Dorit’s note: A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Renee Robertson who inquired if I was interested in featuring a guest blog by Myrna Smith in honor of the release of her spiritual memoir. As an instructor of writing, I am always looking for new strategies on how to teach pre-writing and this blog topic is a perfect solution to understand what troubles writer’s block and how to also nurture our inner creative spirit. So… on that note, here’s Myrna Smith and “The Importance of Pre-Writing!”
I often come up with ideas of what to write about, but not many take root. Once I get past the difficult and sometimes mysterious part of committing myself to a writing project, I spend time thinking. My mind seems to work best if I am moving, so I often go on solitary walks to work out a plan, almost an outline, in my mind, one that I hold onto to but don’t write out.
If I were to write a long work, I certainly would have to commit the outline to paper, but I did not have to for my memoir God and Other Men. Elizabeth Gilbert has said that the outline for her ambitious novel The Significance of All Things was 75 pages long. She had lots of characters, dates, and events to keep straight, whereas I only had to rely on memory—though I did have my journals to keep me honest.
For over thirty years I taught freshman composition in a community college. One common complaint from the students was, of course, that they didn’t know what to write. I had many suggestions for them about starting, but my most successful technique was requiring them to write about a broad topic for ten minutes at the beginning of the class. Students—and other writers—are such procrastinators that I wanted to show them how many words they could get on a page in ten minutes. Many were surprised that often they could write more than a page in that time. Research begun by Dr. Janet Emig, my dissertation advisor, suggests that moving the hand influences the brain. For me it doesn’t seem to be the hand, but the legs.
Early in my career I heard John Ciardi, the late poet and translator of Dante, give a poetry reading and talk about writing. He reported that he always had to make his required outlines for his high school English papers after he wrote them because he did not know what he was going to say before he wrote. Because of his talk I asked every group of students: do you need to outline or do ideas come to you better as you write? Most students would do better with an outline, but I hoped to assist them in understanding their own methods rather than imposing one on them. I, in contrast to Chiardi, am an outliner, but the outline does not usually make it to paper.
Once I have the commitment to write and the preliminary outline in mind I can write about three pages of exposition or five of a narrative before I need more thinking time. I know writers suggest such tricks as lighting candles or listening to Bach, but what I need is an idea and a walk.
About Myrna J. Smith:
Myrna J. Smith held a faculty position in the English Department at Raritan Valley Community College, Somerville, N.J., from 1970-2004, where she took leave for two and a half years to serve as Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning housed at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. She received a Ed.D. from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick, N.J. Smith also had two Mid-Career Fellowships to attend Princeton University, one in English and one in religion. Smith, who was 74 years old when she published her memoir, now resides in Frenchtown, N.J, a small town on the Delaware River.
She recently returned from a five-week trip to Asia: two weeks with a small group to Myanmar and a few days in Hong Kong, where she has friends, and Vietnam for 10 days. The year before Smith traveled to Thailand and Cambodia and the year before that to Indonesia, both with small groups. She also travels in Canada and the northeast U.S. with her sister, brother, and their spouses most years.
Myrna Smith opens her story one Sunday night when she returns home from a ski weekend with her three children. While she was on the slopes, her husband had moved out. That had been the plan.
Yet her story, though it encompasses her divorce, is much larger. Ultimately, Smith sets out to love herself, to find an inner place where she can rest and grow.
In this search-for-the-holy-grail memoir, Smith traces her travels toward enlightenment as a middle-aged American woman with a wry humor and heartfelt longing. On the journey she discovers spiritual fulfillment doesn’t come easily, or all at once. For her, it is quite elusive.
The quest really started, she realizes, in her childhood on an Oregon farm where she and her older sister were once “converted” in their father’s pea patch by two young Bible summer school teachers barely out of their teens. The school was part of the tiny church their mother attended while their father stayed home, read Edgar Cayce books, and mused on reincarnation.
Later, drawn by the mysticism of the Hindus, Smith’s journey leads to Bangalore where she touches the robes of Sai Baba, the Indian saint. Back home in New Jersey, she finds herself in a country farm- house getting prescriptions channeled through a medium for every- thing from her back woes and diarrhea to an obsession with money.
Smith’s story is one of adventure and effort that, in the end, reveals three simple yet essential truths that are both the journey and the destination.
Publisher: Cape House Books