Perspective

2558321055_9b324ab0a4_oI recently stole away for a quick writing retreat with my friend, Melissa Earley. We sat across from each other at her dining room table typing away on our matching MacBook Pros. It was great accountability because I knew Melissa could see me every time I distracted myself by checking my email on my smartphone. About thirty minutes into our first hour of writing, the following dialogue occurred:

Teri, loudly, face in hands: “Ugh. Writing is so hard!”

Melissa, immediate, straight-shooter: “No it’s not. Don’t you remember. You posted that article to Facebook a while back that said writing is not hard.”

Teri, defiant: “What? No I did not. I don’t remember that.”

Melissa-who-knows-better: “Here. I’ll find it and read it to you. It was really good.”

“Writing is not hard work. Let me tell you what hard work is: bending over in a field of low-bush, wild blueberries, your back arced so you can slide a forty-tooth rake like fingers under the bushes and pull back, settling the berries and tiny green leaves into the rake, then dumping them into a five-gallon bucket at your side, only to lug the bucket three hundred yards to the sorting machine where you lift it onto a wooden trailer and the man stamps a star-shaped hole in the card you keep in your back pocket, the card already soaked through with sweat and eight more hours to go, the sun like hot coals on the back of your neck, your shirt already tossed on the ground beside the gallon of water you froze the night before, the only thing that will keep you going through the wasp-riddled, poison-ivy laced field.”

Teri, chagrined: “Damn. You’re right. I did post that.”

Melissa, gloating, keeps reading:

“Writing is not hard work.  I’m talking about writing, not Facebooking, workshopping, copyediting, tweeting, submitting or, my least favorite activity, writing cover letters, but writing, that essential listening, that patience with words, hearing the voices come, seeing a scene come to life in front of your eyes, sitting at a computer until the computer falls away like the page of a good book falls away, until the screen becomes clear like the surface of a pond after rain so that someone looking into the water can see the rotting logs and Budweiser cans on the bottom and the fish swimming around.  The act of creation has nothing to do with hard work.  Writing is, to me, a beautiful, liberating process that feels unlike any work I have ever done in my life.”

Teri, humbled: “Yeah. This isn’t really hard. It’s not like I’m out picking blueberries in a field all day. Certainly puts things in perspective.”

Melissa, smug, returns to her typing.

Teri, distracted, checks her email.

 

**Read the full article “Writing is not Hard Work” by Mike Minchin.

[Feature Image: Brendan DeBrincat]

 

 

Getting to Know my White Privileged Self

5002004994_ab6c32ebbe_oA new essay is rising up within me. This is what it feels like when I know I have something to write about but don’t know exactly where this “feeling of an idea” is leading. It’s an exciting journey of discovery—exciting because I know I will learn and grow a lot in the process. But I also know this journey will require a lot of intense work, dedication, and a willingness to confront some painful and disturbing truths.

The topic of this new essay will be race. The journey towards this topic began last winter while reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow with a group of students at my college. Whenever I bemoan how busy my chaplaincy keeps me and how much I desire to have more time to write, reminding myself of all the rich experiences I am offered to learn and grow along with my students keeps me grateful for my career. The fact that I serve a racially diverse college as chaplain is an extraordinary gift that will deepen my exploration into the topic of race and positively influence my ministry with and among our students of color.

Reading James Baldwin (extraordinary! Can’t get enough of him!) Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has taken me further in my understanding of the particular human experience of people of color. I have been confronted and awakened to the disturbing, evil ways white people have oppressed, marginalized, and disempowered Native, Black, and Latino peoples in our society. But as a privileged white myself, I cannot write about race from the perspective of Baldwin, Douglas, or Isasi-Diaz. That would be disrespectful and dangerous. I cannot even begin to assume I could write about the experience of marginalized people. That, to me, would epitomize white ignorance. But I cannot ignore or set aside this issue of race—that would also be irresponsible as a person of faith seeking to live into God’s justice. So I needed to find another way in. An essay by Eula Biss called “Relations” opened the door to a helpful approach.

