WRITING LIFE: The Small, Accessible World of Publishing by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a public discussion followed by a workshop at a large, wealthy, suburban church. The panel was emceed by a major Minnesota Public Radio personality; the church flew in one panelist from Michigan. They publicized widely, fed us salmon and wine, and paid us generously.

At the Sunday afternoon event, 20 people were scattered throughout the cavernous sanctuary. My workshop was attended by four congregants.

In the classroom, I introduced spiritual memoir and we wrote for a bit before abandoning the formalities to chat. One woman, a quintessential Lutheran church lady, described her writing process. Every Sunday while she curls her hair, she composes a haiku. Then, she descends the stairs to write a check at her kitchen table for the weekly offering. After sealing the envelope, she copies her poem on the front.

“Opening all those envelopes after church is boring,” she shared. “I want to make the volunteers’ days a little brighter. They love it. They always let me know how much it means to them.”

Isn’t her practice delightful? She writes for the joy of it. Her poem becomes an offering, the volunteers’ drudgery is interrupted with beauty and their appreciation motivates her to write more. The place you are called, according to writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, is “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This haiku writer found the publishing sweet spot.

While the offering envelope might be a humble platform, it’s arguably more effective (and certainly more sustainable) than the church’s pricey event.

“Small is good,” Emergent Strategy activist adrienne maree brown advises, “Small is all.” If small actions are most effective at bringing about social change, perhaps we writers should reconsider our relentless drive to reach more and more readers. Perhaps publishing, as we’ve been conditioned to construe it, isn’t what my mother would call “the be all and end all.” What I most hope for my writing is that it moves another’s heart. Having written and published for over thirty years, I’m only now beginning to appreciate small’s efficacy. Sharing my work on the scale of human relationships may not gratify my ego, which wants fame and fortune, but it sure satisfies deeper longings for meaningful connection, to know and be known, to make a difference.

In my mid-twenties, I moved away from my home church and decided to write a column for their newsletter as a way to stay in touch. Unlike the memoir I was developing, which eventually took ten years to write and publish, my column elicited immediate responses—notes of appreciation, rebuttals, stories told in sympathy. When back on visits, I’d be waylaid in the pews by people eager to talk. Because that column enriched my relationships and introduced me to new readers I eventually met in person, it closed a gap in my writing life I hadn’t known existed. Short pieces I’d published in literary journals racked up credentials on my resume but otherwise seemed to vanish into ether. I was terrified that my memoir, unpublished or published, might do the same. Evidence that my column touched readers sustained me through the long haul of book-writing and still energizes me today; my blog is that old column in new form and a central practice in my writing life.

As an author who has worked with nine different independent presses and innumerable journals, I’m well-qualified to sing the praises of small. But any form of traditional publishing can be considered big-time, so here I want to lift up the truly tiny ways our work can circulate.

I want to celebrate my friend who reads her poems into my voicemail, and the poet who “published” by slipping copies of her pieces into the most-worn-looking poetry books at the library, and the grieving café owner who stapled together her beloved partner’s writing in a chapbook for their customers. I want to lift up my novelist friend who shares snippets of a memoir-in-process on Facebook, and the woman who daily composes artful letters to loved ones, and the man with brain cancer who posted some of the best reflections on dying I’ve ever read on Caring Bridge.

I want to honor the woman who, after I’d given a reading, pulled pages from her purse and said, “Now it’s your turn to hear my story!” I want to celebrate my many students who self-publish memoirs for their families because I so wish my great-grandparents had done the same for me. I want to crow with pride over the children’s story I wrote and recorded for my daughter when she was five, which continues ten years later to usher her into dreamland. I want to say with novelist Janice Lee, “Books are bridges,” that any writing can be a bridge if only we’re creative enough to release it.

Seth Godin, marketer extraordinaire, would agree. In This Is Marketing, he recommends focusing on the smallest viable market. “How few people could find this indispensable and still make it worth doing?”

My unequivocal answer is one. Shortly after the publication of my first book, Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Memoir of Bisexuality and Spirit, I was invited to participate in a university panel discussion. Afterward, a student asked me to sign her copy, handing over a soft-cover bristling with post-it notes. Pages were dog-eared. The text was striped with pink fluorescent highlighter. The margins were crammed with notes, the cover ripped. I was shocked at how mistreated—no, how used—my book was. Later, I learned she’d left the Catholic church, come out lesbian and entered the ministry, in part because of my story.

Ever since, the image of that mutilated copy has been for me a token of faith—writing matters. It also reminds me that the depth of one reader’s experience can be as significant as the breadth of my audience—or more so. Perhaps the movement in one human heart is really all that matters.

As catchy as Buechner’s vocational advice sounds, finding our deep gladness or the world’s deep hunger, or even the place where they meet, is hard. I’m convinced, however, that the key for writers is starting small—on a human scale, where the writing itself bridges one soul to another. “Publishing” this way is easy. It’s satisfying; we can rest assured that the creative spark that engendered us and moves through our pages has passed into our relationships. It sustains our wellbeing in a way social media “likes” and sales figures and a massive anonymous “audience” never touch.

When we share writing, our inner being meets another’s inner being. In an age when people are desperate for meaningful connections, dear writers, let’s not forget the gift of small.

Meet the Contributor

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is the author of Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Memoir of Bisexuality & Spirit, now in its second edition; the novel Hannah, Delivered; a collection of personal essays, On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood, and Holiness; and three books on writing: Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir; Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice, winner of the silver Nautilus Award; and The Release: Creativity and Freedom After the Writing is Done.

She is a founding member of The Eye of the Heart Center, where she teaches writing as a transformational practice and hosts an online writing community. You can learn more about Elizabeth at www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com and www.spiritualmemoir.com.

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