subsistence work. While I’m as tempted as anyone else to spend my time feeding on strategies to garner audiences and master social media, ultimately, I’ll starve on such a diet. Fifty-seven Ways to Grow Your Platform, while helpful, will do little to awaken mystery, stir my imagination, provoke paradox, unearth wisdom, deepen my humanness, all of which is why I began to write in the first place. I realize if I maintain a steady diet of techniques, I’ll soon be setting an impoverished table for not only myself, but also for my readers, who come themselves needing sustenance.

Subsistence work is not easy. Rather than grabbing cellophane packages of meat and fish from the meat counter, I have to go out into boats, I have to use knives and muscles, I have to cut off heads, pull out guts, spill real blood.

It’s a physical engagement with the material world. Reading the best writers is not unlike this. It takes more effort to read longer works. Blood will be spilled there as well as we wrestle with the deepest, hardest and most profound stories of dying and living. But this is how we will subsist and be sustained as writers for a very long time.

When I sit down to my first meal of grilled salmon this winter, I will remember where it came from, how it felt in my hands. I will be so well-fed, I will want to write about it, and will set the table for others to join me in the feast. I hope my work will feed others as well as I have been fed myself. With some labor, and yes, some blood, it can happen.

What kind of reading are you returning to for “extravagant subsistence”? How can we make more time for this kind of reading (and for sustaining physical labor)?

“This I Believe”: Creating a Writer’s Manifesto

Making another addition to the Manifesto!

This I Believe was a series of wildly successful radio broadcasts hosted by Edward Murrow from 1951 to 1955. Murrow introduced the series this way:

“’This I Believe. By that name, we bring you a new series of radio broadcasts presenting the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all
walks of life. In this brief time each night, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common
than integrity—a real honesty—will talk out loud about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives.”

What are the rules we live by as writers? What are the “basic values” in our art? Few of us have taken the time in the midst of our writing lives to identify what we believe about writing, about our work as writers, about its place in the world. I had been writing for decades before I began to form my own credo. Almost immediately, I discovered it was a powerful antidote against the many discouragements we face as writers. And the tonic begins the moment you start composing. But wait! There are rules to follow as you begin.

1. Have fun with it. This IS about ultimate things, but it’s NOT about perfection–grammatical, linguistic, or otherwise.

2. Don’t worry about originality. Many other writers have expressed brilliant thoughts before us. Beg, borrow, and steal from them (with attribution, of course!).

3. Consider it a living document that will grow, deepen, and re-shape as you move further into your art and your faith.

4. Post it somewhere you can see it, so it can prod, re-focus, and inspire you as you work.

That’s it. So here is part of my ever-changing manifesto. I share it with you simply as an illustration. Each writer’s credo will bear the marks of her own passage and thought.

* There is no part of human experience that is not worthy of attention, illumination, and restoration.

* I commit to writing not simply out of curiosity, out of delight in words, or a desire to entertain. All these are good enough motives, but will produce lesser works. My best and most honest writing will be done where my skin meets the world in the thinnest, rawest places.

* Writing is a vocation, a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible, but the writing inexorably, day by day, moves us closer to holiness, the city of God.

* Words contain power to slay and to resuscitate. Every work describing the world as it truly is will do both: there cannot be resuscitation without death; there cannot be death without resuscitation.

* Writing is a response back to a word-creating God who invites us–just as he invited Adam–to name all that is, to complete a creation that is still undone, still unfinished. We speak back because creation was intended to be a conversation, not a monologue.

* Writing recognizes that faith and spirit are not disembodied abstract ideas, but are incarnated in the world around us. Our faith calls us to the things of this world—to mud and fish slime, to huckleberries and stingrays— to love them, to speak their names, to find in them the glory that was spoken into their very cells.

* Writing from faith is not an attempt to contain or explicate God, to unravel mystery, the wonders that surround us, but rather to articulate mystery, that it may draw us, first, to the edge of his cloak, then closer . . .

Enjoy the process! And count us in! Share at least one of your own writing beliefs with all of us here. Perhaps we’ll add yours to our own!

The Art of Bloodletting:Translating Suffering to the Shared Page

“The only books worth reading are books written in blood.” –Frederick Buechner When suffering strikes, we are often silenced by pain. In such times, the act of writing may feel frivolous, exploitative, or irrelevant. Yet it is these dark, raw places of our lives that most demand our full attention, our most artful labors. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. We may remain silent in the midst of it, but at some point we must write. Patricia Hampl reminds us of the responsibility that comes with our experiences: “We do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”

Dan Allender, in “Forgetting to Remember: How We Run From Our Stories,” tells us what happens when we ignore the hard events in our lives: “Forgetting is a wager we all make on a daily basis and it exacts a terrible price. The price of forgetting is a life of repetition, an insincere way of relating, a loss of self.” How then do we begin to write from within our afflictions? And how might the practice and the disciplines of writing offer a means of shaping our suffering into meaning for both writer and reader? Forgive the brevity and oversimplification, but here’s what NOT to do and why:

1. Don’t write to heal. Our therapeutic culture urges us to write into our pain as a means of self-healing. Newsweek’s article, “Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Heal?” rightly questions this cultural assumption. I have mucked through some hours and days of writing that were hellish. Re-living an experience with language and full consciousness is sometimes worse than the original event. Recognize that writing into affliction brings its own affliction. And even more importantly, recognize that when we are predisposed to heal ourselves, we will not be fully honest in the writing. Healing will likely and eventually come, but only as we engage with the hardest truths.

