The Last Word


typewriter2 (1)I read the last word in my memoir manuscript, Hiking Naked, and shut the lid of my laptop. That day, the document was twenty pages shorter than when my publisher offered me a contract—and requested some cuts. I hoped my trimming and editing resulted in a tighter story with stronger verbs and fewer adjectives. More showing, less telling.

A little over a week remained until the deadline for me to send the revision to my editor. I decided I had one more task to do—read all 225 pages out loud. It seemed a daunting undertaking, but the next day, in the quiet of my writing office, my yellow lab/shepherd curled at my feet, I began.

Sierra Club photo

I hadn’t anticipated how many times my reading voice would crack and tears would lodge in my throat, even though I know this story of my family’s two-year sojourn in a remote mountain village so well. The reading aloud revealed not only some overworked words and bits of stilted dialogue, but also the heartache of my struggle for clarity about work, my yearning for control, and the grief of losses that followed me to the Stehekin Valley.

Perhaps some of the tears were for the end of the writing process as well. For twenty years I’d worked to put this story on the page. I had re-read journal pages filled with questions —Am I good enough? Can I accept that I’m not in control? Is it okay to tend to my inner life? Is it possible to experience joy fearlessly? I tapped out words on my keyboard, trying to make sense of how those two years in a different place and a different way of life brought me to the balance and clearness I sought.

My creative writing development showed in the variety of ways I wrote about those questions, doubts, and fears. But as I spoke the text, I realized the questions persist, the doubts still surface, the desire for control and certainty remains. Once I reached the manuscript end, imagining it being out in the world for others to read, a single word hovered at my ear—fraud.

That label weighed on me, prompting me to seek counsel from my husband, a longtime spiritual friend, and a trusted writing friend. It faded for a few days, then resurfaced and lodged in the suitcase I packed to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing last week.

After Tobias Wolff’s opening keynote, “Some Doubts About Certainty,” I made my way to a session led by writer Dani Shapiro. daniI’d slid Dani’s memoir/writing book, Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, into my backpack in the hope she’d sign it. I settled in to hear her discuss her daily practice of attempting to make art out of a chaotic childhood and a painful early adulthood marked by profound loss.still-writing

“When I begin to write, it’s an act of faith,” Dani said as she talked about her three memoirs (a fourth, Hourglass, is due out in spring 2017). “I feel profound uncertainty. I don’t write what I know, I write to discover what I know.”

Evidently the judgment of myself as a fraud had wedged itself into my backpack, too. When it came time for questions, I asked Dani if, when she completes a book, she feels she has the answers. “No,” she replied, “I’m just better able to articulate the questions I started with.”

Dani went on to explain that, before an interview on the “Today Show,” she called a spiritual friend for help to calm her jitters about explaining the uncertainties that compelled her to write her first memoir, Devotion. Her friend suggested, “You’ve written a book about what you know now.” For Dani, implicit in that wisdom was, “You’ll know more, later.”

Until I read that last word in my own memoir manuscript, it seems I’d expected that I had figured it all out, had answered all those questions that sent me to my writing desk. “The book ends, but the journey doesn’t,” Dani said. I’m holding on to those final words.




Renewed by Renewable

Renewable 9781631529689_FullCover 3Nov14.indd

At age fifty, I snapped half a plastic handcuff around one wrought iron bar of the White House fence. Glancing over my shoulder at the famous sloping lawn and the imposing white pillars of the south portico, I slipped the other cuff around my maroon leather glove and locked it into place. 

That’s how Quaker author Eileen Flanagan opens her latest book, Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope. There was no way I could stop reading. Later in the first chapter, I read words that especially struck a chord. Eileen described feelings from a year earlier that ultimately drove her to the White House fence.

Sleepless at 3:00 a.m., I stared at the ceiling in a midlife hormonal funk and realized with a shock that my life was not what I had expected.

Though our stories are quite different, I resonated with Eileen’s analysis of a source of her tossing and turning:

I had felt alone in my midlife angst, though I knew I really wasn’t. I’d heard whispers from my middle-class friends, more than one of whom wished she had less house and more freedom. At the very least, everyone I knew had too much junk in the basement and too many e-mails.

 In Renewable, Eileen describes her yearning for a different way of life—perhaps more like the simplicity of living in a mud hut as she’d done as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana— and to live up to her potential. Additionally, as she grew increasingly worried about her children’s future on a warming planet, she felt unable to make a difference to address the complex issue of climate change.

EQAT-logoEileen writes with wit, wisdom, and honesty about her journey through a spiritual midlife crisis. Ultimately, her concern about climate change led her to work with the nonviolent, direct action environmental group, Earth Quaker Action Team, and to a sense of fulfillment and hope. Her book gives me hope, too.

About twenty-five years earlier, and at an age very close to that of Eileen when she longed for a different way of life, I’d been in a similar frame of mind. Torn between feelings of impotence to promote health for people in need and uncertainty that I was still being called to work as a nurse, I stepped off the Middle-America treadmill in search of clarity and a simpler way of life. In my forthcoming memoir, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I recount how, in 1994, I quit my job as a public health nurse and convinced my husband and our thirteen-year-old twin son and daughter to move to Stehekin, a remote village in Washington’s North Cascades. Though far—geographically and metaphorically—from the fence around the White House, the solitude of Stehekin helped me find the clarity I sought about how I’m led.

