Kathleen Tarr: Spirituality: Re-visioning the Genre

A hearty and spirited welcome to our September featured writer, Kathleen Tarr!

The Aniakchak volcano on the Alaska
Peninsula is a region visited by fewer than 15 persons per year. This summer my
friend, Gary Freeburg, hired a bush pilot with a Cessna 185 on floats—a 1.5
hour flight from King Salmon—to drop him off near the Aniackhak’s caldera.  He spent the next nine days camped alone on a
lava field. 

As a necessary precaution, he staked
a portable electric fence around his two-man tent to discourage inquisitive
bears. Winds whipped across Surprise
Lake and over the
tree-less landscape, gusting to 70 mph. Though it was June, nighttime
temperatures dipped to 20 degrees. Gary
has a deep, spiritual fascination with surreal volcanic terrains, with flying
pumice, fumaroles, and sleeping under sheer, un-climbable crater walls.  He’s drawn to the remnants of volcanic
eruptions and how a volcano cleanses the earth’s surface. While he treks solo and
shoots hundreds of photographic images, everyday illusions and senseless
distractions are stripped away.

Our real life’s journey is an interior one, Thomas Merton said, a
journey toward the innermost self.  I first
became aware of Merton, the famous Trappist monk and spiritual thinker, in
spring 2005 during the last semester of my MFA program in creative nonfiction
at the University of Pittsburgh. Merton’s 1948 spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain which
recounted his early life and religious conversion to becoming Catholic at age
23, was definitely not a part of my
assigned reading list, and I had never read a book like it before.  

I saw references to The Seven Storey Mountain on lists of highly-recommended
memoirs and/or best spiritual books of the 20th century, and as a
would-be writer, my curiosity was naturally stirred.  

My reading tastes have always been
eclectic, except I had steered clear of the latest vampire stories, chick-lit, and
religious books.  I grew up in a
household as secular as secular can be without a religious education or
background. Outside of The Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, I remained
mostly unfamiliar with spiritual writers.  By the time I entered an MFA program, the
literary bucket list had grown exponentially with a lifetime of titles to catch
up on. 

I recall now the initial shock when
after one of the MFA workshops a fellow student said my writing had a spiritual bent. The implication of it!  I wasn’t an incense-burning New Ager, a born-again
whatever, a recovering drug addict seeking redemption or a recovering Catholic
searching for a new spiritual path.  I
was just another lost MFA soul. God was never mentioned in any of my workshop drafts.
How could my writing be deciphered as having spiritual undertones?

Seven years later, I have recently completed
a draft manuscript for my first book, a work of narrative nonfiction—a
memoir.  Confession: it can also be
classified as spiritual memoir, but
don’t tell anyone.  The truth is no one
is more surprised by this literary turn of events than me.  

Go ahead, throw up your hands at
the mention of the word—spiritual.  I did. 
In our post-modern culture, this loaded word connotes all sorts of
negative reactions and suspicions, especially among academics and a more scientifically
inclined readership, and believe it or not, the strongest comments are often
generated by fellow writers, whether they are consistent atheists, wobbly
agnostics or faith “independents.”  In
our quest for truth, our desire to connect to something larger than ourselves,
and to tell stories that make a difference, we all recognize that writing
itself is a spiritual act.  At the same
time, when it comes to perceptions about the spirituality genre, writers are
often the first ones to voice strongly-worded critiques, and rightly so:

“Spare me your moralizing pleas and
your soul-saving prescriptions. Spiritual books are fraught with
self-righteousness and confessions of sin. Don’t give me your theology.  I’m tired of epiphanies from Vietnamese monks
and salvation stories from fundamentalist preachers. The writing is burdened
with predictable, ready-made narratives and deadened by religious cliché. The
spirituality genre is long on feel-good fluff and mystical sentimentality, and too
short on real-life truths.”

