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I will be presenting at the second annual Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting conference (as you can see in the list of attendees in the graphic above. More information as it develops, but if you’re interested in writing or podcasting about the Orthodox faith, or if you’re interested in meeting other Orthodox writers and podcasters (and bloggers), please consider registering (link above).



Be careful what you pray for.

We’re always told to be careful what we pray for, because we will get it. I’m here to tell you that is so amazingly true that it’s terrifying.

For the last little while, I’d been running across comments and sayings from the Fathers about how we need to understand how God is not this cozy little person who is our best buddy, who is cuddly and comfortable and human sized. He’s big and he’s dangerous and we should fear him as much as we love him. And I get it, in my head: the being who can create the entire universe, who is bigger than infinity, to whom a hurricane is a slight breeze – who creates the hurricanes and the earthquakes is not a God you want to mess with. As Lewis put it: he’s not a tame lion.

But I didn’t feel it in my heart. God, for me had always been the shelter from the storm, not the storm itself. He cradled me through terrible times, reminded me of His love in the bad times, and healed me in the most amazing ways during the good times. He is patient with me, always gently leading me back to the way I should be going, pointing out where I need to focus my energies and my repentance. And I know for sure I didn’t actually, in so many words, ask to be shown the God who is bigger than the universe, but I do remember wondering how I could feel that awe and that wonder.

My writing life, for the last several years, has been a mess. Nothing I’ve written for over six years has been accepted for publication, and anything new I’ve started (other than an Akathist I’ve been struggling with for five or six years) has been blocked. For nonfiction, I can’t find the sources or a coherent voice, for fiction I just can’t put the words down, for poetry, if I haven’t got someone pushing me, it doesn’t get done. I’ve lost my focus, my sense of where I’m going with my writing, what I’m supposed to be doing with it, and even what I’m supposed to be writing. And who cared about what I wrote (other than me) anyway? My words were so trite, so banal and so shallow, was there any point to keeping on? Whatever I had to say, others had said it better, deeper, funnier and far more eloquently than I had, or could.

So when I heard about an Orthodox writer’s conference, I thought – yeah, I’ll go. Maybe I can jump start something. Or at least meet all these people I’ve known on line for years and years. But that was a lie I told myself. What I was really doing was saying goodbye. I think I’d pretty much decided to quit writing even before Mel emailed me about the conference, but I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself, so I packed the Akathist on the grounds that, hey, it was a writing conference. I could write when I wasn’t networking.

I caught a red-eye from Vancouver to Chicago, at least that’s what my ticket said, but it wasn’t long after I arrived at O’Hare that I realized I wasn’t in Ohio anymore. Or Wisconson or Kansas. Somewhere along the way, I entered the Orthodox twilight zone. First thing was meeting someone at the bus station who was also attending the conference. She had the knowledge to point me in directions that would allow me to go back to a stalled book on my name saint and her brothers, and was more than willing to share. Thank you Summer!

The first words I heard on arriving at the retreat centre in Kansasville Wisconsin were words I desperately needed to hear. And they were said by someone whose writing I have admired and learned from for a number of years. Molly Maddex Sabourin looked at me, said, “Are you Bev. Cooke?” And when I nodded, she told me how much my writing had meant to her. I heard that message a number of times through the two days we were meeting.

The retreat centre is on 137 acres of farmland. It’s got a tiny forest on one side of the property. The wooded area has trails dotted with shrines to various saints. There’s a handy map so you can plan your walk. I’m a sucker for maps, so I picked one up. I took along the Akathist I was working on. It’s to the Theotokos and it follows her life, including, of course, most of the major events of Jesus’s life as well.

Like I said, I love maps. I’m good at reading them, and I’m a good navigator. Until our GPS replaced me (for which I still haven’t forgiven it), I got us wherever we were going, efficiently and mostly trouble-free. I certainly never put us into farmer’s fields, which the GPS does on a fairly regular basis, at least according to the maps in its memory.

Yet, this time, even before I entered the trails, I got lost. I could see the beginning and ends of the trail marked on the map, but could I find them in reality? Good luck! When I finally stumbled on what I thought was the trail (but wasn’t), I was even more confused. I’m still not sure how I got lost in a soybean field in full view of the main retreat lodge, but I managed it.

I finally run across the trail, and find myself at a small square building dedicated to St. Nectarios. Aha! Here I am! So the next shrine should be St. Haralumbos. I walk toward it and run straight into the Dormition of the Theotokos, which, according to the map is on the entire other side of the forest from where I think I am. Well, okay. I’ll write a kontakion here, since the Akathist is to the Theotokos and it seems fitting. Then, at every female saint I encounter I’ll write another section. Now where am I and where am I going? Oh, Saint’s Pantelemon and Parksevi are next. Except they aren’t. It’s St Nectarios again, but it isn’t a small building, it’s a covered icon, just like the other shrines I’ve seen. Which means I’m suddenly back on the side of the woods I thought I had originally been, except that I hadn’t, I’m over there. And now I’m over here, and I didn’t see the field along the path I was supposed to be walking along, so maybe I’m over there, instead? But wait. Where’s the little lake, that’s supposed to be here? and I have no idea where I really am, except I have some suspicion that it still isn’t Wisconsin.

