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Q&A with Gail Collins-Ranadive

Gail Collins-Ranadive talks about women's truths, her own writing habits and the ghost of Olympia Brown.

How did you get the idea for this book?
I attended a Women and Religion Retreat at Murray Grove back in the mid 1980s, and during our long weekend together I noticed that virtually every woman there admitted that she writes or has written about her life, yet every one said she’d never shared her writing with anyone; rather, she had hidden her journal away in the back of some drawer somewhere. At about that time, I had begun working on my MFA in Creative Writing at the American University, and the Literature Department there was heavily into women’s studies. The courses I took convinced me that women’s voices haven’t been heard or valued because we have been silent/silenced for too long. But how to break the silence? So I created and presented a writing workshop for the women in my home UU [Unitarian Universalist] congregation as a ministerial internship project. The workshop received the 1991 UU Women’s Federation Feminist Thea/ology Award, and I used that grant money to publish the writing workshop exercises under the title Writing Re-Creatively: A Spiritual Quest for Women. Skinner House picked it up and reprinted it twice under that title, and is now reprinting it for a second time under its current title, Finding the Voice Inside.

Why did you address this book to women?
When I included men in a writing group I held in my home, the women in the group stopped sharing their own truths and started care taking of the men instead. The whole dynamic changed, and the original purpose was defeated. Based on that experience, I was able to convince Georgetown University to let me offer a workshop for women through the evening extension program. It was working with this group of professional Washington women that propelled me into seminary a short time later: I agonized over not being sure how to help women deal with what opened up for them when they went deep into their own stories. Since then I have learned that all I can do is offer to walk with them while they do their inner work.

What are your own writing habits?
I have always written. As a young wife and mother, I would get up before the family and write to center myself for the day ahead. I always claimed a space in whatever set of military quarters we were occupying (usually the designated maid’s room), and set up a space for my inner life that was out of bounds for the rest of the family.

Since becoming single again, my entire living space is arranged around my writing.

When I get up before sunrise, I write in a prayer-journal by candlelight, and later transfer any insights into other notebooks designated for a variety of projects I’m working on at the time, including sermons. I carry a notebook in the car. Some of my best writing insights and ideas come while driving in my “modern monastic cell”. I have a notebook wherever I am: in the doctor’s waiting rooms, at the supermarket checkout. (I wrote my whole MA thesis while standing in line at the commissary.) I carry a notebook on walks, and I even kept one in my backpack while hiking in the Grand Canyon. During late afternoons at home, I write in a meditative manner, in the special light around a special chair. Writing helps me know who I am.

What are you working on now?
I‘ve tentatively titled my current project “Cultivating Universe-al Consciousness.” I am exploring the emergent new cosmology and what that means for how we live our individual and collective lives.

How has writing affected your life?
Writing this book changed my life drastically. It propelled me into seminary so I could walk with others on their spiritual journey. As a result, the truth of my own life became unavoidable and required painful changes—a challenge I had no right to expect of others until I was willing to undertake it myself.

Have you continued to lead women’s spirituality groups since the publication of Finding the Voice Inside? If so, have you changed the process at all?
As a parish minister, I do not feel right about leading spirituality groups only for women in the congregations I serve. But if any of the women in a current congregation decide they want to use the book together, I help them get started and then let someone else facilitate the workshop. I have developed other writing workshops to include men in the various congregations I’ve served as an interim minister over the years.

Do you have any stories about the exercises in this book?
My favorite story is about Exercise 36, in which women are invited to recall a historical woman and bring her forward to serve as a mentor and friend. I did this myself back in 1980 when I was asked to write a biographical sketch of Olympia Brown for “UU in the Home,” a project sponsored by the religious educators in the greater Washington area. I had written sketches of several men, but when I came to write the one on Olympia Brown, the same process hit a wall. I found myself writing a poem about how our two lives intersected BEFORE I could write the biographical essay. I put the poem in my desk drawer and forgot about it until I needed a writing sample of this exercise for the book. Thus the poem about Brown appeared in the back of the book. After the book was published, I got a letter from a woman named Clare who said she was a social worker and seminary student in Boston, and had been using my book with inner city women when just the night before. Reading through the samples in the back of the book, she came across the poem I’d written about her great grandmother, Olympia Brown! We arranged to meet, and she learned from my research more about Brown than she’d been told by her own family. When I completed seminary and went before the ministerial fellowship committee, Clare sat in the waiting room before my interview, as part of my support group. She even loaned me a pin of Olympia’s to wear during my interview. When the committee finished with their questions, they asked me if there was anything else I wanted them to ask, so I suggested they ask about the pin, and I told them it belonged to Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained into ministry in the U.S., in 1860. I feel blessed by that exercise!!

Has anything interesting happened to you as a result of writing this book?
As I said, writing this book propelled me into seminary as part of my own unfolding spiritual journey. Now, as I focus on my next book project, I find I am being called to open to a new phase of my life/work. And while this feels like stepping off a cliff and hoping for wings before going splat, I now know from experience that that is the nature of the spiritual path—a path to be travelled in trust and with deep gratitude.

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Last updated on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.

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