Kathleen Tarr: Pursuing the Spiritual in Writing

Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama, 1968

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat,  or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me  what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” —Thomas Merton

Pope Francis and his Fiat pope-mobile have come and gone. With all the widespread news coverage during his historic first visit to America, many of the most jaded and pessimistic non-believers I know admitted to being intrigued by the way the Pope connected with people on the themes of mercy and immigration. It was refreshing, wasn’t it, to hear someone speak from the heart, authentically and humbly, without suffering through political jargon and cliché?

In his address to Congress, Pope Francis singled out Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as examples of great Americans (Merton was actually born in Prades, France and naturalized as a U.S. citizen years later).

Besides the many distinguished deeds and high vocational callings of these four special people as presidents and preachers, social activists and contemplative monks, they shared a knack for superb oratory, keen observation and distinctive literary styles.

I really perked up when I heard the papal mention of Thomas Merton especially since this year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. Over the past decade, he’s become a powerful figure and steady mentor in my life; it’s as if we’ve been following one another around, though he’s been dead since 1968.

While immersing myself in Merton’s life and writings, and spending a lot of personal time re-tracing his physical steps—in Kentucky, New York, and especially in Alaska—along the way, I’ve written and published about his extraordinary legacy as a Catholic monk (in an austere order), social critic, jazz lover, essayist, poet, student of Zen Buddhism, and literary star among the secular and religious alike.

In November, I’ll be teaching a 49Writers class to share a part of what I’ve learned on my odyssey with Merton and with other gifted writers and poets who have expressed spiritual ideas and struggles.

“The Spiritual in Writing: Across Faith, Genre and Time” meets four evenings (Nov. 10, 12, 17, & 19) and is designed to create more reflective space, to stimulate dialogue and discussion, and to share stories about the interior life—the spiritual journeys we find ourselves on—willingly and not.

(Note: I last taught this course in Spring 2013, and as a featured writer for 49W September 2012, I wrote Spirituality: Re-Visioning the Genre.)

You need not be a memoirist, a New Age meditator, or a faith follower of any kind to participate. I’m looking for writers and/or avid readers with the hunger of curiosity, open-minded, and who won’t run for cover if a Sufi mystic or a medieval nun or saint are read and discussed.

And maybe it’s good to have a sprinkling of faith—faith that your own work—whether fiction, narrative nonfiction or poetry—might benefit from being a part of this more unconventional creative writing gathering.
As a mini-study, and in honor of his centenary, one evening class will be devoted to an introduction of Merton’s intellectual and literary gifts.
Some of the questions the class might prompt you to think about:

  • What’s the terrain of your interior life? 
  • What can you learn about the art & craft of writing by examining the prose styles of great spiritual masters?
  • Are you working on any writing or journaling related to some aspect or elements of your own spiritual autobiography? 
  • How has your spiritual quest explicitly intersected with your literary life? Or is this a subject area you haven’t yet broached, but one you wish to explore?

I promise we will not burn any incense. And we won’t try and write while listening to Hare Krishna chanting. Nor will I ask anyone to get in touch with their suppressed spiritual natures by pretending to be a tree. I’m poking fun, of course.

But what we will do is listen to some inner voices of wisdom and experience from different religious traditions, countries and genres to seek whatever literary (and Divine!) inspiration we can.
It’s time to dispel a few myths about this often-misunderstood genre. To borrow a phrase from Patricia Hampl, the writings we’ll look at will “burn away the fat of Romantic religiosity” through intimate, narrative voices and questioning, defiant minds.
In their human searches for God, meaning and transcendence, and in their desire to better society, we’ll touch upon some writers who wrote poetically and profoundly, but not always heavy with cinematic scene and dialogue. There’s a lot of literary wealth to uncover and to be inspired by, as I have been.
Maybe you are still full of doubt and thinking,“Nahhh. This is not for me.”
I’m here to encourage you to take off on this literary sojourn.
Please join me for a creative writing class that’s meant to stir you in new directions, to a place full of Big Questions and paradoxes—your interior self. I’m guessing you’ve probably neglected this part of your writer’s self for too long.

KATHLEEN WITKOWSKA TARR is an Anchorage-based nonfiction writer, and former Program Coordinator of UAA’s low-residency MFA Program in creative writing. She has been an adjunct creative writing instructor at UAA and for 49 Writers. Her work has appeared in journals, newspapers, and anthologies, including the Sewanee Review, Creative Nonfiction, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Cirque and TriQuarterly. She is a contributor to a new volume of essays commemorating the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth: “We Are Already One: Merton’s Message of Hope, 1915-2015” edited by Jonathan Montaldo. In 2013, Kathleen was selected as a Mullin Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.

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