Looking back, writing and music have been the twin passions of my life. As a child I wrote children’s books, and in high school, I wrote historical fiction. I studied literature in college and also started playing guitar and writing songs. These songs led to recording projects and later, to poetry. While living in England a few years ago, I decided to take a poetry course at the University of Oxford. The experience sharpened my interest in returning to school full-time to pursue creative writing. In 2010, along with three other poets, I was accepted into the four-year MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Arkansas. I will begin my second year of study this fall.
So far, my experience of being a Christian and a writer in a secular academic setting has been a good one. After trying the “lone ranger” approach for a while, the academic route has provided the structure (i.e., deadlines), guidance, and camaraderie I was lacking. Studying under successful writers has helped me to refine my work, and writing alongside my colleagues has also been formative. I’ll admit that at first I was concerned about being pigeon-holed into a Christian stereotype and wary of having my work scrutinized by a group of competitive writers. But, while at times I’ve sensed suspicion on the part of some colleagues and professors towards religion/religious people, I have never felt singled-out because of my faith. And although in the workshop setting we each must give and receive difficult feedback at times, my colleagues are also quick to spot the good and to encourage.
While I don’t necessarily set out to write about my faith—as the lens through which I view the world, it certainly influences my work. Having grown up on the stories of the Old and New Testaments, I often draw upon their wealth of language, images, and themes in my writing. A recent example is a poem I wrote about John the Baptist. My inspiration took the form of asking questions about what it was like for him to go from the spiritual “high” of heralding the Messiah to imprisonment. The poem is my attempt at imaginatively recreating John’s thought-life during his final days. I’ve found that I’m not alone in drawing upon Christian influences in my writing. From time-to-time images of prayer, communion, and baptism crop up in my colleagues’ poetry as well.
My experience as a Christian pursuing an MFA in a secular institution has been far from a trial. For me, listening without feeling compelled to share an opinion has been key, as well as not being easily offended or becoming defensive when I encounter disparaging remarks or opinions with which I disagree. Of course, I have my beliefs and opinions, and I sometimes share these with my colleagues. But I don’t consider it my job to “correct” their thinking or try and convince them of the validity of Christianity through debate. My hope instead is that in me they see an imperfect person living in a way that honors Christ and thankful to be part of my community of faith. In March, when my husband and I hosted a liturgical house blessing in our home, we invited my colleagues to join us. Ten of them made the 45-minute drive for the service and party. Afterwards, a few commented about the beautiful prayers and warm sense of community. When an experience like this gives my friends a taste of how good it is to know and belong to Christ—that to me, is a success worth celebrating.
Traci R. Letellier is a poet and MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas. She is also a singer-songwriter with recordings available on iTunes and CDBaby.com.
Image Credit: Todd Furgason