I recently recorded an off-the-cuff YouTube video for my Patreon patrons about something that came up for me after reading Stephen King's book, On Writing. I won't repeat what I said in the video (you can find it at patreon.com/mkateallen if you're interested), but I wanted to offer some thoughts here about the process of making that video.
I recorded it without planning what I was going to say ahead of time and without editing the video afterward. It was, more than any YouTube or TikTok video I've made, unscripted and unprepared. I'd been thinking about a sticky and potentially embarrassing question from Stephen King's book for a few days, and without having reached a satisfactory answer for myself, I decided to talk it out real-time in the video.
As I was recording it, after I recorded it, and after I posted it, I had the creeping thought that the whole thing might have been a really bad idea. Who wants to see something raw? How do I know I didn't just make a fool of myself?
These two questions have kept me up late more than one of the last few nights, and I don't have a good answer.
What I do know is that if my work isn't rooted in something more compelling than its polish, if it isn't also somehow raw and vulnerable, then it isn't authentic.
The problem is that authenticity is, in my experience, the most challenging thing a creative person can attempt. It's scary, exposing, and potentially humiliating. Being seen when I feel vulnerable and uncertain, when it seems like the only two choices for showing up are unattractive substance and dazzling half-truths, makes me want to throw up.
But authenticity is also, as far as I can tell, the point of creativity. If I fling authenticity as far as I can out of view in order to claw my way toward what I think others will prefer, have I not already failed?
Authenticity is where my rage over what's happening in Ukraine and my grief about the world's multifaceted brokenness happens. Authenticity is the means by which my true self in all its facets--the loving, the selfish, the inspired, the jealous, and all the rest of it--becomes apparent to me. Without it, I risk blindness to the depths of the human heart, my own and those of others.
I could find good reasons to compromise my authenticity as a writer, but why, when the desire for authenticity is the reason I write in the first place?
Is the effort to be authentic worth the risk of being fully seen for all you are--good, bad, and all in between?
From their website: "This year's festival is scheduled for Saturday, March 5, 2022, at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. Whether you are an avid or casual reader, aspiring writer or published author, you will find something entertaining and intriguing at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival. This one-day FREE* festival showcases 40 best-selling mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, paranormal, historical, romance, and women's fiction authors."
If you've ever signed up for National Novel Writing Month, you know the pain. The horror. The despair.
The struggle to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days is real.
Last month, I embraced the struggle again. I've signed up many times before, and I've won NaNoWriMo before, but that win always included words about the novel I was working on, not just words of the novel. Every time I've signed up, I've put my determination right out in front and decided that if a winning outcome couldn't be achieved the way the rules of the challenge indicated, I would make a winning outcome fit what I could do.
And hey, you know what? There's nothing wrong with that, if that's what you're going for. Unflagging determination is awesome and deserves loads of credit.
This blog post isn't about strategies for winning outrageous challenges, though.
This blog post is about how I approached this year's NaNoWriMo challenge in a different way. Rather than making winning (by writing 50,000 words) my priority, I made inviting the flow of writing (no matter what words came or didn't come) my priority. This invitation aligned with the NaNowWriMo challenge, but it did not guarantee that I would win it.
Remember in the film Center Stage when Eva Rodriguez (played by Zoe Saldana) is in the practice studio by herself at night, and her teacher, Juliette Simone (played by Donna Murphy), shows up? Eva is trying to perfect her twirl. Her fierce pride has been dubbed a bad attitude by the dance school's faculty, which has her dancing in the chorus rather than dancing center stage for the end-of-year show, even though she's got some of the best technique in her cohort. When Juliette sees Eva struggling to perfect her turn, she advises her to let go of her center.
Eva could dismiss her teacher, whom she regards as arrogant and bossy. (If Juliette had made the suggestion in her front Eva's classmates, that's likely what Eva would have done.) In this scene, when it's just Eva, Juliette, and the dance floor, Eva tries what Juliette suggests. She lets go of her center for the next turn, and Juliette, an exacting and practiced critic, calls her turn beautiful.
I would argue that the beauty Juliette sees in Eva's turn isn't primarily about her technique, but about her willingness to let go of the one thing that's holding her back: her ego. (Interestingly, releasing ego is what causes the star of the end-of-year show to step down at the last minute, making way for Eva, her under-study, to take center stage.)
This movie replayed in my head over and over last month, especially during the first week of November. The urging to invite flow rather than force an outcome had come from an oracle card I drew while on retreat in late October, and the message hit me like a sack of bricks. I am amazing at bringing about outcomes using all manner of creative means. But inviting flow isn't the same as inviting a particular outcome. To invite flow is to risk the possibility that the outcome will be nothing like what I originally hoped for.
The thing is, just because you've posed an invitation doesn't mean that the one you've invited is obligated to accept. The one you invite may have other ideas. The one you invite may flat-out say no.
