On Writing That Is Far Less Religious, Way More Spiritual

May 30, 2019 § 9 Comments

tom larsonBy Thomas Larson

In my long and ongoing study of the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual literature.

This truth has two parts: first, that from 400 to 1948, there are only four primarily personal religious autobiographies whose authors intensify the passion of their religious conversion, which feels as close to verifiably authentic as each can make it in the writer’s prose: the confessions of Augustine, Tolstoy, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.

And second, considering the 1500-year gap between Augustine and Merton, leaving out for the moment Tolstoy and Thérèse who are late 1800s, other writers were either censored by the church as dogmatically unsuitable or by the individual author as nakedly over-personal. Yes, during this time, there’s The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross, famous Christian tracts. But these testaments are wholly mystical (without the “I”) or wholly prescriptive (with the “I” as Everyman). Neither explores the unsteady, vulnerable self, de rigueur to memoir.

Something happened 70 years ago that accounts for a change in how we view the landscape of liminal writing. Authors moved from nonpersonal expression of religious community to personal expression of unchurched experience, trading religious authority for personal authority. The religious text—an ordained, mythic, creation story, written or inspired by a God with enough moral injunctions to make a courtesan blush—gave way to, perhaps birthed, the spiritual text—a self-creation story, an inquiry about how the self has been spiritualized. The latter required one to have lived and to have written a book with consummate literary value, daring and eloquent, bemused by or surrendering to purpose.

Removed from the religious text was the author’s loyalty or faith in its founding principles: primal sin, priestly clubbishness, resurrection and salvation through Christ. Once the fundamentalist injunctions lost their molten, magnetic core, the writer was free to use the artistic forms of personal narrative and meditative essay as new ways to engage her enigmatic moments of the inexplicable or the numinous.

With Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, a spring Jonquil emerges: the spiritual author pushes away from the idea that the writer is reflecting what has already happened in her religious/spiritual experience and pushes toward enacting that experience through the writing itself. Yes, one goes on a quest, walks El Camino in Spain, or fasts for enlightenment at the Abbey of Gethsemani. But the real quest for the writer is the writing, the endurance of mind it takes to produce, sustain, and communicate the deepest of insights. If the writing of the book becomes a spiritual quest as well, then the evocation of spirit becomes an aesthetic pursuit.

spirtiwriterThus, the appeal of spirituality in our time is less expressive of an allegiance to a faith and more expressive of a learned, adaptive behavior, often away from faith and toward a restoration of ambiguity, a treasuring of doubt. What else is art but enacting our existential enigmas when, as is often the case, meaning dictated by institutions and “patented wisdom” is as out of touch with the times as a landline.

I don’t think “spiritual but not religious” (no one says the opposite, religious but not spiritual) means to replace “religious” mysteries with New Age hocus-pocus: See, for example, the missionary guidance of spiritual dog-walking or spiritual tidying-up (each subject with its author-and-book brand). Spirituality is not about settling down, is not about institutionalization, and is not a do-over of religious meetinghouses and commodities—refurbished warehouses as Zendos, catechistic travel books about the Vatican.

The spiritual is supposed to engage our lost selves, not our found ones. That for every authentic memoir about the inner life of the wounded, scarred postmodern pilgrim, there are one hundred how-to guides by professionalized self-seekers is part and parcel of what’s been unleashed by the abandonment of religion in the millennial era. I am highly suspect of this rush to codify the New Age into bullet-points.

If there are other ways to explore the mysteries of the self, of chance, of dreams, of alternate spatial and temporal dimensions, of mortality—and these pursuits are outside traditional churches, their communities and texts—then the question is invited: How do we search? The operable verb here is to explore. I often wonder how people can explore anything about themselves and the dark intractability of their lives, in a post-religious world, without an expressive means (writing, art, sculpture, video, film, dance, music), let alone communicate to others what they may and may not have discovered.

