Spiritual Practices and the Memoir Writing Process: An Interview with Karen Horneffer-Ginter
Do you ever feel someone else’s words rattle around in your brain?
I’ve been thinking all week about these words by Richard Gilbert from last week’s post. Richard makes the case, eloquently as always, that the craft of writing may be less important than the spiritual sources of writing, but it has one great advantage: it’s concrete enough to be discussed. Here are his head-rattling words:
Because I don’t know how to help anyone else find, and barely know how to nurture in myself, the place from whence art arises, that wellspring below mere ego that produces work with heart. What to read, where to go, what to do, whom to love? Craft isn’t nearly as important as spirit, but neither one by itself is sufficient. And we can discuss craft, which is the gateway to art.
How to find, and even harder, to discuss, “that wellspring below mere ego that produces work with heart”? Fortunately, I have another friend who is trying to do something like that in her new book Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit: Nourishing the Soul When Life’s Just Too Much. She may not tell you whom to love, but she offers what writing teachers also offer: practices.
I know you will love this interview with Karen, whose love of life bursts from both her smile and her book. Also, check out her website.
Q: Please summarize your book’s main idea and purpose:
A: “Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit” is a book about staying connected to what matters most even when life is busy. I was motivated to write it after crossing the threshold into motherhood and realizing that as my cup was now overflowing with all the good things I had aspired to bring into my life, I also felt an ache from how difficult it was to find time to slow down, listen within, and tend to my inner-life. I noticed that many of my clients and students could relate to this dynamic, and it inspired me to look for creative ways of balancing the demands of life’s busyness with time for genuine self-care.
Q: What did you learn by writing this book?
A: It helped me gain some perspective on my own predicament—to see the humor and to embrace the humility of feeling overwhelmed by life. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to pull together the theories and practices from psychology and various contemplative traditions that I‘ve found most helpful in my professional work. In doing this, I’ve gained greater clarity about what resources I most value, want to share with others, and apply in my own life.
Q: Were you able to “practice what you preached” as you wrote about spiritual practices?
A: This required quite a bit of creativity and flexibility given the scheduling demands of my psychology practice, other professional commitments, and my family life. I think it helped that I felt 100% committed and passionate about writing this book. I had spent many years writing smaller pieces (some of which found their way into the book), but when I finally knew that this book was really going to be birthed, my excitement fueled my ability to write almost anytime and anywhere when I wasn’t engaged in other activities!
Q: How have your readers responded and used your book?
A: The book is organized around six shifts, which I see as representing the ingredients that are most essential—and often forgotten— in carving out a life that holds meaning, joy, and balance. The shifts are honoring our rhythms, turning within, filling up, fully inhabiting our days, remembering lightness, and embracing difficulty. The first two, in particular, focus on simplifying our lives. It’s been fun to hear from readers and to look at readers’ reviews and see how different shifts speak to different people. For some readers, the whole idea of slowing down and taking time to be quiet has been hugely important. For others, it’s been the focus on fully showing up in our day-to-day life and lightening up that has been most helpful.
Q: What connections do you see between spiritual practices and the writing of memoir?
A: I consider writing memoir to be a spiritual practice because I think this type of writing moves us directly into the heart of our human experience and helps us embrace the mysteries of life with a sense of both awe and honesty. Although my book is categorized as “self-help,” I was thrilled to find an editor who allowed me to wear my memoir hat along with my psychology hat, and to weave these threads together in the book. My favorite type of writing is developing tales (which I hope have a bit of thoughtfulness and humor) based on my experiences in everyday life. I would love to continue doing more of this writing!
I can recommend Karen’s book, since I used it in my morning meditation practice during my last weeks of revising my draft. My cup of inspiration and stamina filled as Karen, my gentle, persistent, spiritual guide, helped me find “that wellspring below mere ego that produces work with heart.”
What connections do you see between the two kinds of practices: writing and spiritual? What role does memoir play in your favorite spiritual books? Vice versa? If you want to explore more, see April Yamasaki’s interview on this blog. Please comment below.
Thank you both for this wonderful interview. I love the precepts, especially “embrace difficulty.” I have found, but continue to have to re-learn, that that’s more healthy than trying to avoid it. Just admitting the difficulty, or as one spiritual mentor said, accepting suffering, removes so much angst and even pain. But of course the emphasis on lightness and positive energy is so important.
Writing does seem a spiritual practice to me, or can be, because it disciplines the ego as it draws on the vast inner connections and resources that link us all.
So true, Richard. I think the more one knows about writing, the more one learns about the self. So much of writing is stripping away what is NOT necessary in order to allow the light to pierce the cracks in our defenses and connect to the light in the reader’s own suffering self.
Spiritual practice gives us the grace to write and the strength to keep pressing on through pain without resisting it.
Thanks so much for your comment, Richard. I love the way you describe writing as a spiritual practice- how poetic! I also wanted to mention that I’ve found the writings of Pema Chodron to be particularly helpful in thinking about embracing difficulty.
