Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Assuming it Matters

Susan Baller-Shepard is the co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Spirituality Book Club.

When I was very little, I loved to write in my room, on long skinny strips of paper given to me by my great aunt the librarian. In seventh grade, I won an essay contest and a big chicken dinner for my whole family. In eighth grade, my essay about a local candy company was published in a state history journal, and my mom and I got to have lunch with the governor. The message to me: words feed people.

But in college, writing become uncomfortable, so I abandoned it. I worked at a church, left the country, returned, got married, went to grad school in a dual competency program, and got two masters: divinity and social work. I took one writing class, along with my other graduate classes, and the instructor told me I had “verb tense problems.” I got ordained, worked at churches, eventually had two sons and adopted a daughter. I did the things women do that get repeatedly undone: laundry, dishes, meals, house cleaning.

I felt an urge to write again. I thought no one would take me; I hadn’t written or published in years. Still, I kept feeling this need to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. I submitted a manuscript to Dr. Lucia Cordell Getsi, editor of Spoon River Poetry Review, asking to get into her graduate poetry writing class. I was convinced it wouldn’t happen. I got an email back from Lucia saying I was welcome to come and try out the course. She wrote, “I can tell from your manuscript that you are a serious writer.”

Lucia helped me think again. She was not as I had conjured her in my brain. She was short, attractive, worldly, wordy, scientific, mathematical, poetic. I tell her she is surgical in her editing. She cuts away what doesn’t belong, and sees what is healthy and connective. Mostly, though, she helped me to think through poems, learn the skeletal frames of the poems, consider their sinewy tissues. Now I have a book length poetry manuscript which Lucia edited, a children’s book manuscript, and I am presently writing a collection of essays.

I am forty-five and grateful to have age on my side, to be a woman writing the truth of my life, as a minister, web site editor, wife, mother, writer. They are mutually inclusive roles. My brother Jim says I should be glad my roles feed each other. That’s the beauty I see in the over-forty writing women and men I know well. They speak the truth about their lives: the good, the bad, the less-than-perfect. I value this. It’s less about publication now than it is about giving voice to what needs to be said, what can finally be said at this side of forty. If we don’t say it now, maybe it won’t get said.

On TV recently, I saw Jessica Lange give the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. She urged the young women,

“Remember who you are. Because, right now, you have it all: the power of your imagination, the velocity of your dreams, the language of innocence, and the passion of a beginner. Don't lose it. Don't let it evaporate or get stripped away or worn away. And, as time passes, if you find you've come far away from yourself, allow the breeze of humility to remind you of who you were—who you really are.”

Persephone lived in circles, cycling between worlds, going away, coming home. I am thankful to Lucia, and others, who reminded me of my writing self.I have circled back around to the child I was, the child who shut herself in her room because she loved to write.

Spoon River Poetry Review

Jessica Lange’s Commencement Address