Working in faith communities as chaplain, instructor, and now as priest I hear a lot of stories – amazing stories – but I’m sworn to secrecy so I can’t follow the time-tested advice, “Write what you know.” Okay, amor fati (love one’s fate); I’m resigned to the fact that my best material must go to the grave with me.
Meanwhile, I’m committed to the practice of “hearing a person into speech.”
Certainly there’s astonishing beauty in the narrative thread of each life. Christians talk about grace, Buddhists talk about impermanence, writers perhaps recognize it in the integrity of the narrative, and it all amounts to the same thing.
Every moment has both a lyrical quality of the present moment, a single tone like a temple bell or the clatter of dirty pans in the sink. It’s the telling detail, that at the same time is part of a larger grand narrative, that at its best leaves us speechless.
How did you do it? people ask, when they hear that Paul Savoie and I collaborated on a novel. How did we do it and remain friends?
It began as a three-way writing challenge with Ayanna Black to write an erotic novel.. I came up with an outline. Ayanna, who at the time was surely having the best sex, couldn’t write about anything sexual without dissolving into a puddle of embarrassment. Paul and I rolled our eyes and gave up.
Then another attempt was initiated, this time just Paul and me. I began writing a novel Paul recognized immediately was a singular effort. “Roberta, this is your novel,” he said and he was right. Soon I finished No Words for Love and Famine, on my own. Paul’s contribution was simply the title and one other line in the book, which could get him into big trouble if it were recognized as such, so I’ll say no more about that.
Several years later, Paul suggested we try again. I’d just finished the screenplay “Dom and Cat” that I planned to tuck away in a drawer. After all, what business does a Catholic minister have writing about phone sex and BDSM?
A screenplay is a strange art form, like a blueprint for a building that someone else might build. I offered it to Paul as a framework for our novel, with the caveat: “Paul, the only way I’m going to start down this road with you again is if you promise that we finish this novel or you never ever suggest we coauthor a novel again.” Paul promised and we began Sexual Mercy.
We soon developed a rhythm. He wrote one chapter. I would revise that and write the next. He would revise mine, and write the next. So we wrote the first draft and the second in this game of literary leap frog. I’m going to ask Paul to jump in here and describe his experience. See, we’re still involved in that game of leap frog. Our friendship was tested, yes, and endures. Paul, your turn…
I’m going to risk turning this blog over to bad lawyer jokes and recommend a group of creative legal professionals who might be a big help to some of us who create more art than contracts: Meet Brandon Weiner and his nonprofit organization: Creative Rights. Last night I met him as he spoke to a group of young artists and he made sense of copyright. Check them out, a breath of fresh air blowing through the musty legal world:
Creative Rights is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free legal representation, educational programs, and project coordination services to the creative community. They seek to spark a renaissance in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship and to redefine the way in which legal services are delivered, striving to change the negative pop-culture perception of lawyers and lay a strong foundation with creators who see the law as a positive force, perhaps even a catalyst, to the creative process.
Yesterday Kathie shared yet another piece of wisdom she learned from Improv Theatre people, “Work from the top of your intelligence.” On a surface level, she explained, you just avoid potty humor and frequent use of “f-bombs’ that might get easy laughs but gives no one pause for thought.
Then last night I was engaged in a bit of improv theater myself – giving a talk on gender representations in movies. I’m more concerned about resorting to the hollow highbrow language of social deconstruction, using language of ‘gender identity’ when I’m talking about penises and vaginas.
All the while I have in the back of my mind the novel Sexual Mercy that Paul Savoie and I wrote and are preparing for a fall publication date. We try to balance some nearly slapstick sexual scenes with the depth of meaning sexuality entails for healthy adults? But are we writing to the top of our intelligence?
During the evening talk I use sexually explicit language to offer an analysis of why lesbian sexuality might not be as threatening to audiences as male homosexuality. Everyone’s laughing, all the more so because they know that I’m a priest and they aren’t used to women priests, let alone a woman priest talking about sex in explicit terms of penises and vaginas. I pull back a little; I’m not afraid of scandalizing this audience but am I using what is most precious to me — my faith and my intellect — to get cheap laughs.
Then I recall the improv lesson I was offered earlier in the day: “Work from the top of your intelligence.” The use of explicit sexual language in a deep analysis of modern sexual behavior and attitudes is perhaps, on this particular evening, working from the top of my intelligence. I’m encouraging my audience to lay down their assumption that spirituality and sex are disparate topics, and reconsider the nature of lesbian sexuality. If I were to use less explicit language and examples I would not only risk losing my audience; I might lose my train of thought, lose the precision of this thought, and risk losing my spiritual integrity – playing at piety instead of seeking truth.
