Why write? Because the longer I live the more wondrous the world becomes and the less I know.
Why I write novels: because I love these frail and fallible creatures we call human beings, our anxious struggles to live gracefully as an unstable bundle of flesh and spirit, in a world that is ever changing, and our failures, our sufferings, and our glorious moments of shining.
Why I'm currently writing a creative nonfiction book: because I unsuccessfully tried to resist doing so. I once wrote academic prose. When I unlearned that way of thinking, I began to write fiction. Now I'm stumbling toward yet a third voice, a new way of writing.
In this I feel a deep kinship with one of my writing heroes, Iris Murdoch, the philosopher-novelist, who wrote in 1959: "Prose literature can reveal an aspect of the world which no other art can reveal … and in the case of the novel, the most important thing to be thus revealed, not necessarily the only thing, but incomparably the most important thing, is that other people exist."
Mary Lane Potter has published a novel, a book of linked short stories, short stories, and creative nonfiction essays, as well as several academic books and numerous essays on feminist theology, sexual and domestic violence, historical theology, and spirituality. She's completed a new literary novel and is currently working on a book of essays focused on the body.
Currently she teaches writing classes and workshops (privately and for organizations such as the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Hugo House in Seattle, and The Loft Literary Center in Minnesota). She enjoys teaching all the elements of the craft of fiction, including classes on the sentence, effective description, scene and exposition, the short story, and the novella. Her unique expertise lies in teaching narrative structure for fiction and nonfiction, teaching experimental narrative forms, and leading writing workshops focused on spiritual journeys, spirituality, the body-spirit connection, and women’s lives. She also works as a book doctor, helping authors restructure and reshape completed manuscripts so their story shines.
She's enjoyed writing residencies at MacDowell, Hedgebrook, and Caldera. Her first novel, A Woman of Salt, was chosen as one of the 2001 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selections. In 2003 she received a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship.
Before devoting her life to writing fiction, Potter wrote and taught academic theology. She received her Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and for many years taught historical, constructive, and feminist theology at Christian seminaries across the country.
Nine commitments guide her writing and teaching:
- Approaching teaching and learning as a healing process
- Living out the teacher-learner relationship as a mutual, dynamic encounter; practiving presence and what Martin Buber calls "going forth"
- Practicing intellectual openness, honesty, and rigor; raising and exploring with others deep and serious questions about the way we humans live, our lives together here on earth, rather than offering answers
- Being open to current cultural understandings and the ways in which inherited concepts and images might need to be transformed to speak in the present
- Working out of genuine respect for and curiosity about the glorious diversity of cultures, cultural expressions, traditions, and ways of being, both in the present and across the centuries, both within specific communities and between and beyond them
- Listening to the voiceless and vulnerable; witnessing the hidden ones
- Reforming and articulating complex concepts about “faith” (whether in its religious, secular, or public forms) and the depth of human existence in ways that were accurate, fresh, meaningful, and accessible to all intelligent individuals, not just other academics
- Speaking to the whole person, to the heart and spirit as well as the head
- Dedicating opportunities and resources to furthering interfaith understanding and understanding between secular or areligious persons and persons belonging to religious communities
These nine commitments have remained true for Potter as she has pursued her writing and teaching career in fiction and creative nonfiction for the last twenty years. When she converted to Judaism in 1991, she left her tenured position as Professor of Historical and Constructive Theology, earned an M.F.A. in creative writing, and began publishing fiction.
Why the switch from academic theology to fiction and creative nonfiction? Potter offers this response:
Reading, writing, and thinking are my three passions. They always have been. Books crack open new worlds for me, give me the freedom to think beyond the confines of my upbringing, tradition, and experience. There is no pleasure greater than this. Writing does something similar: I think on the page, discover new possibilities I might not otherwise have thought or imagined, and (when all goes well) end up in a different place from where I began. That is a thrill I wouldn’t trade for anything.
When I was in the academic world, I balanced reading, thinking, and teaching with writing, fitting the writing in where possible. When I left the academic world in 1991, I left to devote myself to writing. At the time I thought that meant more academic writing, for I was working on a book about the theology of childhood that I hoped would speak to a broad audience.
Life intervened. Though I had wanted to be a poet most of my life worked and worked at it, and though I had tried to be a fiction writer in college, I had decided that I lacked imagination, I did not have the requisite creative skills, and that the route of the intellectual was better suited to me than that of an artist. To my surprise, when I sat at my desk to write my theology of childhood, nothing came out. After a dark time, I began writing words that eventually became a story. A story that eventually turned into a novel that was eventually published as A Woman of Salt.
Writing in this new way, with an eye toward narrative rather than academic argument, was liberating for me. All writing is persuasion; the rules of the rhetoric of persuasion are just different for academic writing and for fiction, as is the audience. What was thrilling for me was to discover that writing fiction was the most intense, the most challenging, the single most difficult thing I had ever done; it engaged all of me, my artistic and creative selves as well as my intellectual and analytical selves. And somehow I had to hold these all together as I wrote to form a complete whole that would speak powerfully to other human beings. I was hooked immediately.
I also realized that the values that mattered most to me and that I had embodied as an academic could be communicated in new ways through fiction and reach a broader audience, on beyond the academic world and beyond the world of religious communities. My dedication to nurturing diversity, seeing and defending the vulnerable among us, raising deep and serious questions about the way we humans live our lives together here on earth, speaking to the heart and spirit as well as the head—these all could be carried, rendered, shown through stories. And perhaps, if I learned how to write narrative well, they would have a more powerful and far-reaching effect. As an academic, I had wanted to transform individual lives, institutions, and traditions. That was what I wanted to do as a fiction writer as well: not to express myself; not to communicate ideas or evangelize my values; not to speak only to those people in religious traditions or communities; but to create a world that other human beings, wherever they found themselves, could inhabit for a brief time and emerge changed somehow from that experience.
That’s why I write fiction.
Potter recently completed a new novel, a re-imagining of the life of Miryam the prophet and mystic, and a spiritual autobiography entitled Seeking God and Losing the Way: A Story of Love and Conversions. Always looking for new ways to challenge herself as a writer, she also just finished writing a plot-driven novel in the suspense-romance genre with her colleague Kelly Malone.