Last Sunday I was asked to give a talk at our local Unitarian Universalist Church. The title was, “A Writer, Being Written.”

This was the first time I’d spoken in public about my relationship with the holy Wisdom that I’ve searched for and (mostly) welcomed since I was a child.

When this Wisdom shows up (the timing totally out of my control), I’ve been inspired, annoyed, and/or encouraged at watersheds and crossroads throughout my life.

In my talk I described these encounters as an Invisible Hand: it has nudged me in one direction when I might have chosen another; it has caused me to open my mouth to speak to a stranger that I would otherwise not choose to meet. Also I described this Wisdom as a Silent Voice, advising me, suggesting (or demanding) that I reconsider a decision, and helping me through complicated scenarios. Since I am a writer, I recognize these actions as those of an editor, and decided to call this Wisdom my “Sacred Editor.”

Unlike the writing and editing of poetry, the mystical editing of my life doesn’t get to be pondered and polished, rewritten and improved with time. Either I pay attention to the Editor in the moment, or not – there is no going back to change those watershed points.

The writing of poetry is mystical in a different way. Words are under the jurisdiction of The Muse – She’s that aspect of the Sacred Editor that most often inhabits my belly, where the stories of my life’s experiences are transformed into poetry. The process follows a fairly predictable sequence: The Muse and I work together in the playground of words to make my poems the best we know how to do. When we can’t think of any way to make a poem better, then I send it off to Marian, my favorite copyeditor.

When the copyeditor’s notes come back, The Muse steps in again, now looking over my shoulder as I consider Marian’s comments. “Hmmm,” the Muse says, “yes, I think she’s right about that line break . . . No, I like that word – the way the single syllable changes the rhythm, makes the reader pause – I think you should keep that one the way we wrote it.”

And then, after agonizing over every word and syllable and punctuation mark for another day or week, out the poem goes into the world to sit for another month, or several, on a literary journal editor’s desk, hoping and whining for attention. That editor may ask to publish the poem (hooray!); or, more likely, they’ll send a thanks-but-no-thanks form letter to add to my burgeoning file; or, I’ll never hear from them at all. Then the Muse will sympathetically kiss the top of my head, and I’ll take heart, and send the poem out to yet another journal.

This week I’m taking some retreat time with my friend Corrine, at her lovely home overlooking Saratoga Passage on the east side of Whidbey Island. This retreat blends the two ways the Sacred Editor works in my life: writing, and being written. I’m loving it. First, I’m submitting to the Sacred Editor by taking time away, listening, giving Him opportunities to tweak ideas and intentions that will influence my life’s future. And second, I’m checking in with The Muse in that place in my gut where She stirs up the juices of memories, and energizes my words. For nearly a week I get to write, to just show up for meals that my hostess prepares, to have deep conversations with her about Life and the Sacred, to laugh and play with words, and to read poetry drafts to my dear appreciative friend.

Tomorrow I’ll pack up my pajamas and my computer and my poetry sketchbooks. I’ll haul them all back home, intending to keep working nearly every day on writing and being written. But at home is never quite the same as when I’m away, and never quite so successful as when I’m on a retreat purposefully listening to both the Sacred Editor and the Muse.




All the chairs in a circle, Whidbey-Island-style, three recent authors gathered with a room full of writers to share our thoughts about “Writing as a Radical Act.”


Being wordsmiths, of course the assembled group played with the word “radical,” and were delighted that it contradicted itself and brought complexity to our conversation.


“Radical” means cutting edge, extreme, even fanatic, and one who is a radical can be a disrupter, a provocateur.


“Radical” also means fundamental, profound, even foundational, and a radical idea is one that is at the core, at the root of an issue.


One of dozens of online-thesaurus synonyms for radical is “beatnik,” which brought on a momentary wave of nostalgia for me – that was my era. I really wanted to rebel and be a beatnik, wearing black, smoking, writing poems like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s. But I was too intent on being a straight-A “good girl” to qualify. When the era of “beatnik” morphed into the era of “hippie” I had already morphed into being the mother of three children. And now, in my 70s, I’m finally getting around to being a rebel. [Sigh.]


In fact, all three of us authors are AARP-eligible, and each of us has written a radical book. Theo Wells just turned 90, and her book Take Care of Dying, Get On With Living (coaching the reader through preparing advance directives – an essential task that most of us resist) was so hot off the press it was still warm to the touch. Mary Knight had just published Saving Wonder (a young adult novel whose context is mountaintop removal coal mining, a politically loaded topic in eastern Kentucky where she lives). Throw into the mix my own Meeting in the Margins (encouraging the reader to encounter the people our culture prefers to keep invisible), and a hint of the breadth of “writing as a radical act” began to take shape. [All three books are available at]


Throughout the afternoon our circle of writers risked asking some scary questions: What if nobody wants to read the controversial things I write? What if the people in my memoir resent my remembering? How do I get these huge feelings corralled into words? How do I make my radical message palatable enough to find an audience, yet still express what I know to be true?


It was a rich afternoon, and since it was also Earth Day, it’s appropriate that I remember our gathering in the double-radical image of a tree: limbs outstretched to the edges of our courage, roots sunk deep into our truth and the dark fertile soil of kinship with other writers. I am grateful.