Tag Archives: writing

Seeking and answering spiritual questions

In her work on spiritual autobiographies, Gil Skidmore has identified stages which writers typically describe. One of these is a stage in which the spiritual search coalesces around a particular question.

Gil and I recently ran a course together in which we looked at spiritual autobiographies, blogging, and other ways of sharing. As a writing exercise, I asked people to consider writing a tweet (or some other short statement!) in which they compared themselves to one of the historical writers Gil had described, or fitted their own spiritual life into the stages she identified. For one of my answers, I wrote:

My spiritual seeking centred on two questions. Firstly, why is it so hard to talk about God? Secondly, if it’s so hard to talk about God, how does everyone know he’s a He?

Writing out the questions like this made me realise that, although it’s taken me perhaps fifteen or twenty years, I have now answered them. The answer to the second question I would summarise with the single word ‘kyriarchy‘. The answer to the first question I explored at full length in my book, Telling the Truth about God. There are definitely more things to say about both of these questions, and many related issues, but over the past few years I’ve become gradually more and more relaxed about them. I’m still interested, still happy to have these conversations, but the urgent drive I once felt to start those conversations has faded.

I also realised recently that an answer I’ve had for a long time, ‘I’m a writer’, has finally met the right questions. It’s no longer the answer to future-focussed questions like, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ or ‘what do you aspire to be?’; no longer the answer to counter-factual questions like ‘what would you do if you weren’t doing this job?’ or ‘if you had a million dollars how would you spend your time?’; no longer the answer to inner-world questions like ‘what is your favourite hobby?’ or ‘what is your vocation?’ Instead, it’s a real answer to here-and-now question, ‘what do you do?’ and I have the ISBNs and Goodreads profile to prove it.

This does lead to the question: what next? I have some ideas – actually, I have a list of 17 ideas for things I want to write, including more novels, more books about Quakers, more academic articles about how multiple religious belonging works, and more poetry. I also know what some of the next questions are going to be, although I don’t know which ones will end up being the next stage of my spiritual journey. Some which are in the air for me include:

  • How will my own journey of multiple religious involvement develop? Will I drop or come back to Buddhism, especially the Community of Interbeing? Will my connection with Druidy, especially OBOD, weaken or strengthen as I approach the end of my Ovate work? Are there other things I want to explore? How will my relationship with Quakerism develop as I spend more time teaching and writing about it? (And now working on the revision of my community’s core text?)
  • How will my commitments to social justice, climate justice, and resisting climate collapse develop? At the moment these are areas where I read and retweet and think and sometimes discuss or facilitate discussion but rarely write or teach in my own voice. (Unless writing a novel full of LGBTQ+ characters counts.) For a little while I thought I might end up being much more politically active – but then I moved and still haven’t found my place in local campaigning. I also haven’t found a specific topic or piece of work where I feel there’s both leading to act and space to make a difference, but I am looking for that. I feel like I’m tuned in and waiting for a signal to find out what I need to do.
  • What are my questions? In a meta way perhaps this is the biggest question!

What questions, if any, have guided different stages of your spiritual life? Do you have any questions for me? (Would you like to ask them on has-existed-for-years-but-suddenly-reached-my-social-networks social media site Curious Cat?)

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Archaeology and nearby possible worlds

I very nearly trained as an archaeologist. I wouldn’t actually have got into an archaeology course at university (you need a science A-level, usually chemistry preferred, and my circumstances did not include this). But I have been reading about archaeology since I was a teenager, was a member of a young archaeologist’s club, lived with archaeology students and occasionally crept into their lectures, borrow from the archaeology section of my university library, etc. This isn’t a way to get a rounded education, since one inevitably focuses on what is readily available (I have read more popular books which debunk the term ‘Celtic’ than any one person ever needs) and on some particular interests (stone circles are where I started, and although I’ve branched out I’ve never really got far from British prehistory). However, I have learned enough that the questions, the methods, and the approaches tend to shape my ways of thinking about other things, and enough to feel able to write fiction set in some periods of British prehistory.

