From the Basement

October 15, 2011

On the Writing-Spirit Connection

Filed under: Faith,Writing — jeannablue @ 1:08 pm
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I was recently talking with a friend who is going through a bit of a rough time; a few symptoms mentioned were spiritual dryness and a lack of writing fervor. That struck a chord with me—when I’m spiritually dry, I don’t write, or maybe it’s that when I’m not writing, I’m spiritually dry … which comes first is a mystery. Call it the creative version of the chicken and the egg.

Truth be told, I communicate best with God when I’m writing to him—love letters, complaint letters, missives filled with the banality of daily life. And, of course, the why am I here? What have you done? Why are you letting this happen? What do you want me to do? letters (the answer to those is invariably: have faith, read the Bible, and make a decision that seems best).

I have tons of prayer journals stacked up on shelves in the closet. I don’t know that I ever set out to write a “prayer journal,” as I’m thoroughly terrible at committing to similar courses of action (for example, reading my Bible every day—never been too good at that). It’s that I can’t focus my thoughts in a conversation. Whenever I’m reading a novel and see the “s/he thought” notation, I laugh. Goodness, that’s not realistic—at least not for me. For me, critical thinking is critical writing. In order to think hard about anything, I write—oh, ideas come as thoughts, but I have to find a paper and pen or else I’ll lose them like leaves in the wind. (Hence why I carry a notebook and pen with me everywhere.) I use sheaves of paper to map out my academic arguments, my stories, the occasional poem, and, yes, just about every prayer that requires any length. I’ll find pages in notebooks where I started trying to write through something—a difficult discussion with my now-husband, for instance—and it inevitably turns into a prayer.

There’s something very spiritual about the writing process. It’s not just that writing is a connection to God, but it’s almost as though God, or the fabric He’s created, speak through the writing. There’s a phenomenal chapter in The Right to Write by Julia Cameron where she talks the spiritual nature of writing, that as writers, we are vessels that are filled a story that comes from something greater than ourselves. I don’t know where my characters or stories come from, I don’t know how I know what happens next—the story just writes itself, and the characters do things that continually surprise me. Cameron is not committed to any one idea of God or the Universe, and while I obviously see that creative source as God the Father, I still agree wholeheartedly with her main point: that writing is a listening process, a spiritual process that is good for the soul.

But this butts up against the ego, against pride, against the relatively new Western idea that as writers, we have to be Original and Inventive, making a Big Cultural Contribution. Cameron delves into this negotiation of ego vs. channel with clarity and insight:

            The ego hates being a “channel”—or whatever other nonoffensive word you can find for it. The ego wants to take credit…. The ego wants to have it both ways: to receive the work effortlessly and then take the full glory for having “thought it all up” instead of “taking it all down.”

It is possible to write out of the ego. It is possible, but it is also painful and exhausting. Back in my drinking days, I used to strain to be brilliant, to write the best, the most amazing, most dazzling …  Is it any wonder that chemical additives seemed like a good idea, like the secret advantage I just might need?

…. I was told by screenwriters Jerry Ayres and Diana Gould, and by nonfiction writer Maurice Zolotow, to post a little sign by my desk that said something like, “OK, universe. You take care of the quality, I’ll take care of the quantity.”

…. I came to the humbling conclusion that over time that I wrote pretty much at the same level all the time, a few peaks and a few valleys but overall: just Julia. I began to think of myself less as “author, author” and more as a word processor. I began to be more willing to let “it,” whatever “it” was, write through me. I began to write more quickly. My ego was less invested. (The Right to Write, 102-103)

This probably sounds very odd to those who don’t write, but to me, it’s like a breath of fresh air, a cool drink of water on a sticky summer day. The ego—the pride—is exhausting. It is demanding, it is fed by the culture we live in that we are all Special Snowflakes, and goodness, it is tiring. The realization that the writing doesn’t come from me, it comes from my Creator—that there are stories He’s built into the universe that the spirit in me can tap into, listen to, and take down … it probably sounds terribly odd, but let me tell you, it is so freeing. The pressure is off me to be an original, creative genius. After all, I’m the daughter of the original, creative genius!