In graduate school, I clearly
remember a NYC editor who advised us: “Whatever you do, do not use the word spiritual in
describing your book. It will kill your publishing chances.”  And just a few months ago, a senior editor
from a highly-regarded, well-known literary publishing house told me: “Spiritual
books are really on the periphery of what we do.”  The underlying message:  If it’s
spiritual, then yes, I can handle it. We don’t teach Dostoevsky as
a spiritual novelist, Barry Lopez as a spiritual essayist, or Anne Caston as a
spiritual poet, though, indeed, they are.

I own several copies of Philip
Zaleski’s anthologies, Best Spiritual
, and I recommend them, especially if you’d like to broaden your
ideas about what constitutes good spiritual writing. The inaugural volume appeared
in 1998 and included essays from 23 different periodicals, from the magazines Notre Dame and Praying, where you’d expect to find writings with spiritual or
religious themes, and selections from the Atlantic
and Orion, where you probably

Zaleski puts it this way:  “I take the best spiritual writing to be
prose or poetry that addresses, in a manner both profound and beautiful, the workings of the soul.” (The italics
are mine. Another side-note, Alaska’s
former Writer Laureate, Nancy Lord, has published in the Best Spiritual Writing.) 

On the occasion of the series’ tenth
anniversary Zaleski wrote: “The best spiritual writing is writing that sheds light
upon the life of the soul, that reveals the manifold ways in which human beings
respond to truth, beauty and goodness, and the depth of suffering and glory of
our relationship to God.”  

Along the way, while researching
and drafting the manuscript (and praying to God I would actually finish it one
day) I was immersed in the life and work of Thomas Merton.  This led to some profound changes about the
way I thought about my own spirituality and innermost self.  As a highly gifted writer, Merton wrote
honestly about his conflicts and struggles, the inner workings of his soul.  And by no means was he God’s answer to the
perfect, angelic monk.

On all of Gary’s wilderness
adventures, especially to Katmai where he’s made four trips over the years, he also
stuffs a journal in his pack. His stunning black and white images are featured
in his first book, The
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: Revisiting the Alaska Sublime (George F. Thompson Publishing, October 2012).
 It includes some of Gary’s personal writings, and contributing essays
from preeminent volcanologists and anthropologists. 

He humbly describes his artistic process
as simply recording what he sees and then reflecting back on what his
experience has meant through the resulting photographic images. By visiting
these surreal landscapes and pondering the aftermath of great geological
forces, Gary gains
some sense of inner renewal and restoration. This is where he goes for
spiritual sustenance which is manifested and expressed in his photography.

As a monk, Thomas Merton lost
himself by wandering the rampart of woods surrounding his Kentucky monastery. For
a good part of his monastic life, he wished for more ideal solitude and

In my next 49 Writers’ posts, I’ll talk
about the writers and artists I’ve discovered in the wide-ranging (and sometimes
avoided!) genre called “spirituality.” I’ll introduce you to other notable writers
and artists across faith traditions whose interior journeys have helped shape
and inspire my writing life.
Kathleen Tarr is a long-time
Alaskan and was the first program coordinator of UAA’s new low-residency MFA
Program, a position she held from 2007-2011. Her work has appeared in
Creative Nonfiction, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Cirque, 49 Writers, TriQuarterly,
and is forthcoming in
The Sewanee Review.
She is a founding member of 49 Writers and has taught creative writing as
adjunct professor at UAA and the University of Pittsburgh.

3 thoughts on “Kathleen Tarr: Spirituality: Re-visioning the Genre”

  1. Kathy,
    Great post! I also never thought of myself as a "spiritual" writer until my piece about woodpeckers was chosen for a "Best" volume. (Thanks for mentioning.) Gary will be in Homer tonight to talk about his new book/photos of Katmai.

  2. Thanks for your reflections on spirituality and spiritual writing, Kathy. Good food for thought. And it appears that getting tagged a "spiritual writer" is even more dangerous than being called (or calling oneself) a "nature writer." Now there's a scary thought! I look forward to more of your spirited musings on 49 Writers.

  3. Kathy,
    Often when writing about the magnificence of landscape, or during any encounter, for that matter, where one abandons herself completely to an experience, can't help but feel "spiritual". Thanks for bringing that to light without apologies.

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