Writing teaches writing

After reading this article by Ben Huberman at The Daily Post I clicked over to the Paris Review to read their full interview of John McPhee in a new series called “The Art of Nonfiction.” I always appreciate reading about the process of successful writers. Typically, I find myself inspired to write after reading how their craft evolved. The interview of McPhee did not disappoint in this regard.

McPhee’s description of writing a novel for his college thesis was what stoked my writing fire. His university had, as he said, “a great fight” over whether or not he would be allowed to write a novel for his thesis. No one had before. In the face of opposition, they finally allowed McPhee to proceed. This is how he described the experience:

They asked me to show up on the first day of senior year with thirty thousand words. So I spent the summer in Firestone Library, working in the English grad-study room, writing longhand on yellow pads. I had a real good time in there, working alongside these English grad students, all in various stages of suffering. I got my thirty thousand words done, and then I finished the thing over Christmas. It had a really good structure and was technically fine. But it had no life in it at all. One person wrote a note on it that said, You demonstrated you know how to saddle a horse. Now go find the horse.

But writing teaches writing. And I’ll tell you this, that summer in Firestone Library, I felt myself palpably growing as a writer. You just don’t sit there and write thirty thousand words without learning something.”

Writing teaches writing. That was the line that got me. So even though it was late (I don’t write well when it is late) I pulled out my notebook, set the timer on my Ipad for ten minutes and free wrote about a hospital visit that I recently made. The visit was a profound one—one of those pastoral visits that make you contemplate life, tragedy, and the meaning of it all. I knew I needed to write about it, but hadn’t yet made the time. McPhee inspired me to make the time.

More than anything, I want to learn and grow as a writer—not so much to publish more, or get more followers here on my little blog. But to help me make sense of this world in which we live and pay careful attention to it all.  I want to be able to articulate the experiences I have and find my way to new discoveries. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is through my writing. So, thank you, John McPhee, for tonight’s teaching.  I am better for it.

A New Mantra: No Big Deal

183246_8db2604dfcbb2b58ffa0dee311ffb14b_largeI preached a dog of a sermon this past Sunday. Walking that dog for fifteen minutes in front of my small congregation was exhausting. I was working hard to connect—but since I was disconnected from my sermon, so was the congregation. Some people politely feigned attention, which I appreciated. Others stared out the church windows or whispered to their neighbors. A couple of teenagers in the back snickered and poked at each other. I’d wanted more time to work on another writing project, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pull out an old sermon to preach. The sermon I chose for this past Sunday wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t me. I’d written it in 2005 when I was an entirely different preacher. So the whole experience was tired and lifeless. Immediately after finishing I thought to myself, “I never want to do this again.”

Normally, such a preaching failure would send me spiraling down into despair. Afterwards I would wallow around in a depressive state and repeatedly ask my husband for words of encouragement to help build me back up. This Sunday was different, though, because of a new spiritual practice.

I’ve been re-reading Pema Chödrön’s book How to Meditate over my winter break and found myself drawn into what Pema describes as one of her biggest teachings from her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. About this important lesson, Pema writes:

I remember one time going to [Rinpoche] with what I thought was a very powerful experience from my practice. I was all excited, and as I was telling him about this experience, he had a look. It was a kind of indescribable look, a very open look. You couldn’t call it compassionate or judgmental or anything. And as I was telling him about this, he touched my hand and said, “No…big…deal.” He wasn’t saying “bad,” and he wasn’t saying “good.” He was saying that these things happen and they can transform your life, but at the same time don’t make too big a deal of them, because that leads to arrogance and pride, or a sense of specialness. On the other hand, making too big a deal about your difficulties takes you in the other direction; it takes you into poverty, self-denigration, and a low opinion of yourself.”[1]

When I came to this lesson in my reading, I was writing a sermon to be published in a journal for preachers. I was excited about this sermon as well as the opportunity to have it published. When I get excited about something, my enthusiasm has a tendency to consume me. It’s all I can think about. Then my imagination leads me to some grand delusions where I do start to feel awfully “special.” So Pema’s words resonated with me, even as they confused me. Wasn’t it okay for me to get excited? I’m a very enthusiastic person. Wasn’t it okay for me to feel joy in what I am doing and experiencing? As I lived into the “no big deal” mantra, though, I came to understand it’s wisdom and it’s power.

