Thursday, September 8, 2011

Intersections: Natural Worlds, Spiritual Worlds, and Writing

Today is the birthday of Terry Tempest Williams, a woman who has served as a signpost of sorts for me as a writer.  I first became aware of her in the early 90's, but I'm not sure how.  Was she anthologized in one of the many textbooks I used?  Possibly.  I read a lot more magazines then, so maybe it was that route.

When I thought of her then, I thought of her as a feminist writer, which she certainly is, but in a different way than earlier generations of feminist writers.  She seemed either less angry or angry about different things.

I thought of her as a writer chronicling the natural world in a way that hadn't been done much before.  I thought of her in the tradition of Rachel Carson.  Her work made me want to move to the desert Southwest.  Her work shed a different light on the nuclear era, and I suspect that should I ever become a famous writer, some intrepid grad student might see some links between my work and hers.

Today, because of the miracle of the Internet, I was able to reread "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," an essay which neatly demonstrates her writing as feminist and naturalist (you can read it here).  Reading it this morning, I was struck by the spiritual dimension of her writing.  She was the first writer I ever read who discussed her life as a regular Mormon.  I say regular, meaning that all other writing I had read treated Mormons as cult members or as polygamous freaks.

I have spiritual writing on the brain this morning.  Lately, I've been trying to think of alternate jobs.  What else could I do, should my current situation go poof?

Yesterday, over lunch with a friend, I blurted out what I'd really like.  I said, "I want someone to look at my blogs and look at the fact that I've coordinated retreats and someone who reads my poems and the writing I've done for spiritual books and magazines and says, 'Come teach in our MFA program.  We'll create something just for you.'"

My friend said something along the lines of "Yeah, right, keep dreaming."  She said it in that scoffing tone of voice that said, "You'll never get what you want."

You may wonder why I keep a friend like that, someone who would breathe negative energy all over my dream.

Here's why:  my brain has much in common with a punk rocker 18 year old.  My brain says, "Hey, you think I can't do this?  I'll show you.  I'll learn 3 chords by Christmas and then by next Christmas, I'll know three more, and I'll have written 5 songs, and then I'll write 5 more, and I'll put out a CD, and people will wait in long lines to hear my band."

You can tell my brain is of a certain age because it would put out a CD, not a YouTube video.

I woke up this morning thinking, tell me more about that dream, Kris.  What would it look like?

Perhaps I'd teach in an MFA program, teaching Spirituality and Writing.  Why shouldn't MFA students study the intersections of spirituality and writing?  That part of the publishing world is still doing very well, after all.

For those of you who scoff, I'd point back at the early career of Terry Tempest Williams.  Who would have imagined the explosion of writing programs, and other disciplines too, that explored the intersections of the natural world and writing.  Who would have imagined the expansion of so many MFA programs, for that matter?  Why not MFA tracks that explore spirituality and writing?

Those tracks could explore traditional genres (poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, scripts), but could also explore other areas, like writing prayers or writing liturgy.  If we were allowed to do some cross-disciplinary work, it would be cool to explore traditional hymns and modern songwriting.

You may be saying, "Whoa, sounds like you'd really rather be at a seminary or theology school."  Well, yes, that appeals too.  Why not a track in seminary that trains pastors-to-be to use more of the creative arts in their ministry?  I've sat through many a boring sermon through my several decades of going to church.  Clearly, some seminarians could benefit from learning some of the basics that most MFA students learn about how to hook audience attention and keep it.

I'd love a staff position at a church camp, particularly if it came with a place to live in a beautiful setting.

Yesterday, late in the day, I talked to two of my colleagues who are also licensed to do psychological counseling.  Not for the first time did I think I had majored in the wrong field, as I listened to them talk about how they had helped some of their patients.  Could I do art therapy of some sort?  Would I want to?

That gets a little too close to some of the fields that feel dangerous to my soul:  police work, intelligence work, all the fields which would expose me to the uglier side of human nature.

I've thought of pastoral counseling, though, or being a spiritual director.  Hmm.  Could I meld my creative interests with my interests in that direction?

And the underlying question:  how much more schooling would any of these paths require?

It feels good, though, to have some ideas about alternate paths.  Now I've got some possibilities to ponder.  What kind of classes would I create for this MFA program, which may or may not exist yet?  How would I teach students to be marketable?  How might I train pastors who would want an arts program at their churches?  How would I create retreats that would bring people to a church camp?

I have lots of ideas!  Now I'll work on capturing them and molding them into some sort of cohesive unit.

Just think, if my friend hadn't been so negative, my brief yearning might have flitted right in and out of my head without ever finding flesh and form.  And I'm grateful to writers like Terry Tempest Williams, who have allowed their writing to go in a multitude of directions, thus showing the rest of us what we might be able to accomplish.


Wendy said...

I keep thinking, "I could write liturgy." Pastors shouldn't be the only ones who get to do that. I'll write lectionary/church year-based liturgy and whoever wants to can use it and someone can pay me (minimally) for my effort. It could work, doncha think?

Margaret said...

If you created an MFA like that, I'd be a part of it! Your dilemma sounds frighteningly familiar; I am currently applying to grad schools and trying to decide if I'd be better off trying to find a seminary that would give me the flexibility to do what I want (write liturgies and creative nonfiction pieces on spirituality) or if I should go back for English, to teach writing. It's good to know I'm not alone in this odd combination of passions/callings :)

Kristin said...

I'm late to commenting on my own blog--that's the kind of work week it's been!

Wendy, I definitely think you should try writing liturgy. And I think you might find people willing to pay you. And if you really wanted to branch out, you could create a book, with liturgy, prayers, and perhaps even recipes. I'm thinking of Marge Piercy's "Pesach for the Rest of Us." There are likely Christian holidays crying out for such a treatment.

Margaret, good luck with your quest. Let me know what you find out there!