This post may seem a bit varied and disjointed ~gestures to early morning hour~ but suffice it to say, a few forces have been at work lately—the fact that I’ve been more prolific this week than I have in a long time, the conversation with that friend, and the fact that I’m working on a paper of western notions of authorship—and they’re all converging to help renew my creative energy and, with it, my spiritual foundation. I am never more alive than when I am writing, and this has to do with my Creator, too. He wired me for words, but ultimately, he’s wired all of us for His Word, for the Word that became Flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In order to feel alive in writing, I must be alive in Christ, and that is a beautiful thing.

P.S. Since I am no longer writing from my mother’s basement :-), any ideas on a new name for the blog? This is one area of writing where I struggle muchly: titling things.

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May 15, 2011

On Faith, Writing, & the Freedom of Letting Go

Filed under: Faith,Writing — jeannablue @ 3:45 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

My writing is deeply connected to my faith; the writing and the spiritual often go hand in hand. When one suffers, the other suffers; when one is going well, the other tends to be going well, too. Curious how this happens.

Last year, I wrote through spiritual difficulties. But I reached a point of—depression, acedia, call it what you will—where I ceased writing along with praying, reading scripture, etc. There have been glimmers over the last few months, posts where I was trying to break through.

It’s starting to break away. I’m writing again, and while I feel tremendous guilt for leaving the blog relatively untouched, I am to the point where I can no longer write with expectation, with the albatross of obligation ‘round my neck. I’m trying to let go of that guilt of what I “should” be doing, like working on the blog, because I have friends who’ve said they’ve benefited from it as much as I have … but God uses us where we’re at. For a time, this blog was exactly what I needed. It may become what I need once again in the future. But I’m posting this to say that I’m releasing myself from the “expectation” of writing here.

I am writing every day, three pages a morning in a classic black-and-white Composition book. It’s a move straight out of the Julia Cameron playbook. Those are three pages that are never reread, that are for no one’s eyes but yours. Because truly, there are some things I’m dealing with right now that I simply cannot work through in such a public forum. So I’m working through them in morning pages, and it’s good.

This might sound strange to say, but to me, writing is more vital than prayer: perhaps because so often my writing goes in and out of prayer. I cannot pray or think for any length of time without a pen in my hand, and so my thoughts are addressing God one moment and then dwelling on something else the next, and then jotting an idea for the chapter in my story and then praying again …  Writing brings clarity, so when I am in a dry period, or a depressed period, or one of acedia—again, I hardly know what to call these spells I go through—I miss writing almost as much as I miss God. Writing is direction. It is freedom. It is calming. It helps me think through things. And I feel close to God. Not that faith is driven by emotion, but when I’m writing, I feel like I’m a hair’s breath away from heaven, away from seeing Him, and there’s just no better feeling in the world.

I did not start this post intending to sort of release myself from the “obligation” of this blog, but … I am. No obligations. No expectations. No one else. Just me, my notebook, my pen, and my God.

Writing is like breathing, it’s possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what.

—Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

September 8, 2010

Faith in Future Grace

On Sex & the City, Charlotte is the friend who insists that things happen for a reason. Her cynical friends tend to not believe her, but this is a hope to which she stubbornly clings.

I’m often that person. No matter how desperate the situation, I’m the annoying friend who will tell you that God will use this for good.

I believe that many things happen for a reason – some things in life are inevitable, even if tragic (death comes to mind). But I believe that in all things, in all situations, God works to the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). I also believe that He who begins a good work in us is faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). My mom’s two favorite names for God are Jehovah Jireh (God who will provide) and Faithful & True. He does provide, and He is faithful and true.

These are the promises – the hopes – the future graces, as Piper may call them – that we need to cling to, in all situations. It seems generally agreed upon that God has three responses to our prayers: yes, no, and wait. “Wait” is where I’m at right now, and “wait” – more often than not – sounds like silence. It’s still, it’s there, it’s wordless, but somehow, if I’m tuned in, there’s a peace that descends… and I take that to mean, “Wait, my child, have faith.”

