The Right to Write: A Book Club Revisited


A couple weeks ago I received a note from a beautiful new friend who is interested in writing. “I have a passion for writing,” she said. “I just have trouble getting my thoughts out and I was wondering if you would be willing to give me any tips or suggestions.”

Would I? She may have regretted this innocent query because I proceeded to flood her inbox with an influx. One of the books I recommended to her was Julia Cameron’s  The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. It’s one of my favorite books on writing, a sort of abbreviated version of The Artist’s Way. And then I remembered we did this book as one of our book club selections at The High Calling. I thought it would be fun to re-run that series here on Wednesdays. Cool? Here is my introductory post that was featured at The High Calling a few years ago:

I start with the usual, the question that invites me into her world. Tell me a little about what brings you here. Tell me your story. She is alone. No family, just this one. But she looks around, bewildered. If I had read her chart ahead of time I would know. The stroke that ravaged her brain has left her with dysphasia —a language disorder that fights against the flow of words. She struggles.

Too late I realize my mistake. I’ve seen this look before. I begin to back pedal, search for a way to soothe her in this loss. But then, it comes out. I don’t know, she says, haltingly, everything was so perfectly, wonderfully beautiful…and then suddenly, it was not so. This would be the longest sentence she says to me her entire stay in the hospital. I think about this gentle woman later in the day. I think about her before I go to bed. And I think about her the next morning.

Why do I write? Why should I write? In the coming weeks we’ll be looking in depth at that question as we read together The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. In the introduction, author Julia Cameron says:

We should write because it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world. It makes it directly and specifically our own. We should write because humans are spiritual beings and writing is a powerful form of prayer and meditation, connecting us both to our own insights and to a higher and deeper level of inner guidance as well.

There’s more:

We should write because writing brings clarity and passion to the act of living…We should write because writing is good for the soul…We should write, above all, because we are writers whether we call ourselves writers or not. The Right to Write is a birthright, a spiritual dowry that gives us the keys to the kingdom…

I write, in part, because eternity is set in my heart. I desire to leave a part of me behind when I go—or when the world is suddenly not so wonderfully, perfectly beautiful. As Shakespeare says in Sonnet 65…in black ink my love may still shine bright. Life is fragile. When I record what I see, I attend all the more to the finest of details.

Won’t you join me on this journey? I’ll be discussing The Right to Write by Julia Cameron every Wednesday. We have forty-three chapters to cover, so we’ll do three a week, for a total of thirteen weeks. Each chapter has an exercise at the end that serves as an initiation tool. Don’t let this scare you! These are short, simple exercises designed to awaken creativity and I would encourage you to try them out. So come and learn about life and writing with us, and join the discussion in the comments. It will be like attending a writer’s conference from your couch.

This post was originally published at The High Calling and is reprinted here under a creative commons license. Some minor changes have been made to account for context. 

West Virginia Morning: Listen


I slept until nearly eight a.m. this morning, which is unusual on my days off—so many things to be done. Jeff has been sleeping a little later on these days too—he’s in-between jobs right now, focusing on contract work, which has a more flexible schedule. I’m growing fond of having his body still heavy beside me in the wee hours of morning, reaching over to find him there when he is usually gone. Something about his presence lulls my sleep into a happy state of prolong.

But I am lifted out of sleep by a soft rain whispering against the roof today. There is nothing to stop me from stepping out in it; so I do, with Bonnie, and every baptized leaf is a mirror for the white light of morning.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says that writing is “90 percent listening.” I think of this as I my feet visit the font of grass in our back yard. “You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you,” she says.

When we were on holiday, a Brown Thrasher became familiar with the quiet of our empty yard. Usually shy, these birds with the brown-spotted breasts get their name from the robust way they search for food in the underbrush, thrashing about in search of insects or fallen berries and nuts. While we were away, this young bird has grown bold, foraging on our open lawn, grousing about under my finch feeder for fallen tidbits of sunflower.