I invited flow every single day of the NaNoWriMo challenge last month. As I wrote, the novel I was working on went in directions I would never have chosen if I weren't so focused on continuing to invite flow. The words that tip-tapped out of my fingers sometimes seemed rather not-promising, trite, or strange. This was disorienting for me. I kept inviting them.
As I invited, they flowed and flowed, forming a pool of 55,000 original words, and a day or two after November was over, I finished the first draft of that book manuscript. The win was achieved, and it was an extraordinary win by any estimation.
It wasn't winning by the rules that felt most extraordinary, though. It was discovering that inviting flow gave me access to apparently limitless creativity within myself. I discovered that my flow is like a waterfall, steady, powerful, and potentially overwhelming. Further, I discovered that my flow wants my invitation every single time (so far)--and it also wants a say in how things go.
Since I completed the NaNoWriMo challenge, I've taken a curious look at the rest of my life, looking for other ways I attempt to force outcomes rather than inviting flow. Forcing outcomes is, as I said, something I'm very good at, but forced outcomes often yield toxic feelings and behaviors. When I flow, I not only release attachment to the way things might turn out, but I release my usual stressors right along with them.
While inviting flow didn't take me in every direction my vision dictated, what it did do was allow me to expand my vision, without asking my intellect for permission first. By inviting flow, my creative dam burst.
The second book in my Sticky Ones kid series, Michelle Lobos and the Labyrinth, is available for pre-order! I invite you to order a copy from your favorite local bookseller for a youngster in your life.
Who is your favorite local bookseller? I invite you to leave their information in the comments with a few words about what sets them apart.
There's a woman I know who sees with better sight than most.
Today I was reading Braiding Sweetgrassby Robin Wall Kimmerer. She wrote of teaching a group of ecology students by taking them deep into the woods for several days, utilizing the gifts of the earth for their food, shelter, and other essential needs. They learned the wonders of cattails and the treasures of roots hidden in rich black soil just beneath the forest floor. They learned not only the names and properties of what they studied, but relationship with and respect for what they encountered.
This woman I know, the one with marvelous sight, has a great deal of interest in what goes on in front of, around, and within her. What she perceives on the surface is only the beginning. She looks beyond the obvious and draws connections, lacing and interweaving a multitude of details not unlike those found in Robin Wall Kimmerer's exploration of what lies beneath the forest floor. As she brings more and more to the light, she seeks more and more of what remains unseen. The darkness is magic and she craves it.
She is a midwife of stories. She seeks to know the unknown, to invite into being the unborn. She also knows from experience that she simply won't grasp the fullness of what's hidden until what is hidden is ready to meet her. This is a neverending process--there is always more to behold.
This woman dives deep into shadow when others would hesitate even to dip a toe in it. I have cultivated a practice of embracing the unknown because of her.
When I am writing a story these days, I consider at length what to reveal and conceal. More and more, I choose to conceal much and to draw out the process of revelation. That process constitutes the story's sweetness. The hidden is both possibility and potential. What is concealed is the advent of our encounter with the dark--the stuff of life's adventure and authenticity.
Spiritual Practice: I invite you to pull out a hand-mirror, sit in a darkened room, light a candle, and hide the candle's flame with the mirror's face. Feel your connectedness to the earth. Soften your eyes. Invite your darkness to reveal itself to you. What do you see? What is the shape of your darkness? Are you open to naming it, to integrating into the known details of your claimed identity? Breathe deeply and draw your attention to the earth's embrace as you allow yourself to see more and more. When you are ready, thank the darkness and the earth. Journal about your discoveries.
This year brings with it changes: some eagerly welcomed, and some simply needed.
There will be several changes for me as I continue along this path of life.
1) Beginning this month, I will no longer be holding Thean Evening Prayer outside my home. This is a loss, as I have loved and learned a great deal from this monthly sacred circle of women. It is a gain of time and energy, both of which are increasingly precious to me. I invite those who have gathered with me for Thean Evening Prayer and any others who wish to develop their own regular, rhythmic prayer practice to pray with the Thean Psalter. This Psalter is written in a feminine voice with feminine pronouns and names for Thea in a feminist thealogical worldview, and is an enriching supplement to other faith traditions as well as a strong, illuminating, standalone form of prayer.
2) The Thea House Church liturgies, which have previously been private gatherings, will be open to all pilgrims with open hearts beginning this March. More details will be announced in the coming weeks.
3) I have found in the last year that I have failed to make adequate room in my life for two of my great joys: walking and writing. I resolve to set aside less vital pursuits to make room for these. To that end, I look forward this year to participating in my third half-marathon and finishing my second novel.