I’m reading another John Piper book, and this one is focused on having faith in “future grace” (the title is, fittingly, Future Grace). Piper’s basic thesis is that faith stems from trusting God’s promises for the present and the future; the book also serves as an indictment of the implication that gratitude for past grace is enough to sustain our faith. Trusting what God has promised and having faith and hope in what He will do – this is the key to saving faith.

Piper makes the wonderful point that in the Bible, people are never chastened for having little gratitude. Rather, Christ says, “O ye of little faith.” It is by faith that we are enabled to further put our hope and trust in God, by faith that we are able to act, by faith that we are able to grow.

Lack of faith is the crux of sin, yeah? In times when my faith is lacking, oh, that is when the anxiety, worry, and fear come… that is when I stumble… that is when I fall. I am so grateful – yes, grateful! – that God has picked me up time and time again, and His word tells me that He will continue to do so.

All this to say, I can’t identify a “reason” why I’m still unemployed or why I’m still living at home. If it’s to finish the novel, well, crap, because trust me, the novel ain’t getting’ done any time soon! If it’s to learn compassion for my family, I fail a lot in that area. If it’s to learn patience, well, okay Lord, you have my attention.

But I do have faith that whatever purpose (or lack of purpose) is behind my current situation, that however I fail when I’m here at home, that whatever happens – I know that my God is for me and not against me. I know He is faithful & true. I know He will continue to provide as He’s been doing. And I know that He will be faithful to complete the good work He started in me. And maybe someday, I’ll look back on this and see exactly how God was piecing things together to set plans in motion that are unfathomable right now.

I want to be a woman of great, unshakable faith. Maybe this is part of becoming that woman.

July 20, 2010

Curls, Control, & Contentment: An Essay on Faith

I wrote this back in January (hence the references to grad school), but I really needed to read it today. How awesome is it when God uses us to remind ourselves of His goodness and mercy…

~*~

I’m currently sitting at my aunt’s office desk, and for some inexplicable reason I have a bottle of hairspray next to me. It is extreme hold hairspray. It literally says that. Extreme. It is beyond strong, beyond maximum – extreme (Aussie Instant Freeze). On the front, it says that it “arrests your style.” Seriously? My hair is under arrest! That is the level to which I’ve resorted in order to feel like I’m in control.

Let’s back up. In 7th grade, I cut my budding curls down to a pixie cut. As in, early 1990s Winona Ryder short. My hair, which went from straight to curly during those peachy puberty years, absolutely terrified me. I had no confidence in my ability to manage my curls. So I cut them off until I was ready to grow them back out, ready to deal with them (it took a year).

This is me in a nutshell. I was so scared of this unruly thing in my life (it just so happened to be growing on my head), that I cut it off and kept it at a distance until I was ready to let it back into my life, where I timidly began to think about creative ways to manage it. I am now to the point where I’m perfectly comfortable letting my three (maybe four) day hair be shown in public – or perhaps that’s senioritis attacking my personal hygiene. Who knows.

At the root of this fear is a lack of confidence. I didn’t have confidence in what I was given. I also didn’t have confidence in my ability to manage the situation. But really, I didn’t have confidence in myself (or my Creator). We control-freaks hold things with a death grip, terrified that letting go means falling into the unknown – into the painful truth that we don’t control nearly as much as we think we do. The world does not revolve around our plans and schedules, wants and desires. There are plenty of things that are absolutely outside of our control, and we have to learn to accept that. Easier said than done. I for one am so not there yet, but it’s where my heart wants to be, and I think that counts for something.