During those years in Stehekin, I came to understand that callings may change throughout someone’s life. Since then, I’ve also discovered that discernment about work is an ongoing process. Eileen’s writing has been a companion along the way.

I first met Eileen in 2010 at a Friends General Conference Gathering when we both gave readings from our own books—I from my first book, Hands at Work, and Eileen from her then-new book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference.NewWisdomCover-lowres

Based on the Serenity Prayer, The Wisdom to Know the Difference presents stories of people finding the courage to change their lives (and sometimes the world), as well as stories of letting go and finding peace. It’s a book I return to when my clarity about how I’m led turns murky.

Eileen Flanagan

Now I’m inspired by Renewable, both as a seeker and as a writer, so I contacted Eileen with some questions that she graciously responded to.

Iris: Your book includes many threads (your Irish heritage, discernment about leadings, Peace Corps experiences and Africa, the environment—to name a few). When you began to write, did you know that all of these themes would be included?

Eileen: Not really. At first I described it as a book about money. Then it was a book about buying a new house. The Peace Corps and my Irish family history kept showing up, no matter what I thought I was writing about, but there were other stories, too.

When I gave the first draft to three friends to read at the same time, they all agreed that there were too many themes, but disagreed about what should stay and what should go. One said she thought I should cut the parts about climate change, and that was really helpful because it made me realize that climate change was one of the parts I absolutely couldn’t cut.

This is my third book, but it was the hardest to write because of the question of what to keep in and what to cut out. A life is messy and full of lots of experiences, but a memoir has to have some focused story line, or it would be unbearably boring for the reader.

Iris: Please describe your writing practice or routine.

Eileen: It really depends on whether or not I’m working on a book. This past year I’ve spent a lot of time publicizing Renewable—public speaking and writing articles—which means my writing time comes in fits and starts. I’m hoping in 2016 to get back to a daily writing practice, which is essential when I’m working on a book. For me, that usually means going to a coffee shop and staying at my computer for at least the morning, whether or not inspiration seems to be there with me. One of the nice things, now that I’ve been at this awhile, is that I can finally push some pages out, without constantly rewriting every sentence as I go, and trust that I can always edit later.

Iris: What place does writing have in your Spirit-led work?

Eileen: Writing plays an important role, though it’s not the only form my work takes. I think one of my gifts, as I say in the book, is helping people to make connections. Writing is one of the ways I do that, though I also feel led to public speaking and activism, which are different expressions of the same gift and leading.

Iris: What kind of response have you received from readers of Renewable?

Eileen: I’ve gotten so many positive responses. Although it’s nice to hear from people who have similar stories, my favorite responses are often from people whose lives look very different from mine on the surface, such as an Air National Guard Colonel at midlife and a school teacher who knows that the system she’s working in isn’t serving kids. The teacher said to me, “I don’t know about climate change, and I’m not going to do the kind of things you are doing, but hearing your story makes me want to be more courageous in speaking up at my school about the things that I see that are wrong.” I loved that.

And I especially love Eileen’s answer to this last question. As writers, we rarely know what effect (if any) our words have on readers. I believe that’s out of my hands, yet it doesn’t stop me from hoping that by sharing my story, others will be strengthened to honor their own. Eileen’s Renewable has done that for me.

Book Contract Just Got “Realer”

The subject line of the email read: “(Hiking Naked) 6 to-dos assigned to you.” The message a couple of weeks ago from my publisher, Leslie Browning of Homebound Publications, alerted me that I can now check in to Basecamp.

basecamp-full-standardBasecamp, founded by Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson, seems like a great tool for my publishing team to divide up the work, store and organize files, list milestones and deadlines, and have regular check-ins. “Numerous small businesses use Basecamp as a virtual office when working with people spread out over the country and the world,” Leslie explains. With the Homebound office thousands of miles away in Rhode Island, I can stay in contact easily through Basecamp. Along with all the staff assigned to my manuscript, I can sign in to my project anytime, day or night, to keep track of the tasks (and deadlines) as we work toward the book’s publication in Autumn 2017.

This invitation from Leslie is just the latest of the many reasons I believe Homebound is a perfect fit for publication of my memoir, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. Leslie has already posted a schedule of pre-publication tasks—some assigned to her, and some listed for me. Scrolling down the benchmarks that will turn my manuscript into both a print and an electronic book is much like the actual hiking trail markers and the metaphorical touchstones that I write about in this spiritual memoir. And it all makes the contract that I signed with Homebound back in September seem that much “realer.”

Every time I reference “my publisher,” “my publishing team,” or “the staff assigned to my manuscript,” I smile. H@W Cover LG (2)978-0-615-22018-5When I independently published my first book, Hands at Work, I was the one directing the team that included me, photographer Summer Moon Scriver, and designer Robert Lanphear. I’m well aware of the “to-dos” (far more than the 50 already on my Basecamp list) to publish a book, and I’m thrilled to be sharing them with Leslie and others on the Homebound staff.



