Every once in a while I get sucked into an advertisement for a writing conference…ten days….in a beautiful retreat house…overlooking a lake…in Guatemala…eating organic food…practicing yoga…for $3,000 (housing and travel not included.) Yikes! Price tags like this are good reality checks. Seriously, what does it take to grow in your writing craft? Pen, paper, butt in chair, and some opportunities to get feedback on your work. I also listen to a variety of podcasts (all free!) that keep me inspired and keep me learning. Here are my current favorites:
Writing Class Radio
My new favorite. This well-edited podcast (good editing goes a long way in podcasting!) takes you inside a writing class to hear the students respond to different writing prompts. You can also respond to the prompt and post on their website. This podcast also includes helpful interviews of writers reading their work and explaining the decisions they made as they wrote and edited.
PodLit: The Podcast of Creative Nonfiction
Lee Gutkind, the editor of Creative Nonfiction, is the host. His interview-style feels a bit awkward to me. But I appreciate the information that is shared through this podcast and the people interviewed.
Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
I should listen to this podcast more. There is great content here. And the podcasts are short. I just find myself enjoying the other podcasts in this list more.
The Fail Safe: A podcast about writing and failure.
I love the concept of this podcast–the way it explores how successful writers grapple with and learn from failure. It is hosted by the Iowa Writers’ House and Draft: the Journal of Process. Also, the soundtrack is hilarious. Give it a listen.
I am a huge fan of Brevity and everything they produce. Allison K. Williams is a great host / interviewer for their podcast. I always get something out of these and eagerly anticipate each new podcast.
Tin House Podcast
I don’t know that I’ll ever be good enough to get accepted to the Tin House writing conference. In the meantime, I will listen to the presentations and lectures that are given at the conference through their podcast. This is an excellent, free resource for continuing education.
Just about every day I walk by McMichael Academic Building on our college’s campus where the art program is housed. Typically, I am running late for a meeting, racing to beat the chimes tolling on the top of Wallace Hall with my nose pressed to my smartphone to make sure I don’t miss a single email or message via Facebook. Like my students, I have gotten very good at race walking while scrolling through my feed. But as I fly past McMike, something in the grass outside that building catches my attention. I remove my nose from my digital device to look and I see what appears to be a large, yellow plaster snake sitting in the grass. It’s not a scary snake. It has a little smile or smirk on its face and a cute little mosaic of pebbles running down its back. But it makes me pause. What is this? Now I’m late for my meeting, but I am curious. What does this mean?
Crazy art appears outside of McMike like this often. Red and blue solo cups emerge from and circle around the windows. Yarn bombs explode and knit the trees in colorful little sweaters. Bike parts are welded together and assembled into a new and curious sculpture. These displays always make me stop and recalibrate my trip across campus. They take me out of my self-absorbed, smartphone existence to reconsider the space I am in. Art does that. It wakes us up to the world and can even change how we move through it.
I don’t want to go through life unawake and unaware. So I befriend artists—poets, creative writers, musicians, visual artists—who have the ability to see and sense and notice the world better than me. Artists help me see the sacred vitality of every thing and every one. Like the poet Mary Oliver, who writes:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
 “Messenger” by Mary Oliver from her book of poems entitled, Thirst.
J.K. Rowling offers this advice to writers: “Read as much as you possibly can. Nothing will help you as much as reading.”
So here are a few books that are on my summer reading list:
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxanne Gay
This book of essays by Roxanne Gay has been popular for a few years now and brought her much deserved respect in the literary world. She has a new memoir out called Hunger: A Memoir of my Body. But I thought I should begin by reading her book of essays.
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
I heard about Joshua Foer’s work while listening to podcast about public speaking. One of the greatest fears for any public speaker is forgetting your material, or going blank on stage. Foer’s unique method of the “memory palace” is a way to overcome this.
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams
A student with whom I will be working next year wants to lead a study of this foundational book by Delores S. Williams. So she and I agreed to read it together this summer. “Womanist” theology is feminist theology for African American women.