As graduating seniors, we are concerned with getting a job, getting into graduate school – things that are decidedly outside of our control. Our conversations abound with negative prophecies and heart-heavy predictions. There are so many unknown factors, things that can have absolutely nothing to do with us – budgets, hiring cuts, smaller acceptance rates. Maybe… maybe… maybe… We love to torture ourselves with fantasies of worst-case scenarios. And to what end? Imagining the future only leads to heartache. It distracts us from the present as well as from the promises of our faith. As C.S. Lewis said, the future is the thing that is least like eternity. When it comes down to it, dwelling on the future merely feeds my lust for control.

It helps to get perspective, and that can come from both good and bad situations. I most recently got a reality-check from the latter. I met a friend for lunch the other day. That morning, I’d completed yet another application and for some reason, the anxiety was shooting through the roof, to the point where I ended up running to the toilet. Proof that all those negative anxieties and fantasies we indulge in affect our bodies.

So I met my friend for lunch. My news – applications (what else is new?). Her news – her cousin, who is around our age, was diagnosed with cancer. Talk about perspective. Now, this is not one of those “it can always be worse” exhortations – that’s not a productive method of coping. Rather, that lunch was a reminder. Even though there is the fundamental difference that I invited my situation and her cousin did not, life remains a series of unknowns for us both and, indeed, for everyone. It takes a lot of faith to get through each day.

The unknowns can bad things we don’t expect. Illness. The death of a loved one. A breakup, a divorce. Arrest. And then they can be things that we do – like knowing we’ll hear back, one way or the other, from prospective jobs, internships, schools. Getting to hold a newborn baby. Going home for Christmas to find the house chock-full of treats baked in anticipation of your arrival. And then, wow, there are the genuine surprises – like meeting the right person at the right time or unexpectedly finding a way to pay for something you’ve needed. The fun chances, the joyful surprises – these happen all around us, too!

We forget that it’s not our ability to predict or expect outcomes that matters. None of us have that kind of foresight. It’s how we handle those outcomes, those journeys. It comes down to having confidence in yourself and not in your trappings or expectations. It’s about trusting who you are. Because we each have worth, we each have value, and no matter what situation we are placed in, those things are sure.

As believers, we are the beloved of Christ, and it is in His eyes that we are made whole and complete. When we find our identity in Him – when we know that Jesus is at our side and that He is our Abba Father who is for us, offering the gifts of peace and joy and grace and love – when we can rest in His loving arms and say “come what may” because all things work to the good of those who love Him who have been called according to His purpose – when we know that if our earthly parents love us and want to give us good gifts, how much more does He want to give! – when we know these things and can rest in them, there is confidence. There is peace. There is light. And it is that light in a difficult situation, that peace that surpasses all understanding – those are the things that mark us as His.

I want more peace. I want to radiate joy and contentment, not anxiety and fear. I have nothing to be afraid of. Nothing! He has hedged me behind and before, and as long as I just crawl up into His lap and remember that, first and foremost, I am a daughter of the King, all is good. Because life with him is good.

I’m reminded of the Niebuhr prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The good news is that He gives us serenity, courage, and wisdom. All we have to do is ask. We should consistently turn our situations over to Him in prayer, but so too should we ask for the character and the mindset that will alter how we see the situation. More righteousness. More Christlikeness – more like Christ.

Christ is perfect love, and perfect love casts out all fear. Lately, my fear has been crowding out my excitement. I don’t always feel like I can choose excitement, and that’s partly due to my internalization of the world telling me that a good student and an ambitious individual should be worrisome, anxious, nervous for their future. But why on earth am I taking their advice? I have EVERY reason to be excited right now. Every reason to have faith that all will work to the good. I rebuke the words that tell me that sitting around every day nervously checking my email and mailbox is a proper way to manage my time. Like my curls, I have no control over what’s growing right now.

Another issue at play here is waiting. Waiting is a blessed time, truly. In the Bible (and in life), it’s a time of preparation. Of prayerful supplication. Of purification. In short, waiting is a process to be embraced.

And I want to embrace this time: the waiting, the joy, and the knowledge that come what may, my Abba has got me on His lap and He’s saying “Wait for what I do next – I’ve got so many wonderful things planned for you! You’re going to love how I have you do My work, the opportunities to love people, to reach people – you’re going to love it, you’re just going to love it.” I want to shuck fear off of me, to slither out of that skin of anxiety and worry, to just be joy. I want that. And as long as my eyes are focused on my Abba, the joy is for the taking.