Biss, a middle-class woman from Iowa, writes about race from her white perspective.  After researching her own family history she writes, “It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries the burden of history without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be raceless.”[1] At another point in the essay Biss directly challenges me and all white people by writing, “We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves.”[2] Here, was my way in. A challenge to get to know myself as a white person, to explore what my race has given me, how it has privileged me, and as a result of that privilege, how it has disadvantaged and oppressed others.

So I have begun my research on what it means for me to be born white in American society. My theologian husband has, as always, helped me deepen my thought by turning me to the work of philosopher Shannon Sullivan who has explored the racial habits of white people in two books: Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege and Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.  I’m not sure where this journey into race will take me, but I feel its significance, at the very least, for me, to write about and articulate.

As I progress Thomas Merton’s well-known prayer from “Thoughts in Solitude” feels appropriate:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

[1] Eula Biss, “Notes from No Man’s Land”, (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009), pg. 32.

[2] Ibid, pg. 31.

[Feature Image: tobiwei]

Practice, Practice, Practice

309683769_4e8749343b_o“We are always practicing, until the very end,” writes Brenda Miller in her book The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. I admit, in such a performance-driven world, the idea that we are always practicing gives me comfort. So what if I don’t preach my absolute best sermon at our upcoming Baccalaureate Service. It is good practice for the next time. So what if I never get that essay published that I worked so hard on. It was good practice to write it. When I sit with my students to lead them in meditation I always begin by saying, “Don’t worry about getting this right or doing this perfectly, we are just practicing.” Saying this seems to relieve tension present in the room. The invitation to practice is an invitation to offer ourselves some grace, because if we get it wrong we are still okay.

Miller goes on to discuss practice as an end in itself, as the discipline that brings us to life. She quotes Kim Stafford who says that a violin, played every day, will keep the vibrations of the music in its body, even while lying still and silent. If it is not played every day, the vibrations dissipate and the wood grows lifeless. An instrument dies if not played daily.

This is true for so many things. If I do not practice good parenting, or practice being a good wife every single day, then I imagine my relationships would not sing with life. Instead, they would grow stale and distant. If I did not practice my Christian faith, then that faith would cease to offer me life or new opportunities for growth. When I am diligently practicing my writing and intentionally tapping into my creativity, the muse of inspiration flows more easily. Life is rich with creative inspiration, when I am practicing.

Miller concludes her chapter on practicing with this contemplative exercise:

Reflect on what you practiced as a child. How did you feel about it? Was practice something you dreaded or embraced? What did you practice today? Think about all the skills and habits of mind you practice each day—and how those practices make you who you are.

 

[Feature Image: Kate]

2015 in review

 

At the beginning of this new year, I want to thank those of you who read my blog. We are all inundated with reading material. Facebook, Twitter, literary magazines, Christian Century articles and blog posts regularly enter my feed and catch my attention. But reading time is precious and limited. So I am grateful for those of you who spend some of your time here at Something to Say.

This blog began as a way for me to find my writing voice–as a constant reminder to myself that I have something to say.  But it has become more than a reminder.  A self-imposed deadline of posting every week has become essential to my writing practice.  The connections I have made through blogging has expanded my world as I meet new and old friends and enjoy whole networks of blogging communities.  Finally, this blog is my play space.  I have so much fun writing here because I can write about anything.  Each new blank draft I pull up on my trusty Macbook Pro stokes my creative fire.  This blog has come to mean a lot to me.  So, thank you, for pausing here to read.

Every year the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepare a 2015 annual report for their blogs. What follows is my report as well as links to my top five most viewed posts from 2015.