4) I imagine that each of us seeks to be more loving and less resentful. I cling sometimes to resentments and anger when I feel wronged or observe someone else being wronged, but I seek to keep those feelings close only long enough to learn from them and let them go in peace. The longer I journey along this road of mine, the more aware I become that my time is limited, and my desire to love abundantly and beautifully competes with the time I give over to festering anger. I seek to choose love and beauty, and to allow anger to grow into both of those rather than falling stagnant.
May 2018 be rich with joy, love, and hope for all Creation. ♥
A good friend of mine, a fellow writer, introduced me to the Sacred Rebels Oracle, which is a deck of cards akin to a Tarot deck. It includes forty-four cards and a 180-page guidebook with descriptions of each card, and it's designed specifically for creative types (and even more particularly for women).
I looked through the deck for the first time today, and the cards swept me away not only with their images, but their themes. The tenth card, called "Releasing Allegiances," particularly stood out to me as I contemplated my next creative project, which is to write a gospel according to Kate.
I thought immediately of Luke 14:26 as I looked at this card: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters...such a person cannot be my disciple." When I think of my own allegiances, I think of my long-time devotion to the Roman Catholic Church, and then to the Episcopal Church, and especially the Benedictine Canons (a Benedictine, Episcopalian religious order for men and women in which I was a novice for nine months). It was to my great surprise that I had to let go of my allegiances to my former Christian communities in order to turn my focus entirely to Thea.
As I break down the doors of the early medieval canon of Christian scripture by writing my own gospel, this oracle card resonates with me profoundly. By writing a gospel of my own, I am turning inward, where the light of Thea burns brightly.
I'm excited to write this gospel, to reimagine religious narratives as a Thean narrative, and to use this gospel in my house church liturgy when it is finished. My daughters will grow up hearing and learning from a truly feminist gospel, and in that, I know that my work and call as a house church priest will not be for nothing.
When I listen to Katy Perry's "E.T." (which, for the record, is a lousy and even offensive song lyrically speaking), I'm transported back to 2012. I had just had my first book crowdfunded, and I was getting started on my book manuscript. I was writing every day, and what's more, I was writing about writing with writer friends--while listening to not-very-deep but catchy music.
One of my writer friends from back then commented on a post I made today. I noted that I'd reached 55,000 words in my novel manuscript, and he wrote, "Look at you go. Keep kickin' butt lady."
And you know what? That little bit of encouragement snapped me out of a mental loop. I've had my eyes habitually fixed on the past when my eyes could have been focused on the future. Now my eyes are on the future. It's bright, promising, and rich. And I'm creating it, one word at a time.
When I hear Katy Perry, I hear myself dancing into the future with wild, fertile hopes and dreams. I like what I hear.
I'm happy to announce the publication of my second book, Lifeblood. It's a chapbook containing four stories about blood cancer and its implications for life and death. All proceeds from this book benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Please consider adding a copy to your bookshelf. You can order a signed copy directly through me--just send me a message!
Thea, for three weeks I've swum the choppy waters of writing, and several times I've nearly drowned. Each time, my endurance has emerged as victor. Grant me the inspiration to continue this swim to the end, even though my muscles are fatigued and I yearn to rest. Amen.
For over fifty days now, I've written at least 750 words on 750words.com, a site that's designed to facilitate Julia Cameron's popular exercise of "morning pages." Each day, I can receive statistics on what I've written. It will tell me what sort of mood prevails in my words, and it will also tell me what subject is most prominent. Every time I've checked in the last few weeks, the stats tell me that I'm feeling mostly affectionate and mostly concerned about religion.
That's telling, because before a few weeks ago, I was mostly concerned about religion, but I was almost never listed as affectionate. Of the five categories of feeling listed in 750words.com's stats--affectionate, self-important, self-expressive, upset, and happy--I was very often analyzed to be upset.
What has changed in the last few weeks to bring about the transformation of a many-years-long trend?
One piece of it is that I've let go of my expectations about how I'm supposed to fit in to religious communities. I no longer seek to fit in anywhere (which is a strange thing for a liturgist to say). Ever since realizing that I'm an Enneagram four-type, not a three-type, I've taken a deep and intentional turn inward, and I've found myself at home.
I haven't been part of a church community for several months (for a number of important and difficult reasons), but I've wanted liturgy in my life. Lacking a community in which to safely or happily participate, a mustard seed of an idea has taken root in my heart. Why not engage in liturgy at home, as the earliest Christians did? Why not take my priestly skillset and become presbyter of my own household? I don't mean seeking formal ordination or jumping through ecclesial hoops--I mean taking the exceptional liturgical knowledge and presiding skills I have and celebrating the great thanksgiving with my own small children.
But you don't have permission to do that! cries my critic.
But I don't need permission to do that, I say back.
Perhaps to be a Christian feminist in the twenty-first century is as simple as saying that I no longer seek permission from patriarchal authorities to do what I'm called to do.