You can see some of the results of Homebound’s careful attention to detail—and take advantage of their winter sale— at their online bookstore. These are some Homebound titles I’ve already added to my library:





My Mother’s Kitchen: A Novel with Recipes by Meera Ekkanath Klein





The Strait – poems by Andrew Jarvis







Four Blue Eggs – poems by Amy Nawrocki





Slices of Life by Ann Nyberg




and two poetry collections by Homebound Publisher Leslie Browning:



Fleeting Moments of Fierce Clarity


Seasons of Contemplation


Holding these books in my hands and reading the words on their cream-colored pages makes the publication of my own book seem more real, too.




A Perfect Fit

My telephone rang one afternoon the end of July, and the voice on the line said words that make a writer’s knees buckle. Fortunately, I was sitting down.

Indie_voices_indie_minds_sm_1“We love your book,” said Leslie Browning, publisher of Homebound Publications.

In mid-May, I’d sent her a query letter and the first three chapters of my memoir, Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. I’d labored over that letter for months and felt especially good about the part that summed up what the book is about: “Hiking Naked, a 70,000-word memoir, is a blend of Wild and Walden that chronicles my spiritual quest for meaningful work.” My choice of comparable titles seemed especially apt when I researched Homebound Publications and read this on the press’s website:

Authors representative of the work we seek would be: Barry Lopez, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, David Abram, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Annie Dillard, David Whyte, Cheryl Strayed, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

I’d expected to wait a couple of months to learn if Homebound was interested in my manuscript, but Leslie wrote within 24 hours that she wanted to read the entire work. My knees buckled again as I submitted all 245 pages. The automated response from the submission managing program Homebound (and many other publishers) uses reiterated the press’s usual response time: 12 to14 weeks to review a full manuscript. Since I’d heard from Leslie sooner than the typical eight-week wait with an initial query, I hoped a decision about the manuscript might come quickly.

I waited.

And waited.

While I waited, I reviewed the Homebound website—again. And again. And with each visit, I felt more convinced that this press was a perfect fit for my manuscript, and for me.

Homebound Publications is an award-winning independent publisher founded in 2011. Its name, derived from the idea of the journey to find a place of belonging, echoes a Herman Melville quote—“Life’s a voyage that’s homeward bound.” The press receives about 2000 submissions a year and publishes 8 to 12 full-length works of contemplative literature annually.

Contemplative literature? I liked the sound of that, too, and Homebound’s description:

In this throwaway-culture where we buy a book in the supermarket, read it over the weekend, and then toss it, we publish books that you will have on your nightstand for a few years and return to again and again—books that nourish your mind and soul.

The press also seemed like the right “home” because of the themes it looks for:

  • spirituality
  • personal growth
  • religion
  • sustainable practices
  • the environment
  • introspective travel writing
  • well-researched educational books writing on spiritual practices or culture.

match_coverSeasons-of-Contemplations_Cov_store_2While I awaited Leslie’s response to the manuscript, I purchased two titles Homebound has published—Match by Gunilla Norris and Seasons of Contemplation by Leslie Browning. Yes, this publisher is a poet, too, and all of the editors are working writers. The books were as beautiful as the images in Homebound’s online catalog, and the content was equally rich with wisdom to keep me grounded as I awaited Leslie’s response. It came in an email about ten weeks later, full of enthusiasm for the memoir and an explanation that Leslie’s schedule had been packed. We made a phone date to talk further.

I caught my breath after Leslie’s first words on the call. For the next hour, we discussed what it would mean for Homebound to publish Hiking Naked. The press seeks passionate, dedicated authors who understand both the art and business of writing. As writers themselves, the Homebound staff respect an author’s voice and involve her in the book’s design process. The longer we talked, the clearer I became that I wanted to work with this press—and Homebound wanted to work with me.

“Do you have any more questions at this point?” Leslie asked.

“What do you think of the title?”

I’d heard from many writers that publishers often recommend a different title for an author’s manuscript, based on their knowledge of what catches the eye of booksellers and customers

“We think it’s great,” Leslie said. “It covers the themes, and it’s intriguing.”

I smiled as Leslie went on to explain that she’d send me a contract to review. It arrived a couple of days later; I considered it carefully and sought guidance from a lawyer and other writers who’ve worked with small presses. Leslie and I signed it the end of August. Celebrations with family, friends, and fellow writers followed.

Now I’m in the midst of one more revision to trim a few pages. In the spring, my editor and I will work on additional revisions, followed by plans for the book design and pre-publication promotion for a release in autumn 2017.

Every now and then I replay Leslie’s first words in my mind, and I feel excitement and gratitude for this perfect fit.

I encourage you to visit the Homebound Publications Bookstore. To kick off the autumn season, they’ve discounted books 20%; use the coupon code AUTUMN20 when you order. I’m honored that, soon, Hiking Naked will be part of Homebound’s collection of contemplative literature.