Perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.
Anyone who’s ever kept a journal — whether for brief reflections or recording prayers and petitions — can attest to writing as a powerful form of thinking, perhaps the most powerful. Even a very basic written account can provide order in a chaotic area, a structure when there seems to be little or none. Journaling helps move us toward greater internal clarity, cutting through the smokescreens of confusion or the ego. We may spot unhealthy patterns in our lives that we’ve blocked out, consciously or otherwise. Or we might work through a period of suffering in writing that spurs us toward the growth of the soul and invites us to live more fully — as Sarton puts it, moving “toward what we will become from where we are.” I think of the ideal encompassed by the Greek word eudaimonia, sometimes translated as “human flourishing.”
Dave Harrity’s latest book, Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand, is a guidebook aimed at helping readers write in just such a way — a way that is meant to “incline your heart and mind toward mystery, wandering, seeking, exploring, and contemplating” into what he calls, using language very near to that of the mystics, “an innovative movement of awakening.”
When I first heard about the book, I immediately liked the idea behind it. However, as one with longtime writing habits and practices, I doubted that I would change my own routine to accommodate the twenty-eight days of Making Manifest. But I did feel confident that the book would be a useful tool for me. When I got my copy, I read it compulsively, basking in the potential for great potency in many of the reflective exercises, appreciating the richness of the poetry throughout. I wanted to work with it somehow, and to write about it.
As a creative writing teacher of students at various levels of commitment and with different (or no) writing routines, I thought I’d try Manifest with my Intro to Creative Writing class. I gave students freedom, opting not to bring the book into the forefront of our learning but rather allowing them to engage it as they saw fit. At the outset of the semester, I told the class that I planned to write about Making Manifest, and noted to whoever used it that I would love to see their responses and choose some to publish collaboratively. Two students — sophomore Alex Moore from Cedarville, Ohio, and sophomore Mackenzie Jager of Holland, Michigan — emerged toward the end of the semester with great results and the gracious desire to discuss their experiences. What follows is our conversation.
Daniel Bowman Jr.: How would you describe your experience of working through the exercises in Making Manifest? Have you ever used a guide like this before? Did it complement, interrupt, or somehow inform your previous writing habits?
Mackenzie Jager: I am a novelist to the core. I try to write every day, even if it’s just a few paragraphs, but there is something special about the inspired days, days when I can write whole chapters without even realizing I am breathing. Other times, no matter how hard I try to make the words do what I want them to, they won’t cooperate. On those days, it’s easy to get discouraged or give up on writing anything at all. Making Manifest came to me at a time when I was feeling burned out. The short, deceptively simple exercises led me to see through an artist’s eye once again and reclaim both control and love of writing. I was reminded of why writing is a great escape as well as a rewarding method of processing.
Alex Moore: I have never used a guide like Making Manifest before, and it was definitely a productive experience. Before Making Manifest, I had an anemic personal writing life, putting thoughts on paper only by whimsy. The book dramatically helped me link my writing life with my devotional life, both of which were troublesome habits to keep before starting the book. A combination of working through the book and pursuing my own thought life led to my realizing the vital importance of connecting my spirituality and writing. Both of these are disciplines, and by completing the book, I integrated the two. Making Manifest was a huge help to me, then. I wonder how long it would have taken me to make those correlations without it.
DB: Making Manifest could be helpful to anyone with a goal of spiritual growth. But since you are both creative writers, I thought I’d ask about results. Was there a particular day of the Manifest exercises that led to a really good draft? Talk about it. What about that specific prompt led you to such a strong result?
AM: Honestly, I don’t feel like I had a “best” or “worst” piece of writing. For me, Making Manifest was so much more about getting myself into the habit of writing, into the discipline of scribing my spirituality.
Plus, every prompt varies. Some days, I was able to write better with a very specific prompt; other days, I had to force myself to write no matter how good the prompt was. The individual prompts didn’t seem to affect my writing as much as my personal mood.