May 1, 2010

Hold the Scotch: On Job Hunting & Hope

After spending too much time on the online job hunt last night, I put in Charlie Wilson’s War for a pick-me-up. Now, you know it’s bad when a movie about the Cold War is a uplifting. Mostly, I spent the time fantasizing about Philip Seymour Hoffman strolling into my room and offering me a bugged bottle of scotch. I don’t drink scotch, but let me tell you, this job market could drive me to it.

I was plowing through sites like mediabistro.com and others that are heavy on editorial and freelance work. Monster, of course, is a must for jobs in my area. College nannies, college tutors, learning centers, legal aids, online copywriters, the CIA, the State Department, Hallmark, the local university – it’s downright depressing. There are jobs out there, often ones requiring experience, and I’m still trying to vault over that limitation. Several people have told me to ignore the “years experience needed,” especially if they only require 1-2 years.

The hardest thing to overcome in this market is, I think, my own level of expectation. The job I want. The job I’m excited for. It just so happens that the summer job that I a) want and b) am excited for is one that I interviewed for this week … and I won’t hear back from them for 2-3 weeks. That’s a long time to hold out when the job market, which is already thin, is about to become thinner with a flood of recent graduates.

So I’m trying to straddle this: my own desires with pragmatism, the part of me that says “This time is good! This time is for writing! And you’re writing! And you’ve interviewed for that awesome TA job, you’re waiting to hear back, you’ve got a great shot at it” – and then the other part says, ” … and what if that doesn’t work out?”

I’ve started work on some freelance articles that would pay either nothing or very little, but they’d be bylines. Also, I’m so excited about them! So excited. Applying for a position as a marketing assistant in the Twin Cities does not fill my tank nearly as much.

So where is that line? Where is that line when we sacrifice what we love for a job that’ll help us survive? At what point do you just have to say “screw it” to worldly wisdom and hold out and wait? Can you find a survival job that will not suck your passion for what you love, i.e. will you not be completely exhausted and worn out when you get home? How how the heck do you find a career doing what you want?*

Right now, I’m just waiting and praying. And drinking copious amounts of coffee. And the occasional dark beer. No scotch yet.

*On that note, this month has gone a long way in reminding me of why I want to go to graduate school. Not necessarily the state of the job market (tho’ that doesn’t hurt), but that there is nothing that excites me more than digging into literature and researching. I’m gearing up to revise a paper and possibly attend a conference (!), a possibility that has me so freaking excited that I think I’ll be reapplying in the fall. Also, I’m trying to keep one of the freelance articles from getting too heavy on the literary theory (Mulvey and feminist film crit). Yet another sign that I’m either a) brainwashed by my profs or b) still in love with the English discipline. Ah, who are we kidding? I’m still in love. Spurned, but still in love.

April 28, 2010

Doing what you love > Fearing what you love

Do you ever get nervous after you finish a project and then start a new one? That’s where I’m at right now. I just finished a multi-chapter short story (under 10K words) for an online gift exchange that I’ve participated in for several years. I think this might be the last year I do it, because I’m itching to dive into my own work.

Many of you know that I had the darndest time finishing this story. I’ve sort of figured out why – it wasn’t the story, per se. I liked the prompt and I really enjoyed the writing. What held me back was a latent fear of what comes after, a knowledge that once I finished that story, I had to stop BS-ing myself and actually sit down and take time to write my own stuff every day. This is why I so enjoy creative writing classes: built in deadlines, quick feedback, explicit assignments, and the I’m-doing-it-for-a-grade mentality. Not that I write for grades (goodness, no!); it’s just that when there’s the knowledge that I’m turning it in, the other fears are suppressed.