Here’s an excerpt from the annual report:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,300 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Most Viewed Posts from 2015:

#1: Mindfulness Meditation: There’s an App for That

#2 When Worship Works

#3 How can this be?  A Christmas Sermon

#4 Three Lessons from a Productive Summer

#5 I find you spiritually attractive

 

Writing to Discover

6281142155_e8a8afcddb_oIn an essay I am writing about my son I am discovering just how much I love my children. This feels odd to write because of course I already know that I love my children. But as I challenge myself to go deeper in this essay, to be more truthful, to choose words that resonate with emotions that I rarely bring to the surface, I am discovering the power of this art I have chosen (or perhaps has chosen me.)

Yesterday, I hit a raw vein of truth—namely, the fear I bury that something bad will happen to my children. I imagine all parents hold this fear and bury it deep. It’s not an emotion we can live with on the surface or else we’d never let our children out the door in the morning, let alone get on that big yellow school bus which is sure to be full of bullies. I climbed into my fear yesterday, though, as I sat at my desk with my notepad and pen and picked that fear raw to see what was living there. Why would I do this? Why subject myself to such torture? Well, I guess because I’m learning that emotions are not to be avoided. The feelings our hearts yield are signs pointing us towards truth waiting to be discovered—truth about who we are, how we are, and how we relate to the world. I learn so much when I honor my emotions enough to sit with them.

Out of the raw place of fear that I mined yesterday, the love I hold for my children overcame me like a wave grabbing and ripping me away from the safety of shore. It was a love that moved so far beyond the healthy lunches I pack every night and the grass-stained clothes I endlessly launder and the good night cuddles I linger over. It was a love that hurt—a love that physically gripped me—a love that clearly needed to be safely managed and stored back away so it wouldn’t devour and consume me. Good God, now I know what it means to call love a risk. Because to lose the source of this love—like many parents I know have—would be near impossible to survive.

Writing brought all this to the surface for me. I walked around for the rest of the day with my unsurfaced love jangling about like a bundle of unplugged chords. Then, my children came home from school and I was extra attentive. I stroked their little blond heads. I bathed them tenderly, relishing the chance to wash the day’s dirt and sweat and crumbs and routine chocolate smears off their growing-up-too-fast bodies. I kissed them and hugged them and clung to them before tucking them into their beds and thanking God that, for the moment, they were safe.

I don’t want to live in fear. Because that’s not really living. But I do want to live awakened, alive to the emotions that drive me and the truth that can be uncovered, or recovered, when I am willing to honor all that is inside. Writing is the path that takes me there. What path do you choose?

 

[Feature Image: Ramiro Ramirez]

 

Deleting Unnecessary Words

282256324_bebc9621db_oI came across this article, 43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately, on Twitter and found the author’s advice helpful.  She hits on many of the mistakes I commonly fall prey to in my own writing.  The following advice was particularly helpful for me because I struggle with dialogue.

Dialogue tags slow your pacing and distract readers from the conversation. You can keep these tags for the first couple sentences of dialogue, but once you established who says the first couple lines, readers can follow the conversation back-and-forth for themselves. Also opt for surrounding dialogue with action instead of dialogue tags. Action will let us see what the characters are doing besides talking, and offer character trait information as well. For example:

“I don’t know where I’m going,” said Derek.

“You have a map,” said Ramona. “Figure it out.”

“Haven’t you been here before?” asked Derek.

“It’s been twenty years,” said Ramona. “How am I supposed to remember?”

could be:

Derek frowned at the street sign overhead. “I don’t know where I’m going.”

“You have a map.” Ramona took a drag from her cigarette. “Figure it out.”

“Haven’t you been here before?”

“It’s been twenty years. How am I supposed to remember?”

The Way I Share My Soul with the World

mza_7403266694935537377.170x170-75Today is International Podcast Day—another one of those random “days” that I would not have known about had it not been for Twitter. Generally, #podcastday would not have mattered to me had I not wanted to blog about a new podcast I recently discovered. I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons whenever I can. Through these podcasts she coaches women on developing their creativity and interviews a variety of successful artists. In Episode 12 of this podcast she interviews Brene Brown and they have this exchange:

Gilbert: What does creativity mean to you?