2. Don’t write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation. We want to bring beauty from ashes. We want to make suffering redemptive to prove its worth. But this is God’s work, not ours. Our first responsibility is to be true to what was, to witness honestly to what happened. Our job is not to bring beauty out of suffering but to bring understanding out of suffering. Poet Alan Shapiro argues that “…the job of art is to generate beauty out of suffering, but in such a way that doesn’t prettify or falsify the suffering.”

3. Don’t write for yourself alone. This is not just about you. You are working to translate suffering to the shared page. Buechner reminds us of the universality we should be striving for: “…all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us share? Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

Writing can begin here, in the self, but should consciously move us beyond ourselves, to place our story into the larger stories around us, and ultimately, into the grand story that God is writing. The most powerful work comes from a “self that renders the world,” as Hampl has said—not just the self that renders the self.

Life is holy with meaning. Pain is holy with meaning. Don’t miss it. I pray for you the strength and faith and wisdom to begin to enter those hard places and to translate your suffering onto the pages we share—for the good of all, and for His glory.

How have you been able to translate your suffering into your writing?

*When Throats are Parched: Writing (On Deadline) In the Land of Drought

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Years ago I crossed the Sahara desert the back of a truck. No GPS. No roads, no signs—we followed the train tracks. We did have a crude map with water holes marked. We’d get to the hole or the well—and it would be dry. We’d set out for the next one—and it was dry. Our water supply got lower every day and was closely rationed. At one point we were lost for three days. And we were on deadline—we had to get to Kenya before the rainy season started.

That’s what the writing life can feel like at times, yes? The stations of usual refreshment aren’t open; we’re getting drier and drier; the manuscript is withering. We’re plain out stuck. Here are some sources of “stuckness,” and suggestions to get you moving back to the watering holes!

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*You’re STUCK because you’ve been seduced by your own luscious language.

You’ve followed a trail of language, lured by its sound, rhythm, maybe even its profundity. Soon—you’re sunk. In love. In a trap.  No water. No trail, no way out.

*Get UNSTUCK  by leaving the page. Free yourself by taking your core idea (or character) off the page and walking it out in the world. Wrestle with its logic, its meaning, until you can articulate the concept clearly in new language and out loud. You’ll find it much easier to break your “engagement” with your sand trapped manuscript.

*You’re STUCK  because there’s dissonance between form and content.

Maybe you committed to a form or a genre or a particular structure too soon before fully exploring your content. (We do this when hurrying under deadlines!) When we externally impose an ill-fitting form upon our material, we’ll soon find ourselves and our manuscript immobilized.

*Get UNSTUCK  by returning to the exploration stage and really listening to the work itself, teasing out from its deepest levels the organic  form/genre/structure that best illuminates its meaning.

*You’re STUCK because of the limits of your genre.

Every genre is an attempt to discover and construct some form of knowledge. But every genre has limits. Narrative finds meaning through sequence, context, causality. By its very definition it reveals order—and potentially meaning—from the disorder of our lives. But sequence and causality don’t tell the whole story. Poetry relies heavily upon metaphor, imagery, the moment, sensation, but poetry may miss the truths that narrative can discover. Each needs the other at some point.

*Get UNSTUCK by changing genres (for a short time). We need to stay open to new truths as we write. If you’re stuck on the chapter in your memoir about your mother’s death, write a poem about the day she died. If your poem is stalled, try writing a short story or a vignette about something related that happened to you.  You will see, hear, and process memories in new ways when entering a new genre.

Let’s admit it—writing is an unnatural act. Sitting at your keyboard for hours on end every day is like crossing the desert. You have to find ways to rehydrate and rehumanize this most glorious of labors.  So I end with these final admonishments:

*Ask for an extension. Believe it or not, most writers do this at some point. There’s no shame in it. Your editor wants you to produce the best material possible. It’s not always possible, but getting a little more time can magically create a breakthrough.

*Go to bed early. Eat. Exercise. Drink yummy beverages. Be nice to yourself.

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(The end of my Sahara story. We made it out, but I never wrote about it—just a single poem. I was too parched to write.)

*A VERY condensed form of my presentation at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing April 20. More helpful details here.

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