I give up. I will wander, ending up wherever I end up. Eventually, I’ll come out. It might or might not be on the retreat property. It might or might not be in Wisconsin. And if it is, this is rural Wisconsin, not the wild interior of British Columbia. There are, as far as I know, no bears in farmland Wisconsin. What’s the worst that can happen?

God likes metaphors, I conclude as I realize that I am as lost in these woods as I am in the forest of my writing. So I hand it all over to Him: this walk in these woods, and my ramblings in the thickets of my work. I walk and write and walk some more. I visit Saint Catherine and St. Barbara. Write under the eye of both women. The words flow as they haven’t for over six years. I walk some more and scare up a doe, which is pure joy and my heart leaps with her. I visit St. George and he and I pray for my godson, and I decide it’s time to head back to the lodge, and check the map, where I notice the shrine to St. Emelia. I can’t miss her – she is the mother of my name saint and when I enter her shrine, I feel welcomed and honoured. She’s been waiting for me, and enfolds me in a spiritual embrace. I pray to her and write a bit with her.

But now I have to head back. I’m hot and tired. The sweat is rolling into my eyes and it stings and it rolls down my arms and onto my fingers and makes the pen slippery. I’m full up with this experience and want to put the Akathist away for a while and think about what has happened here.

Next along the path, I run across a shrine to Sts. Constantine and Helen. She is a woman – but he’s not. Should I write? Or not? I look at my outline. This kontakia is about the entry to Jerusalem, when Christ was greeted as a king. Do I have a choice? I write. The next shrine is the twelve apostles. The ikos is the Last Supper. I pray, I write and I’m not sure if the drops hitting the page are sweat or tears. I am being led, and if the metaphor holds, then in my writing life, I am being led as well. I need to trust.

Enough, God, I’ve had all I can take. I want to go back to reality and talk with my friends. I follow the path, check the map, turn down the arm of the trail that leads back to the lodge. Without, as far as I can see on the map, any more shrines. I don’t want any more. I’m shaking and raw and I’m perilously close to tears.

A few more steps and I see, off the path, a painting: white lamb on a set of shoulders. No. I can’t deal with you this way. I can’t take so direct an encounter. But I have no choice, do I? I handed the control over to you, so I have to stop here. The icon is the Good Shepherd.

But it’s not the Good Shepherd I meet. It’s a storm of love – a hurricane, a tsunami of love, that envelopes me and holds me fast. I sense behind this storm even more love, more powerful than what I am already experiencing. This is a love that can create universes, and I’m only sensing the very tip and tiniest portion of how big and powerful it is, and I start to cry. There’s so much love here that if I let myself cry as I need to, I will cry myself out of myself. I’ll be stripped to my essence – opened up right to the innermost core of who I am and laid bare for all the universe to see. And I can’t. It doesn’t matter that God knows this part of me already. I can’t let myself cry like that, I’m not ready to be laid that bare. I back away after a few moments and head back to the lodge and to a reality I can deal with.

But I know that even as I run from the power and the immensity of the love that is God, I’m still running to him – he’s the good shepherd and I’m his ewe and he will be waiting, back to a size that he knows I can deal with. But my view of him is forever changed – it’s tinged with awe at the majesty he allowed me to see and sense. I know that one day, I will be able to face that love, and allow him to open me to the very core of myself, and I know too that it will be in tiny steps that won’t destroy me, and I’ll revel in every step of it. And I will not, I cannot stop writing.

Recommendation and nag

I’ve been following the blog of a group of writers who are trying to write five book in five months. That’s five writers writing one book each. They have to be finished in February. I’d love to say that they’re trying hard, they’re working like demons, and the pages are more or less getting out there.

But the fact is that with few exceptions, most of their posts have been more about why they haven’t written then what they’ve gotten done or what they’re learning along the way. Early on, it made sense – they were feeling their way into the world of the book, and in a couple of cases, into the genre of the books they’d decided to write – so fair enough. That’s scary territory, the beginning. But it’s late November, they have two and a bit months left, and so far only two or two and a half of the writers are really getting significant work done. The others are still flailing around, and their reasons are sounding more like excuses than reasons.

I know how hard it is to write. I’m doing this instead of working on my WIP and I’ve spent the last hour going over my email, checking FB and playing silly games. I also have a semi external, semi self-imposed deadline. So it’s not as though I’m not sympathetic.  And I have the excuse (which is an actual reason but feels too often like an excuse) of low energy levels due to the healing I’ve been doing this fall. (As I learned AGAIN last night – it is a reason. I do have limited energy and I suffer if I overdo it. The problem is that when I’m not out of energy, I feel pretty good, and I don’t have any early warning symptoms. It’s straight from “oh, just fine, thanks” to “um, damn, everything hurts and the brain is fried and tofu’d oatmeal” in .03 seconds.)

