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.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful thing to do, Patry, to invite a guest to blog on your site! And this one is so very fascinating! Such a good questions too!

Beryl, I really enjoyed your answer, so articulate (naturally), well-thought out and wise. Thank you! I must look for your book.

Lisa said...


Your story fascinates me. I just finished reading The White Taxi and I've ordered your book. The idea of monastic life has always fascinated me. As your experience was in such a different time and you were so very young, it's very easy for me to understand how your story unfolded, but I have to imagine that it took incredible courage to deal with the consequences of falling in love and leaving. I wonder though, how you feel about the idea of a cloistered life in general, for those with more life experience. I've often thought that this kind of life choice must be far easier for people to make much later in life when physical passions are not such a powerful force. Given the opportunity to question, do you believe such a lifestyle is fulfilling? Do you believe it's something that we as human beings are capable of?

Thank you so much for your thoughtful post and thank you Patry for introducing us to such a fascinating person.

andy said...

I admit I'm quite an infrequent visitor here - mostly because I have far too much daily distraction and not nearly enough of those 3 S's - but I'm so glad I happened by today. My own writing has dried up almost completely, my head filled with the din of all those D's. Now I have an idea of how to go about making some adjustments to deal with that.

Thank you Beryl, and thank you Patry.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Beryl, I don't know where to begin. I suppose the best place is by ordering your book. Endorsements from both Patry and Ann Patchett are enough for me, but to then "hear" your voice on this blog...Thank you for introducing us, Patry.


Anonymous said...

What a delight to meet you Marja-leena, Lisa, Andy, and Amy. Lisa has give me enough material to write an entire new blog!

Where do I start? How do I feel about the cloistered life in general and is it easier for an older person to enter such a life because physical passion is no longer such a powerful force. First, let me tell you a story"

Last summer I attended a large gathering of contemplative monastics at Saint John's University in Collegeville. During an exceptionally lively round-table discussion, one of the women who had entered the monastery in her early 40s spoke of the terror she'd experienced when she first "got the call." She had a very successful career, a lovely home, a great car, and a recognized name in her field." "No God," she pleaded, "not this too. Isn't it enough that I've become a catholic?"

As I listened to her speak a similar sense of panic welled up within me -- and I knew without a doubt that my vocation is as a contemplative in the world NOT behind cloister walls. The very thought of seeking cloister made it difficult for me to breathe. And yet, as a young girl, I'd sought that very cloister with joy for all it offered.

I believe mightily in the cloistered way of life for those God calls to it -- because I believe they can be beacons of hope and teachers for those seeking to deepen their spiritual lives. As a matter of fact, many of those attending that conference "Contemplatives in the Modern World" were protestants who were gathering in monasteries and turning to the contemplative Benedictines for wisdom and help.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Beryl and Patry,

That was a wonderful blog entry. I've followed Beryl's blog tour around the country for the past month, and am enjoying getting to know her a little bit more with each visit! Great question, Patry. And insightful answers. You are so right about the seclusion - when I go on work trips for conferences, I have all evening to myself in the hotel room, and I call it my writer's Nirvana. Delightful, focused, quiet writing time that I cherish highly! Meanwhile, I have to rise at 4 AM these days to carve out a little silence for myself. ;o)

Kerry Dexter said...

Insighful question and answer, thank you both. I wonder if you ever find there's been a time that there has been too much silence, solitude turning to isolation? and how do you handle that, if so?

interesting to read about your monastic experiences. my mother spent the last 18 years of her life, her 50s and 60s, as a Benedictine nun.

Anonymous said...

For some reason I have never really had the experience of too much solitude save for the time I was widowed and had two small children. I remember how isolated I felt, especially on weekends.

In July I am going away for a 10 day silent retreat. I'll probably be better able to answer this question then. It's the first totally silent retreat I've made for so many days.

But I love solitude. My husband calls our home Beryl's Monastery. It's a very contemplative spot with the great lake stretched in all its wonder before me.

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

Well, now. I've signed up and I suppose can consider myself a google blogger save that I don't have a blog here.

Patry Francis said...

Thank you, Beryl, for digging deep for the true, complicated answer to the question--one that told me some things I really needed to hear as a writer.

This was the perfect blog post for me to come home to from New York. One of the speakers at the conference said that most people don't enjoy spending many hours alone--and those people may not be cut out to be writers, no matter how talented or motivated they might be.

I love Beryl's concept of the 3 S's. My little desk area is crowded with words and quotes and reminders, but I'm definitely going to make room for three more.

Thanks again to Beryl. It's an honor and a joy to have her here.

Anonymous said...

Your Scent of God has become a favorite book of mine! I am thrilled to find you here as Patry's guest.
What an intriquing question she posed. Your answer and your advice in the form of 3 S's resonated with me.
What a road you have walked, Beryl. I have found The Scent of God to be an impetus in my own life urging me to deeply inhale and savor every day, and every moment. Best wishes to you and your precious book!