A couple of weeks ago I realized that four (rather than three) is my Enneagram type. Since that revelation, I've allowed myself to focus on my creative work for at least an hour or two every day, and it has made a tremendous difference in my disposition. Instead of focusing my attention on tasks that primarily benefit others, I'm drawing out what's inside myself for its own sake, and it's breathtaking. It's art. It's me.
I've decided to resurrect my Master's thesis. I was having trouble with it because my approach to it was so academic and sharp. I realized that the way to salvage it was to transform it into a pastoral resource. I told some friends that some of my favorite liturgical writing resembles excellent preaching, and the trouble with my thesis is that it resembles very poor preaching. If I transform it into good preaching, it will be a good book. A publishable book. A useful book. A beautiful book. I've discovered that my writing is my art and my ministry to the world.
Now that I'm focusing inward instead of outward, I feel totally alive. And I love feeling alive again.
Thea is working hard on my heart. I'm grateful for the fruits that have come out of these last difficult months.
This is it. This is the year I'm going to write my first novel, and I'm going to begin from word one on November 1 in the annual NaNoWriMo event.
To write fifty thousand words in thirty days is no small task. Will I master this challenge? Will I be able to endure dry, uninspired, hopeless days and write 1,667 words anyway? Will I throw in the towel as I have so many NaNoWriMo's before?
I want this for myself. I want it because the writer in me has longed to be set free, to shine. I want it because my call to write has been so resoundingly clear for so long. It's time that I fully embrace that call.
This morning my spiritual director sent me Richard Rohr's daily meditation e-mail. He wrote of John of the Cross' dark night of the soul.
I wonder if that dark night isn't where my soul has made its nest over the last three months. For a long time--years and years--I have sought my life's value outside of myself. And I wonder if it hasn't been within me all along, in that deep place within which God's fiery life flickers.
I wonder now if I would find comfort in this dark night by writing not to or for or about others, but simply to God, my life's source. In intimate communication with God, could there be any doubt of my value? What would I discover?
Perhaps I, the expert in liturgical prayer, have been praying in the wrong way, with the wrong words. Perhaps my own words were the ones God beckoned from me. It is one thing to pray the psalms, and another to pray the psalms of one's heart. Is one thing to read God's word, and another to enflesh it.
Maybe what God is bringing to birth in me is not what I can do for others, but the birth of God's name for me: "Beloved."
I was invited to offer a guest blog post on Path: Ethic, a blog that discusses ethical issues on subjects from politics to philosophy to parenting (and beyond). From the blog description:
Whether we desire a religious roadmap to show us which path is the right (or the righteous) one, or whether we insist on stories from the Ancients to tell us how to lead our lives in the future: in this complicated world where we connect everyday with others who are so similar yet separate from us, what does it mean to lead a moral life, to tread gently, to do least harm?
I wanted to create a space to ask those questions. Not to ask ‘what would Jesus or Buddha or Queen Victoria do?’, but rather, ‘what should WE do?’. This is a place to look at what is happening around us and think about what role we choose to play. It is a place to discuss and ponder and to always ask why.
Path: Ethic is a blog that transcends the blogger's usual trap of navel-gazing and serves as a gathering place for people who seek to discuss practical answers to life's most important questions.
You can find my guest post, "Secret of my success," here.
I don't normally do evening posts, but I'm not normally blogging on vacation, either. Consider this an extraordinary post, in any sense of "extraordinary" that you wish. Recently I picked up an old journal of mine--one that I finished just before I met my husband. It's a journal that represents one of the most tumultuous periods of my life. As I reflect on the contents of that journal and the period it represents, the power of my own words takes my breath away. My life then, which could so easily be hidden or forgotten now, is recorded by my own hand. Because I took time to speak the words of my heart in those many pages, my experience from that time is memorialized forever. I remember a homily that a Benedictine priest gave once that began, "Words, words, words!" "I'm so sick of words!" Eliza Doolittle declared. Occasionally I wonder if others tire of my words, but tiring though they may be, I write them. And I write them. And I write more of them. Because in my words dwell the power of the Spirit. I am Spirit's instrument when I do this very thing, tap-tap-tapping at my computer or huddling over a journal with one of my precious pens. When I am alone, when I am fearful, when I am angry, when I am frustrated, or when I am elated, when I am ecstatic, when I am grateful, when I am joyful: I write. Writing is the meeting place between my voice and God's, and if I were ever asked to stop--well, I wouldn't stop, regardless of the cost. I cannot be other than the person I am called by God to be. And I am called to be a writer, among many other things. As I discern the fullness of my vocation, especially with regard to the possibility of becoming a Benedictine Episcopal priest, I reflect on my writing vocation. How was it planted? How was it nurtured? What was it like when I turned from it? When did I figure out that writing was not just a thing I sometimes did, but rather an identity-creating activity without which I cannot be wholly myself?