A Look Behind the Curtain: Three Writers Reflect on the Writing Process – Chibuzo Petty with Guest Bloggers Karen Duhai and Emily Hollenberg

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The following are reflections on the writing processes of three writers: Chibuzo Petty, Karen Duhai, and Emily Hollenberg.

In two of the pieces, the authors use the phrase “shitty first drafts.” The phrase is not used by the authors stylistically or crudely. The phrase is in reference to a section from Anne Lamott’s 1994 book Bird by Bird. 

Persistence – Chibuzo Petty’s Writing Process

For the past year, I have served as the Social Media Editor for Brethren Life and Thought, the Church of the Brethren’s academic journal. I previously served on the journal’s board and now solicit and edit the content published on our blog. (Each post is ~1,000 words; with new posts usually published weekly.) I also curate the content shared on our Facebook page. As a result, my writing has taken a back seat so I can better focus on reading and editing other’s writing. (I do have a poem and a few book reviews that will be published in our print journal this fall, though!)

Honestly, email is the writing genre to which the vast majority of my writing belongs.

Though I preach quite regularly, I am not a manuscript preacher. My sermons tend to be heavily dependent on my ability to performatively exposit Scripture. This choice in approach and tone certainly impacts my sermon-writing style. (Again, little “writing” takes place in this context.)

I find the concept of “waiting for the muse” rather interesting. That one could set aside a thought until later seems outlandish to me. That your mind might be still or clear enough for you to notice when the next great idea comes upon you is also perplexing in its elusiveness. For years, I have been in treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I say that not in the flippant way our culture talks about ADD, OCD, and other similar disorders. I mean it in the “every aspect of my life is impacted by this illness in real, concrete terms” sort of way. My primary symptom is racing, intrusive thoughts. I obsess. I ruminate. I spend ungodly amounts of time thinking and rethinking and thinking some more. My condition means I am a slow writer (and reader for that matter). I stop and start a great deal, getting frustrated by the non-stop churning going on inside. Proofreading is a nightmare, seeming only to feed the beast within.

Further complicating things is my chronic physical illness impacting both my central nervous and musculoskeletal systems. My pain prevents me from staying in one spot long enough to get a good work rhythm going whether in bed, a chair, or at my standing desk. The pain’s severity also feeds my intrusive thoughts. The ease with which physical pain exacerbates my mental anguish never ceases to amaze me. My conditions’ impact on my central nervous system also leads to fatigue and minor challenges with memory – due in part to previous seizures. All of this makes the writing process more complicated. More irritating. More
draining.

When I think about my writing process, I think of persistence. The writing process is about drive. Commitment. Shitty first drafts. Over-analyzing. And, giving myself the grace to simply stop.

Absolute Chaos – Karen Duhai’s Writing Process

I was an English major as an undergrad and want to return to writing as a creative outlet. That said, I am also a bit weary of words. Who hasn’t been worn out by the torrent of arguments and memes and insensitive comments on social media? But I also believe that words are powerful and that as ministering people the things we say carry weight and we SHOULD be engaged with what is happening in the world. Learning to engage in a sensitive and conscious manner, though, is crucial.

As for my writing process, I have this vision of a very calm, beautiful writing process where there are careful reflections, multiple drafts, outlines, and, you know, birds chirping and small furry animals doing my housework. The reality is that it’s pretty much madness. It’s a combination of excitement and enthusiasm but also absolute dread and the perpetual question, “Why did I want to do this again?!” To help illustrate this point, I’ve created a flow chart of sorts which can be seen below. Enjoy.

 

If I Can Fail at Writing, I Can Fail at Bullet Journaling Too – Emily Hollenberg’s Writing Process

I have tried three times to bullet journal. Once in September of 2016 when I began my journey at Bethany, second around Christmastime when I decided that I just needed a new bullet journal layout, and third when I decided that instead of journaling about my mental health, I should probably be keeping better track of my eating habits. All three times I bought fancy colored pens, brand new Moleskine journals, a new ruler, and stencils for my icons. I tried to make a layout that would work for me as well as look beautiful. And of course, it never looked beautiful like bullet journal pictures did on the internet.

