Toward a working definition of “Spiritual Writing”

Spiritual Writing, especially in the days of deconstructionism, must first be defined if we are going to have a conversation about it. There is something to the challenge of pinning down a fixed definition of any word, particularly a religious one, as much damage has been done in parsing out what is considered spiritual and what is not. If we begin with the basic definition that spirituality has to do with the immaterial, the human spirit, and anything religious, then all writing, when boiled down to its essence—creating and interpreting worlds out of the intangibility of words—is spiritual. (Do you think this might have something to do with why The Best Spiritual Writing isn’t included in the BA series?) Solely for the purposes of this book club—I’m hoping Jenna agrees—another definition for “spiritual writing” must be insisted upon.

I’d like to propose that as we discuss this anthology, when we refer to spiritual writing, we are speaking of writing — essays, stories and poems— that not only reaches out for the ineffable (again, that should be the bar for all good writing), but also fixes its claws into spirituality as the thread through, the thesis, the plot, the content—spirituality as the situation and the story.

As I graph each essay for its greatest —horizontal line for spiritual content and vertical line for successful craft—I am reminded of the essay entitled “Understanding Poetry” by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. quoted in the movie The Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating eloquently claims that J. Evan Pritchard’s system for literary analysis is “excrement.” Poetry isn’t something that can be charted and analyzed, he says; it is something to be lived. Carpe Diem! Ah well, there goes my system. Analyze, critique or judge the selections in this anthology at your own risk, then. Decide on their greatness or not. Live them if possible.

Welcome to the online book club about the Best Spiritual Writing 2012! Let’s start the discussion below (click on “comments”) with the initial questions:  What do you believe the definition of spiritual writing is and how you would determine the best of it?

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Best Spiritual Writing 2012 – Schedule

Hi, everyone. Sarah and I (Jenna) are happy to be your spiritual guides — um, we mean hosts — for this discussion of the Best Spiritual Writing 2012 anthology. We thought we’d offer up a loose schedule of when we’ll discuss which essays/poems of the collection. We won’t necessarily give each entry equal weight or time in the discussion, but this way you can play along even if you haven’t read the whole book upfront.

Week of Feb. 19

  • Foreword by Philip Zaleski & Introduction by Philip Yancey
  • “Fearful Symmetries,” Stephen M. Barr
  • “The Company of Drawings,” John Berger
  • “The Ant,” Robert Bly
  • “Frat House for Jesus,” Peter J. Boyer
  • “All Souls Night,” Katharine Coles
  • “Gold,” Billy Collins
  • “The Debacle,” Andrew Cooper

Week of Feb. 26

  • “The Search,” Kate Farrell
  • “World As Is,” Eamon Grennan
  • “In Nomine,” A. G. Harmon
  • “Wonderlust,” Tony Hiss
  • “A Figure in Black and Gray,” Joe Hoover
  • “A Chapel Is Where You Can Hear Something Beating Below Your Heart,” Pico Iyer
  • “The Few, The Proud, The Chosen,” Sam Jacobson

Week of March 5

  • “Bulgarian Icon of the Last Supper,” Mark Jarman
  • “Where the Buddhist Woke Up,” Noa Jones
  • “Burial Cloth Removed,” Jill Noel Kandel
  • “Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy,” Karen Ah-Hwei Lee
  • “What It Is That Feeds Us,” BK Loren
  • “Apparitions & Visitations,” Paul Myers
  • “Harmony of Heaven, Earth and Man — Harmony of Civilizations,” Seyyed Hossein Nasr
  • “Why Are the Jews Chosen?,” David Novak

Week of March 12

  • “The Next Incarnation,” Evan Osnos
  • “Thinking Again,” Marilynne Robinson
  • “Saint Cesar of Delano,” Richard Rodriguez
  • “Rescuing Evil,” Ron Rosenbaum
  • “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been,” Sherod Santos
  • “Pears, Unstolen,” Betsy Sholl
  • “Tritones,” George Steiner
  • “The Day Continues Lovely,” C. K. Williams
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Best Spiritual Writing 2012

After a wonderful, engaging discussion of The Best American Essays 2012, I turn the reins over to the ethereal and spunky Jenna McGuiggan and Sarah Braud (I won’t say which is which), who will lead discussion on The Best Spiritual Writing 2012.

They will start discussion next Sunday, February 2019, so there’s still plenty of time to grab your copy and read along!

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BAE – My Favorite!

OK, I’ve abstained for awhile, actually exercising such self control that I haven’t even mentioned the essay in any other posts, but I’m coming out with it. My personal favorite essay from The Best American Essays 2011 is Victor LaValle’s “Long Distance.”