I once tried to explain this, in a sentence, to a group who were mostly historians, and not at all philosophers. I wanted to say, “in a nearby possible world I became an archaeologist” – possible worlds are, so to speak, different legs of the trousers of time, worlds in which things happened which didn’t happen or came out differently in this, our actual world, and the nearer they are the more likely they are to have happened (except that, as it actually happened, they didn’t). I tried to translate that into more ordinary language in something of a hurry, and it came out as “in another life I was an archaeologist”, which I think mislead people into thinking that I had really worked in archaeology at some point. I didn’t – but I can cope with a bit of historian-talk about primary and secondary sources and that sort of thing, which was what I think I was really being asked.

Archaeology has its own related discipline of nearby possible worlds: archaeological reconstruction. Actual archaeology can only reveal what was left behind, and interpret it as far as possible. Depending on the conditions, there tend to be more hard things – lots of stones, some bones, pottery, burnt things – and fewer or no soft things – very little wood, not much flesh, almost no fabric. Especially before writing, but even after that, there are also only clues to the intangible: a statue of a deity but not a religion; a tomb, but no account of the meaning of death; jewels in this grave and weapons in that but no way of knowing how they related to gender, status, or anything else. An archaeological reconstruction, then, has to go beyond some of the facts into conjecture. Some people have build replica houses from the Iron Age, for example – what an Iron Age house might have looked like in a nearby possible world. It smells of straw and smoke and it evokes an aching feeling of genuine connection with the ancient past, but all it really tells you is what some people now managed to build when they tried to build a house the way it was done in the Iron Age. Clues: nobody sleeps there and there’s a safety rope around the hearth.

As well as finishing a novel which is set in neolithic Orkney, my very own attempt at house building in a long ago but nearby possible world, I am setting out on a new project to write about Quaker theology. Perhaps that’s less like real archaeology and more like digging for a treasure which people keep telling me doesn’t exist – or maybe some of them suspect it’s cursed! My worry isn’t so much about ending up in another world as the dangers of bringing to light, making explicit and visible, something which functions best or is best preserved when it’s left well alone. If you lift a piece of Bronze Age wood from Flag Fen, you need to be ready to preserve it by another method before it dries out and crumbles to dust. If I lift out theological ideas and worldviews from little scraps and throwaway remarks and writing which was meant to be about something else, how do I make sure that I look after them faithfully and don’t twist them out of shape?

Heteronormativity and the Edges of Genres

A while ago I spoke to a student who was researching the effect Section 28 had on people who were students while it was in force. I thought of various effects it had on me – on the way homophobic bullying was treated in my school, on the sex education I received, and so on. One of things this sort of legislation aims to do is to reinforce heteronormativity, a picture of the world in which straightness is normal and other sexualities are deviant or perverted. Recently I’ve been thinking about a place where I still have some heteronormativity to root out: understandings of genre.

Romance fiction is a big field. Paranormal romance, sci-fi romance, historical romance… but if you asked me to describe a typical romance story, I’m pretty sure I’d give it a man and a woman as lead characters. I’m told human brains think about categories by having some core examples, the ones which are most typical, and some around the edge which are harder to say, and then some examples which are outside the category. For example, the category ‘fish’ might have a goldfish in the middle, and an eel near the edge, and a dolphin just outside. Genres probably work the same way – for ‘fantasy fiction’, Lord of the Rings might in the middle, Star Wars near the edge (and also on the edge of sci-fi, because genres can overlap), and James Bond novels just outside. (It’s not technically magic, but…)

When I first met romance stories which were not about straight couples, they weren’t called romance – I was in a fanfic community so they were called slash stories (or femslash if they involved women or lemon or something else; language on the internet is rarely stable for long). Because the characters involved had been created by someone else, and were often canonically (i.e. according to the creator) in heterosexual relationships or at least assumed to be straight because of the prevailing heteronormative culture, there was a sense of subversion about writing slash stories. It was a genre, but one you found online and not one you could look for in the library, or even on Amazon, which started to get big about the same time I was writing slash fanfic regularly.