I think critics have pressed art and the artist to sit too close to representation. Though it may, art does not represent experience, not primarily. Art enacts experience. And, preferentially, not the experience of the past but of the present—action painting, live video, improvised music, the author writing the self into surprising being. All these explorations to me are what I would call part of a spiritual aesthetic. Because these voyages into the unknown are based on no ageless canon or chiseled commandments but, rather, materialize in the artist something he or she had no idea was there—because it wasn’t there, until the artist invented it.

Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry, Swallow Press, 2019.

In Defense of Themelessness in an Essay Collection

May 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble, in our May 2019 issue, explores the claim that essay collections must always be “themed,” and suggests that maybe the better question to ask is is not, Is the book saleable? but Is it sailable?

Here’s an excerpt:

During our proverbial New York lunch, right before she signed me, my once-upon-a-time agent asked what I wanted from my writing career—fame? fortune? —as well as what I wanted from this book in particular. I remember saying—so unguardedly, “I want to write a good book that people can read.”

In the years that followed—when this agent and I broke up, when my book was rejected by many more agents, and contests, and presses—I returned to this answer again and again. I return to it now when I wonder why The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it, why that literary festival rejected it, why that award didn’t choose it. I wrote a good book, and people can read it. That’s the main thing.

So if you are putting together an essay collection, I ask you to consider what your motive is in writing this particular book. If you already have a theme that drives your writing, that’s wonderful—follow it where it takes you. But if you don’t have a particular theme—and if you don’t really want to have one—take heart. Write the book you want to write, and then think about how it might be described, pitched, published and sold.

Randon Billings Noble’s full essay can be read right here. Do it.

People Who Will Be Interested in My Book

May 9, 2019 § 23 Comments

Chelsea_B_BlackWhite (1 of 1)-11By Chelsea Biondolillo

This list was inspired by the bookstore events coordinator who wanted to know, “What is the target audience for your book (i.e. history buffs, scientists, gardeners, kids, retirees, etc.) and why do you think your book will interest them?”


  1. People who were children.
  2. Anyone who has ever seen a bird close-up, or who has longed to.
  3. My mother.
  4. That one childhood friend who will probably skim the pages of a copy at a bookstore, to see if she can tell whether any of the essays are from the time in my life when she is certain she loomed large. Though she’s in there, she’ll never know where exactly, so she’ll decide against buying a copy.
  5. Those of us inclined to carry a stone around, for luck or company.
  6. My ex-husband’s second wife.
  7. People who thought it was going to be a book about birds. Half of them will give up halfway through and the other half will think it’s pretty interesting for a bird book that isn’t exactly about birds.
  8. That one acquaintance who reads literary nonfiction by women writers so he can impress the kind of women who read literary nonfiction by women writers (even though they all end up going “crazy” on him). He doesn’t know yet that my book might work against in him in that regard.
  9. People who pick up feathers, even though it is against the law to do so.
  10. Students assigned it in their advanced nonfiction workshops by professors with innovative and admirable pedagogy.
  11. People who don’t normally like nature writing, but who make an exception in my case.
  12. Women who at least one person has called crazy.
  13. Half a dozen people I met once and made an impression upon, most likely in my thirties, as I was more memorable then than I’ve ever been.
  14. Anyone who starts out their days with a lot of ambition and big plans and then finds themselves sinking into the mud of their memories, the things that were said to them, by them, over them, who finds that the view of the middle distance out a picture window can be enthralling in the worst way, capturing minutes and even hours of the day before you notice it’s happened. Something important is out there, you and I both know it, we just have to maybe look a little harder or for another moment or two to figure out what it is.
  15. Owners of tattoos they don’t regret, despite the side-eyes of a certain types on public transit and in long lines at the grocery store.
  16. Owners of lonely hearts.
  17. That other childhood friend who will read her name on a page and think at first that I have maligned her. A closer read will reveal otherwise, but there’s no telling if my book will get one from her.
  18. Anyone who has run away from something.
  19. A small cadre of lurkers who have quietly and steadfastly supported me through a lot of bullshit and a few parades. They probably won’t even tell me, until I run into them somewhere unexpected, and that will be a wonderful and endearing surprise.
  20. Readers inclined to possess pretty books. It is a pretty book, after all.
  21. Those few dearest, brightest lights who are hearts of my heart. Who bolster, cajole, inspire, comfort, and champion me. Who I bolster, cajole, and hopefully inspire and comfort right back. They will tell me that everyone should be interested in my book, and I will tell them I believe them.
  22. Those of us who ran the long way ‘round until we came back home again.
  23. Those of us afraid that home has been lost forever.
    Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of the essay collection The Skinned Bird and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. She lives and works outside of Portland, Oregon, in a house her grandparents built.


