Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew teaches memoir, essay, and journal writing at the Loft Literary Center and The Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board artist’s fellowship and the Loft Career Initiative Grant, and was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Andrew is the author of several memoirs and a novel and has contributed to multiple anthologies. She talked with writer Jude Walsh about her latest work, Living Revision: A Writer's Craft as Spiritual Practice, and about her writing life, spirituality, and the craft of revision.
Jude Walsh: In Living Revision, you write, “Revision requires inner work and thus is a spiritual practice.” How does the spiritual aspect make revision a deeper dive than simply focusing on the craft alone?
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew: My partner and I joke about the Great Revision, meaning that living well requires us to revise constantly. The garage door breaks, there’s a snow day and school’s canceled, a loved one dies, and you have to revise—sometimes just your day’s plans and sometimes your understanding of what’s most important. Writers have the chance to exercise their revision muscles as part of the craft of writing. It’s always seemed to me that the gesture of stepping back from a project and seeing it with new eyes, which is the definition of revision, is essentially a spiritual gesture. We release one way of seeing, open our hearts, and risk a new way of seeing. This movement is fundamental to all spiritual growth.
I’m sure you’ve heard writing instructors tell students, “Comment on the craft, not the content.” There’s a tendency in the literary world to separate the writer’s selfhood (the person writing as well as their ideas on the page) from the craft. I understand why we do this; writing classes aren’t therapy groups, and most teachers aren’t equipped to address the interior lives of their students. But I’m concerned that this fosters an unhealthy split between writers and their work. A story is both of us and not of us—much like our kids! (I’m thinking of Kahlil Gibran’s lines and the tune from Sweet Honey in the Rock: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of Life’s longing for itself . . .”) Maybe classes aren’t the place to address the writer’s selfhood and cosmology, but these shouldn’t be ignored. They’re inextricably part of the creative work.
In looking for a more holistic approach to writing, I lean heavily on Robert Frost’s wisdom: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” At the foundation of good writing, the writer’s self and the page are one. We’re generally comfortable with this idea in the drafting stage. I make the argument that we can sustain the possibility for tears and surprise through the development of a project without compromising craft. I also believe that, without this foundation of an open heart, craft doesn’t have any ground to stand on. So our own openness to being moved is the essential ingredient in work that moves a reader.
JW: You take writers from the first draft through the end of a revision and have the perfect quote or reference for every lesson you teach. Are you a collector/lover of quotes? How do you save and organize them?
EJA: I love this question! You’re asking for a trick of the teaching trade. The answer is relevant for collecting quotations but also for organizing any large manuscript.
Microsoft Word has this great function called “Navigation.” If you give any chunk of text a heading, you can click the Navigation button and a menu of headings much like a website menu appears on the side of your screen. Then you can easily jump around the whole manuscript. I organize my large collection of quotations by topic this way. If I had to do it over again, I’d use Scrivener, which has more sophisticated organizational tools and is slick for longer works-in-progress.
JW: Many writing teachers talk about taking time between drafts but you approach this a bit differently. You emphasize time, rest, and recess. Can you speak a little bit about that?
EJA: Taking a break is pretty essential to “re-seeing” the text. The point of a break isn’t just rest. It’s a way to acquire new eyes. Rest rejuvenates us, much like the practice of Sabbath time. It brings us new perspective. It allows us to live into our work without getting caught up in the text.
I find it helpful to distinguish between active and passive disengagement. When we take a break from a project but are still actively engaged in it, still committed to it, then everything we see and do informs this project. It’s alive inside us even if we’re not plugging away at it. You know this is true when ideas keep popping into your head and you sense the project is alive in you, shifting, moving, and nagging you. Even though external evidence shows you’re not working on the project, the project is working on you, and, to some extent, you’re working on it. When you finally return to the page, both you and the project are significantly different. You’ve revised.
When our disengagement turns passive, that’s a sign that we’ve placed our heart elsewhere. We should dig around inside the project to rediscover the source of our engagement, discover a new reason to love this project, or move on.
JW: Spirituality is the thread that runs through all your writing. What is your advice for writers who shy away from this because they are afraid it might limit their audience?
EJA: Part of the work of becoming an author is gaining authority over our work, which means really exploring our topic or story. Whenever we limit the scope of our exploration for the sake of our audience, we compromise ourselves and our work.
Spirituality, as I understand it, is that which binds our small selves to larger unity, meaning, and creation. Our interior lives are essential to our humanity. If we edit this out of our characters or narrators, we flatten them and their worlds. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to read literature from which our relationship to our common humanity, a sense of meaning, and the mystery of creation as a whole are banned. And a lot of what gets published these days does just that.
As writers, we need to take responsibility for making our culture. That’s the writer’s role in society—even if we’ve never been published, even if we think of our writing as small in scope. Do you want to perpetuate a world without grace and meaning? Or do you want to generate grace and meaning? In my experience, when we choose the latter, we’re also more receptive to grace and meaning as we write, and this makes the writing worthwhile—even if our audience is also limited.
