I’m a lateral thinker inclined to make connections between seemingly unrelated things. As my academic research found me immersed in the the writing about 19th century women poets and reflecting upon the challenges of their domestic lives in the midst of their creative pursuits. I became challenged by Joy Bennetts’s post reflecting on Billy Coffey’s thoughts on ‘naked writing.’ It got me thinking further about the function of my writing.
As Billy Coffey quotes his writing instructor:
“People write because they must. Because there is a story inside them that is meant to be shared with the world. But having that story inside you doesn’t make you a writer. How you tell that story does. And you tell it through honesty.”
From 2007-2011, my writing in the form of blog posts was largely process related (about graduate school, PhD writing, engagement with academia as a young scholar, theology, living as an expat) and so even when I dipped my toes into more heartfelt posts real vulnerability lay lurking under a mask. Partly, because i wasn’t ‘in practice.’ Learning how to write naked is a journey and the more I do it, the more my writing flows from the heart, rather than through filters of propriety. I know it may make people coming to read a scholar-blog uncomfortable, but I’ve accepted that I need to recognise my own agency in forging, shaping, and redefining what it means to be a scholar -blogger, a theologian, a scholar, an artist within the blogosphere, and digital media more generally.
As I move now, in 2015-2016 into more commercially related content – seeking to tell the stories of non profit organizations and businesses serving their local communities – this writing becomes both more self aware and less focused on my personal journey and more on the journeys of others.
I get to choose what it means for me to use my voice, to share my journey, to encourage and challenge, and question. I’m learning many lessons of discernment, of artistry, of allowing myself to be vulnerable online as the kind of writer that also writes about the pressing needs of our communities, as well as supposedly serious literary stuff.
That impenetrable wall most academic/scholar-bloggers put up around them is about preserving the air of invincibility, about ensuring that they are being taken seriously, and that no weakness is shown. As a woman this can sometimes be even harder, because any hint of weakness is brushed off as expected – well, of course you would be emotional or get upset. Or even worse, because I am a young woman (at least in the context of academe), any hint of anything less than serious is considered flighty. I’d speak more about the men I have most often encountered in theology, but it would overshadow my point.* My point is, that I’m no less a literary scholar, because I’m willing to acknowledge my own life as spiritual, and every aspect of it as reflecting and reinforcing and challenging my theology, my understanding of God, and my interactions with the people of God. I’m also no less a writer, because i’m neither focused on fiction or memoir, but on sharing the stories that shape communities and seek to draw attention to the needs and voices of the most vulnerable in our communities and those organizations and businesses seek to make our communities better places to grow up in and live in.
It has always amused me that in being slightly polymathic, in being willing to push my own boundaries as a writer, a woman, an artist, I present problems to those who categorize. This difficulty on the part of others only interests me insofar as in order for me to gain a wider audience for my writing and in order to connect with the organizations and businesses with whom my collaborations will have the most impact, I need to be able to be understood in terms familiar to those I encounter. NT Wright challenged me to stand up for myself as someone who loves narrative and not to shrink back from all that my research and explorations can teach us all. I do write, now, as a theologian, inasmuch as I have been trained to think theologically, to apply that thinking to my research, and more importantly, I would argue, life.
At the heart of my understanding of life is the cross as saving, and transformative. Everything in heaven and on earth have been inexorably altered because of it. Everything. There’s my license to engage with the arts. With culture. With the quotidian of life. With building communities. If that labels me as anything. Let it be that I don’t compartmentalize. Let it be that all of life matters. Let it be that questions are good and doubts are okay and faith, faith is to be tested and refined. Let it be that I bring the same intellect, and mirth, and hope, to all my writing; no matter where its final landing place.
May it be as Phillipians 4:8 says:
Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
and be ready as Paul says:
If with heart and soul you’re doing good, do you think you can be stopped? Even if you suffer for it, you’re still better off. Don’t give the opposition a second thought. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick. They’ll end up realizing that they’re the ones who need a bath. (1 Peter 3:13-16)
This last week I’ve faced my own failings in as visceral a way as ever. I’ve grieved, I’ve hoped, I’ve cried and I’ve laughed. I’ve been thankful for my family and my church, and i’ve struggled with the latter too. I’ve edited and read, been overwhelmed, and hopeful. I’ve been wired by the very discussions of possibility, I’ve been sleepless with anxiety.
Go Read that Billy Coffey piece if you still haven’t yet. It’s worth your time. This quote has earned its place on my writer’s wall:
“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”
The courage to ask difficult questions, and the willingness to relish all of life in all its rhythms and seasons. That’s what I hope for my writing in 2016. I have so many masks; masks which have been so ingrained, inculcated, as part of my training: Don’t be to personal. Stand on abstract ideas that find their basis in the text, the text alone. But even then, always, I’ve been fighting my own instincts to allow an author’s voice to stand on its own, their heart to pierce the dry theory. Their voice to touch my own heart and their creative impulses to shape mine. For my writing and creativity to help build and shape community.
I will ask questions of the texts, of myself, of life, of faith, of family and community, that I’ve not been willing to voice aloud. Those questions that have always been there and some new ones. Those questions I’ve just pushed down, buying into the lie that said that they were not serious enough, not important enough. Yet, these are the most important questions of all. These are the questions I will ask. This is the voice I will use.
Listening. Observing. Participating. Writing. Photographing. Reflecting.
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Anna Blanch Rabe is an Australian-born writer and photographer. You can follow her adventures on Not A Pedestrian Life, or Facebook. More of her photography can be viewed here. For more of her writing take a look at Quotidian Home or her previous website, Goannatree. She works as the Executive Director of a non profit which serves children and families who are navigating the court system as a result of abuse or neglect.