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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Wading in the Water Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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This blog post is the second in a two-part series. For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/08/08/wading-in-the-water-pt-i-guest-blogger-sarah-ullom-minnich/. What follows is a continuation of Sarah’s story about her experience studying abroad in Ecuador.

My washing complete, I slip back into the welcoming water. I swim out several meters and try to hold my own while swimming against the current. I manage it for a few minutes, but then begin to tire and make my way back into the shallower water. My feet find purchase on the sandy bottom of the river. I close my eyes and let myself feel the rush of the chill water against my arms and legs.

The Church of the Brethren, my community, has a particular historical connection with resistance against a hegemonic system and a river. The story of the original brethren entering the Eder River to be baptized, undertaking a resistance against what they felt was a moral injustice as a community, is one with which I have grown up. The church has a rich heritage of resistance to injustice, and living in Tzawata has helped me feel that heritage more present within me. But it has its ties to racist and colonial systems, ties that here are impossible for me to ignore. I feel a calling in Tzawata, a place very different from my community, to reconnect with the Brethren idea of radical justice – the life courageously lived in the example of the radical love of Jesus, simply, peacefully, together. It is easy back home to let my modern, United States, middle-class, materialistic lifestyle make me comfortable. But living on this side of the bridge, where there are only a few hours of generator electricity and no clean running water (the government has done its best to discourage human habitation here), provides the opportunity to see beyond it.

A couple of small girls swim out to me and hold on to my back. I swim around with them for a while, and we all laugh when one of them lets go briefly to slip under the water, then pops up again and grabs on tight. They, like all the children here, speak in Spanish to one another.

Even as the adults of Tzawata continue a long legal battle against the government and the mining company, their youth are coming of age in a globalized world. One in which speaking Kichwa is looked down upon, and in which the language of power is Spanish, or even English. These youth have their struggles, that of managing their identity in a changing world, without losing their connection to their culture and community. Many leave to study in big cities or find work on the other side of the country. Some become ashamed to speak Kichwa, even with their families. Others invest themselves in preserving their language and culture. All have to negotiate a complicated relationship with the community they have grown up in and the hegemonic culture that pervades their world. When I think about growing up as a Brethren youth, I feel a resonance between our experiences. We live in complicated worlds, affected by complicated systems. Like the toxic laundry soap seeping into the beautiful river we hope to protect, there are parts of our identity that conflict with other parts, parts of the culture we live in, breathe in, that are oppressive, and that seek to smother our less-mainstream values.

The gathering place where the Rehearsing Change cohort meets for classes. About 100m beyond it is the Anzu River.

I check my watch and realize that it is almost time for class. Today we will be working on some of the theater pieces we have been creating in small groups that deal with the struggles faced by Tzawata. Our final presentations are coming up, where our group of local and international students will have the opportunity to share all that we have been working on this semester. I take one last dip to say goodbye to the river, then gather my things and carefully climb back up the rocky bank. The heat of the Amazonian sun on my skin already makes me miss the cool, clear water behind me.

The community of Tzawata will continue their struggle and their negotiation of the many cultural pressures they face. While I have had the opportunity to learn alongside them for half a semester, I will be only a tiny part of the story of their struggle, and they of mine. But if there is anything that I have learned from this semester, it is the power of story to empower and transform our identity. And just as we as a class have been working with the story of Tzawata, the story of Tzawata has been calling to my own story. The story of how the church of the Brethren negotiates a changing world is one with significantly lower stakes. We are not at risk of losing lives, of losing thousands of years of culture, of losing a language, or of losing our homes. But our stories are interconnected, because “Peacefully, Simply, Together,” also calls for resistance against a system that seeks to assign everything a dollar value, including life itself. Our shared humanity interconnects them, and our desire to see a juster world. And for me, they are also now interconnected by human relationships, by friendships and shared experiences.

I finish hanging up my clothes and walk to the roofed area where we have class. One by one, international students and local counterparts trickle in. Around me float the sounds of jokes and laughter, of the giggles of children as they chase one another in and around our group of 13, and of the barks of excited dogs as they romp around the perimeter. As class starts, I feel a twinge of excitement as we split into our groups to rehearse and prepare to reimagine our stories, to reimagine our realities, together.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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Wading in the Water Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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<Hola amigo, como está el agua?> <Mojado!>

 

Class exercises in movement and group cohesion.