I have ungodly-high levels of expectation for my writing, expectations which will probably never be met in this lifetime. And if I ever come close, it will only be through that daily practice of writing. Writing is work – it is a craft, and like any craft, it requires practice. Apprenticeship. Years of toil. Everyone writes shitty first drafts (as Anne Lamott says) and they only get better if you roll up your sleeves and dig in.

Everyone has a different writing process, sort of like how people practice their spirituality/faith in different ways. I had an instructor this last year who is a self-described “binge writer” – she writes multiple chapters in a fury, and then doesn’t write for a few weeks, and then comes back to it. And then there are the folks who write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. On the faith side of things, I have friends who need daily quiet time and friends who don’t, friends for whom art or dance is their primary mode of worship, and friends who light candles at the alter in their room.

While I can do the binge writing and even the binge praying, truth is, I need a daily schedule to keep myself in the zone and focused. (This is part of why I’m keeping a blog.) I need daily prayer and quiet time, and I’ll preferably be reading a book (Angela Thomas, Katie Brazelton, etc.) along with it. Finding daily faith time is something I’ve got in the habit of over these last two years. But daily writing time… I’m not quite there yet.

I long for a time two summers ago, the time when I finished my first novel. There wasn’t fear or anxiety; it was erased by the knowledge that every day over my lunch hour, I would go to Acoustic Café, order a half hoagie sandwich and a Coke, and then sit for the duration of the hour writing as furiously on yellow legal tablets as I could. It was a daily practice, something I did to keep myself sane in the midst of a crazy internship, and I long – oh, how I long – for that feeling again. I haven’t been writing regularly (save for creative writing classes) since that summer.

A book by Barbara Demarco-Barrett has been my writing salvation for this last year. It’s entitled Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. Her writing solution is fifteen minutes a day, plain and simple, whether it’s when the water’s boiling for dinner or when you first wake up in the morning. I took that advice to heart last summer when I worked at a daycare. I would take my legal tablets to work with me, scribbling furiously in the off-moments when the kids were reading or having free time. There weren’t many off-moments, but over the course of the summer, I completed the rough draft of the short story that became part of my honors project.

This last month, I’ve been at home – both at Mom’s and at Dad’s – and I’ve got some writing done, sure. I’ve been writing this blog. But I’ve been lazy about my fiction because I’m so darn afraid of what’s going to happen when I get in that schedule. Part of me is afraid that I’m not going to want to let it go, that embracing my writing means acknowledging that grad school is on the back burner.

It might seem like we’re switching gears here, but I promise we’re not. Let me put it this way: my boyfriend wants to be a professor because he honest to goodness loves teaching physics – and he’s really good at it, too. Me, I love the material. I enjoy literature and lit analysis, lit theory … I never want for research subjects. But when the BF asked me about my ideal job in academia, I said that my ideal was a position where I taught part-time, thus having time for writing. (Because I hold no illusions about professors at liberal arts schools; they work their asses off and are lucky if they get their own research done.)

It’s not that I’ve put writing and grad school into binary opposition, that it’s one or the other. But it’s hard – so hard – to keep writing while you’re in grad school (unless you’re in the MFA program). I have it on the authority of those who know. And writing is not something I want to sacrifice for a life in academe. It’d be great to do both, but I’d rather write.

All this to say, the answer that I gave should have been a clue that the Little Girl Downstairs was alive and well, and that maybe the Big Girl Downstairs was ignoring her strongest desires. The LGD is that six-year-old who declared to her parents that she would be a writer someday and who never relinquished that dream; she is the ten-year-old whose poem about the Titanic was published in the local paper after winning a contest and who realized how wonderful it was to write things other people actually wanted to read – that little girl has never gone away. That little girl longs to write for the rest of her life, and preferably to get paid for it, too. But that little girl is also afraid of what it means to realize her dream.

I think that what our biggest dreams can be the things we’re most afraid of. Funny how that works.

There are only two things I can do at this point: first, pray, because love casts out fear. And second, get my butt in a chair and start writing. Confront the monster head on. Get back in the saddle. Get back to doing what makes me feel more alive than anything else on this earth.

And then, keep doing it.

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