Brown: If you’d asked me five years ago what creativity means to me, I would have said, Ha. That’s cute. That’s fun. I don’t really do a lot of A-R-T because I’ve got a J-O-B. So you go grab your paintbrush and your scrapbooking, but I’ve got to get shit done.  But if you would ask me now, though, I would say that creativity is the way I share my soul with the world and without it I am not okay.

I resonated with the journey Brene Brown’s statement reflects. For so many years of my life I simply did not have time to nurture my creativity because I had to get shit done. Things changed for me, though, when I was trying to decide whether or not to begin my work with my writing coach, Christine Hemp. I heard myself saying to Christine over the phone, everything’s better when I am writing. This was when it clicked for me. I had to do this creative work. I had to make writing a priority in my life. It wasn’t selfish. It wasn’t just for me. It was bigger than me.

In the podcast, Brown and Gilbert go on to discuss all the shame associated with creativity. Brown said that 85% of the men and women she interviewed for her research on shame remember an event in school that was so shaming it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. Tragically, 50% of the 85% had shame wounds around creativity. They had been told they couldn’t sing, looked stupid dancing, or “Read your essay, don’t quit your day job.”  Brown called these “art scars.”

Acknowledging what I know—that I am a better person, mother, spouse, pastor when I give my creativity room to dance—helps me ward off this shame. I am intentional now about making room for it in my life. I schedule it into my work calendar. I make an appointment with my writing. And the rest of the day benefits from that time of soul work.

So if you need a little creative inspiration. Check out Gilbert’s podcast and start nurturing your soul.

 

 

 

 

Writing Misery Loves Company

2987926396_36f8c4342d_oAs a deadline looms on a new project, I have reached the end of the writing honeymoon  when the fun of creating turns into the slog of hard, hard work.  It is a miserable place to be–a place where self-doubt and the fear of inadequacy reign.  So tonight I have gone in search of some quotes to remind me that I am not alone–that even the greatest of writers have known this misery.

Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems:  Can it be done? and, Can I do it?  Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles.  –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.  –Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

Paris Review Interviewer to Mary Karr:  “What does it sound like when you get stuck?”

Mary Karr:  “Fuck. Shit. Don’t. Fuck.  You dumb bitch–whoever told you that you could write?  That’s what it sounds like.”

These words console me tonight as I face what feels like a daunting challenge.  But I also know that these are exactly the moments I need to push through if I want to be a writer.  Anybody can write when it is fun.  Only those who are serious push on past the honeymoon.

[Feature Image:  Rennett Stowe]

It is Solved by Walking, or Stair Climbing

16451260905_747f81dc91_oLast week I had no idea what to blog about until I went to the gym. After ten minutes on the stair climber, I had my idea. Fifteen minutes later on the elliptical trainer I had Three Lessons from a Productive Summer outlined in a note-taking app on my cell phone. Actually, I had ten lessons outlined. Seven got cut after realizing I had plenty to write about three. One of the lessons that got cut was going to be: when you have no idea what to write about, go to the gym. In the end, I decided this lesson deserved its own post.

Not long after my inspiring workout, I happened upon a Facebook post by my friend Heidi, the Vicar of Bolingbrook. Her post said simply, “It is solved by walking (Solvitur ambulando).” Intrigued, I followed the thread of comments and discovered that the quote is credited to Diogenes, a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynicism. Apparently, in response to the question of whether motion is real, Diogenes got up, walked and said, “It is solved by walking.” Later in the thread, a friend of Heidi’s posted this excellent article by Arianna Huffington in the Huffington Post about the virtues of a good long walk–one of those virtues being creative inspiration. Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Ernest Hemingway is noted for “thinking something out” while walking along the quays. And Henry David Thoreau described walking as the “enterprise and adventure of the day.”

