Tuesday, December 12, 2006

applying myself

I am writing scholarship applications and working on some stories that are tougher to write about, these days—and preparing for holidays.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d post my grad school application, which I really enjoyed writing. The application question asked “describe your development as a writer and a person of faith.” I used the same framing story as a previous essay, so the first and last paragraphs may seem familiar (sorry—the art of publication is re-publication, I hear), but the bulk of this piece has not been posted previously. If you didn’t already know too much about me…

Oh, and I got into the program at SPU—now “all I have to do” is locate scholarships to pay for it. I hope to begin in August.


Three years ago, I reached into a beach bag only to find I’d forgotten my journal—in truth, writing was the reason I’d packed all the gear and taken my two small children to the beach in the first place. Frustrated, I picked up a stick and wrote I AM A WRITER across the sand. This news surprised me. While I love to read and I admire writers, at that moment I’d not made any effort to “finish” the stories in my journal pages and letters. I applied sunscreen to arms and legs of wiggly children for a few reflective moments before pulling out the Tonka trucks for a beach day without a pen.

When a few hours opened between my parenting schedule and my work as a college writing tutor, I leafed through my journals to find narratives worth exploring. An article for a former employer’s online magazine grew into a monthly column, and a sheaf of finished stories developed into a blog. Initially, I wrote for the same reasons I’ve always written, to clarify my thoughts, to capture a moment, and to inspire connections between people. But something in the telling transformed my personal stories and transformed me. Writing calls me to be present, awake, listening to my entire life with one ear, and listening to what is happening this very moment with the other ear. When I stumbled into writing, it seems I stumbled into myself.

Years before that day at the beach, I proposed a memoir to two writerly friends when we were three nursing mothers with no hope of holding a pen. I begged them to consider The Great American Novel of my ragged little dating life, and I talked them through the stories, one after another. I even had a title: The Absence of Reliable Transportation, about boyfriends, broken cars and road trips. Neither friend accepted my challenge. Two years ago, I began writing essays for this book, one chapter at a time. In darker moments I subtitle it “47,000 words looking for a structure,” as I become evermore aware of my limitations and lack of training in the craft of writing. My craving for deeper skills often reaches a fevery desperation to tell this story better than I know how. I’m eager to join a committed circle of writers and readers to wrestle with plotlines and character development, to learn to do this thing that I am already doing.

While I chip away at this long project, a second online magazine recently chose an essay of mine for their annual print journal. An editor at Paraclete Press noted several pieces on my blog and requested a book proposal. I’m submitting short pieces to magazines and periodicals. I’m learning the profession via self-directed study.

I hear the phrase “spiritual path” or “career path,” or any kind of path at all, and I picture a favorite quilt pattern called The Drunkard’s Path, worked in yellow and white, held with wooden pins to a breezy line. At first glance, the quilt’s pattern is barely visible through the curves and turns, then the crazy genius of the seamstress becomes clear in the arrangement of quarter-rounds and squares. My history houses many labyrinthine strands that fall in a not-exactly-linear pattern. The “career path” strand includes stints in college ministry, student development, adventure education, motherhood, and now writing. Another strand is a progression of descriptors about faith: Methodist, evangelical, Mennonite, Presbyterian, reformational, sacramental, Episcopal. I could include “animist” for my childhood habit of talking to trees. On a good day, the strands fit together into one beautiful piece. Pray like an evangelical, cultivate like a Mennonite, strive for reformation, live sacramentally. The love of God infuses everything, and I still talk to trees. But these are vexing times to be a believer. On a less than good day, I need to speak to that drunkard quilt designer with some strong questions, as I read the puzzle of this life and ask where in God’s name this pattern is going.

As a spiritually sensitive child, I was something of an anomaly in my hometown of Farmland, Indiana. My parents’ disdain for religion heightened my curiosity further. I marveled that they felt no longing for God, and my longing seemed just as foreign to them. I joined a church youth group and sucked up Bible stories, hymn lyrics, Sword Drills and all the counter-cultural trappings of middle-American Christianity in the late 1970’s. Those trappings made sense to me in a way my home did not. Good families “took me in” when my own family life grew too broken. Their generosity defined The Church for me, and under their influence I grew less fearful and defensive, and more at ease in the world, like that quilt unfurling in the breeze.

Eager to escape my small town, I landed a summer-long apprenticeship in a Christian drama troupe. I began my earnest study of faith viewing Christians as joyous and “thinking people,” in contrast to my anti-intellectual family. What luck to be a curious seventeen-year-old, living among bright seminary students at a lakeside summer camp! It’s charming in retrospect, given the modern-day caricature of Christian “thinking” and given the hostile anti-intellectualism in some Christian circles.

I lived in a number of faith-based communities for the next decade, including Christian colleges and student leadership houses. After four years in the world’s best college ministry organization, I worked as a Residence Director at Whitworth College. I served smart, sassy Christians whose faith did not and would not conform to mine, as well as smart, sassy non-Christians who thought just as profoundly about issues of faith. Scathingly frank conversation caught me off-guard, daily, but once I adapted, I thrived. I found strange joy in teasing away the cultural trappings from the core of my belief. While campus ministry years helped me shed notions of “good behavior” as salvific, at Whitworth I gained confidence that God loved my favorite student heretics just as deeply as I did, and would not wipe us out in a fit of wrath. I want to honor the gifts given from all these communities, while continuing to seek what is real and true.

Other strands in this quilt include a Drunkard’s Path of friendships won and lost, places and jobs loved and not loved, and a fifteen-year path of culture shock in New England. My relationships, my faith, my joy and fury intertwine in this strand where I live. I knew myself to be an unusual character, but my oddness is highlighted in this corner of the world. My neighborhood is annoying and vibrant; my children’s school, quirky; my church, unlike any other. My marriage provides its own story line. Writing drives me beneath the swirl at the surface. I listen to savor words my children say, and to hear the bitter truth one neighbor offers another. I watch for nuances, juxtapositions. I’m not sure why these everyday epiphanies are important, but I sit down and write. Some of my writing is specifically spiritual in nature; much of it is not. I like the possibility the Seattle Pacific program presents to explore all of it, for the spiritual nature imbedded in every kind of story, and for the quality of story within spiritual writing, as well.

I am rarely without a pen and paper, these days, but even when my life requires pushing a Tonka truck, I am a writer. I don’t need a stick and sand to tell me so. Writing is the way I stitch together all the strands of my life into one varied and colorful fabric. Alongside my pen this interesting creation unfurls, in a pattern just barely visible, at first glance. I hold a deep affection for the twisty paths that draw all these pieces together, a deep respect for the questions imbedded, here. The pattern draws me forward, anticipating the joy of the next turn, and the next turn after that, too.

1 comment:

Lara said...

Congrats on being admitted to grad school! So exciting, Denise!