Mind you, I’m not saying I thought it was the best essay – though neither am I saying it wasn’t – but rather that it’s the essay that’s stuck with me personally the longest after reading it. It was the first piece I’ve read by LaValle, and it made me want to read everything else he’s written. Here are some of the things it did for me:

  1. Had a great opening line: “The most loving relationship of my early twenties cost me ninety-nine cents a minute.”
  2. Had a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor about undoubtedly LaValle’s greatest shame, being morbidly obese for much of his twenties, e.g.: “…fat people are perverts. By which I mean to say, loneliness perverts you.”
  3. Never fully resolves itself or makes us think LaValle’s problems disappeared when he lost more than a hundred pounds. The ending I found particularly complex and moving, when he looks at his newly skinny hand and realizes “this hand hadn’t replaced the old one; instead it was like this hand had grown around the fatter one somehow. Both were there, but only one could be seen.”
  4. I even loved his Contributor’s Notes, where he mentions a central problem to writing about past trauma (sorry, had to get that word in somewhere) with candor: “But, of course, I never reach the true present in the essay. Maybe I still don’t know how to talk about a life with greater happiness. Or I’m still trying to break free from the romance of misery. That has destroyed better writers than me.”

I know that many of the essays in BAE 2011 are perhaps weightier (so to speak) than this one, but none have moved me so insistently.

What did everyone else think? Am I alone here?


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BAE – Trauma, Revisited

There’s quite a conversation developing in the Comments sections of other posts about my delineation of “trauma stories” (though, interestingly, not in the Comments section of that post itself), which I thought it would be helpful to map in one post, respond to, and probe further. Here are the comments so far, first in the Opening Comments and Questions

“I checked the book out of the library, so didn’t have a chance to read all the essays, but by about five in I was feeling too nauseous to keep going. Not a criticism of individual essays, merely a reflection, as you say, on the book as a whole. Was stunned by the opening piece and the one about Haiti…look forward to reading your thoughts on those.” – Robin, 1/19

“Heavy? Perhaps. But also gripping, stunning, relevant, thought-provoking, and almost journalistic at times. I liked the collection. And some of the heaviest essays were also my favorite essays. I like to think that the fact they stay with you says more about the strong writing than the heavy topics.” – Christy, 1/21

“I’ve only read the first six stories and I agree that the themes are generally heavy. However, the approach taken by the writers, the language and the structuring of the essay, is what I found to have the biggest emotional impact on me as a reader. For example, After the Ice tells a terrible story of a senseless death of a child, yet it was less emotionally jarring than the story Beds, which chronicles the abuses a daughter suffered at the hands of her father. In the former, there is a distance in the reporting, almost “icy” in its telling. And it’s not an account of harm to the narrator, but of harm to another, and its effects on the family members of that child, and especially the narrator. On the other hand Beds is told in a very choppy nervous style, in short episodes, and the reader is nervous too, reading to see what physical assault or devastating psychological blow will be dealt the daughter by her father.

Regarding the other stories, I was moved at times but not devastated, and it was not because of the theme (for example, I remember crying when reading the accounts of the Haiti quake and seeing the images of the suffering that followed but in reading this story, I felt a bit detached). What Broke My Father’s Heart was a story that had a different effect altogether: it made me reflect on my own demise in a sort of neutral way. It convinced me that I would prefer to live a shorter yet less painful life, less painful for myself and others. Actually, it probably wasn’t a question of convincing but of bringing to my attention the need to consider how you want your eventual demise to play out. In any case, I look forward to reading more stories. I feel like I am learning about “the lives of others” as I go through these stories and also how to tackle the job of combining narration, reflection and moments of poetry in an essay.” – Elise, 1/22

…Then in response to Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay About a Personal Essay”

“‘Everyone thinks they have a story these days, and as soon as they let women in the Middle East start talking, you’ll have to hold an editor hostage to get a response. Mark my words.’

I think this junk is funny. And it reminds me that writing is less about the drama and/or trauma of a story as it is about the craft of writing. I think the guest editor might be signaling the reader, by including Vannoy’s essay, that she was not just looking for the most brutal stories, but the best writing about real life.” – Sarah, 1/17

“I liked this essay, and yes, I thought it worked. I haven’t read enough of the rest of the collection yet to compare it to the others, but I do think Datnticat probably intended it as a wink and a nod to her selections, especially since she directly references Vannoy’s essay at the end of her introduction.