To this celebration of walking, I would add stair climbing, elliptical training, or jogging. Any kind of rhythmic, physical movement focuses my mind and taps into the most creative parts of my brain. Ideas just come when I exercise.

Unfortunately, I always seem to forget this important lesson of creativity until it happens to me again. So this blog post will serve as a my reminder. The next time I get creatively stuck, I’m going to lace up my favorite, hot pink, Merrell Pace Gloves and hit the gym or the pavement. Because odds are, I’ll find the inspiration I need while in motion.

 

[Feature Image: Lower Columbia College] 

 

 

Three Lessons from a Productive Summer

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Lesson #1: Pay attention to baby sparrows.

A newborn sparrow surprised me last spring, unballing himself at the end of my driveway as I was heading out for a run. I had mistaken him for a leftover clump of dead grass. His feet, each with three long, hooked toes were bigger than his whole body. He stood and cocked his thimble-sized head—a shock of feathers on top like a scruffy cowlick—to get a good look at me looking at him.

This summer, during a creative nonfiction writing class, that newborn sparrow worked himself into a piece I wrote about my son as an infant. As I wrote, I was thankful I had paused at the end of my driveway long enough so I could write about the sparrow in detail. Afterwards, I promised to pay more attention to the “baby sparrows” of life, the intricate, intimate life moments that lead us to the best creative fodder.

Lesson #2: Ugliness reveals ugliness.

Another article of mine was published in The Christian Century this past June. In this article I revealed a lot about my preaching anxiety. At the end I even quipped about needing the occasional Xanax to get me through my preaching nerves. I got lots of positive feedback for the article. A number of people specifically noted, with appreciation for my honesty, the line about taking Xanax. Not everyone was so kind, though. One woman apparently felt like I needed a little lecture about addictive prescription drugs. Publishing her comment on the Christian Century’s website, she concluded that if I needed Xanax just to get through a sermon, then clearly I had a problem.

I won’t lie. Her comment stung—it stung so much it made me wonder if I wanted to write so honestly again. Then, Christine, my awesome friend and writing coach, helped me see this woman’s comment for what it really was; an ugly response that made her look ugly, not me. Ugliness reveals ugliness. Thanks for this timely lesson, Christine.

Lesson #3: Encourage others, as you have been encouraged.

Blogging can be discouraging. Sometimes you feel like you are putting your words out there for all the world to read and nobody notices; nobody clicks your link, leaves any comments or gives you any blog love. No matter how many times you check your site’s stats (and yes, some of us check obsessively) that beautiful blue bar graph of “hits” never rises as high as you would like.

I blog for a variety of reasons. I blog as a spiritual practice, as a way to develop my thoughts and my writing, and as a reminder to myself that I have something to say. So it’s not just about the number of hits or likes, I receive. (I don’t think I would have kept at it this long, if that were the case.) But it sure does feel great to get a little encouragement. A few people, in particular, have encouraged me through my blogging, by offering me more opportunities to write. For these people, I am extremely grateful.

So when I found myself at a conference this summer where a number of clergy were starting new blogs, suddenly I was in the happy position of being able to encourage others. I have been having so much fun since this conference, following my new blog friends, leaving comments, and sharing many of the opportunities that were shared with me. Most of these new blogs are written by clergy who are privileged with (what I call) “life encounter” stories— stories like “Bitch Wings” by my new blogging friend Melissa Earley, a pastor in the United Methodist Church. (Seriously, read that post of Melissa’s. You won’t regret it. Then follow her blog. She’s got something to say.)

Some might say that I need to have more of a competitive spirit about all this—that there are millions of blogs out there and I need to market myself and promote myself. But honestly, that feels self-centered and smarmy. I’d much rather encourage others, as I have been encouraged and share the blog love.

[Feature Image: Angelo Di Blasio]