I ended up writing a better sermon for the journal because whenever I started to picture other people reading it, or to imagine the positive attention, fame, fortune (Ha!) that might come of it, I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—which led me to be more real, more playful, and more honest in my writing.

After preaching my dog of a sermon this past Sunday, I repeated my new mantra. When I felt myself spiraling down into my typical state of self-denigration I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—and locked myself in my bedroom for about ten minutes of quiet meditation. After this tiny bit of practice, I was able to let go of my “preacher’s despair” more successfully than I ever had before.

Through the use of this new mantra, I find myself seeking a sense of equanimity, or a state of spiritual balance. Swinging from the extremes of high-flying excitement or depressive denigration will only lead me to self-denial, life-denial, and suffering. It won’t be good for anyone around me, either. To be fully present in this moment, though, to be spiritually, psychologically, and physically balanced, is the path to a healthy, whole, and happy life.

 

 

[1] Pema Chodron, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, (Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2013), pp. 13.

Following a Star–A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my sermon, “Following a Star” from our Monmouth College Christmas Convocation based on Matthew 2:1-12.

a-forest-of-stars-247689

Writing a sermon for me is like following a star that has suddenly risen in the night sky. When I begin this journey, scripture text in hand, I have no idea where I am being led. I have to write my way in, following the thread of inspiration, and carefully guard my spirit so I don’t get distracted.

This is terribly difficult, however, because I have to forget about how badly I want this sermon to go well and how badly I want to offer you something beautiful today. I need to set aside my desires as well as my fears. I have to stop picturing myself preaching in front of our new President and the Dean and all you scary faculty types and all you college students who are so good at looking so bored. I need to meditate in order to free myself from these distractions, and I have to pray and attend to my soul and… I drink a little.

The acclaimed poet William Stafford likened his writer’s journey to following a golden thread. Stafford “believes that whenever you set a detail down in language, it becomes the end of a thread…and every detail—the sound of the lawn mower, the memory of your father’s hands, a crack you once heard in lake ice, [a star observed rising]—will lead you to amazing riches.”[1] The stance for the writer to take, then, is one of being “neutral, ready, susceptible to now. Only the golden thread knows where it is going, and the role for the writer is one of following, not imposing.”[2]

So I began this sermon not by writing, but by observing. And yes, a star. (I walked out into my backyard, laid myself down in the grass and watched and watched…until it began to snow) and I thought about the three men, or three Magi, who chose to follow one particular star in their sky far from Monmouth College. I’ll admit that I find these men attractive. I don’t know why biblical characters are always portrayed as old, gray-bearded, and grizzly. I don’t see why these guys can’t be athletically-built with olive skin and big brown eyes. Three tall drinks of water.

Really, though, I find these three men attractive because they were open to discovery, susceptible to the now, and ready to follow wherever life’s path might lead them….even if that path was unexpected and unconventional.

Post-biblical tradition has given them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Interestingly, they weren’t Jewish, so there wasn’t any expectation for them to go and pay homage to the new King of the Jews. They weren’t aware of the Jewish prophecy of where the Messiah would be born. All they had was a star way off in the distance to guide them. And yet, in spite of this, they decide to make the journey. So it didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to go with them. I mean, who knows what I might discover in such attractive company?

Every new journey is exciting at first. Just remember how you students felt on move-in day of your first year. So what if it was 98 degrees and raining, and your room wasn’t much larger than a small prison cell. College was awesome! Waving goodbye to Mom and Dad and your pesky little brother was liberating! You walk down Broadway for your Freshman walkout, again in 98 degree heat, hot slices of pizza in hand, getting free stuff, following a bunch of bagpipers who I once heard you describe as “totally badass!” I mean, it couldn’t get any better. The possibilities for your college journey were endless. New experiences, new friendships, new love interests, new ideas. It was all just so exciting.

My journey with the Magi began the night I lay in the grass observing the stars. I started to picture myself riding one of those camels and, for the first few miles, chatting with my new companions. They are astrologists, so they enjoy pointing out the different constellations, what they had learned from the night sky, and how they know that the star rising in front of us is the sign of a new king. My mind is racing with all the possibilities for this journey. I wonder who we’ll meet? Or, what kind of wisdom I might glean? Maybe I’ll learn some really cool survival skills out here in the desert and get a really great tan?   Here, at the beginning, anything is possible.