I agree with Sarah: It’s funny! And it’s not just surface humor. The tone is overwrought in a way, but that fits because the essay is about how overwrought modern essay subject matter can be — or, perhaps, is *expected* to be at times. Some of my CNF writer friends and I have joked with each other that we don’t have enough life trauma to write CNF that will sell. So maybe this is why I’m fond of Vannoy’s essay: because I read it as a backhanded defense of essays in which nothing traumatic or over-the-top happens. And I happen to write quiet (meditative? lyric?) essays in which not much happens.” – Jenna, 1/20

I think this was chosen to say it’s about the writing, not a contest of traumas. The thing is: I don’t think the writing in this essay was as strong as it was for the more serious, traumatic essays. But I like that alopecia got thrown into the mix! – Christy, 1/21

…And finally with Sarah’s and Adam’s spat over Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?” that Sue Silverman graciously stepped in on:

“What makes Adam want to see The Social Network again is perhaps the same quality that makes him doubt the authentic “essay-ness” about the other essays in this years collection: inaccuracies. Whether inaccuracies in memory or intentional, inaccuracies (facts) must be held in submission to the service of the greater story, emotional or otherwise. The story of thought versus the story of emotion are both equally valuable and I posit that Adam and other essayists/readers who hold reflective or meditative essays better will do well to challenge their own emotional stories by reflecting on others.” – Sarah, 1/23

“The inaccuracies are not at the heart of my argument, rather the idea of something as ‘a jumping off point for a carefully considered analysis of a much bigger concern.’ The ‘something’ of an essay can be a memory, experience, movie, work of art, personal trauma…anything…as long as (again in my opinion as a branded meditative essay-lover) that ‘something’ goes beyond one’s own story.

Now I know that writers of emotionally-charged personal essays, like (to pick a few from this issue) Mischa Berlinski of the armchair view of a third-world disaster in Haiti, Paul Crenshaw of the tricky look at family issues, or Rachel Riederer of the bus accident (already mentioned on this blog)–I know they will say their works DO go beyond their own story…inherently. These essays become universal, so it goes, because they’re not just about bus accidents, say, or abusive relationships, or earthquakes, but they’re about something we all experience–like alienation, identity crisis, isolation.

I just don’t buy it. I don’t hate these other essays, and certainly the best of them put me vividly in a place I have never been, but for me they do not rise to the level of what Smith has done, which is leap from a single work of art to a discussion of the issues of our time. (And, by the way, why can’t emotional personal stories ever show me the universal experience of joy, love, contentment?)

Zadie Smith is in the essay, with a personal experience of early Facebook (she opens the essay with it), but the essay is not ABOUT her. It’s more general. ‘When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced,’ writes Smith. ‘Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships, Language. Sensibility.’ And later: ‘our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.’ And the gem of a final sentence: ‘[The Social Network is] a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.’ These are big thoughts, and the rest of her words back up the logic.

I see myself in a whole new light because of this writing. Not a good light, maybe, but it’s definitely still turning around in my head. (And Smith’s final words are artfully swiped from a different programmer’s philosophy, on which Smith enlightens us.)

Well, crap! I promised myself I wouldn’t go on and on. Closing words: Inaccuracy discussion aside, I want an essay that leaves its first story–one that goes somewhere else: into the mind, to the books, anywhere. A play-by-play account of Smith watching The Social Network would never have been published anywhere. But play-by-play accounts of other aspects of life are published all the time.

OK, then, memoirists: warm up those keyboards and have at it.” – Adam, 1/24

I must confess that I did intentionally misread you. But, for the purpose of a larger conversation. Is that bad? I’d prefer to call it ‘crafty.’

I am not in disagreement with you about the value of the reflective essay. Using quotidian experiences as ‘jumping off points’ to discuss or think through larger, more universal issues is a great art. Leaping from a single piece of art to a discussion of the issues of our time is no small leap. However, I think you minimize the different aspects of leaping if you think this only relates to writing about content outside of ourselves, content that is not inherently traumatic.

Life is traumatic. If you really followed the accusation Zadie Smith is making—remember, she has drawn a cruel portrait of you—to its core, I think you’d find, if you truly ruminated on it, a traumatizing experience. What is more traumatic than looking into your own heart and finding rot? I believe that following thoughts, logic, ideas is just as valuable as following individual experiences, whether categorized as ‘trauma’ or not. What I mean to say is that dramatic events and non-dramatic events are both worthy of being examined. They both lead to larger issues.

Which brings me to the bone I’d like to pick with John Proctor. In categorizing these essays as ‘trauma essays,’ I believe you reduce these people’s writing to cliches when they are anything but. These essayists are not sharing their experiences because they are titillating stories that might get picked up and made into Lifetime movies or after-school specials. Sustained narrative essays (which I think might be a more appropriate category, though I generally fight against most reductionistic titles) are crafted, thoughtful looks into the inner experience of outward events.