Online shopping creates many problems, but one problem it solves is how to buy things you think won’t be stocked, or would be embarrassed to ask for, on your local high street. I remember ordering Swordspoint and some other, not quite so good, novels with gay or lesbian characters – things I knew weren’t in my local library, which I’d scoured for LBGT+ content as one of my responses to Section 28, but which were recommend by friends in the fanfic community. I don’t remember any of them being labelled as romance – Mel Keegan, for example, was called ‘gay adventure’, and other things didn’t even name LBGT+ content on the covers.

This has changed in recent years, and some forms of LBGT+ romance have their own subgenres on book recording sites like Goodreads. (Why MM and lesbian rather than other words, and in the absence of other categories? I don’t know. Probably history, cisnormativity, bi invisibility, and lack of standardisation across different sites all play a role.) It’s still taking me a while to internalise good language for describing this, though.

I got thinking about all this because I wrote a novel about a romance between two women, so it looks like I’ll get lots of chances to practice. How do you describe these genres? What do you think are the middles/edges/not-quites of genres?

When do the rules of writing matter?

“All teachers are English teachers.” This phrase was, as I remember it, one of many irritating things said to my father by his managers during his career as a secondary school science teacher. As I understood it as a teenager, it was used to justify asked him to mark not just the scientific content of homework, but also to comment on the spelling and grammar of every answer.

I thought of it today because I was peer-reviewing a journal article, and had just finished reading and annotating a draft PhD thesis, and was thinking about jokes I might make on Twitter about what Quakers might put in our new Book of Discipline. Generally, this is an area in which I am very lucky – the patterns of speech and writing which are characteristic of my background are also regarded as very close to ‘standard English’, at least in Britain. If I just write whatever occurs to me, most people will regard me as ‘correct’ (and my girlfriend will tease me about sending what she regards as overly-correct text messages). I also enjoy writing, and I think about it and practise a lot, all of which helps me to improve. Even so, there are some mistakes I still can’t avoid making, or things I can’t be sure about – practice or practise? I’d have to look it up. Again.

Knowing that, I aim to be open to other people’s writing styles, and to get the right one for the situation. Blogging is not Twitter is not messenger is not a journal article is not a conference paper and so on, and txt spk is just a form of communication, not a harbinger of the death of the English language. I aim not to form excessively negative (or positive!) judgements about people just because of the way they write. I still find that it leaves an impression, though – when I found an apostrophe (confession: I needed spell-check for the word ‘apostrophe’… but) when I found one in a non-standard place in the first line of an article, it did make me wonder about the rest. I don’t think it affected my final opinion on the whole piece – but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? Maybe it did. I’d certainly encourage the author to ‘correct’ it before publication.

Another confession: blog posts are a genre of writing in which I often set out without knowing where I’m going to end up. This post could end with a recommendation – make sure you are communicating in a clear and contextually appropriate way, kids! But it could end with questions – which rules should apply where? is someone about to remind me about their rules against starting sentences with ‘but’ or in favour of capitalisation after a question mark, even mid-sentence? is it time for academia, and perhaps other places, to be less picky about issues (like the grocer’s apostrophe) which don’t affect communication? if groups want to be more inclusive (like the Quakers and the new book), should we accept, or even actively seek out, things which are written in less-traditional styles?

I like questions. Let’s go with that.

Review of 2018

2018, overall, has been a good year for me. It started in my new flat, which (although it still needs some work – doesn’t everything?) suits me very well. It included meeting great people (new collaborators, new students, new partner!), and maintaining connections with old friends. I took the Eurostar to Cologne and the ferry to Belfast for the first time. I caught up with, and worked with, people all over the world, without leaving my living room. I think that epitomises my response to the wider political situation: to try, using Skype, Zoom, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other amazing tools the internet affords us, to create stronger international links without adding unnecessarily to my carbon footprint.

