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Here’s an essay I recently wrote on writing as a spiritual practice, posted at the very fine The Spirit of  a Woman website. The website is full of stories that inspire and question, open us up to possibilities and help us see where we’ve traveled.

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My book-in-process, Needle in the Bone , explores the against-all-odds stories of a Holocaust survivor, Lou Frydman, and a Polish resistance fighter, Jarek Piekalkewicz, who each started their lived in Poland and ended up being fast friends in Kansas. Based on extensive interviews, historical research and my own reflections on impossible questions about human nature and history, this book unfolds the astonishing survival stories of each man, and how each summoned the courage and vision to create a new life in a new land. Check out my blog on various discoveries I’m making along the way.

Photo: Jarek Piekalkewicz in his old Polish unit of the British army uniform.

Our own Diane Silver has embarked upon a brave and essential project: searching for goodness through a year-long blog mapping her search in addition to interviews with all the usual and unusual suspects, from evangelical Christians to Sufi leaders to hate group researchers to community activists to artists and poets and to people from many other walks of life. Please visit her blog, which she subtitles “365 days to answer an impossible question.”

Recent posts include an extensive interview on why we’re alive, the role of poetry in goodness and praise for all things sacred with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, posts on travel and goodness, radical kindness and pitfalls of righteousness. Visit to add your own thoughts and questions, and remember, it’s all good!

The recent death of J.D. Salinger motivated me to read The Catcher in the Rye again, turning back to not only a great work of literature but to a part of my life that felt like a movie I must have watched rather than my own past. I found my dog-eared paperback in the basement and, upon opening it fondly, found  hundreds of penciled notes in the margins, most of which I couldn’t make out. Who WAS the person who took such copious notes? (Unlike the marginalia, I had neatly written the date on the fly leaf, 1974, just below my (then) maiden name.)

I couldn’t fathom why I would write so many explanations of the text, why I would circle and underline to such an annoying degree, and then it hit me: I didn’t just read Catcher in the Rye. I taught it! Oh right! I had taught college English off and on in a previous life. It sounded so academic and optimistic because that’s what I was — optimistic, certain I would teach and write for a living. But when faced with teaching composition to practical, world-weary non- traditional collegians, my confidence disappeared like the cash in Holden Caulfield’s pocket. One student said to me of Holden, “Oh why doesn’t he just get a job.”

There were many myths about Salinger the writer. Among them: he would hang each chapter on a clipboard and perch all the clipboards on nails inside his writing shed, so he could walk around and make a change here, another one there. I don’t know if this was true — I heard many other stories about him. But I wonder if I had written my journal on clipboards and if I could find clipboard  circa 1974, what would I change?  More detail, yes. A stronger voice, more dramatic plot points, and less ambiguity.

Reprinted from Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s blog.

For a podcast of this month’s column, please click here.

One of the main things we writers do is to make the invisible — at least the unnoticed — visible. Through images that speak to our senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound, we create traveling moments that can land in a reader and listener, and unfurl to invoke meaning and insight, inspiration and wonder. As winter just starts snowshoeing around the corner into this time of thaw and surprise (the first snowdrop! spring geese returning!), we’re also witnessing a time when the previously invisible is being made visible.

This month’s writing prompt is about how we can widen our peripheral vision and see more of the world as it’s really happening, even if we go about it in some inside-out ways. One such inside-out way is a writing exercise I found in Deena Metzger’s excellent book, Writing For Your Life. She suggests writing what you didn’t see today, and see where that leads. Here is my on-the-spot attempt today, something that surprised me when I wrote it because the first word that popped into my mind, “cousins,” wasn’t one I was expecting, and yet it opened the door to writing about the past:

Today I didn’t see my cousins, long gone from my life

decades past when the family exploded apart. I didn’t see

my father’s picture although I thought of him, seven years dead

but still telling me, his hands turned up and outward,

“What can you do?” when life gives me bad news.

I didn’t see the house where I grew up, hidden now

by aging trees and ribbons of distance. I didn’t see a cloud

in the sky or a deer licking the spilled bird seed under the feeder.

I didn’t see the wind, but I caught the shaking skeleton

of last summer’s sunflowers. I didn’t see the particulars of who

I was up until this point although I’m surrounded by the evidence.

Another writing prompt you can try is a sentence stem, that is, part of a sentence and then you fill in the blanks, such as any of these:

When I wasn’t looking………

I used to see…….but now it’s just……

The world shows me…….and I answer………

When I was sleeping………

If I turn a new direction………

Filling in the words is a great way to bring to the surface whatever is around us even if we’re not cognizant of it at the moment. So much of good writing comes out of tilting our usual thinking and seeing, perceiving and understanding, so that the words come out differently. Wishing you a new unfolding into the words that show you the visible and the unnoticed in ways that illuminate what you already know.

In addition to the well-known story of Anne Frank and her diary, writers and those who love books should consider the pivotal role of Miep Gies in ensuring that we know about Anne Frank in the first place. Miep was the woman who, among a handful of brave souls, helped to hide the Frank family (and others) in the Secret Annex. She was also the one who discovered the pages of Anne’s “diary” (actually, a loose collection of pages) on the floor of the Annex after the families were taken away. Anne hid her writings in her father’s briefcase and the arresting “officer” (an ordinary bureaucrat), stupidly threw the pages on the floor in his search for valuables. He missed the real treasure.  Miep gathered up the pages and kept them, without reading a word, until she learned that Anne had perished. That’s when she handed them over the Otto Frank and thus began a long process that took Anne’s words from the handwritten page to a published book that continues to influence people to this day. There are those who write and there are those who protect and preserve the written word,  who deliver it from the womb of inspiration and bring it into the light.

If you thought that Anne Frank was a gifted young woman who spontaneously wrote a diary that changed the world, think again. Anne deliberately crafted her journal as a work of art and had a strong sense of audience when doing so. I strongly recommend Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose for anyone interested in how Anne crafted this work as a writer, hoping it would be published when World War II was over. In fact (a surprise to those of us who thought her diary was primarily the thoughts of a “young girl”)  she was a consummate editor who rewrote significant portions of the diary after having put it aside for an entire year. I plan to write more on Anne’s and how her diary, found littered on the floor of the Secret Annex, represents a valuable lesson in creating art.