This is the largest problem that I face while writing, such as Anne Lamott faces the voices that she drops into mason jars after she turns them into mice. I begin to write, and then I think to myself, Is this as good as my favorite novel? Absolutely not. Can I even see my novel on a shelf at Barnes and Noble? Would anybody even read it besides my fiance? When I saw my bullet journals weren’t beautiful, I stopped writing in them, even though I had told myself that my journaling was supposed to be the real me, not the Instagram me. I wanted the beautiful Instagram layout where I suddenly knew how to write in calligraphy. I want my novels to be the same way.

I’m at the stage that Barton and Howard describe as not being ready to engage with an audience. I’m on the Lamott shitty first draft stage. I’m just still accepting that it’s so.

I’ve talked about this in writing classes before: in college, I had a professor who had a writing habit so deep and profound that it broke up his first marriage. I worked him with closely during my undergrad time and it gave me an incredibly messed up idea about writing processes. I figured that if I didn’t lose my boyfriend during my process, I wasn’t doing it right. Maybe I should forgo eating. Stay up until four in the morning writing. Quit my job and become a hermit. Walk around in curtain drapes singing until my writing can flow out of me like a dirty river. Having worked with someone like this for so long, it’s made me always feel like I don’t have a writing process.

But I do. I take time out of my day to work on my novel. I work in Google docs and I comment on sections for myself to come back to later. I try to engage with my perceived reader. And I tell myself that even if I don’t want to write, even if I don’t have a magical muse that doesn’t exist, I have to get something down, and it’s fine if it’s shitty.

That’s writing. And I’m not failing at it.

Friends, attached is my daily writing process as a bullet journal entry. You better believe that I spent four hours on it making it Instagram worthy.

Karen Duhai is the receptionist and accounts payable specialist at Bethany Theological Seminary. An MDiv graduate of the seminary, Karen is also currently studying in the seminary’s MA program. Karen has held a variety of ministerial leadership positions in the Church of the Brethren and beyond including serving as a BVSer in Northern Ireland, Middle Pennsylvania District Youth Coordinator, and Program Director of Girls Inc. of Wayne County, Indiana.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeupEmily Hollenberg lives and works in Fort Wayne, Indiana where she works in the front office of Memorial Park Middle School and coaches for USA Swimming. Emily attends Beacon Heights CoB and is in Bethany’s Theopoetics and Theological Imagination Graduate Certificate Program.

 

Image Credits: Karen Duhai and Emily Hollenberg

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Theopoetics Conference Recap – Guest Blogger, Evan Underbrink

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A man, masked in the guise of some immortal earth spirit, rumbles in his deep baritone a song as he comes onto the improvised stage, to an audience of some fifty theopoets and scholars. His hair is moss; his eyes shine through the hip-bone holes of some vernal skeleton, the mind’s eye being born from mother earth. His hands hold a basket, or womb, or crib, redolent with the leaves and needles of trees. He sings:

            I am stretched out, on your grave
            and I’ll stay there forever.

This begins the “acceptance speech” turned performance from the Rubem Alves Award for Theopoetic excellence. This award, in honor to a giant within our field, was given to Tevyn East, director of Holy Fool Arts, who would shortly join her husband Jay on the stage, in the dress of Mother Nature, which had been formed from dumpster finds. She and her husband Jay were performing a small portion of their “Carnival de Resistance.” In their act, they deftly stitch together dance, song, stagecraft, Bible verses and allusion, poetry, and social activism:

            Did not your prophets tell of the burning of the cedars of Lebanon?

The award winners were well-chosen, as the themes of art and activism would be a unifying strand throughout all the papers, workshops, and panels which studded the conference.

