“The Twenty-Year Memoir”: Re-blog from BREVITY

In the early years of my work to write a memoir, I heard Barbara Kingsolver talk about her novel, The Poisonwood Bible. She explained it sat in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet  for twenty years, and referred to it as her “damn Africa book.”

As my unfinished manuscript inched toward the two-decade mark, I often called it my “damn Stehekin book” and took some comfort in knowing that Kingsolver, whose writing I admire, toiled many years, too.

When I first began to write what turned into Hiking Naked  (forthcoming from Homebound Publications, September 2017), I naively thought I could finish it in a year.  But as weary and frustrated as I often felt, I’m glad I put in the time to, as Marc Nieson suggests, “to grow into” my words. I appreciate his insights on his  journey to write Schoolhouse  (follow the link below) and am eager to read his “quiet memoir.”

By Marc Nieson Growing up, I delivered newspapers after school. Every day, for some ten years. And forty years later, I can still remember the front stoops and names of many of those customers. Some nights I’ll even dream about that paper route. One spring afternoon, though, stands out above all the rest. I was […]

via Finish Work: The Twenty-Year Memoir — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

Nudged

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Now that I’ve let my nursing license expire, and I’m finishing up two major writing projects (BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community and my memoir, Hiking Naked), I’ve been reflecting on what I’m being led to next. I yearn for the kind of certainty I felt forty years ago when I sensed a clear calling (though I didn’t use that term at the time) to enter nursing school. Or the flash of insight I experienced at a writing workshop over fifteen years ago.

In October of 2000, instead of attending the annual fall public health conference as I usually did, I enrolled in a weeklong writing course by Tom Mullen at Pendle Hill Quaker Center. Tom was a former Quaker pastor and former Dean of Earlham School of Religion (ESR). He was the inspiration behind the ESR Ministry of Writing Program, as he himself was a writer who ministered through the written word. That’s what Tom did for me during that workshop and as he critiqued my writing.

During a group discussion about how to fit writing into our lives, I realized that a number of my nursing consultation contracts would be completed by the end of the year. I saw an opening then to try a new schedule. Why not fit consulting work around writing instead of the other way around?   I announced to my fifteen workshop classmates that in January 2001 I would start a new job—writer. Ever since then, I’ve treated writing as my work, or at least part of my work, and have made time for it nearly every weekday.

languageSo far, though, such clarity about future work has been elusive. As so often happens when I acknowledge my seeking and uncertainty, I learned about a book that intrigued me—A Language for the Inward Landscape by Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, Jr. Both authors had studied old Quaker journals in which early Friends described their inward states and their experience of faithful life. They talked of how some of the words and phrases these journalers used were “both puzzling and full of implication” and provided a rich vocabulary to describe those experiences. Taber was especially drawn to the range and complexity of Quaker spirituality conveyed in these writings and called it “a language for the inward landscape.” A couple of years after Taber died, Drayton agreed to delve into Taber’s “the Language” materials and ultimately wrote this book drawing on Taber’s notes and his own study and understanding.

I’m part of the book’s audience of modern seekers who continue to wrestle with putting our spiritual experiences into words, and this book—a combination of history, biography, and dictionary—has broadened my vocabulary to describe my inward journey. Though I don’t feel a clear leading about my next steps, I’ve had some inklings, or wonderings, about what might call to me. A Language for the Inward Landscape offers a term that describes how I feel guided right now:

Nudge – “… though it is mostly synonymous with ‘leading,’ nudge lays emphasis upon the often very small and tentative beginnings of some spiritual development. A nudge is gentle, and often doesn’t convey its ultimate meaning clearly; meaning may unfold as the path unfolds.”

Quaker Charlotte Lyman Fardelmann identified some key signs of authenticity of a nudge:

  • it leads to love and light
  • it comes with clarity, or grows in clarity as it is lived with
  • it resonates with deep desires
  • it leads into service to others
  • it requires rest
  • it leads to more love and joy.

My nudges are definitely small and tentative right now, with the strongest urge being to conserve my energy to complete the projects I’m involved in; there’s still plenty to do to bring my two books into the world. But thanks to A Language for the Inward Landscape, I draw strength and hope from the wisdom of others that my path will unfold.

Journaling as Meditation

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Wisps of steam rose from my tea cup as I set it on my desk next to my laptop. Instead of lifting the laptop lid, I reached for a handbound journal, closed my eyes, and slowly took a breath in, then let my breath out. Breath in. Breath out. And again. Breath in. Breath out. I opened to a blank page, numbered it, and wrote the date. For the next ten minutes or so, I wrote in response to the query, “How did you meet Spirit in the past 24 hours?”

When I’m at my best, this is how I center myself before starting my work for the day. I must admit, though, I haven’t been at my best for some months, having convinced myself that I’m too busy, have too many deadlines, can’t afford to “waste” valuable minutes in this practice.

I’ve felt the effects of abandoning the meditative journaling discipline that nourished me for many years. Thanks to the Ben Lomond Quaker Center, which accepted my proposal to lead a workshop about this practice, I’m once again starting most days journaling in a contemplative way.

For most of my adult life, writing has been a vehicle for me to understand what I believe, feel, question, and know. For the past twenty years, I’ve recognized writing as a Spirit-led creative process through which I come to know God and to understand God’s presence in my life.   I’ve also viewed writing as a way to minister to others, an idea that was validated in 2000 when I attended a Pendle Hill Quaker Center workshop, Writing as Ministry, led by Tom Mullen. Since then, writing has become both my work and a spiritual discipline.