How Can Writers Confront Privilege? Read (and Write and Teach) About It

May 6, 2019 § 18 Comments

By LaRue CookLaRueCook_ATL2018_089cropped

I’m a cisgender, heterosexual white man who was raised in the South, a tick below middle class and near the second notch of the Bible Belt. Don’t worry. There is no but. I just think more people like me ought to own their privilege up front, outright. That’s kinda what my debut collection of essays is about: owning up to privilege as opposed to ignoring it or—worse still—apologizing.

Man in the (Rearview) Mirror is about leaving my job as a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine in Connecticut and moving back to my native Tennessee to become a full-time driver for Uber. All of this began in January of 2016, when I was thirty and had no idea that Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. So, yeah, it’s about that, too—how my silence and ignorance borne out of privilege renders me as culpable as anybody for this current American predicament, to put it lightly.

Three book readings in, and I’ve introduced myself this same way—more or less—to an audience of mostly white people, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Portland, Oregon, the latter at an off-site event during my first-ever AWP conference. The following day I spent an hour signing books at my press’s booth as part of AWP’s humbling-ly massive book fair. To help funnel potential buyers to the table, my editor greeted people with a short pitch. (He’s a naturalized citizen from Trinidad, for the record.) Meanwhile, I was busy with my own PR song-and-dance when I overheard him say, “No, that’s the author. Wouldn’t you love to meet him?” I turned to see a young woman of color, whose seeming interest quickly drained from her face, upon seeing me. She said, “I’m sorry. I don’t buy books by white men.” Then she smiled and continued down the aisle. Nothing malicious. Very polite, in fact.

For the rest of my stint in Portland and since returning to Atlanta, where I’m a PhD student at Georgia State University, I’ve recounted that anecdote to fellow writers—of all identities. Some have scoffed, even rolled their eyes at the reductive logic. Most of the eye-rollers, admittedly, have been men. As for me, I’m not offended, didn’t even roll my eyes. Hell, first thing I thought: Now that’s an essay! Besides, I knew about this trend in theory, just had yet to experience it in practice. Which is why I’d like to consider seriously the implications of what that young woman said.

This is a blog called Brevity, so I hope you’ll excuse my lack of an exhaustive history on gender and racial inequality in literature, other than to cite a stat by essayist Sonya Huber, who is also the director of Fairfield University’s low-res MFA, of which I am an alum. Since 2000, only two of The Best American Essays have featured more women than men: 2011 and 2017. In ’07, ’08, ’10, and ’12, less than thirty percent of the writers were women. However, those numbers don’t take into account race or ethnicity, or how each individual woman identifies their gender. But I’m not certain those numbers alone can truly contextualize the lack of institutional inclusion in our industry: That series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is run by a guy named John “Jack” Lynch, a man who looks an awful lot like me. Same as Brian Murray (HarperCollins) and Markus Dohle (Penguin Random House) and John Sargent (Macmillan) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). My point isn’t lost on you, I’m sure. Just as I’m sure you understand that it’s damn near impossible–if you’d like to sell even a couple hundred books as an indie author—to outrun the shadows of Jeff Bezos and Leonard Riggio. I can’t help but wonder if those men would consider their positions products of privilege, or of bootstraps being pulled up.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to that young woman, to ask her if she only buys books published by Simon & Schuster, which is headed by Carolyn Reidy (a white woman, for the record). I would’ve liked to know that young woman’s thoughts on how we reconcile these white men and me, a person who simply enjoys telling stories, as I’m sure she probably does too. I imagine the ultimate question is: Should I be writing at all, or just reading and listening? How do white people write about privilege if their very words hold that privilege?