So this morning I rethink the spatial metaphor “top of your intelligence.” It might not refer to a high-brow versus low-brow humor (yet another spatial metaphor), but does indicate a quality of effort, as Kathie explained it. We know when we’re working this spiritual and intellectual capacity. It’s exciting rather than the same old routine; it’s creative rather than imitative. Stretching toward the top of one’s intelligence may reveal what is most simple after all.
Going over the manuscript for Sexual Mercy one more time, I’m going to try to remember all this, and edit from the top of my intelligence.
I’m involved in organizing this three day event for theater professions that’s happening this July at Spirit Gallery in Silver Lake, California. There’s only room for 30 participants and registration has just opened. I hope to meet some of you there!
Click here for more information and an application:
Friends, Saturday I was ordained a priest with the American Catholic Church, orders recognized by the Episcopal Church, and just so you know:
I only wear the clerical collar if it will get someone out of jail or keep someone from being put in jail – or in some other equally dire circumstance. Otherwise, I’ll continue to dress inappropriately casual.
No need to address me as “Father” or “Mother” or “Rev” …. “Roberta” still does just fine.
My religious community pioneered same-sex unions, the bishop who ordained marched in the Stonewall Uprising, and we actively promote marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, and human rights for all.
This particular branch of the church insists that its clergy maintain what’s called “secular employment” which means I will continue my writing career just as before.
My particular ministry remains interfaith, to the arts community, and, of course, I don’t use my writing for proselytizing. We don’t do that in any case – respecting everyone’s own path and choice to not talk about it. Check out our website: www.artwalkinc.org
I don’t use my writing for proselytizing. We don’t do that in any case – respecting everyone’s own path, including my fictional characters’ choices that on good days seem quite independent of my own.
So then Monday morning I’m back on my laptop working on my new novel, Hollywood Fables.
Last week I wrote about a practice I learned from Improv Theatre people – the principle of “Yes…and” – when collaborating with a writing party. The basic idea is that instead of going head-to-head with differences you can use both ideas or come up with a new idea to keep creative work going. This morning I realized we can use that same principle with publishing, and with the new practices and opportunities for writers with self-publishing and releasing their work online as ebooks.
A good place to start is with Writers’ Digest, May/June 2012, focusing on publishing today, including two important and informative artless on self-publishing. (See “The Basics of DIY E-Book Publishing” by Jane Friedman http://janefriedman.com and “Today’s Best Strategies for Savvy Self-Publishers”, by Joel Frielander www.thebookdesigner.com.) Leading off the conversation a literary agent, April Aberhardt www.aprileberhardt.com/, who explores non-traditional publishing including self-publishing in “The New Era of Publishing: Making it Work for you” and concludes:
“While traditional publishers will continue to mediate between many authors and their readers f or some time to come, I see much excitement and success in authors’ ability to find their own readers more quickly, engaging them in dialogue and discussion, playing off of their dreams and desires in order to create new kinds of work they’ll find appealing, and doing so in a rapid, free-flowing, satisfying and – day I say it? – profitable way. Are you ready for the adventure?”
When Paul and I started writing the novel Sexual Mercy together, we adopted a practice I’d first learned from Improv theater people and then applied it to the collaborative practice of filmmaking. It’s this simple: Always affirm another person’s contribution by saying “Yes” and then make your own contribution, “and…”
Instead of shutting down the other person, you’re opening up the process and keeping it going. Even if yours and your writing partner’s ideas are mutually exclusive – your character can’t travel to both Bangkok and Paris in the next chapter – you don’t have to nix either idea. You can just put both ideas out there as options. If either of you feel uncomfortable with an option, then go for a third option. After all, you won’t do your best writing if you don’t like what you’re working on.
As I got used to this practice with my writing partner I found that of course I didn’t have to dis his idea in order to contribute mine. I have chosen to write with him because he’s a brilliant writer, and because we do have very different styles we complement each other’s styles and make someone more wonderful than either of us could make on our own. That’s why we chose to work together in the first place.
And once I got used to this practice with my writing partner I found it worked with my editor, with my kids, and with my lover. I like these people, so why should I dismiss their ideas? I’ll affirm them, throw in my ideas and we can keep the energy level high and positive.
If this all sounds a little too California, well yes, I am currently living in California but I come from Canada as does my writing partner who lives in Toronto Canada and comes from Manitoba. We know biting cold, so anything that can heat things up is welcomed. And yes… feel free to contribute your collaborative writing practices to this conversation. I’d like to hear from you.