It all began, however, with Jillian Weise, and her poetry reading. Having time for a brief refreshment and some introductory remarks, the poet and scholar was introduced to a room she was very shortly to own. Her pieces touched the intersection of art and the embodied life of the person with a disability, a term which she presented with no small ambivalence, preferring instead to call herself a “cyborg.” She first read “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex,” which proffered this advice:

            to create an uninhibited environment for your partner,
            track their hands like game pieces on a board.

Continue reading below after enjoying this song. Reflect on the lyrics and meditate on the music’s movements.

In the Q&A that followed, Jillian talked provocatively about her activism, her body as a place where the battle for the rights of the disabled – a term she adopts with great ambivalence, preferring to call herself a “cyborg” – was waged. The community applauds, celebrates, and breaks up into talk and refreshments. Outside, a simple blackboard sign, facing the street, reads, “Poetry & Party Tonight. All Welcome.”

The first-morning panel held Scott Holland, a theopoetic scholar and regular in the field, the Transgender Social Justice Educator and writer J’Lissabeth Faughn, Lisa Hess, a scholar of interreligious learning, conscious feminine leadership and Christian spirituality, and the black theologian and scholar Adam Clark. They danced with questions of aesthetics and activism, with what is this thing theopoetics, and offered the reflections of their own fields and selves they each saw therein. An argument slowly unfurled itself over conceptions of gender, the purposes of art, the failures and benefits of preaching. As one witness later put it, “by the end, I thought it was about to go down!” And yet, we seemed to have found some peculiar gift which allowed for deep disagreement to coexist with deep connection. No small feat, given the seemingly inevitable sacrifice of one or the other in most communities.

The panels kept the discussion going, each session stretched with wide spaces for conversation, connection, and honoring of disagreement and divergence. These stretched the gamut of topics, from the esoteric nature of resistance to be found in the figure of Herman Melville’s Bartleby and expressed by Daniel Boscaljon, to the quiet and profound poetry of Jeff Gundy, under the title “Beauty is Something to Love”, to the joy and laughter of Jan Voigts “The Bible through a Comic Lens.” Beauty, activism, connection, and hidden in the corners of our conversations was some love of that surplus necessity; the idea that the best of what we were doing were the things which could not be captured in our speech, theories, and arguments.

Before our final meal together, and the Holy Fool’s performance, Troy Bronsink, the founder/director/spiritual director of The Hive led us in an embodied, contemplative grace:

            Allow yourself to feel gratitude,
            starting from the top of your head, and moving down…

Some would have called it worship. Others meditation. Some would refrain from putting that time in strict categories. Regardless of our words, we were together, in an expression of gratitude for our bodies, ourselves, our community, our weekend together, and that time we had to cherish that time.

The next day, a smaller group of us would gather at the local Bed and Breakfast to try and name those things, to keep some expression of them in the next conference. Words and concepts were offered, considered, and appreciated from all around the table:

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Callid Keefe-Perry, as Evan puts it, is one of the Saints of Theopoetics.

            “Connection.”
            “Not like other academic conferences.”
            “A place where artists and scholars meet.”
            “I saw respectful disagreement.”

In the end, it was Callid himself, the founder and head of our theopoetic group, who named the darker elephants in the room. With impassioned, reddened eyes, he said: “At this time, when there is so much fear, and some many things falling apart, we need this. Everything is falling, and we need to be here, building something up.” Looking around, at the faces of hopeful artists, thoughtful scholars, and perhaps one silly lover of Dante, I have to agree.

 

img_04772Evan is a published short story author and student of Theopoetics at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana. Evan‘s editor has told him that he has to write a more human bio than he first submitted. This has turned out to be a daunting prospect, as writing about himself in the third person seems a rather artificial act, leading to inevitable self-calumny. Evan feels in this moment as if he is doing the equivalent of standing in front of a mirror, that most sacred of contemporary artifices, and attempting to describe himself in writing to someone with very little point of reference. Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” comes to this mind. Therefore, Evan would like it known that he is most certainly not a rhinoceros.

 

Photo Credit: Evan Underbrink

“Gungor – “Late Have I Loved You”,” YouTube, April 04, 2010, , accessed March 16, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WoCwuPXhvM.
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