The following essay is adapted from the third part of a recent talk by Susan Sink, which she delivered as part of a lecture series at Saint John’s Abbey on the topic of “Writing as a Spiritual Practice.” The title of the talk was “Writing to Reveal the Holy in Brokenness.” You can view the lecture here. The first two parts of the lecture consider 1) defining spiritual practice; and 2) how Sink’s recent writing projects reflect spiritual ideas and interests, including how God is revealed in relationships with others, primarily in how we respond to each other’s brokenness.
I have had some success in my writing life. I was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. I have received prestigious residencies at artists’ colonies. Some of my poems have appeared in excellent literary magazines. However, I have not had success publishing books. This is important, in part, because publishing is necessary validation. The conventional route for poets is to publish a book and secure an academic position from which to continue writing.
After more than a decade of trying to publish my first book of poems, I self-published to the great disappointment of my writer friends.
After more than a decade of trying to publish my first book of poems, The Way of All the Earth, I self-published it in 2003, to the great disappointment of my writer friends. They saw this as giving up. I recognized that it marked a conscious decision to walk away from “the poetry world.” After ten years of submitting to contests, cycling work in and out of that manuscript, it was clear to me that waiting for it to “rise to the top” was keeping me from writing other books. Also, I was no longer seeking an academic position. Still, I wasn’t ready to put The Way of All the Earth in a box in a closet. I gave readings now and then, and I wanted to have a book to offer. So I published it myself. The memoir I was working on during my year as a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute in 2005-2006, despite getting a New York agent, did not get published. It was rejected (kindly and for many different reasons) by all the best publishing houses.
I knew from the beginning I was going to self-publish my next book, Habits. What publisher was going to want a small book of 100-word stories about Benedictine nuns in Minnesota? I’d written it partially as an outgrowth of my work as the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict’s communications director, where I’d discovered their large collection of well-indexed oral histories. I started it as an exercise when I got stuck trying to write a novel, but I ended up loving the book. In self-publishing the collection, I felt a tremendous burden to find readers for it. All I could think of to promote it was to send out ten copies with a press release to the St. Cloud Times, a local newspaper near my home and the home of the Benedictine Sisters I wrote about, to national and Minnesota Catholic publications, and to the Catholic blogger Julie Viera of “A Nun’s Life.”
In some ways, it no longer occurred to me to try to build on that success.
St. Cloud Times writer Frank Lee, with whom I’d worked on so many stories about the Sisters, wrote a feature. I was thrilled about that, but could not have predicted what would happen next. The Associated Press picked up the story and offered it as a weekly religion feature. This was a week or two before Thanksgiving. That story ran in many, many places. It was featured on the Minnesota Public Radio website where it was the most clicked story for three days. I ended up selling between 1,500-2,000 books that season, mothers buying them for daughters, daughters buying them for mothers. Those numbers are unheard of, especially for a self-published book of what are basically prose poems. Even so—2,000 copies was not my idea of success back in the 1990s, when I’d hoped my work would find a national audience, receive critical attention, and lead to future publication.
But the book was a success. That made me happy, even though I had no way to think about how to build on that success. In some ways, it no longer occurred to me to try to build on that success. I just kept writing, moving on to a novel.
I came across a Henri Nouwen quote a couple of weeks ago that helped shed light on this question of publishing versus writing. The quote is from the essay Called to Fruitfulness. It reads: “We have been called to be fruitful – not successful, not productive, not accomplished. Success comes from strength, stress, and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability and the admission of our own weakness.”
For a long time I was focused on being successful as a writer. That success came from “strength, stress, and human effort.” It would be reflected in publishing and position. And when asked if my writing was a spiritual practice, I drew back. No. My writing is not part of some personal, inward journey leading to God. My writing is about success. I want a career as a writer. It’s my profession.
I can see now that my writing life has not been about success, but about fruitfulness.
But I can see now that my writing life has not been about success, but about fruitfulness. If it was about success, I would have given up already! My writing comes from “vulnerability and the admission of our own weakness.” My work comes out of my own brokenness and is attentive to the brokenness of others.
Facing and contemplating the brokenness of life in community and life in the world is what I’m about. And I’m doing that work because I believe that is where God is revealed.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t want readers—I do! I have something to say and I believe in what I’m saying and the stories I’m telling.
In all the writing I’ve done that matters to me there are a lot of broken people.
In my novels, as in my poems, as in my memoir, as in all the writing I’ve done that matters to me, there are a lot of broken people. There is brokenness at the heart of it. Sometimes it is the result of a fallen world. It is always a matter of mortality. It is rooted in my perception that most violence in this world is domestic. Sometimes we are broken by circumstance, but more often by other people, including people we love. But all of us are holding on and embracing life.
My characters and I have some inner core of resilience, or character, or faith, that moves us forward. And figuring out how to live in the midst of (not in spite of) this brokenness, who we are to each other, how we carry on and even find joy and peace and love, and the relationship between “our battered hands and this God” (to quote one of my early poems) — that is why I have spiritual practices, and that is why I write.
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Allison A. de Laveaga says
Thanks so much for sharing this. I got serious about writing and publishing a few years ago and have already experienced many of those feelings you describe. I’ve had some success publishing on various web sites, mostly about parenting but some about spirituality. I have a book idea but I’m scared to even begin! I love your Nouwen quote. I’d like to use that on my own blog sometime. I like the idea of fruitfulness. That is very freeing.
Barbara Melosh says
Thanks for this thoughtful and honest post, and heartening encouragement to stay faithful to the work…honoring the vocation of writing, part of the baptismal call to use what we are given and become who we are meant to be. Blessings!
Rick Peterson says
Thank you Susan for sending these wise and truthful words out to help us stay in tune with what truly matters in our writing. Your words are a balm, a shining light.
Elsa Cook says
This is incredibly inspiring. Thank you for this reminder of what success actually is. I need to tape that Nouwen quote to my bathroom mirror.