In the introduction to BAE, Danticat says that ‘such is the power of the stories we dare to tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are to words.’ She goes on to warn the essayist that ‘when we insert the “I” (our eye) to search deeper into someone, something, or ourselves, we are always risking a yawn or a slap, indifference or disdain.’ (How did she know?) She goes on to hope that the craft of writing, the art of telling the story of our thoughts or experiences, is perhaps the bridge that will connect us. Finally, she addresses the argument we are having head on, referring to the essay Adam mentioned above about the Haitian earthquake by Mischa Berlinski, she says:

‘However, his essay, which poignantly and powerfully describes the height of disaster, echoes an instinct we might also display even as we attempt to capture the quietest, most predictable moments: our yearning to preserve our words.’

In sum, whether the content is banal or traumatic, its all worth crafting with words. To quote Mr. Miyagi: ‘Same same.’ Crafting the content in vivid narrative scene or in long, lifeless logical thoughts, supported with dry definitions, quotes from ‘experts,’ and unrelieved ruminations are both valid forms of art. One just happens to be more engaging than the other.” – Sarah B., 1/24

“For me, there’s no difference between a so-called ‘trauma’ essay and any other kind of essay. The subject matter is somewhat beside the point. For me, the point, is whether an essay, regardless of subject matter, is well written, is artfully written. There are good essays written about trauma and there are bad essays written about trauma. There are good meditative essays and bad meditative essays…good nature essays and bad nature essays. What’s at the heart of of any given essay — what’s of interest — is the story BEHIND the story. And if the author fails to discover this, then, whatever the subject matter, the essay doesn’t work. On the other hand, if the story behind the story IS discovered, then the piece IS elevated to art. Of course, there are those that want us to believe that an essay about trauma isn’t art…which is a very ‘old’ and tiresome argument.

Literature is not a zero-sum game. What expands readership is great writing, whatever form it takes. What shrinks readership is the failure of writers to take emotional and stylistic risks. Right now, I believe that an expanding range of creative nonfiction presents writers with the best opportunities to take those risks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many serious writers – to say nothing of readers – find this genre so compelling.

If interested, I wrote a piece about this on You can find it here: – Sue, 1/24

I’ll apologize up front for using the words ‘non-trauma genre.’ Re-reading that in my first post at the top of this thread: Youch. But I’ll place much of the blame on John Proctor.

I must, however, address this: ‘Crafting the content in vivid narrative scene or in long, lifeless logical thoughts, supported with dry definitions, quotes from “experts,” and unrelieved ruminations are both valid forms of art. One just happens to be more engaging than the other.’ I knew Sarah B had a sharp tongue (I only take slight offense, my dear), but this actually gets to the point I’m trying to make.

An essay, meditative or otherwise, that uses ‘lifeless’ logic, ‘dry’ definitions and such, WOULD be a bad essay. Sue hits this on the head just above, but Sarah’s comment suggests that the use of facts, definitions, expert testimony, etc., makes an essay inherently ‘less engaging.’ The meditative/science/nature essay writer must do all the same things Sue describes in her Brevity piece. She or he must go beyond the ‘first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened,’ and instead find an engaging way to relate the logic / science / whatever. Believe me, there are plenty of ‘nature’ essays (I’m sure we’ll cover this again in the BASN month) that follow a writer following around a scientist, play-by-play until the end of the field tour. These are not examples of great writing.

The inverse is John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Peter Mathiessen, Annie Dillard, Edward Hoagland (‘The Courage of Turtles’ is hardly about turtles), who use language, structure, metaphor, and, yes, ‘vivid narrative scene,’ right along with factual information, conversations with experts, and thought puzzles. (I am sure this is true of other meditative essayists not focusing on nature, this just happens to be what I know at the moment.)

Here’s my basic stance: essays about rocks and essays about the human toll of earthquakes can be equally interesting–or equally boring. I just feel that many of the essays in the current collection that are about personal difficulty just didn’t quite elevate beyond personal difficulty, while Ms. Smith’s movie review did. So prove me wrong: let’s leave Zadie alone and have someone review some other essay for its excellent writing on different (more personal) subject matter.

