Heart and soul, without zealots and sap

 Most of my prayers are like drive-by

 shootings. Please help me. Please save her.

 Thank you for the parking spot.

— Julie Price Pinkerton

from What is My Life About?
a poem in Rattle, No. 45

It’s tough to write about faith — without seeming a zealot, a dimwit, or a preachy daily devotion.

And so, it is with great relief I read the latest edition of Rattle (Fall 2014, No. 45). Presenting “poets of faith,” the journal offers work from over 40 poets with a range of honest, authentic and complicated voices. From drag shows to religious leadership, these poems are powerful because they are rooted in everyday experiences in which the writers reach, seek and struggle with doubt, hope, faith and more.

"I’m often troubled by the label ‘Christian’ and the way it has come to mean intolerance and, sometimes, hate. . .” writes Laurie Uttich, in words that echo my own feelings on faith. "I believe in living as Jesus taught: feed the poor, house the homeless, care for the imprisoned, speak for the marginalized."

Thankfully, rather than list the literary achievements of each poet, Rattle allows contributors to provide backstory to their poems).

With this issue, Rattle proves that spiritual writing can be touching and tender and also irreverent and sharp.

And this statement from Dan Nemes feels especially spot-on: “The act of writing poems cracks me open. Being faithful, being a poet of faith, means, for me, trusting in the slow and painful, rapturous and joyous accumulation of life, knowing that bearing witness to the suffering and joy in myself, in others, and in creation, is redemptive.”

Perhaps my favorite part of Rattle is the featured “Conversation” between publisher and poet. This issue features Chris Anderson, a college professor and Catholic deacon who lives in Corvallis, Oregon. The interview is a lengthy and comfortable exchange in which Anderson, an unusually down-to-earth religious leader, shares his perspective on poetry as a form of prayer:

“Stanley Kunitz says that poetry, all poetry, is a form of spiritual testimony; it comes in the form of a blessing. And for me that’s how poetry works," says Anderson. "See, the struggle with poetry — the attraction to poetry for me spiritually is its obscurity, its hiddenness. There’s less temptation to ego in that sense, but that's also the struggle . . . And even when you publish a book, or publish a poem in Rattle, nobody knows about it, or if they do, they don’t know what to say about it. And about half the time that depresses me and it feels pointless. And the other half of the time it feels freeing, like an invitation to keep dying to myself: 'Okay, I’m going to keep doing this anyway,' sort of a barometer of my faith.”

Fear not, believers and non-believers and maybe-something believers, poetry of faith is not poetry of proselytizing. These writers demonstrate that poetry written from a place of wonder and search offers far more substance than sap.


Some of my favorite writers are seekers, searchers & believers. Enjoy a flashback through the archives:

Help, Thanks, Wow - Anne Lamott

The Closest to Love We Ever Get - Heather King

Where Silence is Sacred - Pico Iyer

A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith - Jane Hirshfield

After the Ark - Luke Johnson



Writing Groups: 10 Guidelines 

When a writing group is good, it's really good. You feel the beautiful zing of creativity and connection.

When it's bad, it's really bad. You feel the swampy buckle of endless muck.

I've taken part in all sorts of writer get-togethers, from cozy gatherings to sprawling groups. From weekly to monthly. From brand-new to long-established.

I've bumbled through and left discouraged. And, I've come alive, feeling energized and encouraged.

Because writing groups come in many sizes and shapes, I quickly learned to know what I want before wading in:
A group in which other writers critique my work? A group in which we generate new work through writing prompts? A discussion group, in which we would share literary news and ideas?

And how much group do I want: An on-going commitment, or an occasional drop-in? Weekly, monthly, quarterly? Or ditch the face-to-face and "meet" digitally?

Time and trial have taught me that three ingredients are crucial for writing group success: structure, expectation, and ground rules. No amount of enthusiasm can save a writing group if it doesn't carry a practical purpose and clear direction. 

Writing Group Ground Rules
(or, how to be a kind and helpful writer in a group setting)

You are allowed to write junk. This is a supportive environment. What you write (or share, or critique) may become a stunning poem, a short story, or it may be the jumpstart needed to roll into the next great work. There is no pressure to be “good,” just to open up the writing mind.

When critiquing the work of others, read the piece (story, poem, novel) at least once. Read first to get a general feel (for form, plot, and flow) and then again for a more thorough examination of details. 

Underline elements you like for their sound and content. 

Note places where the piece flows, and places where it feels forced.

Circle typos. If you spot some, correct them quickly, quietly, kindly.

Keep your comments respectful and useful. If there is a place in the piece that doesn’t make sense to you, underline it and ask a clarifying question. You can do this by talking about specific parts of the piece, rather than general terms. "I don't get it," is not a helpful comment; gently noting areas that caused confusion is a more useful response.

