Thursday, October 3, 2013

Do You Have a Book?

 Tell people you’re a writer and their response almost always is, “Do you have a book?”

I hope that most people ask about a book out of a sense of curiosity and excitement  (thinking “how cool is it to meet a real author?”) rather than from a place of judgment (thinking “you’re not a real writer unless you’ve been published”) because writers judge themselves critically already.

Identifying as a writer is tricky. How and when do we decide to call ourselves writers? What credentials do we need to accumulate? Must we have a book?

When I first began writing I was desperate for publication—and not ready for it, and thankfully in the days before self-publishing was cheap and easy, didn’t receive it—I craved validation from some vague and anonymous source (a publishing house? a reader?) to prove I was a writer.

“A writer is someone who writes,” is a core tenant of the AmherstWriters and Artists writing workshop methodology that I trained in as a facilitator. But very rarely does someone who comes to a weekly writing group or class and finishes writing projects at home and writes religiously in her journal call herself a writer—either in public, or to herself. Instead she says, “I like to write.”

A few years ago as part of the Upper Room’s Companions inMinistry program, I was part of a small group of writing pastors. Everyone, except me, was ordained, and of those two words writer and pastor, their primary identity was as pastor, even though much of their time was indistinguishable from the days of a writer: reading, writing, contemplating, and speaking.
Companions in Ministry Writing Group

I identified as a writer who happened to be a pastor—because I’d been writing for ten years by then, five years longer than I’d been an official minister, because I hadn’t pursued formal theological education, and because I felt God called me to writing but not to parish ministry—and by our last gathering, I had “retired” from church ministry to finish my MFA in creative writing.
Phyllis Mayfield and Sunshine Johnson at my ministry farewell party.
I had been writing poetry for church, and short stories (thanks to community college classes and a critique group) for fun, and more than a dozen were published in literary journals, but I wanted to study craft more seriously. And a small part of me also wanted the legitimacy I thought a degree would give me.
With one of my classmates, Tim Anderson, celebrating our graduation.
I’ve since earned my MFA and relocated from California to Washington, and most of the time when I meet someone new and s/he asks “what I do,” I answer with “I’m remodeling a house with my husband,” or “I have a retreat for writers,” and tell them about the studio and my airbnb guests (who over this busy summer were invariably tourists not writers, but I’m happy to host them as we need the money).

My studio retreat for writers. 
I don’t usually introduce myself as a writer.

In the last two months we’ve put our home remodel on hold to begin a new business, and have purchased a project house to fix and sell. The planning and brainwork have fallen to my more qualified husband, and nearly all the physical work will be done by licensed professionals, so I find myself once again thinking about how to spend my time, what I can contribute to the community, and how I should introduce and define myself.

The first project house of our new business.

I’ve looked into leading writing workshops, but without connections through the church and local community like I had in California, they haven’t materialized (yet?). So I thought: if I can’t offer the opportunity for people to write outside of my studio, what can I offer? The answer: the words I’ve written.

I sat down with my laptop last month, scrolled through my writing files, and spiritual poetry leaped out. Written over fifteen years, nearly all the poems were written in the container of the United Methodist church, through experiences like the Academy for Spiritual Formation and Clergywomen’s Retreats, and with one or two exceptions, the poems have not appeared beyond those gatherings.

That will all change early in 2014 thanks to the Christian press eLectio Publishing. My poetry collection, which is titled after my poem, “Was That You Jesus?” will be introduced in both paperback and eBook in January or February.

For me, the book is a memorial to years of fervent spiritual growth, of an identity formed around serving God through the church, a gift of time and place that will not come to me again. The book is also a thank you to each person—and there were so many—who made my journey possible, clergy and parishioners scattered throughout the country who encouraged me and gave me every opportunity imaginable to grow in and express my faith.

Twice in the last week, I’ve been able to answer the question, “Do you have a book?” with, “Yes, my first book will be published early next year.” I’m pleased with the speed and ease from which this poetry collection has gone from idea to signed contract. It’s also nice to offer a straightforward and positive answer to the book question.

But it’s not the absolute wow I fantasized about when I first took up the pen. I ’ve come to see after my long apprenticeship and faithfulness to this vocation, that the book reflects, rather than defines who I am: A writer.


  1. There is always a great "takeaway" in your blogs. From this one: "the book reflects, rather than defines who I am: A writer" (YEAH)

  2. How incredible PB! You have always been an extraordinary writer to me who dances with words on the page. I can't wait to get a signed copy of your poetry and some as gift for my 7 girlfriends on the spiritual path with me. Blessings of light as the darkness takes form.