As it happens on long journeys, though, the conversation between us eventually lulls. And in the growing silence I become aware of my feet that hurt my lower back that aches and that star—well, it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Just how long is this journey? I wonder to myself.   And when might we take a break?

This point of the journey reminds me of Midterms. All the new excitement has worn off, and suddenly you’re like, “Oh CRAP, college is really HARD!”

When the Boys and I do finally take a break, it is out of necessity. The sun is rising and our star has vanished. We sit down beneath a grove of olive trees and my three companions quickly doze off, but I can’t get comfortable. The arid heat is crawling all over me and my mind won’t let me rest because my Type-A, got-to-have-a-plan-self, is starting to panic. What am I doing here all alone with three strange men? What would my mother think? Or my practical-minded father? I can hear him clearly, “Teri, what’s the point of this whole adventure? Where are you headed with this? What are your goals?” I can’t answer my father’s questions, though, because they are mine as well. I have no idea where I am headed. So I start thinking about quitting and heading home to be somewhere safe and comfortable. Somewhere where I can control my surroundings and my life and leave all this mystery behind.

When journeys get difficult—as they always do—our minds quickly begin to look for alternatives. When my sermon writing is faltering and I am panicking and picturing myself standing up here with absolutely nothing to say, I find myself being tempted by alternative paths. I turn to my husband and ask, “Dan, do you think Farm King is hiring? They have some really cool stuff there. Or Subway? I think I could make sandwiches for the rest of my life.”

Maybe after your first college midterms you started to ponder some alternatives too. So just how much does a stock boy at County Market make? Maybe living with my aging mother when I’m 36 isn’t as terrible as I originally imagined it?

If you’re here today, obviously you didn’t give in to the alternatives. You’re still on the journey and so am I. Not everyone sticks it out, though. For some, it is too tough. So what’s so different about us? Why are we still here? Well, I imagine, that you, like me, are here because we have hope, perhaps even a little bit of faith, in what lies ahead.

Hope is an extraordinary gift. Not everyone is so blessed to have hope. We don’t know what lies ahead. We can’t know. But we hope that it’s something good. So we keep going, even when the going gets really difficult.

The climax of our journey narrative today comes, of course, when my wise friends arrived at the house above which the star had stopped. When our 2-year-old Isaac met his baby sister, Ella, for the first time in the hospital, all he could manage to say, was “This?” “This?” Maybe the wise men had the same question. This is what we have been searching for? This tiny, fragile baby is the King of the Jews? This is the one King Herod is so scared of? Does this make any sense?

But you know how sometimes you know something is right because you feel it is right—even though all rational explanations tell you it is wrong? Well, I imagine that’s what happened here—because these foreigners who had no reasonable connection to this baby, were overwhelmed with joy at finding him. So overwhelmed that they knelt down in homage to him. Something must have clicked within them when they saw this child. Something must have told them that they had come to a place of discovery.

There is no greater joy, no greater feeling of exhilaration than to discover whatever it was that was waiting for you along the golden thread. William Stafford describes it as “amazing riches” and that’s how it feels. It’s the place of epiphany, and of revelation, and of a profound knowing that this was what was meant for you.

So, the moment I discovered what this Christmas sermon was about, I was running on the treadmill at our local YMCA.   I’d been journeying with those Magi for a long time—two weeks to be exact. I’d grown weary of their company and was contemplating lots of alternatives when— right in the middle of all these people exercising around me—it came to me. It’s about the discovery! Yes! It’s about the discovery on the journey! And suddenly I feel as if this huge weight has been lifted—because I know now where I am headed. I have at least discovered the direction. And so I start to bounce a little as I run…and I punch the speed button up…and I pick up the pace…and I turn the volume up on my Ipod…and THEN I am still so excited that I start jamming my fists in the air to the music in my ears! And yes, people are looking at me, but I don’t care, because I am feeling so much joy. I am overwhelmed with joy! Thank you, God! Thank you, baby Jesus. I have a Christmas sermon!!!

The sermon itself –like the Wise Men’s journey— is a place of discovery! A place of epiphany! It is such a high!