Since we’re parents here, another way to think of it is this: What stories do we want our children to live within? Are the stories we’re writing big enough for them to become fully, completely themselves?
Much as our culture (and especially the literary and academic world) resists genuine spirituality, we’re also desperately hungry for it. I say feed the hunger.
JW: You’re published in memoir, essay, and craft, as well as fiction. Share how and why you walk that multi-genre path and how you decide what to write when.
EJA: I love to read everything, so it’s not surprising that I enjoy writing in different genres. Ever since I was in seventh grade, reading Newbery Award books, I’ve wanted to be a YA author. To me a good YA novel is the pinnacle of literature; few books are as influential. I’m still hoping that a YA project will present itself to me someday!
This is a discernment question: How do we know what choice to make next? I go with what moves me, what presents itself to me, what feels needful, what I’m eager to chew on.
What I want to write and what needs to be written are two different things. Walking out of the launch party for Living Revision, my daughter asked me what I was going to write next. I told her, “All I know is that I’m not going to write about writing.” Not two weeks later, I realized I had to put my thoughts together on publishing and how writers might navigate launching their work into the wider world with open, loving, and growing hearts. This is the next project calling to me.
JW: Your first book, Swinging on the Garden Gate, is a memoir that explores bisexuality as a creative expression of God and examines the wide variety of ways spirit resides in the world. Do you still write about your bisexuality? How does your sexual identity continue to inform your writing?
EJA: I remember being halfway through writing my novel and coming up for air long enough to wonder, “What the heck am I doing? Why am I, a queer woman in a same-sex marriage and with an adopted daughter writing about a homebirth midwife?” I had immersed myself in the very heterosexual birth world, and it felt like I was betraying my core experience. But eventually I realized that I was writing another version of a coming-out story. Both Swinging and Hannah trace the difficult path of discovering, naming, and living out an essential inner truth.
If you boil all my writing down, you get to this core question: What does it mean to be embodied spirit? In Swinging on the Garden Gate, I addressed this head-on, telling the story of growing into awareness about my body’s desires and discovering there the truth of what I’d been taught in church when I was growing up—that divinity became and continues to become flesh. The church taught me that this was true for Jesus; my body taught me this is true for me and for everyone. I needed to write that memoir to sort out the confusing messages of contemporary institutionalized Christianity from the real wisdom of the Christian tradition, in much the same way I had to sort out others’ assumptions about my body from my lived reality.
I don’t write about bisexuality very much these days, but I do write with my bisexual lens (my bifocals!). The biggest gift of being bisexual is always seeing the world from a both/and perspective. I embody paradox, so I’m not afraid of holding contradictions, especially on the page where they’re so fruitful.
JW: Did parenting inform any part of your thoughts about revision?
EJA: One of my favorite passages in Living Revision is a section that explores feedback. All writers need feedback, but it’s very difficult to get the right kind of feedback at the right moment. Learning how to respond to my daughter’s art was instrumental in helping me understand what kind of feedback writers really need.
When my daughter was old enough to use a crayon—that is, create—I read a parenting book that analyzed adult responses to kids’ achievements. Most of us look at crayon scribbles and say, “Wow! That’s great!” This teaches children the delight of a final product. Sometimes we respond with, “I love it,” thus emphasizing creative work’s effect on an audience. The parenting expert warned us to avoid this second reaction since it can orient children’s play toward pleasing others rather than themselves. She suggested instead that we respond to the child’s process: “I bet making that felt good.”
In my mind, all three are worthy responses. Artists need to be nurtured in their process, commended for their product, and given a sense of their impact on an audience. But when my daughter thrusts a page of scribbles in my face, the most satisfying experience for us both is when I ooh at the pink loop and aah at the brown squiggle and then say, “Tell me about this.”
“It’s a pencil sharpener,” she says.
“And what’s happening here?”
“This is the pencil, and here’s Hootie sharpening it, and—Hoo! Hoo!—he flies to the owl library and . . . .”
Artists long to communicate. A pat on the back gratifies the ego but never the soul. When writers share works in progress, we want to know what we’ve communicated and how we might deepen the conversation.
My MFA thesis defense ranks among my most gratifying experiences as a writer. Three authors and one theologian, all of whom I held in high regard, had read my memoir. We gathered over coffee and cookies and, for an hour, shared an invigorating conversation about my story. What could be better? That conversation spurred two more years of revision.
JW: After reading your work, I’d love to take a class with you. Tell us about your teaching. Have you ever offered online courses or do you prefer the face-to-face contact these centers provide?
EJA: For writers interested in working with me who don’t live in Minnesota, once or twice a year I offer weekend or week-long retreats. I’m in the process of making my website into an interactive learning community—but that may take another year or two. I’m always happy to work one-on-one coaching writers whose work I believe in.