Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Kathleen Tarr: The Hunger Within

Thanks for this second post from Kathleen Tarr, our September featured writer.

The memoir Eat, Pray, Love sold an estimated zillion-billion copies. It garnered accolades from Oprah, was made into a film (not nearly as well received), and lauded as a book “rich in spiritual insight” by Anne Lamott when it appeared in 2006. 

After returning from my first-ever trip to Italy—where I short-changed myself by sampling only two gelato flavors, thirteen glasses of Prosecco, and twenty caprese salads—I picked up my copy of Eat, Pray, Love and re-read it again. I had strolled through some of the same cobblestone vias and piazzas Elizabeth Gilbert did when she spent time in Rome. 

Her entertaining writing style and her warm and inviting personality, more than anything else, are the reasons her book worked.  And the author’s congenial voice was mentioned frequently by the book’s many reviewers. Upon my second reading, I found her narrative personae as pleasurable, warm and funny as ever. 

But the book has its retractors. Readers raised questions: How authentic of a spiritual journey was this knowing the whole book was something pre-conceived, sold on concept as a follow-up to a book she had already been promised an advance to do? Elizabeth Gilbert proposed the travelogue idea to her agent and publisher who answered with a hefty advance to underwrite the expenses of her year-long “spiritual quest” to Italy, India, and Indonesia. 

Some of my girlfriends claimed “poor, poor Elizabeth" had nothing much to spiritually discern in their estimation. When it came right down to it, they couldn’t feel her pain since Liz seemed pretty blessed overall—and they echoed The New York Times reviewer who said Eat, Pray, Love lacked some “grit” and “gravitas.” 

The author was wracked with emotional guilt. She wanted to end her less-than-ten-year marriage and recognized the truth about herself—she didn’t want to bear children. Bitter fighting ensued during the divorce proceedings. The personal crisis left her suffering from bouts of depression and gave her the motivation to explore her self-identity and everything else—including how different cultures define sensory pleasure, devotion and meditation, and where a balance can be achieved.

Was hers a quest to discover more spiritual understanding and truths, or was it a quest to be more self-absorbed? 

And therein lies part of the literary confusion. The spirituality genre, as it applies to personal essays and memoir, is often divided between self-help, personal development and more gimmicky kinds of spiritual books (i.e, The Happiness Project and Life is a Verb which offers some core practices for jump-starting a more meaningful life), and books that seem to relate more of a “real-deal” feel in their explorations of faith and spirituality (i.e., The Sacred Journey; Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Terese of Lisieux; A Short History of Awe.)

I found an old magazine whose cover story reads, “Spiritual Writing: Share Your Faith through Fiction, Essays, Articles and More.” Part of me reels at the blatant commercialization. Part of me accepts the fact that publishing is publishing, after all, and religious and spiritual writing should be treated and discussed in the same general marketing contexts as other nonfiction sub-genres.

One of the magazine’s how-to articles offered this observation to beginning writers trying to open a piece of writing: “If you really want to capture an editor’s attention and the readers’ attention, startle them. Whether you choose a specific or general opening, you can be provocative, controversial, outrageous, funny, or even irreverent.”  

Another article listed the six indispensable qualities you need for spiritual writing to “hit home with readers.”

They are: good writing skills; ability to relate your personal experience; honesty; humility; faith; and confidence in the communication of its message, without being arrogant, preachy, defensive, but in confident in quiet assurance, and without rationale or apology. 

Or you could boil it all down to:  Write like Elizabeth Gilbert.

Patricia Hampl says strong spiritual writing is “allergic to pietism.” Amen to that! Hampl (Virgin Time; I Could Tell You Stories, Essays on Memory & Imagination) was one of the guest editors in the Best American Spiritual Writing series that I mentioned in my previous post. The real hallmark of authentic spiritual writing, Hampl says, is that it’s filled with questions.

Outside of the sacred texts and religious classics comprising the western canon alone—a wealth of philosophical, theological, and literary texts that have enriched us for centuries and will always enrich us—it’s easy to see why so many people can be turned off by some of what is passed off as spiritual writing in the publishing marketplace.

The problem with spiritual writing, though, is that it can be so damn uninspiring. 

According to an EPL review in The Telegraph, finding oneself and searching for groundedness and centeredness has made it into the mainstream, part of the commodification of spiritual enlightenment. Didn’t the same thing happen in the 1960s when lots of writing appeared with Buddhist themes and from poets communing with nature under the northern California redwoods?  Didn’t a wave of spiritual writing surface in the mainstream back then, too? 

Individual readers still need to sort through the stories to find the ones that feel most spiritually authentic and vital to them. 