I hope you’ve known such moments. I hope you’ve known the overwhelming joy of discovery. Maybe it’s happened for you in a class, or a deep conversation with friends, or at a program you attended, when seemingly disparate thoughts and ideas came together in your mind to reveal—suddenly and inexplicably—something NEW about your life, or your future, or your perspective on the world. And then your mind explodes with possibilities and your body flushes with energy because of this new discovery! You discover your life and the world anew! These discoveries, these epiphanies, are what await us all along the journey.

I hope you’ve known such moments, because they remind us that the journey is worth it. They reveal that—as tiny, and fragile, and fearful, and vulnerable, and insignificant as we oftentimes feel—our lives are not meaningless. There is wisdom to be found along this road. There is joy to be found and love and beauty and grace. And—especially at Christmas—we are reminded that God is to be found here as well. God is not removed from us and from all this. God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. God is within each discovery.

So let’s take this moment, this sacred and holy moment, to open ourselves to the journey. This Christmas, let’s begin once again. Let’s follow our stars.

Now to the God who calls us on this sacred journey, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] From Robert Bly’s introduction to Stafford’s selected poems.

[2] Ibid.

The Woodcarver

wisers-whisky-wood-carver-600-95347My friend and writing coach, Christine Hemp, introduced me to the poem, The Woodcarver.  It has led me to amazing riches.  I keep it taped above my desktop computer in my office as a reminder to “Guard my spirit, [and] not expend it on trifles that [are] not to the point.”  This poem has served as such an inspiration, that I wanted to share it with you.  May we all create our beautiful bell stand.

The Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood.  When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded.  They said it must be

The work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

 

King replied: “I am only a workman:

I have no secret.  There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit, did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to set

My heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days

I had forgotten praise or criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

 

“By this time all thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

All that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought

Of the bell stand.

 

“Then I went to the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.

All I had to do was to put forth my hand

and begin.

 

“If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

 

“What happened?

My own collected thought

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

 

–Chuang Tzu

from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

Searching for a Christmas Sermon

cast-of-a-charlie-brown-christmas-24Christmas comes early for a college chaplain. This year’s service is on December 2nd before the students take final exams and leave for winter break. So there is no Advent season of waiting or preparation for this preacher. I’ve been listening to Christmas music for a month now trying to get myself in the mood.

When I begin this early Christmas journey, familiar scripture text in hand, I have no idea where I am being led in my sermon writing process. I have to write my way in, following the thread of inspiration, and carefully guard my spirit so I don’t get distracted.

This is terribly difficult because I have to forget about how badly I want this sermon to go well and how badly I want to offer my community something beautiful. I have to set aside my desires as well as my fears. I have to stop picturing myself preaching in front of our new President and the Dean and all those scary faculty types and all those college students who are so good at looking so bored. I have to meditate a lot in order to free myself from these distractions, and I have to pray and attend to my soul and… I drink a little.

This sermon-writing journey is tumultuous and there are times when I doubt if I will ever find the message, the discovery, the wisdom I am supposed to share. It’s hard to trust that there is anything waiting for me at all.   Which often leads me to consider quitting. It’d be a relief to give the whole thing up. Inevitably, while I am in the middle of working on a sermon, I end up asking my husband, “Dan, do you think Farm King is hiring? They’ve got some really cool stuff there. Or maybe Subway? I think I could make sandwiches for the rest of my life.”

While I run on the treadmill, Sara Bareilles speaks to me through my earbuds telling me that she wants to see me be brave, with what I want to say, and to just let the words fall out….but I don’t feel brave. In fact, I don’t believe in myself much. But I do believe in the journey. As difficult as it is, there is something sacred about the journey.

The acclaimed poet William Stafford likened this writer’s journey to following a golden thread. Stafford “believes that whenever you set a detail down in language, it becomes the end of a thread…and every detail—the sound of the lawn mower, the memory of your father’s hands, a crack you once heard in lake ice, the jogger hurtling herself past your window—will lead you to amazing riches.”[1] The stance for the writer to take, then, is one of being “neutral, ready, susceptible to now. Only the golden thread knows where it is going, and the role for the writer is one of following, not imposing.”[2]

So hear I am, once again, following the Christmas narrative to see where it leads me and my community, who I pray will hear some Good News as a result of this strenuous, yet sacred journey.

