All The Places Reading & Writing Can Take You: Traci Rhoades on #CreativeUncertainty
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This guest post by my friend and fellow author Traci Rhoades is a continuation of the Creative Uncertainty series. Every other Wednesday, I ask a writer or artist to stop by the blog and share with us about the role uncertainty plays in their creative life. If you’re interested in being a contributor, check out the Submission Guidelines.
All The Places Reading & Writing Can Take You
By Traci Rhoades
Nothing brings on imposter syndrome like being in the same room with a group of writers in a writing workshop led by an author who has highly influenced you personally. Due to Covid-19, we were technically in the same room on our computer screens, but still. This past December, I attended “Writing a Spiritual Memoir,” a Collegeville Institute workshop with author Lauren Winner.
A few months prior, the twelve participants had submitted our creative works to be discussed. Raw emotion, raw words on paper. We had done little reworking during the draft stages. The pieces had yet to have an editor work their magic. Lauren’s first rule, “You’re not allowed to say I’m sorry about your writing,” left everyone breathing a collective sigh of relief. Looking through the lens of this recent workshop, and reflecting on what I’ve learned about writing as a craft, I’d like to consider three questions.
Nicole: How does your faith inform your work as a creative?
Traci: I’m a Christian; more specifically, I am a protestant who grew up southern baptist, now serves locally in a reformed church, and I believe in the communion of saints. This statement tells my readers a great deal about my creative work and how I hope the world sees me.
With every word I put down, I hope to glorify God. Further I want to represent Christianity, not one particular tradition. I did not always realize the importance of a full representation. I started writing online in 2014, and knew I wanted to write about tracing one’s faith in everyday life (thus my blog name, tracesoffaith).
As Sarah Arthur points out in her book on the life of Madeleine L’Engle:
“Enter Madeleine. Here was a Christian author who could function quite unperturbedly from inside paradox, who dared to question the assumption that all things must be either/or. Why can’t it be both/and? What is this nonsense about ‘secular’? Why can’t God use those things if God wants to? Why can’t God speak through this or that person (if God can speak through a donkey, for instance)? Who says?”Sarah Arthur
I agree with L’Engle, one can be a writer who is a Christian without writing specifically about Christian things. I realized early on I wasn’t that kind of Christian, or that kind of writer. My faith life seeped into every page. It was in the acts of reading and writing that I came across my own paradox. If I am a Christian, why can’t I observe the church calendar, even if members of my own congregation do not? The denomination who baptized me is officially non-creedal, but I know many of them would join me in confirming each statement of belief found in both the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds. If Jesus sincerely meant the words (and I believe he did) in his prayer for us on the night he was betrayed, then I want to join him in working toward his request that we “be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us. (John 17:20-21 NRSV).”
I am a Christian who believes in the communion of saints. This absolutely informs my work as a creative.
Nicole: In what ways has uncertainty affected your work as a writer/creative in recent months?
Traci: I don’t know what I’m talking about. I spent my early church days in a small country church. Easter Sunday was our big day, and we might have one hundred people in the pews. We had Sunday school every week. I memorized dozens of memory verses through Bible drills and later Bible quizzing. I knew Jesus from a young age and I asked him into my heart, to be my Lord and Savior, at seven years old. Shortly thereafter, I was baptized by immersion. I knew a comfortable Christianity in my little world.
I did not know any church history, unless you count a famous female missionary by the name of Lottie Moon. We collected a missions offering on her behalf every Christmas. The rhythm of my days followed a school calendar year. The two religious holidays we observed were Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. I did not have a proper understanding of Catholic practices and I did not know Orthodox Christianity existed.
Looking back, I recall a few key books I read over the years, which expanded my understanding of Christianity. Once I began writing and interacting with people of other traditions online, my curiosity took off. My original readers (my mom and a few church friends) responded enthusiastically to the posts I wrote about what I was learning. One early post, about my first Ash Wednesday service at a local Catholic Church, actually became the introduction in my book on this topic of visiting churches and learning new Christian practices.
Over time, I stepped into a unique writing role, one that also emulates my online presence. I am not an expert nor do I represent a specific Christian tradition. I am a sister in Christ, wanting to get to know the rest of my family better, especially Jesus. A naturally curious individual, I thrive on asking good questions. Readers often tell me I make them think, and my response is typically “thank you and me too.” Although I would not have envisioned this being the role my writing life would take, I can look back and see where God designed me for this unique role. I think we live in a time where Christians need to hear that exploring one’s faith is not only encouraged, it is perhaps necessary if one is to fully experience Christ in this life.
This approach can lead to much uncertainty. Let me give you a recent example. I have learned some Christians follow the Julian calendar for their holiday observances. On January 7th I went online to wish some of my Christian brothers and sisters a Merry Christmas. A few hours later, a Coptic Orthodox friend of mine, who is much more knowledgeable about such things, wished these Christians a Happy Nativity. I had to verify with her if one was better than the other. She assured me both were fine, but Happy Nativity was commonly used in liturgy. It’s a humbling thing to realize on a regular basis, I still have much to learn. I fear being accidentally offensive.
Nicole: What book(s) have nourished your creative soul most recently? What made them helpful? Who would you recommend them to?
Recommending books is one of my favorite things to do. I’ll offer ten books that have influenced my faith. I’d recommend them to my evangelical brothers and sisters, because many of them are like me, and find themselves ignorant of a wider church experience. I’d also offer them to any individual who is curious about how Christianity impacts one’s life. Many of these books are spiritual memoirs, and the author invites readers into an active sanctification, one which is hopefully making us more like Christ.
- Walking on Water – Madeleine L’Engle
- The Cloister Walk – Kathleen Norris
- Girl Meets God – Lauren Winner
- Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail – Lester Ruth; Robert E. Webber
- Short Trip to the Edge – Scott Cairns
- Flunking Sainthood – Jana Reiss
- Mystics and Misfits – Christiana Peterson
- Fellowship of Differents – Scot McKnight
- Holy Silence – Brent Bill Always a Guest – Barbara Brown Taylor