Course Syllabus

Spiritual Writing

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Find the balance between the personal and the powerful, and learn how to share your thoughts with readers of differing beliefs or traditions.

This class will ask what, if anything, can make nonfiction writing “spiritual.” You will read selections from essays and memoirs in the spiritual writing genre and try composing your own versions of this material. How can we write about something so personal and powerful and share it with an audience of differing beliefs or traditions? How do writers move beyond saccharine sentimentality to illuminate a truth? You will choose a spiritual question or subject to explore in depth by writing two 500-word pieces and one article/essay of up to 3,500 words. The course will provide tips and inspiration for getting started, gathering material, and revising your work for publication. Writers from all backgrounds and faiths are welcome.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words)
  • optional video/tele conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work. 

Week 1: Shaping the Spiritual

This week will cover how writers working in the genre might define and describe “spiritual writing.” You’ll take a look at how the body, culture, or identity might shape the parameters of a story or your approach. We’ll also explore the ways in which writing itself can serve as spiritual practice, both playful and prayerful. To get the juices flowing, you will have the option to write a short piece (up to 500 words) to share with the class, and you will choose a subject for your primary assignment.

Week 2: Framing the “I” in Faith

You’ll confront challenges of placing individual perspectives of faith—so close to the heart—on the page as art. Often, we do not speak of spiritual or religious subjects because they can be just as divisive as inclusive, as sappy as salient. How can you mine your relationship to belief without alienating readers or losing the complexity that marks lived experience, particularly in the realm of emotion? You’ll consider how form, voice, or narrative distance can frame such issues in creative ways. In preparation for the primary assignment, you will have the option to write another short piece (up to 500 words) to share with the class.

Week 3: Engaging the Other

Spiritual writing often engages people, places, or things that perplex, disturb, or mystify, and that draw us out of ourselves. Whether you face a religious institution’s complicated history, a family tradition, a desert, or a baffling stranger, you encounter uncertainty in stuff seen and unseen. You’ll imagine how to embrace such tensions with the “Other” in your work, and the ways in which you might incorporate disparate backdrops or backgrounds without losing the personal element or narrative momentum. You will also submit your primary assignment (an essay/article of up to 3,500 words).

Week 4: Speaking to You

Martin Buber writes that you “not only speak of God but also speak to him,” and Madeleine L’Engle adds that you don’t love in general, you love in particular—to live a spiritual life means risking closer communion with each other, with the earth, with the divine. You’ll study how writers might embody such desire—and its difficulties—through character or charism, prophecy or plea. You will also have the option of sharing your primary assignment with a small group of classmates for peer review.

Week 5: Re-Seeing and Representing Your Work

This week will cover techniques to revise and sharpen a spiritual writing piece to make it ready for publication. We’ll discuss best practices for submitting work to journals but also consider the bigger picture: allowing for risk and even failure, loving the roadblocks, and sustaining a practice.