As a writer, I think about some of the advice I’ve heard from judges on “The Voice.” Here’s what they’ve told contestants who are striving to be superstars: “You gotta reach into your gut and find the hunger within. It’s the imperfections we’re looking for. Get to the heart and feel every word you sing. Don’t run past you. Don’t outshine. Don’t trill to impress.  Don’t let a note come out of you, you don’t really mean.”

The inner matter, matters. It matters when you sing, and it matters when you write or paint or compose music. Authenticity matters. Imperfections matter. Don’t trill to impress your audience. And don’t fabricate a spiritual or religious awakening because of market dictates. Be exactly who you are. Write from the center of doubt and uncertainty.

Elizabeth Gilbert had her journalistic pulse on something very important. Readers are drawn to intimate stories told well about the lives we angst-filled moderns are living today. We want to see how others cope, struggle, and challenge themselves as they travel down their chosen spiritual paths—whether it involves the pleasure of eating pistachio gelato or not.

While in Italy, I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence with its famous collection of Botticelli, Tintoretto, and DaVinci art collections.  The sculptures and paintings completely overwhelmed me, as did everything in Italy.  As I was exiting the Uffizi, I came upon a glass case and stopped cold when I beheld its contents: a huge, leather-bound volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy, an exquisite medieval manuscript, hand-illustrated and dated from 1390.

Dante Aligihieri.  Now there’s a writer whose spiritual journey packed some emotional wallop and depth.

Kathleen Tarr is a long-time Alaskan and was the first program coordinator of UAA’s new low-residency MFA Program 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 at UAA and the University of Pittsburgh.


Anonymous said...

The downside of linking one's writing to one's personality so blatantly is that then appreciation of the work hinges on whether a reader is drawn to the person. IE, I picked up EPL and less than one chapter in, was so annoyed by her that I couldn't imagine reading the whole thing. It felt like going out for lunch with the most whiny, self-obsessed person I could imagine. If there had been more craft involved, more sense of a book being built out of an experience or set of realizations, I may have stuck out the voice (I certainly don't only read books with likeable narrators). As is, EPL felt like someone I wasn't drawn to dumping everything that crossed her mind onto the page.

So, aside from my opinion!--it's quite a conundrum for a writer. How do we write from our essential selves and yet also surpass them, in content or craft or depth?

Bill Sherwonit said...

Another conundrum: how to do spiritual writing and remain true to yourself and your experiences when also consciously seeking commercial success?

You raise lots of good questions, Kathy. I love some of the discoveries you've made, the paradoxes you've found, while exploring your spiritual and writing paths (which sometimes intersect). I get a kick out of the idea of a how-to guide to better spiritual writing.

Thanks for continuing to explore and share your thoughts on this topic.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Interesting concept: we need to dig deep inside our spiritual selves and be authentic, but hope that the product is universal enough that others can relate to it. Your conclusion shows us that it can be done. Looking forward to seeing your own take on the subject in a book. :-)

Sandy Kleven said...

To, also. look at this question as a poet, from a poet's perspective, other elements come into play. Presume that we are talking about a poet who digs, who skids along the abyss, who might accept words delivered in a sort of Rumi way, i.e. (to paraphrase) "I don't know where the words come from...when I am away from speaking them I am quiet.." (something like that). In this sort of interaction with the great beyond, within, some of the struggles about personality and audience evaporate, in the best of ways. One can almost take the guise of an oracle, and let it dance to the page. Sort of shrugging over one's own creation, "Never saw it before but here it is, I wonder what it means." I am not trying to be ludicrous here. Just saying that, depending on the poet, there is less need to communicate in the common tongue and more latitude to discover new language and thought. The sense of spirit enters because the work is (or may be), in a sense, a spirit dance, sometimes through dark matter, not always the pretty stuff. One gets the freedom to honor what one drudges out of dream, memory and fantasy, taking the hooded cloak (smock) of the artist. Let the hordes sort it out - and all that. Trusting the stuff that comes up and turning it over, letting it go. Not giving a good g-d what people think, but hearing eventually that it's pretty good stuff in the opinion of the worried observers. This is where I like to work. The edge of new things, a place of bugs and mosses. I hope this doesn't sound too spurious. I am personally just a pilgrim in the very space I am talking about. I haven't really got my eshews on yet. Love you, Kathy! Can't wait for the next post.

scallywag195 said...

Interesting concept, Kathy. My 6th grade teacher, a nun, brought in a copy of The Divine Comedy. I was the only student who showed any interest. She let me borrow it, and I burrowed into the first 20 pages or so...before giving up.