Monday, January 08, 2007

Santa Barbara Writer's Workshop

My brain is on fire. Fueled by Nora Gallagher, Barbara Brown Taylor and the hospitality of Mt. Calvary Monastery. Six days of uninterrupted writing. Seminars conducted by two gifted women who have earned the right to critique and mentor. Daily bathed in the rhythmic prayers of the Brothers of the Mt. Calvary Monastery. If this is heaven then I’m pitching a tent.

The Louisville Institute selected twenty writers. Each writer has published. All came with a hunger for spiritual writing. The group was ecumenical, Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed. The occupations varied, non-profit, consultant, professor, professional writer, and clergy. The group was eclectic. However not ethnically diverse; this is puzzling and troubling.

Nora Gallagher has authored Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection. She has a first novel arriving in bookstores Changing Light. Barbara Brown Taylor has authored several books her latest being Leaving Church. Having read all but Nora’s new novel I find their work models of how to question the church while still loving it. Their writing inspires readers both those in and out of the church.

We were challenged to approach writing with the same reverence and discipline of a spiritual practice. The daily exercise of writing expects its own attention. Told to forget everything we learned in school about writing, we were liberated to begin to think creatively. I was surprised how exhausted I was at the end of each day.

Gallagher is edgy, direct, precise and thorough. She listens with piercing eyes. She speaks with long fingers. Her cautious smile is tempered by the turns in life’s labyrinth.

Religious clichés are screens against reality, Nora warned us. They are dangerous because of their use by the powerful to maintain the status quo. Reality, she said, lies behind the cliché. Writing must come out of an experience generated through the body. Provoked, writers must continually ask themselves, “What is this story really about.” Understanding the difference between circumstance and story will bring life to words.

Taylor’s twenty years of priestly ministry can be seen in her gaze. She laughs at herself easily. Her subtle accent softens provocative words. Her gentle southern manner lowers defenses long enough for stories to find their exact mark.

Among Barbara’s offering were four steps and four tools for the scientific act of creativity. Preparation, incubation, illumination and translation comprise the process. Some of the tools include being aware of creativity already possessed, binding the internal critic, attending to detail and releasing of the inexhaustible curiosity.

Both presenters had the focused scope of memoir. Each has experience with other genre, however, little time was set aside for those discussions.

The participants brought a 2500 word piece. Our work was shared, reviewed, and critiqued. We each had the opportunity for a private consult with our teachers. The two made themselves regularly available for questions and counsel. Their energy and love for their craft is contagious.

I left the seminar with new confidence in my writing. Gaining an understanding of my weaknesses and now feeling I have the tools to improve. I now have a colony of compadres who will encourage and question. This allows me to venture into unexplored areas of interest. Most importantly, I am in better touch with my writing. The new found relationship has released the inner self onto the page.

Humbled by the breaking of bread with the community. Nourished by sharing communion with new friends. Pushed to move outside of comfort zones. My prayer is that the fire in my brain will burn continually. Burning incense that will rise into the images of the reader.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The situation and the story

I'm here at the Mt. Calvary Monastary emersed in the Writer's Workshop with Nora Gallagher and Barbara Brown Taylor. My brain is on fire. My soul is raw, exposed on the ledge. The winds are blowing intensely at the mouth of the canyon. And the Spirit is equally carving on my stone exterior to reveal the part of me that needs to escape and be known.

Nora asked us the defeaning question, "what is your story about?" The situation is the event. It's the diary I keep each day describing life's circumstances. The story however lies between the lies, sometimes more obvious than others. Her example was Moby Dick. The situation is a man on the hunt of a whale. The story is obsession.

Our exercise, simple and unassuming, was to write for five minutes about our favorite dessert. So here goes. I'll share my little story with you.

my favorite dessert

My favorite dessert is a handful of EL Fudge cookies and a glass of Jamieson. Somehow they go so well together. Particularly after a day of hospitals and existential crisis brought on by demons seen and unseen, the pleasure of chocolate icing in a vanilla cookie with aged whiskey eases the evils of the world back into a corner where the gate can be closed at least long enough to sleep for a few hours. And when the hours before cookies and milk have pushed against my anger button by some asshole of proportion only equal to their own shitness, well, biting the heads off of some unsuspecting elf downed with a straight shot kicks the ass of that fucking bastard that much the better.

Ok, there it is. Situation and story.

Barbara gave tips on how to bind the critic. Free writing, free association, writing without editing, having a dialogue with your critic, all of these techniques are intended to free the writer from their own worst enemy - the critic who lies within all writers. We need the critic; to determine if we are speaking to the audience. Most importantly writers need to be in an open relationship with their critic. Easier to write than to do. Hopefully, this week, my critic went home for awhile and left me to my own worst end and best writing.

I have, I believe done of some of my best work this week. Time will tell. More later.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Monastary & Writing

I'm sitting in a windowed room at Mt. Calvary Monastary in Santa Barbara, CA. It's on a hill overlooking the city and now I can see the lights not only of the city but of ships on the ocean. Santa Barbara faces the south which means you can see the sun rise and set over the ocean from this location. That is a metaphor for life at the monastary and for being at this writer's workshop.

Nora Gallagher, author of Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection, and Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Leaving Church, are the guides for the week. Sponsored by the Louisville Institute and funded by a Lily Grant, the workshop has gathered 20 published writers for a focus on spiritual writing. I feel privileged to have been invited and humbled by my collegues.

Several of the attendees have published multiple volumes, some in their academic field, other memoirs and journalistic pieces. The intent is to provide writer's with an opportunity to enhance the depth of their writing by being able to enact in a writer's colony setting.

The monastary is Benedictine and Anglican. The monks pray the hours, Lauds, Noon Day, Vespers and Compline, inviting their guests to join them at each worship experience. They operate the monastary as a retreat house. They grow most of their own vegetables, provide a large library, sell books and coffee.

Each day we are given large blocks of time to write. We review each others work and have consultations with our two leaders. Both offer daily sessions intended to connect us with our writing. Getting lost in one's writing is easy. This is a gift. I intend to make well use of the lessons learned.

As the week proceeds I will post some of the comments and ideas that Gallagher and Brown are sharing with us.