Donald Miller. There that damn name was again, simple and round in its sound, not unlike the writer’s own prose. I couldn’t talk about the kind of writing I wanted to do these days without eliciting some reference to the talented memoirist of Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He was supposed to be the ‘male version’ – a dreadful phrase – of Anne Lamott. Because anyone interested in spiritual writing knew Annie. And everyone wanted to be the ‘fill-in-the-blank version’ of her wise and witty musings on life. She cusses, too. So if you’re Christian and you’re funny and you like to swear (see “damn” above), you’ll probably get compared to Don and, if you’re lucky, a version of Anne, too.
It was my writing mentor who brought up Don over brunch. He was saying something about how Don can write about simple spiritual revelations as if he’s the first to discover them, like stumbling upon the notion that you can love God in nature. I was in the process of agreeing with him as mentees are wont to do – yes, yes, evangelical Christians and their messianic impulses – when he slipped in slyly, “But your writing has that kind of power and appeal.”
I blushed. I looked at my lap. I took a gulp of mimosa. And then I smiled and directed the conversation toward the Michigan Wolverines and how they used to be worth a Saturday afternoon on the couch.
In that moment and a dozen others, I wasn’t able to own my vocation as a writer, not publicly. There was something wrong – unchristian – about showing pride in my artistic gift. Women writers throughout the centuries seemed to share my struggle, particularly those who practiced the self-revealing art of autobiography and memoir. There can be what Patricia Spacks called a rhetoric of uncertainty to women’s prose in her article “Selves in Hiding” (1981). Women writers, like the impossibly brilliant Dorothy Day in her modern autobiography The Long Loneliness, “fail directly to emphasize their own importance, though writing in a genre which implies self-assertion and self-display.” What was it about women’s spiritual writing that made focus on one’s self feel devious, unimportant, or excessively individualistic?
Women autobiographers and memoirists needed a new PR campaign and “Take Back the Write” wouldn’t do. Instead, our mantra for vocational fortitude would be “Name! Claim! Proclaim!” We would name ourselves as writers. We would claim our writing as prophetic witness. And we would proclaim our message as integral for kingdom solidarity. In essence, we would write for our lives.