I also learned the craft of bookbinding, and I’ve been making hand-bound journals, for myself and for sale, for nearly fifteen years. Through this skill, I’ve come to believe that the journal itself can be an important part of the expression of what it contains.

quaker-journals-157x245Journaling has always been a part of Quaker practice. In 1972, Howard Brinton published Quaker Journals following his study of the 300 journals in his own library; he estimated there were probably about 1000 Quaker journals, including those not in print (I suspect there are thousands more now). Brinton found all the journals had several things in common: simplicity and truth in writing; personal experiences, experiences in early childhood, and dreams were only written about if the writer believed they had religious significance; and humility. He also found they recorded similar stages of development: divine revelations in childhood, then a period of youthful playfulness (usually looked back upon as a waste of time), an experience of a divided self, and finally, following the leadings of the Light.

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Mary Morrison, a writer and former Pendle Hill teacher, has this to say about journaling in her pamphlet, Live the Questions: Write into the Answers: “A journal is an instrument of awareness, through which we can watch what we do so we can find out who we are.”

That finding out who I am has led me back to my journal. It’s no surprise that questions about calling have risen again, as I’m completing two major projects. For nearly three years I’ve been focused on BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community, a book to be released in mid-October. At the same time (and for nearly two decades), I’ve worked on a memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, that’s in production with Homebound Publications for a September 2017 release. Now, I’m living the question, “What next?”

2016-journaling-as-meditation-flyer-draft-v3-2Maybe it’s not wise to admit my lapse in contemplative journaling as I’m preparing to lead a workshop to support others in this practice. Then again, readying myself to teach when I’ve been humbled by my own struggle likely will make me more sensitive to those who have resisted a journaling practice or have, as I’ve heard from many participants in past workshops, tried and “failed” at filling blank pages. The calm and centeredness I’ve felt as I’ve returned to journaling as meditation only strengthens my appreciation of this valuable tool.

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So. Tomorrow, I’ll again set my mug on the desk, plant my feet on the floor, reach for my journal, breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, and pick up my pen.

Creative Nonfiction from A-Z

typewriter2 (1)When I introduce myself as a writer, the person I’m talking to typically asks, “What do you write?”

After I reply, “Creative nonfiction,” I usually hear, “Oh…” and my new friend’s eyes focus somewhere beyond my face as if I’ve responded in a foreign language. I understand the confusion.
CNF60_Cover-1Essayist Scott Russell Sanders claims that the term nonfiction was coined by librarians to show their libraries weren’t filled with frivolous things. The genre’s name says more about what it isn’t, than what it is. It’s like saying that classical music is non-jazz or wine is non-beer. Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, describes what creative nonfiction is in detail, but also offers this succinct and accurate definition: “True stories, well told.”

And that’s where the creative part comes in. A well-told story, whether true or made up, relies on literary craft techniques of characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, and description. It’s just that with true stories—nonfiction—the writer can’t exaggerate or lie about what really happened, can’t create characters that don’t exist, wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) falsely describe a setting. Or, as Gutkind says, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

ABCs-of-Creative-Nonfiction-1What creative nonfiction writers do, though, is shape their stories—personal essays, memoirs, narrative nonfiction—just as novelists and short story writers do. They (we) use a range of storytelling techniques and tools. Recently, the editors of Spry Literary Journal undertook the task of compiling descriptions of some elements of the genre and, with the help of twenty-six writers, launched The ABCs of Creative Nonfiction.

Linsey Jayne
Linsey Jayne

Linsey Jayne, poet and founding co-editor of Spry, began the series this way:

“Reading the work of a gifted author in the genre suddenly gives you the feeling of being swept into your closest friend’s dream. Notes meet rhythm to become symphonies. Something about the artful way in which such a writer paints the universe invokes a sense of empathy. Her stories make you feel all the more human, connected to yourself and to the world. She sweeps you up into something that once seemed as ordinary as walking across your living room floor, but now is laden with the meaning that builds in the hundreds of times you’ve walked across that floor while holding the hand of your child or laughing with your loved ones late into the night.”

What followed Linsey’s introduction were twenty-six mini craft lessons to correspond with the letters of the alphabet. There was A is for Accoutrements by Spry co-editor Erin Ollila, B is for Bravery by fellow Whidbey Writers Workshop classmate Chels Knorr, and E is for Ethics. One of my favorites was Q is for (Not) Quitting. As a contributor to the journal’s Issue 2 with my essay Cycles, I was invited to participate in the series; my offering was S is for Setting.

Linsey concluded the ABCs of Creative Nonfiction posts with this reflection:

“Writers in the genre need to offer journalistic honesty, interrogating the elements of their pasts (or the pasts of their subjects) to the point of pain and often at the risk of their emotional stasis for the sake of their craft. They have to swear. A lot. (Honestly, I can understand why.) They need minds that are equal parts surrealist, absurdist, realist, magician; they need to care so much that when their worlds sweat, they sweat.”

Whether you’re a reader or writer (or both) of creative nonfiction, I think you’ll enjoy Spry’s A-Z compendium about the genre. If you get hooked, as I did, you can also check out the magazine’s ABCs of Writing for Beginners and ABCs of Fiction Writing. Up next from Spry will be the ABCs of Flash Fiction.

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