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 covertly 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 Writing, 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 Monthly and Orion, where you probably wouldn’t.
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 contemplation.
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.