This morning I glimpse him as we round the house, taking wing at just the hint of our presence. He disappears behind the lilac bush and I wait, listening.

“If you can capture the reality around you,” Natalie says, “your writing needs nothing else. You don’t only listen to the person speaking to you across the table, but simultaneously listen to the air, the chair, and the door. And go beyond the door. Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck … This kind of deep, nonevaluative listening awakens stories and images inside you.”

Again, the quick thrum of wing pushing against invisible air, the soft landing and swish of a light-studded lilac branch. Metallic scent of rain, thick with clover, wet grass licking my ankles. The moist air clings to my skin and I bisect the earth rushing beneath me, a vertical axis with no beginning, no end.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

What do you hear?


Playdates with God: Paper Trail


Today we bury someone I love and I am far away, unable to share in the tears and memories and the ways we hold one another during times such as these. I have been having trouble writing since I found out, wondering about the ways I spend the moments and questioning. I’ve tried to be more present with my family, tried to listen with my heart to all they say and do not say.

Scripture tells us there is a season for everything—a time to mourn and a time to dance. In my book, I share a story of when I did not feel like meeting with God; when the loss of a friend felt so unfair, so pointless, and too hard to let go of. I tell how the Lord held me during that time, and taught me how to dance again.

There is nowhere we can go that our God has not gone before us. Today I find comfort in that knowledge. In the end, it is the little things—like walking together, and eating together, sitting side-by-side, even writing—it is the little things that make a life. We do these things because our heart compels us to and this is how we honor the one wild and precious life we’ve been given.

So, I will write it all down. Again and again. And when my time comes, there will be a paper trail to follow to find me.

Every Monday I share one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find God and know joy. Click on the button below to add your link. I try to visit a few of your stories every week, so if you are a new visitor, be sure to let me know in the comments so I can welcome you. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us.

Laura Boggess

Good Prose: Art and Commerce

A few years ago, we did a book club at The High Calling on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. Much of Hyde’s prose was erudite and difficult for me to grasp completely. But I understood his description of the gift economy. I understood what he said about the way the gift moves in a circle—somehow returning blessing from whence it came.

In this week’s chapter of their book Good ProseArt and Commerce, authors Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd bring up Hyde’s thoughts on gift economy.

Creativity, he says, proceeds from two gifts: the gift of talent and the gift of tradition, which informs and guides individual talent. And the act of creativity is itself a gift, which can’t be aimed at making money but must be freely given.
When I first read The Gift, I was just beginning in this writing thing. I had received little monetary reward for passing the gift (still haven’t). I remember thinking wistfully that this should be true. Society should support the artists and provide for them so that they will be free to make their art.
But, as Kidder and Todd point out, separating art from commerce is a difficult thing.
…The great prose art forms grew up in concert with the publishing business. Books must not only be written but must also be made, and historically the people who could make them soon became more than manufacturers. Publishers became arbiters of taste, of aesthetic as well as commercial value…

The authors discuss the modern advice most new writers are given: the stuff about “branding” and marketing, about developing an “elevator pitch”, and all this about the “platform”. They eschew all this as “nonsense”, saying, “…the best marketing plan may well be twenty or thirty pages of good prose.”

This is one of the shortest chapters in the book, but it packs a punch. Kidder and Todd wax poetic about doing the work for the work’s sake.

…A cook insists on a fresh herb, a carpenter repairs a piece of molding seamlessly, a radio journalist enlivens a report with a lyric phrase. It does not seem unreasonable to say that these gestures, these things that carry us beyond utility, that lie outside economic logic, are what make civilization worth inhabiting, and that their absence—which is frequent—can make the world a dispiriting place.
But perhaps the best words I carry from this chapter is the quote attributed to David Foster Wallace at the very end.
…It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved.
*Second draft
Consider your writing. Dig deep. Are you writing from the place of love or the place that wants to be loved?
And because I want to be part of the gift circle, if you leave a comment on this post by Sunday 5/5 at 10pm, you’ll be entered to win my gently used hard back copy of Erin McGraw’s lovely book Better Food for a Better World. Winner will be announced on Monday’s Playdate with God.