These questions loom large and are virtually unanswerable, but to censor them from being asked in these forums by the people who hold the power is to risk confining them to eye rolls or to echo chambers, where we can “unfriend” or “unfollow” those who might challenge us. And, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, once we’ve done that, then, as writers, we’re finished, we’ve lost. Because we actually believe we’ve figured out the world.

So, later that day in Portland, after that young woman had said what she said, I visited the famous Powell’s Books. I bought a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I’m ashamed to say, at thirty-four years old, I have not yet read. But I will this summer, as well as C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. And I’d say if there is anything remotely resembling an answer to the question of how I confront my white male privilege, then it is that, to personally seek out the experiences that are not mine and to bring them into the classroom.

LaRue Cook is the author of the essay collection Man in the (Rearview) Mirror and a PhD student in creative writing at Georgia State University, where he teaches composition and intro to fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in such publications as ESPN The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and The Bitter Southerner, while his fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review and Barely South Review, among other places. Find him at laruecook.com or on Twitter at @larue_cook or on Instagram at @cook.larue.

Why English/Creative Writing is the Most Important Discipline Post the Apocalypse

May 2, 2019 § 6 Comments

Nik book fest high resBy Nicole Walker

It was after one of four Provost candidate presentations at Northern Arizona University that Julie Piering, Chair of the Philosophy Department, pulled me aside. She asked, have you heard of the Great Survival Debate, modeled after a long-standing tradition at the University of Montevallo in Central Alabama? I said, yes. I’m on Facebook. I’ve heard of all the discipline jousting events. She said great. And thus, I was signed up .

Here is the Scenario:  For the debate, we imagine that the electric grid has failed or has been attacked and, after some time, nuclear plants were abandoned and the inevitable meltdown caused death, destruction, and the annihilation of society as we know it.  The survivors, represented by the debate audience, are moving as far from the radiation poisoning as they can to begin building a new society. The group of academics invited to participate in the debate will fight for the LAST spot in the group that will journey into the wilderness with the coveted axe to build a better, safer society.

Each participant will be given 5 minutes to introduce their field and present their argument for why their discipline should be given the final spot in the new society.

My Response:

We have been preparing for the apocalypse since Hector’s body got dragged around the city gates. Troy burns. Pick up your household gods. Move on. Start again.

Literature readers and writers imagine the end every day. Book after book. We lit folks and creative writers are invested. We’ve studied every angle. A quick Amazon title search includes Princess of the Apocalypse, Apocalypse Taco, Operation Apocalypse, Wake Me After the Apocalypse, Scooby Apocalypse, California Poppy Apocalypse (OK, that’s a t-shirt but no one representing the garment industry is here so I’ll take it), Jack’s Apocalypse, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses and Apocalypse Darling.

I had a book called Salmon of the Apocalypse that got picked up by a publisher. It was about how to prevent the end of the world through cooking.  I renamed it Processed Meats, which does recall Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and that book’s baby-on-a-stick like a rotisserie but the publisher thought that Processed Meats was too gamy, so he made me change it to Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse, which I happily did because I had been working so hard to write that book and get it published, but then a couple of months later, the publisher decided, even though his books had won the William Styron Award, that publishing books is hard and closed up shop so my book never came out: dead it its own mini-bookpocalypse.

This is why writers will be the best for the apocalypse:

Writers can handle disappointment.

Writers can handle gruesomeness—see rotisserie baby a la Cormac McCarthy.

Look. There will be no internet during the apocalypse. You won’t be able to just Google how to make fire or how to hotwire a Harley Davidson. All those books about the apocalypse—they are study guides. You have to be able to read them for their deeper meaning, like what is a flint? and what is a spark plug? and how long does gasoline last anyway?

