Tag Archive for Karen Swallow Prior

Lifting the Veil


Our collective imagination is haunted by a certain image of the artist: a solitary bard, brooding alone, awaiting a burst of inspiration from a mysterious and magical muse. We see the person with the creative spirit as one who stands above and apart from the common lot, a secular priest who mediates between regular folks and the transcendent, delivering divine revelation from his mountaintop hermitage.


Certainly, some folks are more creative than most. Yes, the true artist, in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley in his Defence of Poetry,lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” Surely, inspiration plays a part in the creative process—but only a minor role to labor and sweat. And, yes, the writer, the painter, the sculptor, the musician writes, paints, sculpts, and plays endless hours alone.

Yet, the fact is that the artist is an ordinary person who carries with her into those lonely chambers of toil seeds germinated in society, fruits formed by fellowship, ideas incubated in dialogue. Only God creates out of nothing. Human beings create from the materials given—and received.

In other words, creativity comes from community.

The true artist bears witness to the works of those who have gone before, whether those works come in the form of the collected wisdom of philosophers over thousands of years, or an enchanting painting by one of the great masters, or simply an insightful post at our favorite blog. Yes, the fires of creativity spark within us, but they are stoked by the winds from the world around us.

In my own field—writing—it is a truth universally—and unironically— acknowledged that a good writer is a good reader. The gifted writer is less likely born than she is well read. And what are books but a community of words from which the writer develops curiosity, nurtures wonder, tests ideas, and practices the craft of expressing well? Both reading and writing—even when performed alone—are acts rooted in the community of other readers and writers. Sartre famously depicted hell as other people. Well, art is other people, too.

So good writers read. But not all books are inked and bound. The book of life—whose chapters contain hope, expectation, love, delight, disappointment, loss, growth (in other words, people)—provides, too, the words from which we create. Endless asking, telling, listening, debating, learning, regretting, cursing, pontificating, apologizing, lamenting, lying, confessing give birth to the words we carry into our solitary writing rooms.

And when we write—unless we write only what is fit for a diary with a key—we write for readers. We write with some one, or some community, in mind.

And once we offer the gift of our creativity to others, they return the gift: through their accolades, their questions, their criticisms, their amens, and even their silences. These are all gifts—even the coal of disapproval. And if we receive them, truly receive them, they become our Muse—and our chisel, too.

So we whittle away at our craft, ever refining and sharpening, because while we might labor in solitary, we never create out of nothing or alone.

Come, let us create together.

Come read with Karen this summer at The Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she will teach a seminar on reading as spiritual formation.

Ordinary Woman, Extraordinary Life

Surely no one expected anything to come of the fourth daughter born in 1745 to the poor school master of a charity school in the tiny village of Fishponds, outside Bristol England. Girls, particularly those of the working class in the highly stratified society of eighteenth century England didn’t have great expectations. Most of them didn’t even get a decent education.

But Hannah More—the name of this obscure girl child—was lucky enough to have been born to a father a man skilled and humane enough to feed this girl’s insatiable hunger for learning—even beyond what was typically taught to girls in those days. Hannah’s natural aptitude bloomed under her father’s instruction—her first foray beyond ordinary.

The times were ripe for young learned women like Hannah and her sisters (there were five More girls in all) to transmit their own learning to others. Bristol’s burgeoning middle class had produced families who wanted and could pay for good education for their girls, so the elder More sisters opened a school of their own in 1758. Here Hannah honed her literary skills by writing works for the school’s pupils and poetry that would be read and praised by some of the city’s most fashionable and influential citizens. The ordinary girl was obscure no longer.

Soon Hannah was courted by a gentleman related to some pupils enrolled at the More sisters’ school. It seemed a perfect match, the pair became engaged. But the marriage was not to be. After three bouts of cold feet on the part of the prospective groom, Hannah gathered up her remaining dignity and broke off the engagement. As was ordinary at the time, her former fiancé provided Hannah with an annuity that gave her financial independence. A wife she was not to become. But a writer she would be. She turned ordinary heartbreak into extraordinary opportunity.

Soon she was off to London, to seek her fate as a poet and playwright. The dramas and verses she’d written back in Bristol preceded her, and the famous and fashionable of London greeted her with praise and delight. Her first play was produced on the London stage in 1777. This was followed by another play and more poetry, along with endless dinners, teas, and parties.

But these extraordinary opportunities did not satisfy Hannah. She loved the simple life. She loved flower gardens. She loved her God. She loved, too, the poor, children, animals, and slaves—all those ordinarily overlooked and abandoned in that age.

Hannah withdrew from fashionable society. She befriended some of the most devout Christians in England at the time, including the ex-slave ship captain John Newton (author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”) and the Member of Parliament William Wilberforce. These three joined forces with other like-minded friends to campaign for the end of England’s slave trade.

It took many years, but they succeeded.


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