The typical response still makes me smile even after five weeks of living in the community of Tzawata. I pick my way down the rocky bank towards the wide Rio Anzu. We’re lucky today, it didn’t rain yesterday, and the river is a clear green-blue. The friend I had greeted is out about twenty feet, swimming against the current. On the rock about 30 feet away, in the middle of the river, three children are perched, enjoying the sun. Another woman is washing her clothes down the bank from me, in a rocky area. The slap of the shirt she swings persistently against a rock punctuates the clear sound of a sunny day. Another group of children upstream has seen me coming to the river and is now letting the current bring them down to say hello. I slowly step into the water up to my knees. Despite the heat of the day, the cold still makes me shiver. With a deep breath, I throw myself into the water, taking the plunge all at once.

The Rio Anzu, and the large, old, metal bridge that connects us to the other side, are two of the most iconic parts of Tzawata’s identity for me. An indigenous community of Kichwa Quijos, Tzawata has a long and harrowing story since the time of colonization. Their ancestors had lived around this river for thousands of years, but upon the arrival of the Spanish they were forced to move up into the mountains and made to work as slaves on their ancestral land. The deed to their land eventually made its way into the hands of a Canadian mining company, where it legally remains to this day. Several years ago, when the company briefly had to leave the country for legal reasons, some of the women of made the decision to journey down the mountain and take back their land. They left Tzawata Alta, as the mountainous part of the community is called, and formed what is now Tzawata Baja, which we refer to simply as Tzawata. Since then, the community has engaged in an often ugly struggle against the company and the government branches whose cooperation it has been able to buy. At one point, the police entered and burned down all of the wooden houses. Many community members lost everything they owned, but they refused to move back up the mountain. In a particularly iconic encounter, the police attempted to cross the bridge to forcibly evict the population. The entire community of Tzawata met them on the narrow bridge, blocking the way. Women and children stood at the front and the men in the back with spears. After a long and tense standoff, the police turned back.

Class response to the instruction: create an image of “power” with your bodies.

After the initial plunge, the icy cold of the water is refreshing. I wade back to the bank for my sack of dirty, smelly clothes and laundry soap. I wet the first shirt in the river and begin to lather it with soap. It’s the same kind of non-biodegradable soap that everyone in the area uses to wash their clothes in the river, but still, I feel the familiar twinge of guilt as I watch the suds disappear downstream.

The community of Tzawata articulates their struggle in many different ways, but the most common ones include their desire to protect their identity and their land. They still cultivate in the traditional way, with many different crops sharing the land, rather than raising one specific crop to sell, which would objectively be more profitable. They also wish to protect the land, and the river which is home to the fish and so much other life, from the inevitable destruction and pollution brought on by mining. They live out this philosophy on top of a literal gold mine.

Presenting a movement piece on the banks of the Anzu River as part of a final project.

I make my way through the shirts and move on to socks. The children splash in the water around me, calling to one another and me. Some ask me to watch them playing in the river; others just want to talk to me, to have me ask them about themselves. A few run up the bank and throw themselves recklessly off the edge of the bridge, whooping during the 20-foot drop into the water, and surface triumphant, excited for another round.

The international students, often affectionately referred to as “las gringas,” though not all of us technically fit into that category, are always a huge source of entertainment and attention for the children. That is one of the reasons the community has continued to invite back the “fair trade study abroad” program Rehearsing Change, which brings in international students to take classes alongside community members, around subjects that are useful to the community. No matter how much we make an effort to put all of us on an even playing field, however, the hegemonic structures of globalization never really disappear. Those of us with a little blue book that has our picture in it have access to privileges and resources that the members of this community will most likely never have access to independent of outside assistance. Those of us with light skin, hair, or eyes have access to cultural resources and preferential treatment, in and outside of Ecuador, which our local counterparts never will. To the best of its ability, Rehearsing Change strives to put these advantages at the disposal of the community, giving them the decision-making power to decide how our presence can be used to further their goals – to use the system’s problems against it. But even on this side of the river, across the bridge, there is no fully escaping a white western hegemony. There can only be a consciousness of it, and an effort to resist.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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