Stephanie Dowrick on daring to write Heaven on Earth

Stephanie Dowrick is the author of many much loved books, from Running Backwards Over Sand to Seeking the Sacred and Everyday Kindness. Here she celebrates the publication of her newest book, Heaven On Earth, by writing frankly about her writing life and what has supported, allowed and inspired it.

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I began my writing life in 1982 although I did not begin to take it seriously until 1983. My life as a publisher was looking terrific, at least from the outside: I was Managing Director (and Publisher) at the London publishing house, The Women’s Press, which I had founded with essential financial backing from Palestinian-born, dashing man-about-London, Naim Attallah. On the inside, though, things were less glossy. We were brave, innovative publishers, publishing way above our weight with writers like Alice Walker, Susan Griffin, Andrea Dworkin, Michele Roberts and Janet Frame. But money was a constant issue. So were the even more complex demands of running a feminist publishing house in a democratic way while also being responsible for what we didn’t then call the bottom line. The expectations were fierce – and exhausting.

More personally, I was, in some deep way, running out of the very steam that we joked about through the symbol of the despised household iron on all our books (“red hot”, “steaming ahead”).

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I’d been in the full-time workforce and had lived independently since the age of 16. (I remember feeling “old” by 25.) I went to university, but managed it fairly badly alongside a full-time workload and the struggles of premature independence. When I began working in publishing in 1972 – after four years in Europe – I was ecstatic; it felt like a homecoming to have work that I could love and where I could excel. When we began The Women’s Press in 1978, it seemed like a dream come true. We were succeeding in a highly competitive environment. I was living in the bold, brave world of feminist politics and publishing, yet I often felt adrift. I would say now that it was a classic existential crisis, although I then favoured psychoanalytic rather than spiritual language. It was also a breaking open: a becoming.

Between 1982 and 1983 I made some significant decisions. With waves of regret that would not subside for some years, I left The Women’s Press…although I would return later as Chair. Doing this, I followed a “call” – relayed to me in dreams, deeply felt – to move my work focus from publishing to writing.

That move would also be somewhat zig-zag because years later I did have another couple of years in a lovely, part-time publishing role as Allen & Unwin’s Fiction Publisher. Nonetheless, for someone whose sense of self was so absolutely tied up with her working life, the move from publishing – where I had claimed and gained quite admirable “ground” – to writing (where I had some experience, had published a couple of quickly-written books, but still knew myself to be an utter novice), was huge. I was entirely self-dependent financially. And that was only part of the story. What would legitimize this move in my own as well as others’ eyes? As a publisher, I knew that the demands of a serious writing life are insatiable and perilous. I also knew that my own perfectionism and obsessive work habits could run riot (and for three decades they did).

At the same time that I was making this move from work that was more extroverted to work that was, and remains, far more inwardly demanding, I was also planning to leave Europe, to leave London, a place I had made home. I had left New Zealand a few months after my 20th birthday, just as soon as I could gather enough funds from my very modest wages. I had lived in Europe, mostly London, for almost 16 years. My friends, my sense of self, my life were there. But, again, there was that inner “call”, this time to something even more significant than writing: to have a child.  In 1983 I left the UK (for two years only was the plan) with my then partner. We arrived in Australia in May; our son was born in September; our daughter just over a year later. Everything changed.

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“Becoming a mother” has been for me even more significant if far less public than “becoming a writer” (a psychotherapist, public speaker, interfaith minister, retreat leader). Both paths, maternity and work – in reality one path – though, required me to develop a quite new degree of courage and commitment, way beyond what was asked of me and what I asked of myself at the pretty demanding Women’s Press. (Every feminist in London had her own forceful view about how a feminist publishing house should function…!)

 

I’ve written elsewhere about how I began my writing life with a contract for Intimacy and Solitude…but then had to set it aside to write my first novel Running Backwards Over Sand. When I returned to Intimacy and Solitude, that ground breaking, still highly relevant book took six years to complete. It was far more demanding of me than my eventual doctoral thesis and work on visionary poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (In the Company of Rilke).  Intimacy and Solitude was the book that made my career, despite the huge success earlier of Running Backwards.

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Intimacy and Solitude, in its original and revised editions, also made me a writer. But what’s fascinating to me now, and clear only with the hindsight of decades and the books that followed those first two, is how powerful those deep, irresistible, potent impulses have been from within that I can only call inspiration or perhaps instinct. In some moments, I am brave enough to call them divine promptings. “Jump, jump.” My unconscious, my soul, my spirit has always known more than my busy conscious mind: always. It led. I followed. Not always gracefully or confidently, but faithfully.

It would not have been possible for me, arriving in Australia pregnant, missing my friends and familiar life shockingly, and extremely uncertain, to foresee the books, the subject matter, the inner evolution this writing (and mothering) life would demand. Mine has been a life of intense work and intense privilege in the sense that what I have felt driven to pay attention to are some of the most pivotal areas of life common to all of humanity. Forgiveness. Courage. Happiness. Kindness. Emotional intelligence. Peace and peacemaking. Relationships. Solitude. Self. Other. God. The sacred. Really, who could do that? Who could go there – repeatedly?! And, having done it, I can only say: “Word by word.”