It’s been a good year for writing. I had a book come out (the expensive university library one), a book accepted for publication (Telling the Truth about God will be out next year at a much more reasonable price), and I have almost completed a draft novel manuscript. I haven’t blogged as much in 2018; this is only post number 20, although I’ve had almost the same number of views (almost 4000) as in 2017 and 2016. I set out to see how many poems I could get rejected from magazines, and managed 30 (and got a few published, in A New Ulster and Poethead). I had some academic journal articles appear, including one on afterwords and one on multiple religious belonging.

Other opportunities have opened up. I’ve been enjoying editing a special edition of Religions on interdisciplinary Quaker Studies (5 articles published and some more to come), and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working on The Quaker World with Wess Daniels. (Chapter proposals are open! Tell us what you’d like to write about!)

I read a lot of books (as those who follow me on Goodreads will know). That many books always includes a few duds or things which just weren’t to my taste, but it also includes so many excellent books it’s hard to pick out just a few. Some people I know personally published great books this year, so naturally I’m biased towards those (examples include: Quaker Studies: an Overview, Our Child of the Stars, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night). Of the other fiction I read this year, I really liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (and the other two books in the series), and was passed Hag-Seed by a friend who was right that it’s a fascinating read. I also enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, No Man of Woman Born, The Tea Master and the Detective, and Unfit to Print. In non-fiction (well, excluding work stuff… I’ll probably be writing more about that next year), favourites included Balancing on the Mechitza, Doughnut Economics, The Prodigal Tongue, Saving Alex, and So You Want To Talk About Race.

Besides writing and reading – although, frankly, those are my favourite activities – I’ve also done some other things. I co-taught a course on Friends with Dual Religious Identities which led to some really productive conversations, and ran a small course at Swarthmoor Hall on Afterwords which also went well. I enjoyed a family holiday on Orkney (which inspired some aspects of the draft novel…) and a course on Writing Our Roots (which lead to some good poem drafts)… okay, correction, I don’t really do anything which isn’t about reading or writing in some way. 😀 Even Britain Yearly Meeting was this year much concerned with books – deciding whether to revise our book of discipline. It was a big event for me personally, too, because of my service on the Revision Preparation Group, a committee who became real friends during our work.

In 2019 I’m planning new challenges – new courses to teach, conferences to attend, books to write, study leave to take (and use as well as possible!), and of course lots to read. And my first book launch. Watch this space for details!

Three books at three stages

(Llfyr, book. Long before any of these stages comes learning a language!)

When I was young, I was once asked – so my mother tells the story – by a teacher: what do you want to do when you grow up? I told her that I wanted to be a bookmaker. Cue much adult laughter, especially in our anti-gambling Quaker household.

Later, an English teacher who for whatever reason had us in a computer lab for a class once set us an exercise: for this whole hour’s lesson, just type. Start a story and simply write as many words as you can. At the end of the lesson, he said to the class: there, wasn’t that difficult? Aren’t you glad you’re not a writer who has to do that all day, every day?

No, I said. Sounds like a good way to live to me.

Now, I haven’t quite achieved that goal. (And I suspect the picture he painted of a writer’s life wasn’t 100% accurate anyway!) But I have arranged my life so that I can spend a considerable proportion of it working on books in one form or another, and at the moment I have book projects in three stages. To pick three different metaphors, I’ll call them the seed, larva, and hibernation stages.

Hibernation is a process some mammals use to get through the winter. I have a book which is a real book, but waiting to come out, and it’s sleeping like that: it takes nine months for information to propagate through the arcane reaches of the publishing and distribution industries, so although there are copies of “Telling the Truth about God” in existence, and you can pre-order it from your favourite more or less reputable bookseller,  it will be five more months before it is officially ‘published’.

