Finding the Form with Lori Sebastianutti
My essay Seeing in 3D, was a project five years in the making. For the longest time, it lived only in my head, snippets appearing while washing dishes or folding mini blue and black track suits into neat piles. Having a crisis of faith is hard to think about, let alone write about. Plus a thought constantly nagged: who would publish a piece about a woman feeling betrayed by a church that had been the centre of her spiritual life for forty-one years? A book and a literary festival provided the answers.
The essay collection, Body and Soul. Stories for Skeptics and Seekers edited by Susan Scott, started me on the path to visualize a space for this essay. Listening to Susan speak a few months later at the Wild Writers Literary Festival in Waterloo solidified the hope that there may be a place for writing about spirituality in CanLit after all. I attended the panel Shaming or Celebrating? Challenging Norms in Personal Nonfiction moderated by Susan which featured some of the talented contributors of Body and Soul. Her impassioned plea that we need more writers coming out of the shadows to explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of spiritual tradition was the permission slip I needed. That week I set to work.
I began like I always do— by reading. I read spiritual memoir like Alison Pick’s Between Gods as well as the works of theologians and Christian mystics like Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton. When reflecting on my own story, the idea that kept coming to the surface was my failure to look beyond ritual and tradition to zero in on what I truly believed as a Catholic. For the better part of my life I had lacked depth when it came to practising my faith. And with that thought, a series of images quickly unravelled: a childhood eye condition, the saint I prayed to cure me, and the traditional Sicilian dish I ate every year in honour of Saint Lucy and her perceived ability to cure eye diseases. The question then became, how to tie it all together?
The same I day that I sat in on the spiritual writing panel I attended Ayelet Tsabari’s workshop, 10 Tips for Writing Great Creative Nonfiction. The tip that stood out to me the most was #8: Every Story Has Two Stories. To make this point Ayelet, challenges the writer to ask the question, what is your story really about? What is bubbling beneath the situation or circumstance of your subject? This is where I had the idea to weave my childhood eye disorder and Saint Lucy alongside my failure to see the way my church’s actions were not always aligned with its central teaching. From there the essay came to life, and flowed freely. As I revised, I paid attention to the themes of seeing, perceiving, and light that became the thread that pulled the entire piece together.
Lori Sebastianutti is a writer and teacher from Stoney Creek, Ontario. She is the former managing editor of the Fertility Matters Canada blog. Her essays have appeared in the Hamilton Review of Books and are forthcoming in the Humber Literary Review. You can read more of her work at lorisebastianutti.com.