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I have been driven by my need to know. I have been supported by my creativity and by an unconditional willingness to co-operate with that through the thousands of hours that research and craft require. I have benefited from a kind of pragmatism that’s itself a hybrid of my “sensible” New Zealand formation and my years of social activism and feminism. This told me, “Don’t be precious. Don’t expect too much of others… Get on with it yourself. Believe in the change you want to see. Create it. ” I had always expected to be self-supporting and I have had to be. My grandmothers worked. My mother, in her short life, completed a university degree and also always worked (and was herself immensely creative and also practical.) That also made a difference, not to my writing only but also to the additional, constant paid work I have taken on over the last 30 years to support my writing.

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What I also see is that my writing life and especially my subject matter have required a particular mixture of self-belief and absolute humility. I could not write those books, I could not approach writing those books, from a place of ego. Impossible. I had to be what I have allowed myself to become: a constant, committed seeker. At the same time, I had to be capable of assuring myself that my questions, my discoveries, have value. As do all our questions, sincerely and deeply asked. In that, I found the meaning of self-respect – and inevitable connection with others.

Crucial to that mix of drive and humility (and there have been countless opportunities to learn more humility…!), and where I see both mothering and writing as key, has been my spiritual evolution: my slow, sometimes blind claiming of a knowledge of who and what I am beyond the books, beyond my beloved children and grandchild, beyond relationships, intellect and way beyond the petty clamours of ego. This doesn’t mean that I am not vulnerable any longer; I am. But I am far less vulnerable than I would have been even ten or two years ago – and I am far more open to what I need to receive inwardly in order to keep going and offer what I can to others. My vision of what life is and can be becomes simpler, deeper.

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At a lovely reunion lunch in Auckland in January of this year (2013), I met for the first time in over 40 years with some wonderful women who had been among the other “clever girls” at our very ordinary, not-privileged catholic high school. One said, “It’s so amazing how little we have changed.” At one level she was entirely right. We were totally “recognizable” to one another. At another level she was entirely wrong. I have changed utterly. My sense of possibility has changed utterly, but with the seeds of who I am and was becoming – in these long-ago years – already planted.

The seed of God is in us.
Given an intelligent farmer and a faithful field hand,
it will thrive and grow up to God
whose seed it is and, accordingly,
its fruit will be God-nature.
Pear seeds grow into pear trees.
Nut seeds grow into nut trees.
God-seeds into God.
 
Go to the depths of the soul,
the secret place of the Most High,
to the roots,
to the heights.
For everything that God can do,
is there.

Meister Eckhart, Christian mystic, Germany (1260-1328)

 

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I am writing this as my newest book, from which the prayer above comes, is published. Heaven on Earth is a book of prayers. Some of them I have written. (And had you seen that tall, skinny, awkward, talkative, funny, nervous girl wearing her red gym slip at Sacred Heart, Lower Hutt, or the wild, satisfyingly outraged London feminist, or the hungrily ambitious young publisher, the young woman enduring years of private grief and depression even while apparently surging forward, or the mother who so badly wanted her own mother…you may have seriously doubted that she would ever dare! But she did. Word by word. Act of trust by act of trust. Sometimes regressing; tentatively trusting even that.)

Other prayers in the book are those I have rewritten or newly adapted; some come with centuries resting lightly upon them. Heaven on Earth is a book of beauty, courage, grit and grace because that’s what praying is: taking you beyond ego, regardless of “belief”. Praying is an experience; praying is its own best teacher. The prayers I share are the “Yin” of this story. The balancing “Yang” is that this is also a book about praying, because praying – in its conventional and far less conventional forms – has been my lifesaver, as it has been for countless of our forebears, whatever their gender, culture, religion, worldly allegiances. Prayer – the impulse to pray and the effects of prayer – brings us into a single human family. There, everyone “belongs”. Praying or, rather, aligning myself with my soul strengths within, has given me what ego, success, achievement cannot. The circumstances of my life trained me towards a quite extreme independence from early on; prayer took me much further. Prayer has taught me interdependence; a sense of the eternal as well as a sense of proportion; it is the light that doesn’t go out.

When it comes to changing the world, or the world within, prayer, I know, is also not “enough”. But after a lifetime of social activism, I truly doubt that activism without prayer – without the refining and broadening of mind that prayer brings – is also not enough. Yin must again align with yang.

As Heaven on Earth goes out into the world I send with it my desires, hopes, perhaps even confidence that it will support others as prayer has supported me. More than that though, I am aware as it travels into others’ hands that this is the first book I have written in 30 years where the “next one” is not already forming in my mind, if not on the page. It won’t be the last book I write; at least, I hope not. But it is companion to Seeking the Sacred – a book I wrote with passion and faith – and is, in that quite profound sense, a completion. I am also older. Life has been my teacher. That makes a difference. I want to pay Heaven on Earth sustained attention, especially now it’s “out there”. I want to pray it into life, lift it from the page, take it where it’s most needed. And I want time also to be grateful. Meister Eckhart again: “If your only prayer was thank you, it would be enough.”  Thank you.

 This article is copyright. To reproduce it, please ask permission from uhn  @    stephaniedowrick.  com  (close gaps). Heaven on Earth is published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and by Tarcher/Penguin in the US and UK. It can be purchased (free postage in Australia) via this LINK. You may share this article via social media. You can also comment on Stephanie Dowrick’s Facebook page.

May we all live in peace.