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

Thanks Patry for your lovely message and Debbie for stopping in. I have just attempted to create a photo to go with my name on blogspot and am curious to see if it will show or not. Have patience with me. I'm learning s-l-o-w-l-y.

floots said...

a pleasure to "meet" you and learn more about you
thank you

flit said...

Looking forward to reading both of your books, Beryl and Patry.

Deirdre said...

Patry, thank you for introducing me to this writer.

Beryl, I'm so intrigued by your story. I spent all of my early life in a religion that stifled independent thought - it will be good to read your book and see your journey back to thought and voice.

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating way to start the day! Wonderful insights.

Creation takes place in the void. How each of us gets to that point is a personal test of endurance. Thanks for sharing yours.

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

I attempted to post a response to Deidre's comment last night. I tried three times, each time getting as far as "post comment" when I'd lose internet connection. I know I had some extremely wise response ;-)but perhaps the powers that be were telling me to shut up and let the spirit talk. So Deidre, I hope you got the message the spirit was trying to bring you.

And ric, how lovely to check in this morning and find your message. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Patry and Beryl,
I enjoyed reading every word here. And I asked myself, "Is that why I'm so irritable, not getting enough of the three S's?"

The wonderful priest I grew up with eventually left the priesthood. Not only did he marry but then later got divorced!

Memoirs are my favorites. I'm intrigued and will look for your book.

Silent and listen are the same word with the letters rearranged.

Anonymous said...

Beryl, your post and comments help me. I've read books on the monastic life. The variety of experience fascinates me. The whole thing fascinates me.

Thank you.

paris parfait said...

Such an intriguing story. Losing one's voice can be the worst possible thing - I've seen that women who have long been repressed (i.e. in the Middle East or Afghanistan) are hesitant to speak, even when the barriers are lifted. It can take considerable time of developing trust in their new-found freedom for them to finally articulate the thoughts and emotions that have been lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to speak - and for someone to actually listen and place value on their words. I want to know more about your story and will order your book.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

What a lovely, eloquent post! Thank you Patry, for inviting this lovely writer to share her words with us. And thank you, Beryl, for this wisdom.

Patry, I've given you a Thinking Blogger Award. No one makes me think more than you. Check out my blog for more details.

Tinker said...

Since I've had computer connection problems this week, I've had a lot more of your three S's than I've had for awhile - but until I read your post, I hadn't really thought of this week's experience in that context.
I'm realizing I accomplished more during this time of S's than I have in a very long time. Thank you for helping me reframe my experience in a more positive light.
Your book sounds intriguing and I will look for it. Thanks Patry for the introduction!

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

Like Tinker, I too, have had computer internet problems the past two weeks and am only now back to check on Patry's great blog. Thank you Peter, Paris, Sharon, and Tinker for your comments. I remember living in the Twin Cities where traffic jams on the way to and from work provided wonderful private time once I stopped worrying about being late and accepted the delay for the gift it was.

dawn2454 said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and ideas from Patry's question. Most interesting.... I love what you wrote about the three 's' and how they are needed to be a good writer. I know I often find my best writing time is late at night once everything is turned off, kids & hubby are in bed, and you know the phone is not likely to ring or get any interuptions.
Thanks again Beryl, and thanks to Patry for inviting you to share on her blog as a guest.

Anonymous said...

Beryl, I've re-read your post a few times now, and it has really stayed with me. It was fascinating to read how you lost your voice in the cloistered life, and how you got it back.

I'm so glad you found your voice again. Your struggle to find it is very inspiring to me. Thank you for writing about it. All the best to you!

eb said...

I really enjoyed this post and there is still much to think about. I have always enjoyed - or - have inclined towards solitude - perhaps as a result of a childhood in the Nebraska sand hills where my best friends were rocks - and silence is so important to creativity - now structure can be elusive - leaning more towards flow - in any event thank you so much - I look forward to reading "The Scent of God."

I have also enjoyed the comments of others here - delightful - thought provoking - to savor...

xox - eb.

Anonymous said...

Oi, achei teu blog pelo google tá bem interessante gostei desse post. Quando der dá uma passada pelo meu blog, é sobre camisetas personalizadas, mostra passo a passo como criar uma camiseta personalizada bem maneira. Até mais.

Jone said...

Totally off topic but I was inspired by Laini's author party for you and so I am having one for her on Monday. Wish you could be with us.

rdl said...

Hey, what's going on here, going for a Guinness record - abandoned blog. I hope this means that yr. next book is quite aways along.
yr. fans await.

Ellen said...

Patry, you've been TAGGED!
See my my blog for details:


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Anyways, until the next time I run across your page, c ya' ciao!

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