My department chair, Steve Rosendale, who abandoned me to my own devices for this presentation, did provide a helpful 3-point list of reasons why Literature should win. Citing our sources will be of utmost import in the apocalypse, in order that we may remember how we have to manage without the Chairs of our Departments now. So I quote NUMBER 1: “before philosophy (before!) the main way of transmitting memes or culture itself was story.” End quote. Remember, we won’t have Facebook or Twitter, so we’re going to have to transmit memes, together, in person, around a fire that we built thanks to those apocalypse books that described how to use a bow drill. It’s also known as fire bow, fire drill, fire by friction, and rubbing two sticks together. On the Internet, there are photographs of how this works, but in the apocalypse there won’t be. There will only be us, and, literature, which will supply the synonyms for bow drill and those creative creative writers who will see that a chopstick and a Matryoshka doll make an excellent fire drill. Also, we are the ones who know how to drive Harley Davidsons, the official motorbike of the apocalypse.

NUMBER 2: My Department Chair, Steve Rosendale also provides this: “poetry derives from the mnemonics of storytelling and certain features of language itself — rhyming makes the story more reliable to transmit.”

He additionally offered, NUMBER 3 “In an apocalypse these basic cultural capabilities will make English the most important discipline — mainly poetry.”

So, in final defense of literature, and to celebrate my upcoming collaborative, apocalypse-adjacent essay collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, I have provided for survival, a rhyming sonnet so that we may still speak, using mnemonics of story telling and rhyme, our stories:

The Five-Minute Apocalypse

The lights are out. Vultures. Cannibals too.
Well, it is a lot like Flagstaff at night
except without screens, which doesn’t feel right.
We sit around the campfire, Spam in lieu
of s’mores. Let the old kind of carbon spew.
We tell stories about the playwright who
warned us against fossil fuel as birthright.
Should have listened! Now, on canned meat, we chew.

As Language defined us, we defined it.
Every house, school, shop, bus, plate, spoon and cup
began with word first. Then was built to fit.
All gone, on words, regret, and Spam we sup.
It’s getting dark. Time out. Our last match lit.
At least English knows when their time is up.

Nicole Walker is the author of the forthcoming collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and of Sustainability: A Love Story from Ohio State University Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.


Using My Own Rejections to Motivate Students

April 30, 2019 § 4 Comments

jorgensen trioBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

“Your life is filled with gripping tales,” I tell my high school creative writing students. “Scour your life for dramatic moments, emotional scenes or frightening experiences and write your own stories. Write well and a publisher may want to share your stories with the world.”

When my sister qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games, suffered a flat tire in the triathlon, and proclaimed her goal to win gold in 2016, I took my own advice. But the tale was so big I needed a book. I partnered with my mom, Nancy Jorgensen, who had published two books in the field of choral education (From the Trenches: Real Insights from Real Choral Educators and Things they Never Taught You in Choral Methods).

After my mom and I completed our manuscript, we submitted it to publishers, agents, and editors. The rejections packed our email and mailbox, forcing us to ask, Is our memoir good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it? Despite rejections, our answers remained yes, yes, yes.

In my classroom, I projected a tweet from YA author Erin Hahn (@writer_ep_hahn): “Every author you respect was told no. Their email alert dinged and it was bad news. They entered their work into a contest and heard crickets. They cried buckets over a bad review. They felt inadequate. But they didn’t stop writing and you shouldn’t either.”

The tweet resonated with my students. I asked them to discuss their own rejections. I advised them to revise and submit elsewhere and then took my own advice.

Our memoir, Go Gwen Go, starts in 2010 when USA Triathlon recruited Gwen for a sport she never heard of. She rebuffed them at first, but eventually dabbled in swim-bike-run and surprised herself with success. She quit her job as an accountant to train full time. As she pursued the Olympic dream, our family agonized over her bike crashes, her relocation abroad, and her competitive losses. But, we celebrated her new skills, races won, and finally Olympic gold.

