Skip navigation

Category Archives: Writing

How and Why we write

Photo by Pericomart

As I’m typing, see that the sun is suffusing new leaves on the tree outside with transparent yellow light. A red cardinal flew by so fast that I caught the color and a rough shape. Life happens all around me every day if I’m awake and alive enough to notice. Happy I was able to sleep deeply, to rest my body, especially my fingers. The rest of the morning, afternoon and part of the evening I wrote. We also enjoyed a beautiful walk along Sligo on a gorgeous spring evening.

Photo by L*Ali

Words are very powerful
Words have the power to move us
from a place deep within us.
Words have the power to shift us
from old beliefs to new ones.
Words have the power to inspire us
to take action steps that make a difference.
Words have the power to shake us up
and help us change.
Words have the power to touch our hearts
and bring peace.

Ruth Fishel, for April 15 in Peace in Our Hearts, Peace in the World

Yesterday I had the most amazing conversation with a very old friend, a former priest who had planned to be part of a companion draft board action to our anti-corporate action. I had woken the day before with a script between the two of us writing itself in my head. The scene of us waiting outside the government building that housed the draft files was so vivid. My memory clearly pictured the darkness, the cold, the rain, the warm coffee cup in my hands, the fatigue, the closeness I felt to my friend. This would make the perfect beginning for my book, a fifth version of the most difficult chapter – the first.

I had written a version of the scene, but now I wanted it to become even more real, the reader’s first contact with the narrator and two main characters. I realized that I needed to talk to Phil, to pump him with questions, to interview him about that night, to make the words leap to the reader with immediacy. I had tried to find him for years, especially when I planned the reunion two years ago. But this morning, the Universe and its powerful agent, the internet, served me well. It must have been the right moment. I found a contact who emailed him and we set a time to talk, all within a few hours.

Before we talked, he sent me a wonderful selection from his journals that mentioned his activities in DC at the time of the action. Details I needed, memories that varied from mine. When we finally connected by phone, we were both so happy to be in touch again that the words, thoughts and feelings flowed, years fading. We were both still passionately concerned about peace and social justice, still working in communities that served those ends. We shared news about our families, our work, our spiritual journeys over the last 40 years. As I remembered, he was able to plumb to such depths quickly, sharing a beautiful story about the death of his first wife.

He said something very freeing about our differing memories about the timing of some events. “It’s like scripture, isn’t it? Every person has their own words, their own view and memory. It’s a good thing, or else we’d only have one book instead of dozens.”

Now I’m waiting to skype the young man who was inside the building we were watching! More connections to come!

Friday evening I met for the first time with my new writers’ group. The woman who invited me to join the group had participated in a class with me at the Writer’s Center last fall on Narrative Non-fiction. She gave excellent, detailed feedback on my book and other submissions by students in the class. The revival of her writers’ group happened at a perfect time to give me energy, focus and feedback on the book and a proposal I need to submit to an agent within a week. I sent the participants the first four chapters of the book before our meeting, and received enthusiasm for the story, stimulating questions, suggestions and a possible new title. Saturday afternoon I worked on a revised proposal, including a cover letter with a pitch, an overview, bio, marketing plan and chapter summary. This evening I sent it to several members of the group for feedback.

Saturday I was also inspired with yet another approach for the beginning of the book. This idea led me to search for the ex-priest who was supposed to participate in a draft board action several days before our DC-9 action. I envisioned our dialogue as we waited outside the building housing the DC draft files and wanted to interview him for details. I researched him on line, found a lead, emailed an organization in California to locate my old friend. By this morning I had an email back from him. Re-connected after decades! Love the internet! Tomorrow we plan to do the interview.

My husband is constantly urging me to continue writing, to follow my muse, to let the world know how important this book is to me. Is it true that when we follow our deepest instincts, when we open our hearts to share our truth, we are aided by angels? Definitely when we ask those angels for help. Help arrives.

Thank you, my angel fellow writers. Thank you, California peacemakers.