A larva is an active but immature form, like a caterpillar. At the moment I have a novel manuscript which is at this stage. A few months ago I had an egg, which hatched and turned out not to be exactly what I thought it would be – but similar – and now the caterpillar is growing and growing, like Cecil. (You know that song, right?) Every day, it needs to be fed cabbage leaves – I’m aim to give it about a thousand words of cabbage a day, whenever I can – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I know what it might grow up to be – but it’s hard to be sure. At one time I thought it was going to be about university lecturers and researchers who were also witches, but now it’s about neolithic traders and farmers who are also sort-of Quakers. On the other hand, it’s still a romance novel about two women who meet under slightly unlikely circumstances and have to work out whether it’s possible to build a life together.

I also have a book which is just a seed. I’ve got the seed – a very solid form of seed by my usual standards, in that I have a contract for this book – and now I’m preparing all the ground and the space and the things it will need to grow. It will be a book about liberal Quaker theology, so I’m doing lots of reading of Quaker theology, old and new, British and international, things which are mentioned by things I read, to get the material ready. I’ve made some space (in particular, Woodbrooke have agreed to give me study leave for twelve weeks next year, which will help a lot). I’m also planning to blog about the process as I think through the issues involved, so watch this space.

W is for… Writing

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I write quite a lot. Besides this blog, I also write academic work, poetry, fiction, and a host of more minor things like notes and tweets and emails. For a group generally in favour of silence, Quakers have not extended this to the written word, and we publish plenty (British Quakers have published enough in the last fifty odd years for it to form one of the cornerstones of my PhD, so I should know). Gil has posted often about the authors of older Quaker literature, too – there’s a grand tradition of spiritual autobiography among Friends which has formed the foundation of plenty of other research projects.

What is the significance of writing? It can be a spiritual practice, as in journalling, and to write regularly requires a self-discipline which is also demanded by other Quaker practices. It takes something which is basically public – our shared stock of words – and allows someone to record them privately, edit them, shape them, and then make them available for others to consider at leisure. It permits a long, slow conversation to develop down the ages; we see some of this in Quaker Faith and Practice, much of which is an anthology of Quaker writing. (Of course, from a historian’s point of view the things which get left out of anthologies are of equal interest, and no one anthology can represent the whole conversation… just the bits which interest us now.)

Writing can be outreach, inreach, informative, entertaining, vulnerable, abstract, inspired, or prosaic. (Sometimes all at once.) I acknowledge that writing is not for everyone, but for me it’s often the best way of sharing. Writing is also an important part of some Quaker processes, and in particular minute-writing is a skill unto itself.

Someone asked me once what the secret is to writing good minutes, and how I did it so well. I didn’t really have an answer, and I still don’t – I’ve been a Quaker a long term and heard a lot of minutes; I’ve served on committees and seen a lot of minutes, good and bad; I’ve tried to explain minutes to non-Quakers and seen their bafflement and frustration. One part of it, though, is probably that I spend so much time writing and practising writing. I’ve been writing poetry of my own since I was nine or ten; in my teens I spent a long time writing fanfic, stories set in other people’s worlds, and – this part is vital – having friends beta read it, and comment on it, and making my own edits as a result. There’s nothing quite a like an internet friend who knows you only through the written word going through your story and critiquing it in love. I’ve got more to learn and I still need readers and editors and commenters, but I learnt a lot from that process. Learning when to be detailed and when to cut to the chase is an important part of a good minute and of a good story. Being confident with the basics of writing helps. (That, and don’t worry about spelling in the handwritten draft, that’s for the typing up/dots and commas bit!) Also, a fanfic story is as much as community product as it is yours – the canon and the conversations and the commenters all feed into it, and in a similar way the Spirit and the gathered meeting own the minute, so it’s important to be open to that and accept help from all sides.

Practice makes perfect, they say. I don’t know if you can be a perfect writer – it’s conventional to say that essays are only marked up to 75 or 80 out of 100 because they could always be better – but I do know that writing a lot, in lots of different styles and contexts, makes me a better writer.