OMG! I Didn’t Know I Was Writing a Spiritual Memoir

April 5, 2021 § 25 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

When I sent those twenty pages with my application to a writing residency in 2012, I was thinking of it as the beginning of a memoir about a childhood trauma. It was what I called my marker story, that moment in life after which everything changes. Where nothing is the same, whether you know it or not.

I had been writing about what happened after a terrible collision between the car in which I was getting a ride home from school and a Mack truck. It was a crash that ended my friend’s mother’s life too early and changed the course of three girls’ lives.

After my two weeks at the residency that following fall, I had confirmation: The book was about silent suffering and voice finding, brokenness and healing. It was a trauma memoir.

Three years later, stalled in the writing because much of it had been retraumatizing, I shared a short version with a storytelling producer who invited me to tell it on stage. A very large stage. Something very powerful happened to me after that telling.  My four-decades long silence had been cracked open by speaking into a microphone in front of 100 witnesses. I felt altered. Better.

I thought, okay, maybe my story wasn’t meant for the page but instead to be heard on the stage because it’s mission was to break a silence.

While my higher self was pleased, my writerly self was majorly bummed.

A year later, I was sitting in my living room mindlessly scrolling when two words fell into the screen of my mind: Seven Springs. The words shot me out of my chair to the plastic bins filled with journals in my office closet. In a maniacal frenzy I paged through my source material and discovered that there were, indeed, several springs in my life that seemed unusually dramatic. Big things tended to happen to me in spring, the anniversary season of the accident as well as the time of year in which a conversation at a high school reunion rearranged my understanding  of the experience. But there were only six, not seven.

But I was planning to go to my 40th reunion, scheduled for the following spring.

Super meta. Yeah, I know. But it was the moment that I saw the arc of seven springs.

I returned to the story and the writing began again. This time, there was new energy. The new structure provided a safety net for me. As it turned out, perhaps not so strangely, the 40th reunion brought a profound insight and denouement to my story.

By the spring of 2018, I had a final draft. By that summer, I had secured an agent. But after six months, there were no takers and the agent and I went our separate ways.

That’s when revisions began. I invited more minds and eyeballs. One very thoughtful writer friend suggested that an ending scene in which I recited a Jewish prayer as I boarded a plane might make an excellent prologue. I agreed. Once I moved it, the book suddenly had a different framing. It was still about trauma and healing but I saw things I didn’t see before. My journey had a spiritual quality. There was mystery. Signs. Doubt. Faith. Redemption.

In all, I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism. Once I could comfortably embrace the work as a spiritual memoir – a genre in which I had some resistance because What? Me? A lay person with a roller coaster history of faith and doubt? Write a spiritual book? – the book had found its mission and I began to send queries to indie book publishers interested in spiritual content.

Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.

Then, in the midst of a global pandemic, three publishers expressed interest and the book found a home. There isn’t anything like the feeling in which your long-labored over words have touched the heart and mind of someone whose mission is to bring books to readers.

If all of this wasn’t enough to capture the book’s identity, toward the end of my last revision, I came across a quote by the Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen which secured it.

“And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world broke and were scattered into a thousand fragments where they remain deeply hidden. We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” (Quote edited for space.)

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Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) is scheduled for Spring 2021 release. Her essays have been published in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of the literary publication Thread which earned four notables in Best American Essays and author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.

Getting Honest about Om: A Brief Essay on Audience

February 17, 2021 § 13 Comments

By Heather Lanier

I want to write an essay about trying to teach my kids to meditate during a pandemic. But it’s neither easy to write an essay, nor easy to live in a pandemic. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My meditation is Christian-based, so I decide before even starting that I’ll submit the finished piece to a Christian magazine.

Writing for an overtly Christian audience is new to me, and at first, it’s kind-of liberating. I can make in-house jokes, referencing Jesus’ more peculiar behaviors like cursing fig trees and doodling in sand. Also, I can employ all kinds of handy code words for complex ideas. God, for instance. Faith.

But then I hit a problem. When I first taught my kids to meditate, we chanted om. Why? Because one of them requested it. And because their father was once a Buddhist monk. And because their mother still opens books by Tibetan nuns and appreciates Sufi poetry. We chanted om because I believe there are many paths to God.