Photo by pcephotography

My manuscript for The Power of Love will arrive in the hands of an agent today.
Putting it in the mail felt like sending my child off to school on his first day of kindergarten.
Should he wear a coat? Have more fruit in his lunchbox? Will the teachers like him?
Will he like them?

These were some of the sentiments I expressed to the agent who comes highly recommended from a friend who has worked with him on two of her books. My narrative non-fiction book is an account of attacking the Dow Chemical office in DC in 1969 (while a nun) to try to prevent and expose their sale of napalm for the Vietnam war. While it is not the usual genre that this agent shepherds to publishers, he was interested in the spiritual journey of a nun turned federal felon. What moved me to do such a radical action? Knowing that it might carry as much as 40 years in prison. What transformation took place inside me? How did my decisions affect my religious order, the private girls’ school where I taught, my family, my life? What universal messages emerge in the book that will speak to hearts searching for courage and purpose?

The invitation to read the manuscript came as I was leaving the house for a weekend retreat, from which I emerged with a bad case of bronchitis. However, as soon as I was able, I devoted my daily dose of energy to one last read-through/edit before sending out the manuscript. I hope he has time to read some of it before departing for the London Book Fair.

My conversation with him convinced me that my little one is in good, kind hands.

Have you experienced sharing your creations with the world?

In work hours when I am not actively re-editing my book or writing query letters, I continue to read fiction. Novels are my favorite genre and have been most of my life. Ideally I would love to have my memoir read like a good novel. I work on the flow, the sense of the story, the narrative arc, dialogue, setting, cutting anything that doesn’t move the story forward.

A couple of months ago, when I was revising the fourth draft of my book, I was especially inspired by a second reading of Walter Mosley‘s The Man in My Basement to make scenes more present and believable to the reader, letting go of rhetoric that was so much a part of my thinking and language in 1969. His language, dialogue and plot structure make an unlikely situation and philosophical discourse believable and real. I hope my work of non-fiction will be able to hold and challenge the reader in the way a well-crafted novel does.

The last three books I read inspired me in different ways: The Gathering by Anne Enright immediately grips the reader into her tale of her Irish family, her brother’s death, the “clean, white bones” of her stories and night thoughts, slowing unveiling its central core. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat captures the generational suffering and colorful dialogue of four women of Haiti in their search for wholeness and love. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) is such a depressing story of a woman’s isolation on a South African farm that I almost gave up on it before the tragic ending, which is foreshadowed in the first chapter. Through enormous skill in revealing the suffering of women, each of these books compels the reader to stay, to travel deeper into the human heart.

Each of us has stories, suffering, a voice of our own, something special to share with the world. May we continue to learn from those who have mastered the art of the telling.

In one day, I experienced the exquisite joy of finishing my fourth draft of The Power of Love and later the upset over a dear friend’s conflict with her agent. So many days and moments are like this – joy and sorrow, triumph and disappointment intertwined in the same heart at the same moment.

Somehow amidst traveling to Florida for a meditation retreat and organizing another upcoming retreat, I managed concentrated time writing (I love my laptop that goes with me everywhere) and polished off the last four chapters on Monday! I was also given the timely opportunity to join a writers’ group at the exact moment I need readers. Now I face the more difficult task of searching for an agent and publisher.

Later in the same day, I heard from my friend that her new agent had attempted to slash one of the most beautiful and moving novels I have ever read. My happy heart felt the arrow with her. The agent is so wrong, so misguided. Yet I know that my friend will do what she needs to do to preserve her own voice, to find an agent and publisher who appreciates this important work as it is. I see how disappointing and vicious the publishing world seems to be right now. Like the desperate dictators fighting to the death for their former wealth and power, the industry clings to what they think will make them a fast buck. But they underestimate you, readers waiting for great books.