Thank you for this interview and for introducing us to Karen’s book!
Karen, I love your comment about embracing “the humility of feeling overwhelmed by life.” It truly is a humbling experience to know that I can’t handle everything all at once, all the time.
When I write, I learn about myself. Writing down my thoughts helps give me perspective and make decisions. Spritual practices can do the same thing, I’ve discovered.
Tina, “Amen” to your discovery. Sending you strength for both writing and living today.
Thanks for your comment, Tina!! 🙂
From Elfrieda Schroeder, who sent this comment by email:
Karen writes “My favorite type of writing is developing tales based on my experiences in everyday life.” Her book sounds like the kind of book I want to read, and also the kind of book I want to write. For a number of years I have written a one week per year devotional series for Rejoice! (A Mennonite Devotional with which you are probably familiar) where I do just that, but I would like to do more. Writing my blog has helped me move in that direction, because I’ve set myself a goal to write once a month.
You ask the question “What connections do you see between the two kinds of practices: writing and spiritual?”
Recently as my sister and I were going through our parents’ books we discovered a book of poetry by Helen Schucman, The Gifts of God published in 1996 by Viking Penguin. Not knowing anything about her, but intrigued by her poetry, I googled her. Interestingly, she was an academic who went back to university later in life and received her PhD in 1957, when she was 48. (I got mine at age 58!) The introduction to her book states that “Throughout her career Helen emphasized the strict disciplines of research and scholarship, and had little tolerance for such “soft” interests as spirituality.” However, a change happened when she went on a collaborative search with a fellow academic to find a way of living in harmony rather than in competition, aggression and anger that had permeated their professional lives.
As she pursued her goal, she began to “hear an inner voice dictate” an answer to their search for a better way. She wrote what she heard down in a shorthand notebook. The voice itself claimed to be Jesus. Officially she regarded herself as an agnostic and resented what was happening to her, but continued to take it down and dictate it to her fellow academic. She called it A Course in Miracles.
The poetry was written over a ten year period. Helen considered herself the “scribe” of the Course, but the “inspired author” of the poems. She was embarrassed by both and did not want them published during her lifetime. She continued to claim that Jesus was the true author of the Course. It is only after her death in 1981 that this work was published by Dr. William N. Thetford,the fellow academic who triggered all of this, and who later became her husband.
Why am I sharing all of this? I guess your blog triggered it. Perhaps God is showing me that I don’t have to hide my spirituality as an academic. It is my first love, and so much a part of me that I can’t deny it, but it was always a struggle for me at university. After I obtained my degrees I often wondered whether I should have studied theology instead.
It intrigues me that Karen writes, “I consider writing memoir to be a spiritual practice because I think this type of writing moves us directly into the heart of our human experience and helps us embrace the mysteries of life with a sense of both awe and honesty.”
Thank you so much for your comment. I can really appreciate the challenges you face in wanting to embrace your spirituality while being in academia! You’re reminding me of when I was a graduate student and applying for pre-doc internships and decided to say something about having “mind-body-spirit” interests– I was literally shaking, feeling like I was coming out in a way! Again, I felt this when I went through the tenure process at a university and recognized that some of the work that felt most dear to me was not going to be acknowledged or appreciated by my tenure committee! It’s such a dance of finding our voice and making choices about when and how to express our deepest truth.
Wishing you courage and clarity on your journey!
I’ll look forward to hearing about how it evolves.
Elfrieda, I can imagine the difficulty you faced in academe as a person who loves spiritual language and practice. The bias toward rationality and away from anything remotely spiritual, including intuition, penetrates most fields. If it’s any consolation, you might discover the same, or greater, tendency in the field of theology. 🙂
I was fortunate that I was able to talk and write openly about my spiritual interests and questions while also pursuing my academic interests at Goshen College.
I am aware of The Course in Miracles and the compelling personal narrative behind it. Many people who have trouble with traditional scriptures have been awakened to their spiritual side through reading this book.
I will be interested in Karen’s response to your observations.
Pema’s the best, truly. Very deep and, yes, great on difficulty!
Dear Karen and Shirley. This post is a lovely reminder that when we are connected to our purpose for writing and write from the heart and soul of who we are, putting our passion on the page, it truly is a spiritual practice.
” I consider writing memoir to be a spiritual practice because I think this type of writing moves us directly into the heart of our human experience and helps us embrace the mysteries of life with a sense of both awe and honesty.” Yes!
Thank you for sharing these enlightening and inspirational thoughts.
Thanks so much for your comment, Kathleen!
Kathy, I always appreciate the warmth in your responses. You demonstrate that even writing blog comments can be a spiritual practice! Thank you.
A wonderful interview. I think I’m only just beginning to realise how closely my spirituality and writing are linked, but then I’m at the very beginning of my spiritual awakening.