“In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.” – Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
The writing vocation can be lonely at the best of times, but writing in the time of coronavirus is downright isolating. Commiseration and comfort, which are necessary for surviving general life, are paramount for this time. Creating quality work is hard and requires a lot of you emotionally, intellectually, and, as the Inklings well knew, spiritually. As a graduate of the University of Winnipeg Creative Writing program, I’ve known for a long time that as much as a writer’s work is done alone, it’s done healthily with the support of friends who understand the toil of stringing words together to create meaning.
My friend Joel Robert Ferguson recently published a delightful book of poetry called The Lost Cafeteria. I was halfway through the book when I checked the back materials and saw my own name, along with several friends from our ad hoc writers group, listed in the acknowledgements included with those that influenced Joel or helped with his poems in any way. His gratitude was overwhelming and humble, especially given the quality of his poems.
This past year, I have had two artist groups that support me. I’ve drifted out of others over the years, but none so affecting as the writing community developed by Juice Journal, the University of Winnipeg’s creative writing journal, in which I participated from 2012–2016. Since graduating from the University of Winnipeg, only two groups have brought me the consistent solace and artistic community as the saint benedict’s table Artist Network and my daily writing group developed out of Collegeville Institute.
The Artist Network
Started by Carolyn Mount when she was artist-in-residence at the church, the Artist Network is a group of artists from the community, including but not limited to writers, musicians, visual artists, poets, and crafters. Once a month we gather in someone’s living room to demonstrate our work, drink wine, and share in artistic commiseration.
We’ve developed a form over the years, in which one person presents a project they have been working on, whether it is a piece of writing, music, visual art, or crafts, and the group responds, not with critique but a form of Lectio Divina. Which parts of the work energize us? What different meanings do we see? What do we relate to in the process of creation?
This has meant readings and responses of poetry, prose, memoir, and, in my case, drama. Members have presented music, comics, paintings, photography, and gallery shows. As a group, we’ve attended outings together, like when we visited Karen Corneilius’ studio at Martha Street Studio and engaged not only in the work but the entire process.
Despite our differences, we have some key things in common, including understanding the work and drive of an artistic practice and the tenuous relationship between our faith and our art.
Having grown up in a charismatic Evangelical church, my experience of Christian art has not always been good. Craft and sophistication are often casualties of spiritual or emotional gains, and art seems to prioritize mission for the purpose of evangelizing non-Christians or disciplining Christians.
Those who care about the quality of art often shirk the label of “Christian” art or “Christian” writing, because they can cast aspersions on the quality of our work and our serious commitment to it.
Can we be Christians and make Art with a capital A? Can we make morally complex art and be Christians? The collective “we” hope so.
Collegeville Dancing Writers
Collegeville Dancing Writers is a group that developed out of the “Apart and Yet A Part” writing retreat in which I participated at the Collegeville Institute along with nine other writers. Collegeville Institute is a retreat centre connected with St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, which supports creative and cultural work through retreats, workshops, and residencies. Our program ran for 10 days. We could spend our days as we wished, writing, hiking the trails, attending the liturgy of hours, or doing anything that supported our work. In the evening, we would gather for dinner and conversation about writing, creativity, and spirituality.
After the retreat, a few of us committed to writing “together” every morning for an hour in the months that followed. Those of us that still participate say hi in our Facebook chat at 8:00 a.m. EST and then write for an hour. This early writing hour sets my day off right (or “write”). By engaging this artistic practice commitment, I get work done before anything else can take over my day, and I accomplish so much in that one hour (even if part of it is staring at the screen. This is necessary, too, as my friends would advise me.).
The morning hour is a key part of our commitment to each other, but like the Artist Network, the commiseration and support are essential too. Some days we ask for each other’s advice about important topics, book queries, dealing with editors, and comma placement, but on others, we celebrate each other’s achievements and commiserate on setbacks.
Somehow, in this group, the label of “Christian” art isn’t a concern. Because we met during a workshop at Collegeville, our members of the Collegeville Dancing Writers include Angela O’Donnell, a poet and scholar of Flannery O’Connor’s faith and writing who teaches at Fordham University, and Deanna Williams, a jazz pianist, hymn writer, and scholar of Mary Lou Williams. They are not afraid of being labelled as Christ-followers, and they embrace it as key parts of their writing.
Like the Artist Network, faith connects us. In our group, we not only commit to writing daily, but we also commit to that in relationship with each other. These commitments are reflections of our relationship with God, who has, in a sense, ordained us in our vocations in one way or another. Early on, one of the Collegeville Dancing Writers members agreed that getting up every day to share this writing time together, albeit in different states and countries, was a time of Eucharist we share in together. The Artist Network is the same, albeit with actual wine instead of coffee.
I believe that as writers and artists, we have to come humbly to the work and to each other, as we would in the Eucharist. At saint ben’s, in the time before the coronavirus, we shared a common cup during Eucharist. No other experience has ever come close to that experience as my beloved artist groups. As we share in the common cup of the art, we are sublimated by the glory of God.
Hannah Foulger is a British Canadian theatre artist and writer. Her disability poetry has been published in Blue Mountain Press’ Disabled Voices anthology and performed in Sick + Twisted Theatre’s Lame Is…cabaret. Her plays Clink and My Frozen Heart: A Comic Tragedy have been produced at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. She lives on Treaty 1 Territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba.