Writing Samples

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Faith and Leadership

Today we joined Leadership Education at Duke Divinity in Durham, NC in “Writing from Your Life of Faith,” with Sally Hicks, Editor of Faith and Leadership and manager of the publication’s Twitter account.  For many years, Hicks was a newspaper reporter and journalist who did her trench writing amidst endless looming deadlines.  She found writing group critiques effective vehicles for personal journalism prior to becoming an editor.

Hicks asked workshop participants to read two personal essay works for comparison and contrast in advance of the collaborative session, both works were heavily quoted as examples in getting to the heart of a story. They included: The Secret by Kate Bowler; and How my grandmother’s story helped me lead as an African-American woman by Debora Jackson. The workshop was monitored by the Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick, Managing Director, Alban at Duke Divinity School.

Writing was presented as an essential element and act of leadership and faith.  Through writing we handle change and conflict.  We find ways to express deep longing and need. We are able to find resolution and reflection.   Here are Ms. Hicks’ key points for personal essay writing from faith:

Make a single point well.

Stay sharply focused for essays of 1,000 words.  Identify the main idea with an attention-getting focus.  Have a clear vision and a clear writing style to keep the reader engaged.  Where is your beginning?  What are you motivated by?  Are you trying to make a point or is there some other intent?  Is the story you are trying to tell more than an anecdote?  Where is the point of change or what has occurred that you wish to relate?  Engage readers on a human level.  Note who your actors are and what your illustrations are.  Commonalities exist between a sermon and a personal essay.  The sermon usually emanates from scriptural text, preached to a similar weekly audience, less likely to be generated from personal experience.

Write in your own voice.

The key to the personal essay is that it is personal.  Write in the first person, from your own life.  The personal is the universal.  A personal and unique story touches an audience.  Consider in what way the stories of your life bear witness to the ongoing development of art or faith in your world.  By doing so, we equip readers to gauge their own growth.  Often, the honest and searing truth of reality is more effective and less self-indulgent than we might think.  On Writing Well was cited as a useful reference.  Speak about yourself in a manner that is not abstract or theoretical.  Use author Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir  tips for carnal detailing and uniqueness in bringing stories to life.  Claim your own voice by establishing an element of authority by giving a reader a reason to trust you and believe you know what you’re talking about.  Write humbly, mitigate tone, share your own breathe.

Leadership literature From Good to Great was also cited.  Humor and self-deprecation are effective tools for socially relevant works.  Stories do not need to be dramatic to be worth telling.  For example, nature writers find the work of God in a single leaf unfolding.  Think about your definition of a powerful or important stories.  Is childbirth any less significant than war? In balancing humor, snarkiness, and sarcasm, Karr was quoted as saying, “Make sure you’re harder on yourself than anyone else in your story.”  Hicks recommends having the confidence to know that if you are personally interested in a story, it is likely that there is something there.  She calls this “faith” in pushing ahead, hopefully with a good editor in your back pocket.  As to timeline in reflecting when there has been enough passage of time to tell a story that impacts others’ lives, one must consider priorities and boundaries.

Karr allows her real-life characters some agency in choosing their own pseudonyms or composites.  Be aware of sensitivities.  Edit your personal details to deflect and obfuscate individual identities where prudent.  Your editor is your collaborator in publishing the best work possible for the publication, always read the publication, seek out the publication style guidelines and read them if you want to write.  Perfect your query pitch as a short and sweet introduction to you and your idea, exemplary of your writing.

Polish for publication.

Turn in clean copy.  Check for typos and grammatical matters.  Errors happen.  Watch for them.  As a rule, don’t present something as true that is not.  Watch your fact-massaging as standard ethical practice.  Fact check.  Print out a hard copy to affirm individual statements, especially in an era of misinformation.  Write to length, writing something short is actually harder than writing something long.  Writing too long is asking an editor to do your work for you.  Write to deadlines as basic professionalism.  Communicate appropriately for submission of unsolicited pieces or pitches.  Wait before bugging editors.  Once you have an assignment, stay in reasonable touch with an editor if you have questions or if there is some focus change.  One’s writing voice develops consistently as one writes.

Faith and Leadership looks for works that help practitioners of faith do their jobs well.   Writing classes and workshops with peer writers and leaders can afford feedback for developing writers.  What’s most important is attentiveness, slowing down, being open to experiences, having an attitude of prayer, recognizing connections, and looking for the unexpected.  Have an imagination for what’s already happening around you.  Use writing as a cathartic way to process experiences that are difficult to let go, Hicks recommends blurting out a first draft without editing too early in your thought process.

A recording is available here or by copying this link into your internet browser — https://dukeuniversity.webex.com/dukeuniversity/ldr.php?RCID=dd3cf34421f2515ec4ac828939792636 .   Sally Hicks can be reached by email at hicks@div.duke.edu or Nathan Kirkpatrick at nek@duke.edu.

Shauna Lee Lange is the founder of  a full-service Liturgical Art Advisory specializing in sacred spaces, public places, and creative placemaking.  941.875.5190 

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Book Review: Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul

 

While living in Tampa, Florida, in the early 1990s, our family suffered an all-consuming house fire. Poof. Everything instantly burnt to embers. Even still today, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that one’s reality can be dismantled so abruptly. How can a singular incident alter so much of what we know and trust and believe? In the physical sense, at that moment, I lost my United States military uniform, a testament I’d hoped to pass down to my children as a heritage and legacy. In the spiritual sense, I gained acceptance and friendship with the transitory. The gift of that fire was in the understanding and knowledge that all that ever really lasts, all that really ever matters, is love.

Author Michael Singer would agree. In his 2015 publication The Surrender Experiment (Harmony Books), Singer speaks of the spiritual liberation of deep inner surrender, especially in the midst of life’s extraordinary events. While I was still reflecting on this, out of nowhere, my brother’s ex-wife sent me a copy of Singer’s 2007 seminal work, The Untethered Soul (New Harbinger Publication/Noetic Books). Her gracious gift exemplifies the subtitle: The Journey Beyond Yourself. It is this unhitching, unfastening, and unleashing that speaks especially to creative and spiritual people. “Untethering” represents an intentional and purposeful disconnecting from security for the sake of something grander.

We want to cling to the familiar, you know. As such, though its application is still valid ten years after initial publication, The Untethered Soul was a bit of a philosophical reach for me. Although I admire the merits of free-flowing yogadic meditation methods, I tend to prefer the directed visio divina (divine seeing) for demystifying life’s questions. Yet, I am mindful of the words of Lesslie Newbigin in Foolishness to the Greeks: “The fact that Jesus is much more than our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him through other eyes.”[1] And so, as I continue my search, as an artist and believer, to find the best methods to tap into the divine and unlock the secret regions of the heart, I work, play, pray, and make art.

Artists often enhance our prayer life through creative expression and channel our inspiration into physical products, as a form of witness and communication. Singer would say that even this busy-ness, this work, even this can be a form of attachment. Further, our attempts at self-medication, preservation, protection, and insulation are all efforts at not feeling too much. Likewise, neurosis, self-doubt, worry, and confusion keep us at the center of our own manufactured worlds.

Maybe you have found the slow and intentional practice that leads to true co-creation as a godly artist. Looking with God’s eyes, bringing life to his plan for beauty, submitting to his leadership and will, pursuing a heart of purity, and healing others are proven pathways to intimacy with God. If we ask what it is to create, what is the true meaning of the sacred, and ultimately what is holy, Singer would say the answers can be found only when we relax and release.

The Untethered Soul divides a stream-of-consciousness writing style into five concrete sections. In “Awakening Consciousness,” we’re asked about our internal voices and prompted to truly answer the “Who Are You?” questions. In “Experiencing Energy,” we’re reminded of the Infinite Source and asked not to close our hearts to the undesirable in life. In “Freeing Yourself,” Singer compares a rose’s thorns to our fear of personal pain in moving toward true freedom. “Going Beyond” encourages us to pursue a lifelong practice of dismantling walls and letting go of false solidity. Finally, in “Loving Life,” we are reminded that death is our constant, faithful companion and teacher. By employing a Taoist stance of “finding the center of all experience,” we can be helped in regulating life’s extremes.

After the house fire, everything was a confused uncertainty. Ours was a suspected arson, and I found myself shutting down and turning off with friends and family. Those were dark vertigo days of imbalance and clouded thought. I remember thinking that the only thing I really wanted from life (beyond immediate answers) was to feel joy, enthusiasm, and love again. The details, the paperwork, the investigations became overwhelming. At a certain point, when I couldn’t stop the speeding train, I just sort of decided to let this situation take place and be there with it because I really had no other choice. Singer would call this approach ‘sitting in the seat of consciousness’. A thought or emotion emerges, you notice it, and it passes because you allow it to, rather than clinging to it.

This technique of semi-detachment has facilitated my art practice since, as well. If the spiritual journey is one of constant transformation, so is the artistic one. We wish to give up the struggle of remaining the same, and we seek to embrace change. But the journey is often, if not always, one we must take alone. Singer writes:

You see, loneliness is just like a thorn. It causes pain and disturbance in all aspects of your life. But in the case of the human heart, we have more than one thorn. We have sensitivities about loneliness, about rejection, about our physical appearance, and about our mental prowess. We are walking around with lots of thorns touching right against the most sensitive parts of our heart. At any moment something can touch them and cause pain inside.

If we can get to the stage of being okay with everything, that’s the time everything will be okay. When we embrace the natural unfolding of life, analytical angst can be transformed into open-hearted observation, where we recognize, acknowledge, and let each moment pass, not denying the pain or discomfort, but in recognition that each moment will pass, and that peace and joy may be found on the other side of turmoil. This can only occur when we give up clinging and attachment by untethering.

You may protest that it is hard to let go. Believe me, I know, but there can be joy in sailing free in unchartered waters. There is light, love, compassion, joy, and protection in yielding to the Holy Spirit. One way to do that is by remaining quietly in the center of each event, buoyed by the awareness that it will pass. The free soul is the happy soul, one that accepts it all—good or bad, painful or joyful—embracing a journey beyond oneself.

The Untethered Soul is accompanied by online resources including a reading guide, video clips, and recorded talks with Michael Singer.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).


Shauna Lee Lange is the founder of a full-service liturgical art advisory specializing in sacred, visionary, and interfaith art. The firm is dedicated to arts immersion in sacred spaces, public places, and creative placemaking. Lange is also the founder of Creative Arts Consultants International, a growing global network of over 18,000 art professionals.