In the comments below, tell me, what are you reading this summer?
Reading and reflecting upon Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss, has become my latest meditation practice. These words were perfect for me today:
“Heading home from work, irritated by my busyness and the sense of wasted days, shouldering through the strangers who merge and flow together on Michigan Avenue, merge and flow in the mirrored facades, I flash past the rapt eyes and undecayed face of my grandmother, lit and lost at once. In a board meeting, bored to oblivion, I hear a pen scrape like a fingernail on a cell wall, watch the glasses sweat as if even water wanted out, when suddenly, at the center of the long table, light makes of a bell-shaped pitcher a bell that rings in no place on earth.”
Earlier, Wiman writes that “the very act of attention troubles the tyranny of the ordinary.” His words called me back to life, to the specificity of each moment. It feels as if, over this past month when all I had time for was getting stuff done, I have been trapped in the tyranny of the ordinary. But Wiman, like a good prophet, shows me the way back to life through the pen that scrapes like a fingernail on a cell wall and the glass that sweats as if even the water wants out. These details in the most boring of board meetings point to the vitality and the ‘moreness’ of life that is available to us if we are paying attention, if we sharpen our minds and spirits to cut cleanly to the beating organ beneath its protective skin. God is not dormant in this poet’s world. Instead, God is everywhere—in every thing and every one—including me.
[Feature Image by Enid Martindale]
It has been a just-get-it-done kind of month, during which I regret not posting on my blog. But I got some good news today that I wanted to share. The Christian Century just published another essay of mine called “I believe racism is wrong. So what?” It will be published in the May 24th print issue as “Antiracist without sacrifice.” Thank you for reading!
In a recent podcast interview, Anne Lamott shared advice she often calls upon from her pastor. She said, “Pastor Veronica always talks about how you can trap bees on the bottom of a mason jar without honey or lids because the bees don’t look up—they just kind of walk around muttering to themselves and bumping into the glass walls. Whereas, if they looked up they could be free.” When Lamott feels overwhelmed by her life or the state of the world, when she feels like she is just walking around muttering to herself and bumping into walls, she remembers the bees, goes outside and looks up.
On Monday evening I dressed in my black pant suit and white clerical collar before heading to our college’s chapel for our Holy Week service. During the service, we read the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross, blowing out candles and darkening the chapel as we progressed. I read the last line, “Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit” then walked slowly to the Christ candle centered on the communion table. All the lights were off at that point. The only light in our vast 600-seat chapel was the candle flickering in front of me. I paused to breathe. I didn’t want to do what I was supposed to do. I wondered why I was the one. Then, I leaned forward, cupped my hand around the leaping flame and blew.
That same evening, as my husband and I said goodnight in our bedroom, he asked me if there were lights left on outside. Moving to the window overlooking our backyard, he said, “Wow. The moon is really bright tonight.” From my pillow, I looked up. The gray light from a full moon had illuminated our yard, casting out the darkness.
[Feature Image: John]
In his book, My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman writes:
“In any true love—a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend—there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion. Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else. This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love: it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is. And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God.”
I don’t believe we, as humans, can get enough love. We certainly can’t offer each other enough of it, which is why we need God. I feel this need in my son when I lay down next to him in his twin bed after tucking him in for the night. We take each other in our arms and talk about the day and say things reserved for whispered conversations in the moonlight. He wants me to rub his back and sing to him “his song”—the simple tune I made up for him when he was a baby. I do as he asks and then move to pull away, feeling the call of my own bedtime ritual of time with my husband, a hot bath and a good book. But Isaac wants more. He always wants more. Even a child who is well-loved is insatiably hungry for more.
It is baffling and overwhelming, as Wiman states, to feel the way love is always reaching for more. As a mother who seeks to meet all her child’s needs, it is humbling as well. I turn to God, then, (if God is the essence and origin of love) as my only hope to ultimately and eternally satisfy.