Monday, July 23, 2007

Lauren Winner: Writing Your Own Spiritual Story

I cannot believe it has been over a week since the writing workshop I attended in Grand Rapids at Calvin College. Lauren Winner did an excellent job leading the day. I have been wanting to reflect on it since I have returned, but life has been busy. It is a constant battle to carve time out of life to write, but it is a battle worth fighting.

Lauren started the day having us write about our names. She gave us about ten minutes and then had us meet in small groups to share what we had written. I enjoyed my small group and hearing everyone share. One of her points she emphasized throughout the day is that you do not have to have a gigantic story to write. We can write about very simple things and still have a story that is unique, creative and ours.

We brainstormed various definitions of spiritual writing. We came up with quite a list. Spiritual writing comes from the heart and soul. It is about God. It concretizes the invisible and is reflective on the interior life. It prompts the reader to think about spiritual things. It can be prescriptive or descriptive, but if the prescriptive is not grounded in descriptive first, no one will want to read the prescriptive part. The most intimate spiritual writing is when one admits to being a seeker and on a journey of discovery along with the reader.

Lauren lectured on the different types of spiritual writing. Spiritual prayer, meditative, a particular theme in the spiritual life or reflection, devotional writing, journal based writing, nature writing, fiction, or theology/apologetics. She advised us to pay attention to what we like to read and that will clue us into what story we may want to write. She encouraged us to learn to write through reading. We did an exercise where we read a beautiful chapter out of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris and analyzed it with the eyes of a writer. When reading as a writer some of questions you are asking yourself are as follows:

~What works/what doesn't
~Describe the narrator
~How does the text give meaning
~What places are evoked...what impact is there
~Is there something that engages me...what sensory images are there (ex. word pictures, poetry, images of God)

Some of the things that work so well in this chapter (Ghosts), is that it describes her experience and is not instructive. She draws out ourselves and makes us think about our own lives. We draw connections as we read about her life. We spent a long time looking at the words. She described the Dakota's as "flat, windy, barren places...almost like a Northern desert...plains like an ocean...makes one feel small." She keeps returning to her childhood and her original impressions, she quotes people throughout the chapter (not overdone, like Yancy; more organic) and she truly opens her life up to the reader.

I found that it was virtually impossible to analyze this incredible chapter from Dakota because I was so caught up in the reading of it. I think that one must first read a text several times simply for enjoyment before one begins to analyze it. I understand, of course, how much she was trying to pack into one day but this was a difficult task for me. She mentioned that when she first started to "read as a writer" she found that was the only way she could read for a while and that it was very frustrating for her. I can see how it would be! Her professer promised her that eventually she would be able to go back and forth between the two ways of reading and she assured us of the truth of that statement.

When I read with my students, we always spend a long time enjoying a piece before analyzing it. I never want my students to lose the gift of reading for pleasure or they will never choose to do so on their own after I am not with them. This is time consuming because I do want them to also read like a writer and dig deeper into understanding what they read, but the journey of going deep into a work is well worth the time it takes to do if done delicately and with care.

Another exercise we did was Lauren wrote a list of words: envy, epiphany, mother, doubt, anger, regret, depression, rest, falling in love, fear, wonder and passion. Then she gave us about ten minutes and had us write a phrase, sentence or paragraph about each word and share again with our small groups. One thing we noticed is how abstract writing can be if not connected to personal experience. Spiritual writing can be done so poorly because it can often fall into abstractions. At some point, one should literally go back and circle all the abstract words and see what is concrete. Don't forget to keep it concrete!

She spent some time talking about revision and one point she made is that the most fruitful revision is when you know it is not going to be your finished piece. My favorite part of this section is something she shared from an interview with Ernest Hemingway.

Interviewer: "How much rewriting do you do?"
Ernest Hemingway: "I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied."
Interviewer: "Was there some technical problem there? What was it that stumped you?"
Hemingway: "Getting the words right."

When one is getting started in spiritual writing one should first read widely. This will help one to develop your voice and sensibility. When Lauren Winner began writing a book she said she had no idea what to do, so she found some spiritual memoirs and outlined the stories as a model for hers. It helped her answer important questions about sequencing, how to do dialogue, and helped her to focus on reading for craft. After reading widely, one should begin to write widely. Develop themes. Ask questions to help facilitate ideas. What are signs in me of spiritual hunger? How have I grown in prayer? What are ways I live a life of faith that may help someone else? What aspects of my faith have been life changing? What ways do I live life with God daily? What are my spiritual questions that I ask myself and God?

Perhaps the most memorable thing she said was that when you write, it is a journey and a process. If you make a plan and it doesn't change as you go something has gone wrong.

She encouraged us to do daily exercises in writing. She said doing quick exercises for about ten minutes each day can open up help one develop skills and teach what someone may actually want to write about in further detail. For example, she said one exercise is taking a week and writing about different rooms in your house each day.

One of our final exercises she had us do was writing a response to themed questions. They are further examples of ways to search our lives and find our voice. Here are the things she asked us to write about.

~the place that I go when I go to my childhood is...
~the smells that call me most powerfully back to my childhood are...
~as a child God was most present to me when...
~the one object from childhood I no longer have and wish I could have is...
~the day of my childhood I wish I could relive is...

It was a fruitful day. Afterwards I walked around the campus and then sat under a tree and reflected and rested in all that she had spoken about. I am pleased with the progress I have made in my writing. I write in my journal and I am blogging more regularly. I would like to take further steps and try doing writing exercises like she has suggested. Perhaps there is a book somewhere inside me with a story. I think everyone has one somewhere in their soul. Writing is a spiritual practice. I would like to be intentional about it. Lauren spoke of a student she had that made huge progress in a very short period of time. She called the student and asked what had happened to change her writing so dramatically. The student said they had begun the practice of praying before they write.

Writing seems to me to be a holy practice. I write to remember, to learn, to experience and to create. I write to honor God in a spirit of gratefulness for this life he has given me.

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

thanks for this post ~ i'm very jealous (but i'm glad i get to glean from your experience)!

re: reading for enjoyment
i'm forcing myself to read madeline l'engles' circle of quiet without a pen. i'll go back and reread it later and mark my favorite parts, but for now i just want to soak it in.

re: daily exercises in writing
i am in the process of replacing my massive craft table with a simple writing desk. i'm relegating my beading supplies to the shelves, while making room for a clear space to organize my thoughts and inspirations.

re: things to write about
i discoverd this great little book called what's your story? while i was studying communication. it's meant to be a small group discussion guide, but i find its a great writing resource.

Keep writing ~ I'll keep reading.