The magazine’s submission word-count is tight, 1,200 words. So in the first draft, I leave out om entirely. Instead, I say we did on day one what we eventually did on day five: Sat in silence for a minute. It’s true. . . but also not true. I walk away from the writing desk knowing I can’t live with the draft as it is.

The nonfiction writer’s only constraints are facts. And there are sometimes ethical reasons to change those facts. We change the name of a doctor who harmed us because, despite malpractice, he could sue. But whenever we consider twisting the facts because we don’t know how else to artistically handle the complexity of real life, we should make ourselves sit back down at the desk and figure out a way to stay truthful and tell a readable story. Doing so reteaches me again and again this lesson: If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing.

Why does this happen? I suspect because working with the messiness of truth requires us to punch out new spaces in the confines of prose, like someone knocking down walls in their home to add a playroom, an indoor swimming pool, or a personal arboretum. Trees in the living room? Why, yes! We build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres, which means we innovate—which is what good art in any form requires.

So I write om back into the story. I describe the half-harmonic, half-discordant chord between my kids and me.

And then something interesting happens: getting honest about om enables me to write in a voice that’s honest about my whole inter-spiritual perspective. The voice is unabashed, and unapologetic. She’s no longer concerned with an arena of Christian readers.

In fact, I’m suddenly not writing to any arena. I’m now writing to a person, singular and intimate. This person doesn’t necessarily subscribe to one religion or another, but she’s wholly interested in whatever mongrel version of “prayer” I taught my kids a week ago. This person is a friend.

I should be surprised by none of this. Julianna Baggott once said that if you want to write any piece of writing, don’t imagine an audience. “Imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.” In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which I share with my graduate students, Gornick explains how finding the right voice can help a writer elucidate the story, “the wisdom, the insight, the thing one has come to say.”

The voice I’ve found has its own accord. Where the voice of the early draft could only conclude with canned understandings of faith, using words like “grace” and “God” as unopened suitcases, this new voice lands on a final paragraph that feels utterly new to me.  

This is what writing coaches mean when they implore you to “find your voice.” But as Mary Karr explains in The Art of Memoir, the only way she has been able to “find her voice” for a book-project is to write her way into one, a task that sometimes takes hundreds of pages. Luckily, sometimes it only takes a handful of false starts and a few secretive oms.
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Heather Lanier’s memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University in New Jersey, and her TED Talk has been viewed over two million times.

On Writing That Is Far Less Religious, Way More Spiritual

May 30, 2019 § 12 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.
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Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry, Swallow Press, 2019.

Essaying in the Age of Unbelief

January 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

griffOver on the Image blog, David Griffith, author of A Good War is Hard to Find, offers a fascinating look at what he (and others) see as a scarcity of Christian or Catholic beliefs represented positively in the contemporary literary novel and suggests nonfiction may be the more compatible venue for spiritual searching:

… the kind of search for meaning that the novel offers has, over time, naturally and understandably drifted away from religious ways of understanding who were are and why we are here, just as the culture has.

Perhaps this is why I, a writer with an MFA in fiction, have turned almost exclusively to the personal essay and memoir. My first publication appeared in the “Confessions” section of Image, a section that is set apart from the “Essays” section. While I never asked about that distinction, it seems clear to me that it is a nod to spiritual autobiography, the genre started by St. Augustine.

My sense is that confessional nonfiction helps the writer (and the reader) to examine his conscience. The examination of conscience is a very important spiritual practice for Catholics. Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander come to mind, as does the late Joshua Casteel’s book-length essay Letters from Abu Ghraib.

… I am drawn to the genre because it allows for spiritual self-evaluation in a way that fiction performs either at a remove, or in a secret deeply personal way, possibly known only by the author.  …

For me, writing essays is a means of understanding how my actions are in keeping or at odds with my faith, and how I can maintain faith in the face of tragedy and atrocity. For me, these are the questions of our day.

Given the attention memoir—and confessions—have received in the last ten years (James Frey and Tiger Woods) and even last ten days (Lance Armstrong, and now Manti Te’O), might it be that personal narrative, and not the novel, has become the most relevant cultural—and spiritual—form?

You can read all of Griffith’s posting here.

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