I so deeply believe that there are millions of readers – like me – in the world who long for enlightenment, real literature, moving, powerful writing that can take us into worlds we don’t yet understand and find there our own lives, our own struggles, our own suffering and redemption.
Yet, to get my book into your hands, will I also have to experience the same conflict, disappointment, mistrust and abuse that I see much better writers experience? Probably so.

Then I will use the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh as I do today to work up courage to approach a new agent myself. I pluck off my shelf his book of poetry, Please Call me by My True Names and turn to the end of his poem of that same title:

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth
My pain is like a river of tears,
So vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open
the door of compassion.

This poem (much longer in its entirety) was written in 1978 while Thay was rescuing boat people from Vietnam in the Gulf of Siam.

Do you feel your joy and pain as one?

See a video of this poem at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6y-Ik3HB6fQ.

Photo by Bobwitlox

We are approaching 48 hours without heat, power, or light in our home due to a heavy, wet snow blanketing our area and leaving almost half a million homes without electricity. Yet, we have found heat, power for our computers and phone and light to warm our eyes and hearts in the home of a friend. I was even able to work on my book here for my usual Friday morning writing session and am making progress on the chapters on our 1970 trial of the DC-9.

We never have to trudge through snow or any of life’s difficulties alone. Never again. Never since the realization, hard found, through much suffering, that we need other people. That somehow asking for help gives others opportunities to be of service, just the way we are able to be of service to others if they have the humility to ask for help. We “inter-are,” that glorious Buddhist concept of interbeing, of “non-self,” of interdependence. Thich Nhat Hanh gives the example of a flower not being able to manifest without the conditions of soil, air, sunshine, water and fertilizer that make it possible for a seed to become a flower. The flower both depends on the earth from which it springs and nourishes the same earth with its decaying petals.

So, we are managing to be not only safe and warm today but happy, even dancing and playing in the snow on the road of happy destiny.


Joe O’Rourke – High School Photo at his Memorial 9/08

Editing the chapters of my book on the DC-9 trial brings alive the words and feelings of people like Joe O’Rourke, the only one of the Nine who has passed away. What a brilliant and powerful speaker! Here is a sample from my summary of the trial transcript:

Joe O’Rourke was allowed to present the lengthiest statement the defense had been able to give at this point in the trial. Joe said that our only defense (against the five federal felony charges of burglary and malicious destruction of property) is “our lives.” He maintained that while we didn’t have the consent of Dow to enter their offices, “ we did have the consent of the poor people around the world; the 50% of the world’s population now dying of malnutrition, the mothers, the babies that die every day in the US. We feel we did have their consent to stop the Dow Chemical Company’s relationship with the United States.” (Transcript p. 582).

Joe argued that we were not committing a crime but stopping “a criminal activity by a massive institution that is crushing, not just lives in Vietnam, not just in Guatemala, but our own lives, because most of us are still powerless to change Dow, to stop Dow from making a bomb, an incendiary which is against international law; whether, indeed, the history of Dow Chemical Company isn’t precisely the thing that should be on trial here today…isn’t Dow the criminal? Isn’t their relationship with the government a criminal act? Aren’t their foreign investments sapping land resources, money, labor from countries all over the world? Isn’t that a criminal act?

…Isn’t it Dow that really should be on trial before you today? Isn’t it because of their managing, manipulating, killing, in your name as well as mine, we have alleged to have tried to stop them and you must judge whether that was just, or not.” (Transcript, p. 583)

The six of us were leaning forward, sending Joe our energy and support as all the Jesuit training in logic and public speaking poured into this powerful delivery. He continued to argue that some property, such as slave ships “that brought some of your ancestors to the US, the gas ovens of Nazi Germany,” and Dow’s napalm have no right to exist. If Dow is the burglar, the thief that steals from the poor around the world, then Dow is the one with the malice, manipulating our lives, turning our economy and society into an ‘economy of death,’ a ‘society of death.’ (p. 584). “What we did was really an act for life, an act of hope that you can trust us, trust our truth.” ( p. 585).

Do you have friends you would like to bring alive in your writing? Are the political causes of the sixties meaningful to you today?