MJ: Day 4’s exercise was to write about a specific moment of awe. Memories and images swirled through my mind until one rose up among the many. I live eight minutes from Laketown Beach on Lake Michigan and spend as much time on the beach and in the waves as possible. On one particular day, I met God out in the icy waters. In this piece I relived that afternoon as I climbed up and over the dunes, left the beach behind, waded into the water, and then dove beneath the green-blue waves. It was a time filled with ecstasy and joy and peace like I had never felt before or since, and the prompt urged me to write it the way it deserved to exist in the world in tangible form. I knew I didn’t want to settle for a simpler moment, and I knew that specific details and that sense of vulnerability were essential if I wanted to do it justice.
DB: Along those same lines, did any of the days/prompts not work for you at all? Which one? What ended up happening?
MJ: A few exercises fell a little flat for me, but Day 24 was a disaster — I didn’t even finish it. I think my problem with the prompt was that it was too specific. I suddenly felt very limited and trapped in following the directions, and since I had a poor starting line of overheard conversation, the rest of the exercise was tedious and unfruitful.
AM: The prompts that didn’t seem to work for me were the ones that fed me lines or words that I had to integrate into my writing. I did much better with open-ended questions than prompts that said, “Write a poem starting with this line: _____.” It’s tough for me to use certain words to make similes, or to try to force given lines into my writing.
DB: At the outset, author Dave Harrity says that the book is “grounded in the acts of writing, creativity, imagination, solitude, and community-building, all designed to help you ‘re-vision’ the way you understand and interact with the Kingdom of God.” That’s a very tall order, theologically profound, and perhaps difficult to pin down in language. But let’s try. Looking back on your work with the book, could you describe if/how you’ve “re-vision[ed]’ the way you understand and interact with the Kingdom of God” through creativity, writing, and solitude?
AM: I touched on this in the first question, but again, this book, either directly or indirectly, led to my mental ability to link my writing and spirituality. To me, that is a huge accomplishment of a relatively thin book and short time period. Perhaps this was just a time in my life where I was ready to begin accepting the idea, but the book definitely helped. In the past, I had always failed at both writing regularly and having a daily devotional time. By strongly linking spirituality with creativity, Making Manifest gave me the impetus I needed to start my habitual meditative life. I recommend the book to all writers of faith.
MJ: I am more interested in exploring my life, emotions, and memories through writing after working with Making Manifest. I learned some deep connections, longings, and even fears within myself through the exercises, and was able to begin processing how they shape me and if I want them to continue doing so. Manifest also had a strong emphasis on story, and how your words and your creative actions add to the world, in part by saying, “I was here! I contributed! I lived!” I needed to be reminded of the simple and profound joys and purposes of writing, and this book did that and more. On Days 12 and 27 I reflected on solitude. I am an introvert and a writer, which means two parts of who I am crave and need time alone. Yet somewhere along the way, I started to subconsciously believe that something must be wrong with me because I enjoyed my times of solitude. I began feeling guilty, like I should force myself out of my room and out into the world to be with “normal” people. Community is important, and beautiful, as I have come to know, but I do not have to be ashamed of feeling inspired and energized from my times of solitude. They are times in which I meet God, sift through my thoughts and emotions, and create. I should intentionally build times of both community and solitude into my life because they both lead me to God, my true self, and my highest level of creativity and inspiration.
DB: Thank you both so much for sharing your experiences with Making Manifest. I’d love to end the conversation by asking each of you to share a piece of writing from your Manifest journal. I know that’s difficult, as the responses are still raw first drafts or even freewrites, not revised and completed work. So I thank you for taking the risk of sharing!
AM: Here are some of the ideas I began exploring for Day 2, where we were prompted to define words through our experiences, and write out a few associations for each one. I look forward to going back and working on this.
constant push downward,
never ending weight
kneeling, hung head
there are days i can only feel weight, as if
every person i see has jumped onto my
shoulders and they have no idea how much
they take from me, how much i care about
every last one of them
transient, fading, remnants of what once
burned with passion
column of bonfire fading into night
some days it feels like my house has
already burned down and I’m just trying
to grasp vapor. i cough with every breath.
a hardening that comes from time and apathy
my fingers on a guitar, yard work, my father
the work we do on our lawn gives us both callouses
but i am still soft, pliable, when i return — able to
break through the tough membrane of apathy.
he just leaves.