(And just as I should never discount the value of an essay because it’s about ‘trauma’ (ugh, had to use it), don’t discount the value of an essay just because it’s about Facebook.)” – Adam, 1/24

“You are right, Adam. Like Sue said, there are bad essays and good essays from each subgenre. I was speaking tongue-in-cheek when I spoke of dry essays with lists of facts. (Do I get points for needling you?) My point was more that it is simply a matter of preference, not worth. I do prefer sustained narratives, ones with insights and facts cleverly hidden in the midst of an emotionally amped scene. I like being tricked into learning.” – Sarah, 1/24

First, I will be the first to admit that it is rather simplistic, even condescending, to lump together a bunch of unique, well-written essays under one “trauma” umbrella. And maybe there’s a better word than “trauma” for what these essays are; honestly, I just wanted an excuse to eventually coin the term “trauma drama” (which I now have, by the way).

That said, the reason I did this was simply that there are so many of them in this volume; if we were talking about BAE we’d probably be talking about academic essays and eulogies (which I actually already did, by the way). I do think that breaking things up in this way allows us to discuss:

  1. This particular “subgenre” in relation to other forms, and
  2. A large sampling of similarly themed essays in terms of how they work within this context.

And to tell the truth, I think it’s worked out pretty well so far – plenty of engaging, serious conversation about these things.

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BAE – Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?”

This was one of my favorite essays in the collection, and a good example of non-memoir-based essaying. It was actually originally a film review, of the ubiquitous film The Social Network, itself of course about the ubiquitous social network, Facebook.

I, for one, hated the movie. I thought it was a fairly typical Hollywood mythologization of recent history, with some pretty serious revisionism (if I were Napster co-founder Sean Parker, for example, I’d be suing for defamation). Smith, fortunately, has her sights higher than I in watching The Social Network, explaining the revisionism in relation to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg:

To create this Zuckerberg, [screenwriter Aaron] Sorkin barely need brush his pen against the page. We came to the cinema expecting to meet this guy, and it’s a pleasure to watch Sorkin color in what we had already confidently sketched in our minds. For sometimes the culture surmises an individual personality, collectively. Or thinks it does.

Anyone who’s ever seen Mark Zuckerberg knows he’s nothing like he’s played in the movie, which Smith explains thus:

But would Zuckerberg recognize it, the real Zuckerberg? Are these really his motivations, his obsessions? No – and the movie knows it.

…Fincher’s contemporary window-dressing is so convincing that it wasn’t until this very last scene [where Zuckerberg sits in front of his computer continually Friend Requesting Erica, the girl who broke his heart in the movie’s first scene, to no avail] that I realized the obvious progenitor of this wildly enjoyable, wildly inaccurate biopic. Hollywood still believes that behind every mogul there’s an idée fixe: Rosebud – meet Erica.

There’s a lot more to this essay, but I don’t want to steer the conversation too much. I will say, though, that by the end of the essay Smith indicts us all (unless you’re one of the last 10 First- or Second-World inhabitants without a Facebook account):

The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called “Mark Zuckerberg.” It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.

You can find the essay online here.

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BAE2011 – Trauma Stories

So, with all I’ve written so far about the preponderance of “trauma stories” in this volume, I figure we could have a robust discussion on these pieces, whether in comparing how different ones approach human suffering, picking favorites, or whatever tickles our fancy.

I’d rather direct discussion as little as possible and simply see what everyone has to say, but I figured it might be useful to list the essays I thought fit into this “genre” (if such a genre is even a fair classification), dividing them into “Personal Trauma” essays and “Observed Trauma” essays (though, you’ll notice, some essays fit into both categories).

Personal Trauma

  • “Beds,” Toi Derricotte
  • “Grieving,” Meenakshi Gigi Durham
  • “A-LOC,” Bernadette Esposito
  • “Topic of Cancer,” Christopher Hitchens
  • “Long Distance,” Victor LaValle
  • “What Really Happened,” Madge McKeithen
  • “Lucky Girl,” Bridget Potter
  • “Patient,” Rachel Riederer
  • “Unprepared,” Jerald Walker

Observed Trauma

  • “Port-au-Prince: The Moment,” Mischa Berlinski
  • “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” Katy Butler
  • “Auscultation,” Steven Church
  • “After the Ice,” Paul Crenshaw
  • “Beds,” Toi Derricotte
  • “Grieving,” Meenakshi Gigi Durham
  • “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” Charlie LeDuff
  • “What Really Happened,” Madge McKeithen
  • “Rude Am I in My Speech,” Caryl Phillips
  • “There Are Things Awry Here,” Lia Purpura
  • “Pearl, Upward,” Patricia Smith
  • “Unprepared,” Jerald Walker
  • “The Washing,” Reshma Memon Yaqub

Again, any way you want to react, whether to an individual essay or to compare them, is cool.

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