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Q:  A professor of creative writing in Mississippi asks: I am going to give a talk next Sunday at the Presbyterian Church — their Sunday program on Spirituality Through The Ages.  I am focusing on you and your  book, Another River – I’ll pick a few poems (don’t know what yet).  I would also like to include a brief writing exercise — and it would be great to include an exercise from you — if you would be so kind as to send me one.


A: Thanks so much for including me.  Your question is challenging!  In a usual church setting as I know it, most people will see themselves in some form of “I’m not a writer” — or “I can’t write!!”   So I’d be inclined to be unconcerned about the few who think they can, and play it toward the majority, who think they can’t.  Also, you’ll be up against some people who will have a set idea that anything “spiritual” has to do with “God” or “Jesus” or “prayer” etc etc etc.  I’d sneakily try to get around that.

Suggestion One:

If you want to go for spirituality, I’d have them write Dickinson’s words down, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”  Then I’d say that some of the most powerful and moving “spiritual” writing never mentions church or spirituality, but rather lets the reader feel it “slant” — like “the poem of Pat’s on page 30 in Another River, “About, among other things, God.”  Then I’d ask them to listen to how ordinary the images are, and suggest they get real quiet, center into their own thoughts and memories, and just describe or list images that come out of a deep place, a quiet place, in themselves, and write without direct mention of things specifically “spiritual.”  “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”

Suggestion Two:

If you just want them to write, “spiritually” or not, since there will be a real mix of abilities and fears and all that —if it were me, I would want to use objects, so they could pick something concrete.  I’d just tell them to choose an object, but don’t write about the object itself.  Hold it in your hand and let it bring up a memory.  Write the memory or the images or the imagination that it brings up in your mind.

If the setting doesn’t allow for objects (if you are in a pulpit, God forbid, or have too many people) you could read to them 4 or 5 short quotes from poems, have them jot them down, then choose one and write whatever it brings up. I’d throw in one for humor, just to give permission. After the quote, I give the name of the poet and spell it.

 Here are a few that have gotten good response for me

  1. “Something has ceased to come along with me . . .”  (Jon Silkin)
  2. “Grandma, come back, I forgot . . .”  (Carolyn Forche)
  3. “I write to my father / how come you never told me . . .”   (Cheryl Savageau)
  4. “Mama, I never stop seeing you there . . .”   (Sharon Olds)
  5. “Some things are just not worth getting senile about.”   (James Tate)
  6. “Light glitters on the hay dust . . .”  (Susie Patlove)
  7. “The chair stands sturdy and foursquare . . .”  (Pat Schneider)
  8. “ And the body.  What about the body?”  (Jane Kenyon)
  9. “There are many hallelujahs . . .”  (Sue Brannan Walker)
  10. “You have throwed in your lot with them sons of bitches against me.”  (Wendell Berry)


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Writers and leaders of writing groups, teachers of writing, and young writers are invited to write questions to Pat. She will choose one question each month for response. The questions may be edited, and will be anonymous, but if location and identity such as “Writer”, “Poet”, “Teacher”, or age of young writer is offered, that will be included. Offer a question: HERE