Rolling away the stones: Reflections on the Mennonite/s Writing ConferenceBy Becca J.R. Lachman
At the recent Mennonite/s Writing VI: Solos and Harmonies, the Harrisonburg, Va., landscape sang with redbud trees in bloom, new oratorios, laughter, hymns and an anthology’s worth of original writing. Again and again, I heard one core question bubbling up from lectures and panels: What connects the self to other?
The act of writing is indeed a solitary business. Yet the life of a writer depends on building community. Whether publishing, reading to an audience or gathering for retreats, writers ultimately tend to a social landscape. It’s taken me far too many degrees in higher education to realize the art of writing is a daring, daily practice without a diploma, and in order to write from the strongest places within myself, I need creative accountability from mentors and fellow writers.
In 2006 I attended the Mennonite literary arts festival as a striving English graduate student wary of my cultural and religious roots because I didn’t see examples of working artists within Mennonite congregations (though since, I’ve met quite a few). To my surprise, I was wholeheartedly at home among Mennonite writers. It felt as though a great stone had loosed itself from my shoulders. Sometimes, I think writing is simply the act of continuously pushing that stone away.
At this year’s conference, which ended on Palm Sunday, announcements and readings included talk of Holy Week. I especially ruminated on the transformative power of radical restoration when poet Gregory Orr took the stage as keynote speaker. In his memoir The Blessing, Orr recounts how at age 12, he accidentally killed his 10-year-old brother on a hunting trip, a deep trauma that left him reaching for anything that would save or redeem him. When he discovered poetry, he began to reconnect with the world, reaching toward the healing and inspiration he embodies today. Because of reaching for what he names “the Beloved” — “whatever we love most that draws us out of the self and toward relationship” — Orr has been able to transcend his family’s traumas into a life-giving body of work. And his life example is one of genuine mindfulness and joy, grace that leaves his readers and audiences breathless.
Orr spoke on the “survival value” of lyric poetry, which poet Stanley Kunitz called “the voice of the solitary that makes others feel less alone.” We live in a world of disorder and accidents, randomness that often leaves us broken, Orr said. But all humans long for some kind of order, and poetry is a “denseness of pattern” that can stabilize both the poem’s writer and the poem’s reader. “Have you ever gone to a reading hoping your poem would be read? Not one you’d written, but one that was written for you?” Orr said. “Writing the lyric helps the poet to live; reading the lyric helps others to live.”
I was struck by Orr’s timely lecture topic, presented within a Mennonite-affiliated setting, no less — especially his focus on an individual’s role within “over-culture,” or mainstream culture. Mennonites are, after all, known for practicing counter-cultural ways of living out their faith (Jesus and Menno Simons both had a lot to say about over-culture.) At the same time, some writers coming out of the Mennonite tradition struggle with claiming individual public voices within a culture that’s stressed community as identity for generations (The female writers that first led me to explore my own stories are no longer Mennonite.) Yet an individual has the power to “subvert and supplement” over-culture, Orr reminded us. And writers can transcend the “I” in lyric poetry to mean “the dignity of a human being.”
What connects the self to other? For me, this question has become a creative and spiritual mantra. I live three hours from my congregation and am the only progressive and active Mennonite I know of in Athens, Ohio. Walking to work, I find myself wondering how long a Mennonite can last without community. For now, artist conferences and online communities keep me halfway plugged in to the lives of other Mennonite and Mennonite-affiliated writers. And our books encourage conversations that spiral out, beyond the self, between one another and finally, into the world.
So perhaps another layer of my original mantra could be that ongoing question, What is the creative writer’s role within the church? I don’t pretend to have the answers to this query, yet I want to help fuel the dialogue surrounding it. I want to help loosen stones from other sets of shoulders, so to speak, particularly for other women.
Perhaps female lyric poets can serve as role models to those of us who might not see women in the pulpit on a regular basis. Another gift writers can offer to others is the practice of following both mindfulness and mystery (what I call the Spirit-led parts of creativity). Poems, plays, essays and novels ask us to slow down, to view an issue or story from multiple angles. And because of this, writers are also generally more comfortable with posing and sitting with big questions, like How do I live out my faith in a broken world? Or, What stones does the church still carry, and what do these stones keep hidden?
As we near Easter this year, as the stone is rolled away, my hope is that more and more Mennonites will look to the literary arts to help them tell — and live out — the ongoing story of rebirth and transformation.
Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She attends a house church at Good Earth Farm in Athens, Ohio, and is a long-distance member of Kidron Mennonite Church. Her first collection of poems, The Apple Speaks, was recently published by Cascadia Publishing House. She blogs at http://tattooedmennonite.blogspot.com/.
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