So yeah, I know how easy it is to put it off, find other things to do and ignore (more or less) that niggle at the back of the head. Which is why I’ve gotten out and dusted off and am recommending a terrific little book (little in that it’s quick to read) called THE WAR OF ART: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield and published by Warner books. If this doesn’t get your fingers itching and your mind revved up to write (or paint, or compose or play), then you aren’t a writer/artist/composer/musician.

It’s short and to the point because Steven doesn’t pull punches, and he doesn’t accept excuses and he tells you bluntly that neither should you, and uses every means possible to point out that if you love what you do and want to be a pro at it, you have to do the work and put in the time, with no excuses (not even cancer, apparently, which puts me firmly in the camp of the amateurs), no delays and no whining. Go do it, about sums up the books message.

So, 5 Writers, 5 Novels, 5 Months. Are we pros, or are we amateurs? I’m going to be a pro. And I believe in you. I think you’re all pros too. You’re just not aware of it yet. So get working!


I’m rooting for them

A friend of mine, Joe Cummings, has, with four other writers; Helga Bolleter, Karalee Greer, Silk Questo and Paula Third, committed themselves to producing five (yes, 5) novels in five months. That’s one each, not five per writer, btw, and further, to have those drafts ready to submit in one year. I’m in awe of their ambition, and if you want to follow their progress, and cheer them on (which I respectfully request, since we can all use lots of support), check out their first post and “follow” them.

At the very least, shake your head in admiration for the chutzpah and their insanity!

Music and the muse

Over the last several years, I’ve been working on a new novel. Now normally I don’t blog about my writing process or about the writing I’m doing. But this novel isn’t normal, and where it led me and what it’s taught me has opened some wonderful doors for me.

For one thing, it’s SF, which I love reading, but have never written. Children’s fantasy is about as close as I’ve gotten, and none of that has been published. But this character showed up one day when the kids were little and simply wouldn’t go away. So I finally sat down to write the story he wanted me to tell.

Normally, I write in silence. There is no music, unless it’s in a coffee shop (and I tend to tune that out), no conversation I’m involved in, and nothing other than the background noise outside my office window.

My main character is a teen musician. And when I started writing, he had a distinct voice. But as the novel limped along, the voice dissipated. I could not figure out how to get it back.

I like to walk. And when I walk, I listen to music. My musical tastes are eclectic – the shorter list is “what kind of music don’t I like?” Damn little is usually the answer. So I have rock, folk, country, bluegrass, classical, Orthodox, Celtic, a capella, blues, and “easy listening”. There’s more, but that’s off the top of my head. I keep my Ipod on “shuffle” on my “All” playlist so I get a mix and am never sure what’s coming up next.

The walking and the music help me work on my writing. I don’t think about it on purpose, I try to keep my mind on the sights and sounds and smells around me, on who and what I meet on the walk, on things unrelated to my work. But at some point, I’ll often find myself thinking about the story, or, even better, will find, in a corner of my mind, two or three characters busy about their lives. I listen in and realize this is my next scene, or the solution to the problem the story is facing, or is what is going to happen a few days from now.

On one particular walk, I hadn’t been doing that – I’d been trying to force the solution to the problem by actively thinking about the story, the characters and the problems facing both it and me. But the movement and the sun on the water, the green trees and grass, the wind in my face and the music in my ears kept pulling my mind away from the story. So I gave up and just walked.

A Louis Armstrong piece came  on, and I perked up – I like Louis, although at that time I knew little about him, except that he had a trumpet and a gorgeous gravelly voice. The music flowed into my ears, the day into my eyes and for a while, I didn’t think at all.

About halfway through the piece, I realized that Kote, my main character, was narrating his story – in his voice! I hadn’t been able to access Kote’s voice for a couple of weeks. Every time I tried, I started sounding like the narrator from Feral, which was a completely different style. So, I listened in. The next piece of music was Janis Joplin – Piece of My Heart. Kote shut up. Next up, a big band number from Glen Miller. Kote started whispering again. Another swing number after that one, and he kept talking.

It took only those three numbers before I realized that Kote liked jazz. When I got home, I pulled the few jazz pieces I had on the Ipod into a playlist and turned the music on while I wrote. Whoa! His voice took over, stronger than ever. By the end of the day, I had some really good work done, and I was overdosed on the five jazz pieces I had. A trip to the library, and a plunder through my son’s music collection, and I discovered the joys of John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and lots and lots of Louis.

I started pestering friends and relatives for suggestions. Then my friend Matt pointed me toward Ken Burn’s Jazz, a PBS documentary on the history of Jazz. Wow – what a gold mine. Our tastes are similiar, right now Kote’s and my favourite is Thelonius Monk. I love Billie and Ella, he’s not so excited about them. He loves instrumental. I love voice, but to get HIS voice, I listen to instrumental, otherwise what I do is listen to music instead of write.

The book is moving ahead, and I’ve had a whole new world of music open up to me. And I’ve learned a new way of writing – with music in the background. I knew music could influence the way you wrote, but until Kote came along, didn’t realize it could make writing even more of a joy than it already was.