[1] From Robert Bly’s introduction to Stafford’s selected poems

[2] Ibid.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 2)

Fear 1On a bright summer morning, I dropped my 5-year-old daughter off at day camp placing her in the care of counselors who all appeared to be in high school. Looking at Ella’s counselors I remembered myself at their age, and the parents who entrusted their children to me. I didn’t take the same precautions with those children as I do now, with my own. I suspected the same was true of these teenagers. But I was too busy with Ella’s transfer–lunchbox (check), bathing suit and towel (check), water bottle (check), sunblock and bugspray (check)—to give my worry much attention. The camp counselors were busy too, loading my daughter up in a 15-passenger van. They were taking the kids on a trip to the lake.

Driving away from the drop-off, the image of my tiny, tow-headed daughter, climbing into the camp van stayed with me. Arriving at my office, unlocking the door, arranging my desk to tackle my long list of to-do’s, my mind kept returning to my daughter in the van.

Then, a premonition overcame me; a feeling, a knowing. My mind pictured the tragedy—a van overturned with my daughter’s body inside it.

The urge to go and get her—to chase down that van, find my daughter, pull her into my arms and keep her with me for the rest of the day—swelled. Fear flooded my nervous system and I broke into a sweat.

Am I crazy? Or is this a sign? Will I regret this forever if I don’t go and get her? How could this possibly be true? I was suffering terribly and almost succumbed. My car keys were in my hand when I remembered my practice.

So I took my suffering to the mat and sat with it. This was a tough one because the fear was like violence within me. It was beating me up inside, clubbing my heart, contracting my lungs, scorching me with its heat from the inside out. It was almost unbearable. But I sat with it and breathed. I leaned into my suffering instead of running away from it, or running immediately to resolve it. And, like my anger previously, I eventually felt the urgency of my fear dissipate. The oxygen calmed my nerves and restored my reason. I was still afraid, but not overwhelmed. And in this new state I realized that I had to let Ella go…and keep letting her go…because her life and mine could not be ruled by fear.

Our suffering has much to teach us, and yet we do everything possible to avoid it or get rid of it. I am becoming much more aware of my suffering now and my power to sit with it. This, in turn, has led me to become more aware of the suffering of others. The faces of humanity rise in my mind as I sit on my mat. I hold each in my heart, just as I hold my own fragile self. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, believes that the world would be a more peaceful and compassionate place if we all practiced meditation. As I stop to imagine this—a world that could learn from its own suffering and not be ruled by fear—I give thanks for the profound gifts of a simple practice.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 1)

AngryDo all funeral directors believe death takes precedence over life? Or just the ones I have to work with? I got “the call” from our local funeral director informing me that there had been a death in our community. The family (whom I did not know and do not serve as pastor) had requested that I do the service…that Saturday at 2:00pm. I was not available that Saturday at 2:00pm. When I told the funeral director this, he balked. Clearly I was not here “to serve the people” like he was. Clearly I did not understand that it was my duty as a pastor to drop everything in my life to serve the dead.

His attempt to shame me was infuriating. After I hung up the phone, the conversation clung to me like a wet spider web. I couldn’t get rid of his voice in my head, the words he used against me, and the anger roiling my insides. I hopped hyperactively around our house, unable to focus on my work and the looming deadline of my next writing project. This man had powerfully leapt into my day and threatened to monopolize my mind if I didn’t do something quick.

So I took the funeral director to the mat and meditated with my suffering. I breathed in, feeling my lungs expand, and breathed out, feeling my lungs contract. My shoulders rose and fell. My anger burned in my chest like a hot piece of coal as I sat for ten minutes, feeling the burn. In doing so, the funeral director’s hold on me began to break into tiny little pieces. When I finished, he wasn’t entirely gone, but my anger was diffused and I was able to get back to my work.

Typically, when I get this hot, I pass my emotions on to my husband in an angry, spiteful rant. My husband loves me so he receives my rant and oftentimes shoulders my anger in solidarity. This, I realize, isn’t particularly fair to my husband. Why should he bear the anger I can’t rid myself of? Also, sharing my anger with my husband just seems to make it grow and expand in the universe. We don’t need any more anger in the world. So before I rant or vent or allow any emotion to distract me from the present moment, I’m going to try to take it to the mat. I’m going to practice sitting with my suffering.