Next Wednesday, we will discuss the last chapter of Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction: Being Edited and Editing.

Other posts in this series: 


What Does a Writer’s Retreat Teach? Or, Hobnobbing with Madeleine and Eugene

We were sitting around a table overlooking the Frio River, listening to Jeffrey Overstreet talk about how artful story invites the reader inside—invites the reader to discover what the story has to say to them—when he paused and had us go around the table and introduce ourselves.

My friend Marcus was seated to my right, Claire to my left, but the others were new faces. There was a retired photographer, two persons of the cloth, a young college student, an elderly woman, and Jeannie.

When it was Jeannie’s turn, she spoke about the nonfiction books she had written over the years, about coming to Laity Lodge to write, and about her dear, dear friend Madeline L’Engle. Immediately, my shoes felt too big.

We all tried to pretend like it was nothing but all the while, I’m thinking…Madeleine L’Engle! When I was a girl, this dear woman’s books opened up a whole new world to me. A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet … Jeannie’s casual namedropping sent me into a reverie of wistfulness, remembering the joy of discovering a series of books that aroused a deep awakening in my young self. How I loved Charles Wallace and Meg. They taught me through their story that anything is possible. And who wrapped science around fantasy in such a way? I’d never read science fiction before. I didn’t know people wrote like that.

We took a break and I went to the restroom and was startled to find Lauren Winner washing her hands and Ashley Cleveland exiting the stall. What’s more, they greeted me casually, engaged in a bit of small talk before going on their way. Back at our open-air table, I tell Marcus.

“I can’t believe she referred to Madeleine L’Engle as her dear, dear friend!”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“And Eugene Peterson writes here all the time.”

“Eugene Peterson? Really?” I am a bit star-struck. “But that makes me feel so … small.”

Marcus laughs.

Why? I don’t understand that. That should make you feel special not small. You’re here too. Laity Lodge is for everyone.”

I tell him about running into Ashley and Lauren in the restroom.

Right,” he says. “Because they use the bathroom too.”

We laugh but I am quieted a bit inside. Later, I walk down the road with my friends Verbieann and Ann (who has since become a New York Times bestselling author) and tell them the story. I turn Marcus’ words around in my mind.

Am I special? I mean, just because I haven’t held court with writers like Madeleine L’Engle or Eugene Peterson…does that mean there is no value in the words I share? My friend Elaine was recently at a conference in which the speaker posed the question, How do your words help solve the problem of pain? I’ve been thinking about that. Wondering. And I remember the young girl I was—wrapped in the pain of a broken family, uncertainty of self—and I know the question goes deeper than it appears at first glance.

Though Madeleine L’Engle’s story about a young misfit girl and her brilliant little brother and how they rescue their father using a tesseract and all the amazing things they encounter in the process…though these words may not appear to address the problem of pain directly, they surely helped to save a young girl who was drowning in it when she first encountered them.

I think about these things all these months after my conversation with my wise friend Marcus. I am learning to embrace myself as word-giver. It still feels fragile—I’m still self-conscious and clumsy. But when I look back, I see that time at Laity Lodge as a pivotal step in this acquiescence. Because Laity Lodge is for everyone. My time there was like a warm embrace; I was cradled in that canyon. Everyone there was someone special. This is because that riverbed and those canyon walls are saturated with the presence of God. Dan Roloff told us that the place was built to provide a place where people can encounter God. While there, I felt the breath of my Creator, I felt loved as a favorite child.

The truth is, we should feel this way no matter where we are, no matter what we do. But sometimes, gravity gets in the way and our earthbound nature blinds us to who we truly are. Laity Lodge is a place of transcendence for me.

We are gearing up for the retreat again this year. I’ll be there. Won’t you consider it too? There is a chance you could go for free. I’d love to meet you there. Would even share that table overlooking the Frio with you.