Saturday, March 24, 2007

Spiritual Writing Class

I’m slated to teach next fall at the university “Spiritual Writing.” I’m looking forward to it but hoping that enough students sign up to secure the class. I’ve spoken to a couple of my star students of past semesters about the class—my attempt to campaign for enrolment. I don’t know if the course has been taught before. It doesn’t seem like it. The department chairperson has been open to suggestions, which I highly respect. Registration is next week, and I hope to have an email prepared for select students to encourage them.

Spiritual writing is an interesting genre of (mainly) the “personal essay” that subtly or directly pertains to a sacred understanding or encounter in life or memory. Or it is what may loosely be associated with transcendence in its spirit sense or in the sense of an “otherly” meaning (not UFO, but at the level of soul, heart, and profound emotion). The line separating spiritual writing from other kinds of personal essays is blurry. An essay taken by an anthology of spiritual writing may easily appear in another anthology of a different focus. It seems easier to say what “spiritual writing” is not. It is not, for example, an opportunity to proselytize, nor something like the “Left Behind” series, nor ghost stories or narratives of apparitions, nor typical conversion accounts (unless broadened beyond one’s strict personal choice and motivations), nor is it an academic treatise (no footnotes, please), nor an explanation of dogmas, nor a bombastic demonstration of one's "religious" attachments. The topics of spiritual writing are as broad in range as are the various understandings of the operative term “spiritual.”

If you find in a wooded brook, for example, a sign of the essential supremacy of divine love, but told without the nasal advocacy of the pulpit or minbar, then you've stumbled across effective spiritual writing; if you "see" the sacred purpose of "childhood" in a playing field of mud and worms that you crawled, belly-first, then, again, you've hit on it; if the appointed purpose of loss and tragedy becomes clear to you, starting with the dreadful late-night phone call that overwhelms you with pain that will never go away, then you're connected right; or if you gaze at your late grandfather’s mahogany rolltop desk and you unexpectedly experience the miracle of “memory” and finally release it from the strict attachment to the prison of “past” and find a heightened and penetrating sense of “present,” then something right is going on when you’re able to share that in prose.

The well-known authors in this genre, who write in other genres as well, include, Kathleen Morris, Annie Dillard, Andre Dubus III, Mary Gordon, Thomas Moore, Martin Lings, Huston Smith, Anne Lamott, Syed Hossein Nasr, Patricia Hampl, Madeleine L’Engle, Barry Lopez, and many others. If you're seriously interested in this genre, as a writer or reader, I strongly recommend that you procure the annual book series “The Best Spiritual Writing” edited by Philip Zaleski. It is indispensable.

What these writers speak of in their essays range. Read them, and you’ll then understand that spiritual writing is not about “topic” but about perspective—introspective, objective, painfully honest, unabashed, insightful, not defensive, unapologetic, humorous, soulful, unpretentious, and beautifully told. The key is to release your prose from the stodgy "requirements" that we've learned to (dogmatically) associate with religious communication. The key is to find and write from your center unaffected by self-conscious expectations.

The list of publications (from dailies, national monthlies, to small literary mags) that accept, seek, or tolerate spiritual-slanted essays is growing. I think this is good. Let’s get some.

*The reason I said that spiritual writing is "mainly" a personal essay is because it may also be set in poetry or short fiction.

6 Comments:

Blogger samer said...

This class sounds great. What school is it offered at?

3/25/2007 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Irving said...

An excellent idea for a class :) And I think you will make a great teacher of it. Good fortune with it.

Ya Haqq!

4/03/2007 1:11 AM  
Blogger jenani said...

salaam Ibrahim... I want to take your class!!!!! Where are you teaching it! Let me know please....

4/11/2007 9:43 PM  
Anonymous Shiraz said...

You mentioned this in the context of non-fiction, in the "genre" of personal essay. What are your thoughts about spiritual themes in fiction, and getting around those stumbling blocks of it being too obvious or maudlin or even "born again"?

4/18/2007 7:15 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

I wholeheartedly think that spiritual themes can be explored, pruned, picked, weaved, or whatever in fiction. No doubt about it. What is obvious or maudlin fails, whether it relates to fiction or nonfiction, spiritual or secular. If you're interested, you may want to get a hold of "God Stories," an anthology of short stories (many by the big names, Baldwin, Erdrich, Gardner, Malamud, O’Connor, Wolff, etc). It's published by Mariner Books, edited by C. Michael Curtis, 1998. Thanks for your comment here and on my latest entry.

4/18/2007 10:51 PM  
Anonymous Shiraz said...

"God: Stories" looks really interesting and it's now on my Amazon wish list. Thanks for the recommendation!

4/19/2007 12:42 PM  

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