MJ: Here’s Day 4: a vivid sense of awe.
Music. The Alps. A ballet. A perfect piece of writing. These are the things I first thought of, but they whispered to me that they were not my true moment of awe, not the time I was truly swept off my feet by beauty and wonder and glee so thoroughly that I was robbed of all coherent thought.
It was at the beach, just eight minutes from my house, over a dune, and down the other side to Lake Michigan. I was alone, escaping something I am sure, and the waves called to me.
I left my book and towel behind and treaded down the warm sand to the waterline. I stepped in, waded in, swam out. The water rushed over me, drenching my hair, tickling my skin, electrifying my insides. I dove under, shrieking in ecstasy and horror as the frigid blue waters turned me to fiery ice. I exploded from a cresting wave, shooting sparkling water droplets like shards of diamonds caught in a firework display in every direction.
A manic giggle bubbled from my mouth and I made no attempt to reign it in. Something was different out here, and I wanted to know what it was. I squared off with the horizon and swam toward it. With each stroke I felt a power building, an unnamed joy rising, until it threatened to crush me. I swam farther. Past where the safety buoys would be if there were any, past where I knew my mother would be comfortable with me swimming, and then I went farther.
It was like magic, only better than I imagined magic could be — and it was mine! As if I could inhale the moment and bottle up to hold onto forever, my laughter and gasping became so uncontrollable I was breathing more waves and sunshine and magic than air.
I dove under again, kicking straight down until my ears popped and the world grew dark and the water became even colder. I jerked to a stop and then rushed skyward. Above, I screamed a giggling scream and flopped onto my back, letting the waves rock me, watching the sun dance with the clouds.
I gulped for air and fought for words, but this moment had no words. Only feeling. Only experience. Only revelation.
This moment was mine and it was a gift from the best gift-giver. He could have given me a person who knew just what to say or an answered prayer or anything at all, but He chose to give me magic, beauty, hope, and joy in such abundance I could not refuse them, in such strong doses I was drowning in them, in such a way that I could not overlook them — or Him — anymore.
DB: Again, thank you, Mackenzie and Alex, for your thoughtful responses and excellent work. In Writing with Power, Peter Elbow writes about the practice of freewriting — writing nonstop for ten minutes — as a strategy for consistently generating words, whether or not you feel like writing. “When you produce an exciting piece of writing, it doesn’t mean you [freewrote] better than the time before, when you wrote one sentence over and over for ten minutes. Both times, you freewrote perfectly. The goal . . . is in the process, not the product.”
In considering the experiences Alex and Mackenzie recounted, I think that Elbow’s rule could apply to Making Manifest as well. While both of these writers achieved some terrific drafts, the deeper value of Manifest seemed to be in the way it helped them integrate faith and writing and form a healthy discipline. Manifest provided a significant bridge to the path of creative spiritual growth, and that’s a rare — and eternally valuable — gift.
Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012) and Beggars in Heaven: A Novel (Relief Books, summer 2014). A native of the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, he lives with his wife, Bethany, and their two children in Hartford City, Indiana. He is an assistant professor of English at Taylor University. Find him on Twitter: @danielbowmanjr.
Mackenzie Jager is a sophomore from Holland, Michigan, majoring in professional writing at Taylor University. Her recent publications include several book reviews, a devotional in the Aboite Independent, an article in Youth Unlimited, and a radio script.
Alex Moore is a sophomore English and creative writing major at Taylor University. He’s from Cedarville, Ohio. Alex has presented work at the biennial William A. Fry Undergraduate Literature Conference at Taylor, and his poetry has recently appeared in Parnassus.