Writing: Recycling Life

Writing as an Act of Faith

What makes a writer write?  Passion?  Pride? An assignment? Financial desperation?  All of the above, perhaps.  But sometimes we write because writing through the gunk and griefs of life may not only ease our own lives, but also make another’s life more bearable.   Sometimes remembering, staring at, sorting, and recycling our experiences on paper is the best way to get through to the other side of the pain.

Years ago I produced a book for the first four reasons above.  We were both out of work and paying the rent was a continuing issue.  Sorting through my portmanteau of skills and talents, I decided to try my hand at writing – for money.  I found an editor who was looking for books for adult new readers. I had written an earlier book for that population, so I decided to try again.  She wanted life stories written on a 3-5th grade level to inspire faith and hope. I figured I could do that. Actually I needed to do that (Reason  #4: financial desperation).

Many of the adult learners with whom I had worked had been struggling with codependent relationships with a substance abuser.  The book I wanted to write was about their denial and loneliness and pain.  I wanted to describe their dawning awareness that they had to focus on their own responses to life and stop trying to control the other.  I had written about a disintegrating marriage using a first grade reading level before.  Perhaps I could pull this one off as well.

As I got started, I listened more closely at Al-Anon meetings. I noted how men and women in the group were learning to “let go” and “detach.”  I thought through the classes I had taken on the road to earning a certificate in substance abuse counseling.  I remembered the stories a young alcoholic father (who was in total denial) had told me about his difficult marriage and imagined how his wife felt.  And I started writing.

About halfway through as the story of Bill and Sherrie and their children Sara Jo and Toby poured out, I realized that I was describing and re-living my own pain.  The people and the anecdotes in the book were imagined, but the feelings were very real.  These four people and Sherrie’s sister Laura became my friends. But I often wanted to shake my finger at their behavior.  But as I saw that their behavior had been my behavior, it became important to tell the story well, to help them push through this problem in the healthiest (though not romanticized or idealized) way.  I worked hard to help them come to grips with the same issues I was learning to come to live with.

My manuscript became Beginning with Me, a book written on a 3rd grade level, which became one of the Open Door books.   A few months before I had signed a contract which came with the promise of $500 (!) with the delivery of an acceptable manuscript.  I paid the rent with it the next month. The editor said it was the most powerful book in their series.  It languished for awhile as the publishing company worked on enlarging the market for these books and was finally published in 1998.  A few years later, I wondered if it was being read, so I looked it up on-line.  I was amazed to find it listed as recommended reading by many Twelve Step groups and treatment organizations.  I said, “Wow” for a few weeks and then promptly forgot about the book.

Last year, 15 years later, I was preparing to teach a class on the Twelve Steps and spiritual formation.  I had an expert’s book (Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water), but I finally remembered that I had written a story myself.  I dug around and found a copy and began reading it to my class – one chapter a week.  As I read each week, I noticed that the participants were hanging on every word.  They didn’t want to miss class because they didn’t want to miss a chapter.  I started paying more attention while I read and was moved to tears.  In fact I had to have someone else read the last few chapters because I was so emotional.

I was stunned to see how wise I had been back then, how my pain and anger and fear had been re-purposed and by some fortunate alchemy had helped this fictional family survive and thrive.  And now it was helping the 15 people in this class.  I learned that the Holy Spirit can take a writer’s life and recycle the stormy and desperate times without the writer even knowing it!

Now, that’s the reason that I write.

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5 Responses to Writing: Recycling Life

  1. Thanks Grace! Enjoy the writing conference. I’ll be with you in spirit, at least.

  2. What a powerful testament to the significance of writing and sharing our writing. So glad to be writing with you this year!

  3. Kathleen Coveny says:

    EXCELLENT!!! Thank you, Karen.

    *Walk as if you were kissing the earth with your feet.*

    *Thich Nhat Hanh*

  4. Ruth Evenhouse says:

    Below are two well-known writers who described their reasons for writing. I suspect there are as many different motivations for writing as there are writers Though your reasons are varied, I hope you continue writing because, selfishly, I learn much from what you write. Your insight and shared experiences through writing do, indeed, “ease others’ pain and make their lives more bearable”.

    Sylvia Plath — “I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.”
    Flannery O’Connor — “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

    • Thanks, Ruth.
      I love both of these reasons. I said recently to a Breathing Under Water class that I have to keep teaching because I can’t write until I hear what I say – and I am usually amazed that it came out of my mouth.

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