Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Afterthought #2

Back in December, I wrote about my new 2012 calendar and its inspirations for a simpler life. Two months in, I continue to look to it for strength to not overfill the days. Recently, support came from another source— No Ordinary Time by Jan Phillips. Subtitled “A Book of Hours for a Prophetic Age,” Jan draws on the Middle Ages practice of staying spiritually mindful all throughout the day. Each chapter is devoted to a day of the week, and a reading for Wednesday spoke to me. It’s Jan’s “To Be List,” in the form of a poem.

In honor of having an extra day on the calendar this year, today I’m going to focus on my To Be List, rather than the To Do List.

To Be List


What’s on your To Be List?

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Job of the Writer

Ten years ago, I printed up business cards with the title Writer under my name thinking that if that’s what the card says, that’s what I am.  Now, I don't have to read that card to know that writing is my job, but some days, at the end of a writing session, I’ll leave my desk with doubts about whether I’m called to this work. Well aware of the needs and problems crying for attention, questions about the value of putting words, my words, on paper ring in my ears.

I know that I’m not the only writer who frets. One of my writing program classmates got this response when she typed writer/copy editor into her online tax form: Please enter a valid occupation. One of the faculty, an award-winning children’s author, admitted, “To this day, whenever I write down writer as my profession, I imagine the person on the other side of this transaction changing it to unemployed.”

Recently, I received affirmation for my call to writing at the Seattle Repertory Theater’s premier of How to Write a New Book for the Bible, by Bill Cain. The play, originally written as a memoir, is based on Cain’s experiences caring for his dying mother.  The main character is also named Bill; flashbacks portray Bill's and his brother’s childhood as well as his parents’ relationship and his father’s death. “These are exquisite human beings,” Cain says in the Rep’s magazine, Encore, “and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them.”

Not that Cain’s parents didn't have their flaws or that his family was perfect. There are plenty of scenes of conflict between the parents, misunderstanding between the brothers, and feelings of inadequacy and failure.  A classic struggle emerges when Bill’s widowed mother’s health begins to fail and she needs help to remain in her home. Just like Cain, the playwright, Bill is a Jesuit priest as well as a writer. Perceived by his mother and brother as not having a “real job,” Bill gets tapped to be the live-in caregiver.

Cain explains that his ministry as a priest is “to go into the world, find the presence of God there and celebrate it.”  He thinks that’s a good description of what those working in theater do as well, bringing attention to what is “neglected and holy.”

In the second act, this moment of reflection by Bill took my breath away. “The jobs of writer and priest are closely related. In both, you point and say, Look. Look there. That person you haven’t noticed—he, she matters.”

The writers I most admire do this in their writing, pointing to the people, places, and issues that we don’t notice—and that matter. Bill Cain’s play pointed to the value of writing and left me with a useful query to guide me in my work:

Who or what that is neglected and holy am I to call attention to?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Little Bit of Wisdom

The last day of Spring Residency for my writing program (Northwest Institute of Literary Arts), guest faculty Kathleen Dean Moore talked with the Craft of Nonfiction class about writing essays.  A philosophy professor at Oregon State University, Kathleen writes prose that questions and celebrates our cultural and spiritual connections to Earth in a style reminiscent of poet Mary Oliver. 

Taking notes on my laptop as Kathleen spoke, my fingers barely kept up with the wisdom she shared. Here is one of her gems:

Every essay is connections and a little bit of wisdom tucked into experience. 

I took in a quick breath and felt tears stinging my nose and filling my eyes as Kathleen spoke. That’s why I read essays, to find connection and that little bit of wisdom tucked into a story. Kathleen’s wisdom usually is surrounded by experiences in nature—such as watching an osprey taking time to notice a shadow in the water and then having the courage to dive.  She says that’s the work of nature writers (I would argue all writers):  “observe patiently, lovingly; keep watch for shadow; plummet toward it and engage it.”

That’s what I want my writing to be.  Sometimes there’s only a very little bit of wisdom.  Most of the time, I don’t know it’s there until I start to write. I’ve tried to be organized and systematic in my writing. Sometime I write out a rough outline, topics and themes sprouting out from an experience or an insight. That technique does help me to have an idea of where I’m going in my writing. But usually I don’t know which road I’m heading down until I wrap my fingers around a pen, or place them on the keyboard, and let them lead me across the page.

I have a similar experience in Meeting for Worship when I quiet my mind enough to open myself to that essence or wisdom beyond me.  And just as in my writing, that opening and centering usually takes me to unexpected places.

Kathleen also challenged us to think about the kind of writing we should do.

“In a ‘world of wounds,’ it’s not enough to write about a marsh as it’s being bulldozed for a K-Mart parking lot,” she said. “We’ve run out of time; we have to move quickly and reach a wider audience through new venues such as newspapers, blogs, and radio essays.”

To know the kind of writing we should do, she urged us to answer three questions:  
What are my gifts?
What breaks my heart?
What are the world’s deepest needs?

“Your calling is at the intersection of these,” she said.

Maybe I should follow the behavior of the osprey both when I settle into worship and to write—take whatever time is needed to listen patiently and lovingly, keeping watch for shadow. There’s plenty of that as I open myself to my own flaws, mistakes, and regrets. And observing more widely, I’m aware of the shadows of hurts, disappointments, and wrongs in my community, my country, and the world. I want the courage of the osprey to dive deeply into some of those shadows and to engage with them. But I often just skim the surface and pull back to my comfortable spot of gratitude for the blessings in my life.

I’m discovering more all the time the amount of courage needed to write the connections and tuck in a little bit of wisdom. I often stop myself because I know that I possess just a portion of knowledge of an issue or a situation. But my portion (or yours) might just be what is needed for greater wisdom to emerge. I want to be courageous enough to shine the light on my little bit of wisdom.