More than a sports tale, our memoir is a family story. I envisioned mothers, book clubs, and memoir fans delving into our family’s story. I saw my students enjoying how this is a book about the magic of possibility—that a 24-year-old accountant could remake her life into a dramatic athletic career.

The book explores themes of risk, the courage to invent a new life focus, and the unconditional family support that makes extraordinary accomplishments possible. Readers enter the secret world of Olympic training, professional coaching, international travel, sponsor funding, anti-doping requirements, athlete nutrition, and sports physiotherapy. They are privy to the personal life of a professional athlete, complete with medical crises, weddings, divorces, and holiday celebrations.

Gwen is followed by 42,000 fans on Twitter, 65,000 on Facebook and 138,000 on Instagram. They want a glimpse inside an Olympian’s life and the family that brought her to the pinnacle of sport. They want to peer inside sponsorship, agents, media tours. They want to know what it’s like to experience the Olympics, your sister/daughter the gold medal favorite.

After seeing Hahn’s tweet, I googled “rejected manuscripts famous authors” and saw a list that included Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Sylvia Plath. Many were told their ideas would “not sell” and “I wonder if any publisher will buy it.” I would not compare myself to Vonnegut, Hemingway or Alcott—or have ideas of grandeur for my own manuscript—but I was reminded that rejection connects all writers.

One rejection letter called our manuscript “delightful” before admonishing: the book won’t sell. Another editor said we submitted “a very worthwhile submission, particularly in memoirs” but reminded us that “because of the limited number of trade and regional titles” he would have to decline.

Each rejection challenged my mom and me to keep writing, keep believing, keep working. And to keep reflecting, perfecting, polishing. What should we cut? Where do readers want more information? Should we combine our voices? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone read it?

I shared the rejections with my students. I projected letters and chapter drafts and talked about how I felt. I reminded my students (and myself) that writing is an art form, with different audiences reacting differently to each piece. I said, “Writing is not a science, so it can always be updated, modified, changed. You just have to keep working, keep pushing forward.”

Almost two years after we finished our manuscript, Meyer & Meyer Sport, Europe’s largest sports publishing house, said they too believed—that they wanted to publish our story.

I am thankful for Hahn who reminded me it’s okay to feel inadequate, but to keep believing, keep writing and keep working. And that’s the message I relay to my students when they doubt themselves and ask, Is my writing good enough? Does it have a place in the market? Will anyone want to read it?


You just need to find precisely the right publisher who will believe as much as you do.


Elizabeth Jorgensen’s memoir, Go, Gwen, Goco-written with Nancy Jorgensen, is available for pre-order. Her shorter works appear in Wisconsin English Journal, Azalea and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She has presented on sijo (Korean poetry) at National Council of Teachers of English, Wisconsin State Reading Association, and The National Consortium for Teaching About Asia. This blog post was inspired by Jorgensen’s blog for Marquette University’s College of Education.


Wandering Aengus Press Book Awards

April 29, 2019 § 2 Comments

dandelion-2733649-1920-pixabay_origWandering Aengus Press has launched its inaugural book awards and is now accepting creative nonfiction manuscripts as well as manuscripts in fiction and poetry (and hybrids too). We will publish up to three prize winners this year. The press is dedicated to publishing works to enrich lives and make the world a better place, because why not do as much good as we can in the world with what little time we have?

The deadline to submit is May 31, 2019. The sooner you send in your manuscript, the more time our editors will have to spend with it, so for your own sake, please don’t wait til the last minute.

The Wandering Aengus editors will select the winning manuscripts, and we’ll announce the winners by September 1, 2019. The winning manuscripts will be published as perfect-bound books by Wandering Aengus Press or our imprint, Trail to Table Press, with full distribution via Ingram. Winners will receive 50 copies of their book. Authors will have input into the cover design and interior design.

Learn more and submit your best work at http://wanderingaenguspress.com/index.html.

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