Sunday, June 03, 2007

ONE QUESTION: Welcome Guest Blogger, Beryl Singleton Bissell

berylsbissel-140-New_bissell, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

I have sat here for about an hour trying to write one simple sentence that describes Beryl Singleton Bissell's memoir, The Scent of God. But Beryl's unsparing honesty with herself, with her Church, with the people in her life, and even with her God, refuse to allow me a glib or easy description.

The Scent of God is the story of a young woman so filled with passion and yearning that she enters a cloister at age eighteen. It is also the story of the human desire that challenges, but ultimately enriches that love. It is a rich, sensual, and marvelously told tale by a woman who leaves the religious life, but never stops embodying its virtues: humility, faith, and above all, joy.

I do not have the perfect sentence to describe The Scent of God, but when I looked on the book cover , I found that Ann Patchett captured its spirit with extraordinary precision:

"A terrifying, passionate, and exalted examination of what it means to love with your whole heart..."

Yes, that's it exactly. And is there any more important quest?

This is the first time I’ve been asked to blog on someone else’s blog – Patry’s no less. I’d feel like an intruder save that Patry invited me and as you love her and I love her, we most likely have things in common and I’m excited to be here and thank you for staying to visit.

When we discussed this book blog tour event, Patry suggested that I talk a bit about how life in the cloister” prepared me “for the solitary life of a writer.” Although I’ve been asked many questions about my book, and how I wrote it I’ve never fielded this question before. I’ve been mulling it over for several days now, wondering how best to answer as its complexity surprised me and I was stumped. In cases of “stump” I go do something else like take a walk or attempt to finish the hat I’ve been trying to knit for two years or I head to the kitchen (a place I normally avoid because I’d much rather write than cook). Yesterday, as it was the first warm and sunny day we’ve had here on the North Shore of Lake Superior where I live, I decided to garden and had such a grand time grubbing around in the earth planting bright annuals and weeding out dandelions that I stayed outside until the black flies appeared in search of supper.

As I gardened I mulled over Patry’s question of how cloistered life prepared me for the solitary life of a writer and realized that I was having difficulty because the cloister had both positive and negative qualities and the negative contained modifiers.

The first “how” that comes to mind is the way we lived in the monastery. For those of you who might not know much about cloistered or monastic existence one of its underlying tenets is the importance of silence. Silence provides the monk or nun with a “place” to live in the presence of God. The cloister walls provide the seclusion, the rule of silence provides the atmosphere, and the quieting of the mind creates the actuality. So here, in this one word “silence,” as practiced in monastic life, we have several factors at work: structure, solitude, silence (what I refer to as the 3 S’s)

I believe that good writers need all three S’s to turn out good pieces of work. I didn’t realize the 3 S’s importance as a writer until I had the opportunity to go away for two weeks to a writing retreat for women. There, separate from my daily life, living in silence, and having structured writing time, I wrote more in two weeks than I had during the two prior years.

Many writers will tell you the same thing. Like the monk or nun who leave the world to seek a place apart in which to find God, writers do their best work in a place away from or separate from their homes (a room of one’s own). In that room they are not distracted by the daily (dog, duty, diapers, dianthus, disasters etc). Alone they confront the empty sheet of paper, silent they listen to their muse, structured they work at their writing. I have a writing shed next to the garage with no access to phone or internet. It is there that I write what I cannot write elsewhere.

So what about the negative impact of cloistered life on me as a writer? Here it is in all its brazen contempt. In the cloister I lost my voice. By voice I mean not the use of tongue and vocal chords but the loss of the ability to think things through. To have opinions that might differ from those of others. To express doubt. To challenge belief. To search for one’s own truth.

This loss of voice should not exist in cloistered life. It does not belong in a place dedicated to the God of truth. So, here is where I must insert those modifiers that I mentioned earlier. I didn’t lose my voice because of the cloister but because I was a cloistered nun in the 60s when thinking for oneself was not permitted. Our superior did all our thinking for us and in obeying her we were obeying God and because I was a woman in a pre Vatican II Catholic Church which placed little value on women’s role save as “servant of.”

I didn’t realize how much I missed having a voice of my own until I returned to the world and had to start thinking for myself, where I was frightened and hesitant to express myself. I maintained silence, was timorous and obedient and docile -- and I was angry and I didn’t know why.

During the process of learning how to write, I discovered that a very strong voice of my own lay tucked deep within me. It took a long time-- 20 years apprenticeship learning to express myself -- to summon that voice. And now that I’ve found my voice again and have learned to use it, I nourish and encourage it through the practice of the 3 S’s of Silence, solitude, and structure.

Thank you Patry for inviting me to do this guest blog with you, and thank you Patry fans for your willingness to welcome me today. I shall check back here throughout the day to comment and reply.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune named Beryl as a "Best of 2006 Minnesota Authors." Her book The Scent of God was a “Notable” Book Sense selection for April 2006 and has been nominated by booksellers for a Midwest Booksellers Book Award. Visit her Website.