In offering feedback, if you are just saying, "Good job," you are not doing a good job. (courtesy Jill McDonough)

For groups that write together: After each writing prompt, share your work with the group. This is not a competition. We all come from different places and spaces. Some of us are working on poetry, on short stories, screenplays, nonfiction, or novels. Here, the form doesn’t matter — the act of writing is more important.

You are not required to read your work, though I believe writing needs air. And writing is best enjoyed out loud, where you can hear the rhythm of your words, notice where it gains energy, and where it really works. 

Lastly, what is read here, stays here. Just like Vegas.


What is your experience? Do you take part in a writing group? Why or why not?



Less cess, more fresh

If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

Ann Patchett, from This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Have you read this book?

Don't be fooled, as I was, by the title. This isn't an annoying book about the beauty of marriage, or an ironic title for a depressing book about the sad state of love and coupling. Instead it's a collection of essays by novelist Ann Patchett.

Who knew that long before penning the best-selling Bel Canto, Patchett wrote nonfiction for the New York Times, Vogue, Outside, and other mags? Not me! She's got heart, wit, pace and style; she's a writer you want to befriend.

I've underlined countless passages, dog-eared pages, and finally just photo-copied essays to give to friends. But really, I want to buy this book for all my writer-friends, and everyone else with a heart and head that hurts and yearns and still keeps trying to better live and love.


Thankful Thursday (on Friday)

I’m steeped in the why bother?

It’s a fugue state — maybe you know this place — somewhere between ennui and fatigue in which the answer to every question: want to write? run? see friends? get out of bed? is met with two debilitating words: why bother?

Mired in this action-less funk, I consume more than produce. This week, I lost myself in books: a wonderful collection of essays (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett), an engaging novel, (Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead), a brutal novel (An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay), an odd novel (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler), a poetry collection (Aimless Love, by Billy Collins), another poetry book (Tender Hooks, by Beth Ann Fennelly), and a variety of newspapers, magazines, cereal boxes, junk mail, and college course catalogs. If it has words, there’s a good chance I’ve read it.

And so, in this fog in which I’ve traded my life for the pulse of print, I was encouraged when I found this nugget:

“Oh, who cares,” we sometimes think at our most blue moments. “I am boring and it is boring and writing about it all is boring too.” At times like these we need to imagine that we are writing to someone who listens to us with the rapt attention of a new lover. Someone who wants to discover all there is to know about us, all we think, all we have thought, even all we might soon think.”

— Julia Cameron, from The Sound of Paper

Remember Julia Cameron? Twenty years ago she wrote The Artist’s Way, a powerful book that gave me (and thousands of other mopey writers and artists) permission to explore our creativity — despite the outcome, despite the quality, despite all the despites.

I’d forgotten Julia. The book went big, she got popular, and she wrote more of what I thought was the same great book, just repeated and diluted. I moved away, found other fabulous books that encouraged me to keep on (What books? I’m glad you asked: Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge, to name just two).

The other day I was wandering through the library in that wonderfully receptive mood in which all good books are found and discovered The Sound of Paper, a Julia Cameron book published in 2004. Yes, much of it echoes The Artist’s Way but it turns out I needed a voice from the past to bring me back to myself:

“And so, the first act of loving kindness is to start from scratch — the scratch of a pen to paper. The filling of blank pages without specific likes and dislikes, our heartfelt and regretted losses and sacrifices — this is the beginning of being someone and somewhere again. When we ignore ourselves for too long, we become exhausted and weakened from trying to get our own attention. We become disheartened—without a heart. The gentle pulse that we are meant to attend to, the ear-cocked, mothering side of ourselves that listens to a newborn and springs into action on its behalf, must be mustered now to come to our own rescue. But the rescue begins with the act of writing. Writing is how we “right” our world.”

We hear what we hear when we need to hear it.

And so, here I am. Showered, dressed, writing. Just for now. Just one page. Just today. Why bother? Why not?


It's Thankful Thursday (ahem, on Friday). Please join me in a weekly pause to express gratitude for the people, places & things (books, music, and more) in our lives. What are you thankful for today?



You need to love words (and other advice)

Photo by Don Harder via Flickr Creative Commons

"You need to love words," says Nick Ripatrazone, a writer and high school English teacher. "You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language."

With 55 Thoughts for English Teachers, Ripatrazone offers wise advice. I'm not a high school teacher, but I do lead after-school writing programs and workshops for teens and adults, and robustly applaud Ripatrazone's  "thoughts."

It's a good, long list. Here are some of my favorites:

• Students can sense a lot of things.

• Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences.

• Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.

• Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.

• You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.

• Read aloud. Every day. 

• For some students, you are their only light.


Doesn't that last one just say it? Read the entire piece, published at The Millions, here

What's your favorite advice? Is there anything you'd add?