Karen Hering is a writer and teacher who has been immersed in the work of words for most of her life. She is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, chaplain, and author of Writing to Wake the Soul: Opening the Sacred Conversation Within. Serving as consulting literary minister in St. Paul, Minnesota, Karen leads guided writing sessions, retreats, and communications workshops in community, congregational, and workplace settings. Her writing has appeared in literary journals, periodicals and meditation anthologies, and her interest in the transformative power of words has spurred her to lead a Nicaraguan literary tour exploring the role of poetry, literature, and imagination in movements for social change.

A Conversation with Karen Hering

Author Karen Hering, Writing to Wake the Soul: Opening the Sacred Conversation Within, will be in residence at Write On at the end of October, along with poet Naomi Cohn. On Tuesday, October 29, 9 am – noon, Karen will lead the multi-genre writing class “When Memory Meets Imagination” at the Donald and Carol Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Karen about her work and her upcoming program.

Jerod Santek (JS): You are an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and serve as a consulting literary minister. Can you share with us what it is you do as a consulting literary minister?

Karen Hering (KH): I lead programs that invite people to engage writing as a spiritual practice — what I like to call Contemplative Correspondence. It’s a correspondence with oneself — with the truth of one’s heart and mind. It’s also a way of writing that notices the correspondence between all beings, between then and now, and near and far. So many things in our world aim at separation and division. I’m interested in how writing can restore our ability to notice and experience how we are connected to one another. Both my programs and my book, Writing to Wake the Soul, serve as an invitation into the practice of Contemplative Correspondence.

JS: You have led a literary tour of Nicaragua, exploring the power of poetry, literature and imagination in movements for social change. What was the most memorable or significant part of that tour for you?

KH: So many moments were poignant reminders of the writer’s power and responsibilities. I carry a vivid memory of journalist Maria López Vígil who underscored a writer’s responsibility to look for the untold stories. She made her reputation writing literary testimonials, recounting the stories of the poor and victimized. “All lives are stories,” she said. “If we know how to tell a life’s story, we can understand it. We can be transformed by it.” She reminded us to look for the extraordinary stories that are being lost. As we met with her, the electrical power waned and then shut down entirely. But her energy was undiminished. She closed her notebook, told us she needed to leave for a meeting and, as she rose to leave, gave us this charge: “Write. Read,” she said emphatically. “The world can be transformed through words. Let’s take care of the words.”

JS: You will be leading the class “When Memory Meets Imagination” on Tuesday, October 29. What can students expect to get from this class?

KH: I have long been intrigued by the idea that imagination is really a fresh re-arrangement of things remembered. Based on that idea, we’ll use poetry, images and objects to engage both memory and imagination, writing from prompts. It’s a process designed to prime the pump of participants’ creativity. You can use it to look with fresh eyes on a writing project already underway, to generate ideas or material for something brand new or just to have fun with words on the page.

JS: What is the best writing advice you ever received?

KH: The poet William Stafford liked to tell his writing students when they suffered from writer’s block, “Lower your standards.” It was wisdom that many of us understood as referring to the way that perfectionism can have a silencing effect, especially when we’re trying to create something new — a “rough draft” that by definition will usually be rough around the edges when it first lands on the page. After William Stafford died, his son offered another interpretation of this wisdom that gave it even more meaning for me. Kim Stafford said to really understand what his father meant, we should remember that William Stafford was a very committed lifelong pacifist. The phrase “lower your standards,” Kim noted, derives from the banners or “standards” historically carried into war to identify which side was which on the battlefield. Lowering our standards as writers, Kim suggested, does relate to perfectionism but it also advises us not to regard our creative work as a battlefield. We are advised to let down our defenses, to befriend the muse (as Stafford described in a beautiful poem titled “The Muse” and to welcome what comes when we do.

I love that. I’m tired of the belief that creative people must suffer to produce good writing or good art. What kind of beauty might emerge in our writing if we engage language as the bridge of connection it is meant to be?