The last day of Spring Residency for my writing program (Northwest Institute of Literary Arts), guest faculty Kathleen Dean Moore talked with the Craft of Nonfiction class about writing essays. A philosophy professor at Oregon State University, Kathleen writes prose that questions and celebrates our cultural and spiritual connections to Earth in a style reminiscent of poet Mary Oliver.
Taking notes on my laptop as Kathleen spoke, my fingers barely kept up with the wisdom she shared. Here is one of her gems:
Every essay is connections and a little bit of wisdom tucked into experience.
I took in a quick breath and felt tears stinging my nose and filling my eyes as Kathleen spoke. That’s why I read essays, to find connection and that little bit of wisdom tucked into a story. Kathleen’s wisdom usually is surrounded by experiences in nature—such as watching an osprey taking time to notice a shadow in the water and then having the courage to dive. She says that’s the work of nature writers (I would argue all writers): “observe patiently, lovingly; keep watch for shadow; plummet toward it and engage it.”
That’s what I want my writing to be. Sometimes there’s only a very little bit of wisdom. Most of the time, I don’t know it’s there until I start to write. I’ve tried to be organized and systematic in my writing. Sometime I write out a rough outline, topics and themes sprouting out from an experience or an insight. That technique does help me to have an idea of where I’m going in my writing. But usually I don’t know which road I’m heading down until I wrap my fingers around a pen, or place them on the keyboard, and let them lead me across the page.
I have a similar experience in Meeting for Worship when I quiet my mind enough to open myself to that essence or wisdom beyond me. And just as in my writing, that opening and centering usually takes me to unexpected places.
Kathleen also challenged us to think about the kind of writing we should do.
“In a ‘world of wounds,’ it’s not enough to write about a marsh as it’s being bulldozed for a K-Mart parking lot,” she said. “We’ve run out of time; we have to move quickly and reach a wider audience through new venues such as newspapers, blogs, and radio essays.”
To know the kind of writing we should do, she urged us to answer three questions:
What are my gifts?
What breaks my heart?
What are the world’s deepest needs?
“Your calling is at the intersection of these,” she said.
Maybe I should follow the behavior of the osprey both when I settle into worship and to write—take whatever time is needed to listen patiently and lovingly, keeping watch for shadow. There’s plenty of that as I open myself to my own flaws, mistakes, and regrets. And observing more widely, I’m aware of the shadows of hurts, disappointments, and wrongs in my community, my country, and the world. I want the courage of the osprey to dive deeply into some of those shadows and to engage with them. But I often just skim the surface and pull back to my comfortable spot of gratitude for the blessings in my life.
I’m discovering more all the time the amount of courage needed to write the connections and tuck in a little bit of wisdom. I often stop myself because I know that I possess just a portion of knowledge of an issue or a situation. But my portion (or yours) might just be what is needed for greater wisdom to emerge. I want to be courageous enough to shine the light on my little bit of wisdom.