Meet Christina Baldwin
Christina Baldwin has taught journal writing seminars internationally for over 25 years. She has written several classic books about personal writing: One to One: Self-Understanding through Journal Writing (1977/1991), Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest (1991, revised edition 2007), and Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story (2005). In the early '90s, Baldwin began exploring ways to help people use the circle as a way to move from personal to social consciousness, to understand how we must all stand by our stories and make our presence count in the world. Her explorations led to Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture (1994/1998) and to The Seven Whispers, A Spiritual Practice for Times Like These (2002). She and her partner, author and educator Ann Linnea, have founded a company called PeerSpirit, in Langley WA. They offer Circle Practicums, wilderness adventures, and writing seminars. For an updated list of books and programs, visit the PeerSprit website. This interview was conducted by Susan Wittig Albert and published in the December, 2001, issue of The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 5, No. 4).
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 12/15/2001
I'd like to begin on a personal note by saying that I believe Life's Companion to be the very best book on journaling ever written. I've used it in a great many classes, and participants never fail to connect with the book. How did you become interested in journal writing? Did your view of journal writing change between these two books?
I became aware of journal writing through the story of Anne Frank. When I was twelve, I read her diary and saw the play about her life that was first being performed at that time. It was 1958 when I began to write daily pages. First I had one of those little dime-store diaries with five lines a day, but very quickly I went free-form into a spiral notebook. I still have Volume One stored in a box somewhere. My first entry is a tear- stained letter addressed to "Kitty," the imaginary friend Anne Frank addressed. It begins dramatically, "As you have probably guessed by now, Anne is dead." I think it shows how real the experience of reading this girl's life was for me. At that time, and I hope it is still true today, every child in America read Anne Frank's diary as part of the standard eighth-grade English curriculum. I have kept up with the ongoing translations and release of the full and annotated diary, material that Otto Frank didn't consider appropriate in the 1950's.
Anne's diary was the beginning of my interest in personal story, and my awakening to the fact that my ordinary life as a Minnesota school-girl was also a story. So I began writing about my own life. I was no Anne Frank in terms of my skills, or understanding how to speak the truth about myself or family or situation! The first half of the 1960s was still the age of complicit silence, and my early writing skims along, not knowing how to use language to go deeper. Still, the seeds of the self-examined life are there, recorded line by pencil line.
Has the act of keeping a journal changed your life in any way?
The act of writing has changed everything about my life, and I cannot tell you how, because I have no way of seeing how my life would have been without writing. From the age of 12, I have been putting my life into words. Often very superficially, quickly jotting down events and feelings, very centered on the journey of the self. What has grown in me is a profound regard for real story, for truth-telling, for sleuthing after secrets, and digging through layers of reality like an anthropologist seeking to understand the life held in the bones of words.
To my surprise, my essential practices have stayed the same all these years: I work in a free-form book, writing as long or short an entry as I can manage in the moment. I do not write every day, but I keep a little monthly calendar in my journals, two lines that say things like: "Jan. 16: Ann to gardening, Debbie here, resettling office details, 2 hours on e-mail, conference call, Roger for lunch, feeling harried but ok." In the same month I may have six long entries that explore my thoughts and feelings in depth.
One change is that the way I am "self-absorbed" is different. I have slogged through the major therapeutic issues and healing, and while I spend of lot of time writing as an act of self-maintenance, my desires to be of service at this perilous time are a conversation that consistently emerges now. I keep making a commitment to bring news of the world into the journal. There is an urgent question I am asking: what can I do?
And when I look at these issues and raise them on the page, I have to have a spiritual framework for seeking to understand the times and my place within them. So the spiritual level of the same question is: what wouldst Thou have me do? These seem to be absolutely essential questions in my own life, and in our collective life. All of my work-self-work, community work, professional work, is framed around them.
What special benefits does journaling bring to women?
It brings us our voice! The act of writing is a fairly recent skill acquisition for common people of both genders, and especially for women. Two hundred years ago, most women could not read or write and there are parts of the world, as currently in Afghanistan, where it is a crime to teach a girl to read or write. Having the ability to write one's own life story is incredibly empowering and liberating. We can speak our reality in our own words! We can practice how we see our lives and life around us. And for many women, before we can say, "here's what I think about that." or "here's the impact that has on me." we have first to write it down and finish these sentences for ourselves. Privately, quietly, tucking our truths away until we are ready to stand by our stories.
I still believe the lines from Muriel Rukeyser's poem ("The Speed of Darkness") that asks: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." [Christina didn't know it when she wrote this, but Story Circle uses these lines as its motto!] The world has split open in the last forty years, and claiming the stories of our lives has been a catalytic act beyond our ability to even see its full impact. And, of course, it has led men to start speaking the reality of their lives-not the public persona and mythology about being male, but their own realities, which are harsh and limiting in their own ways.
In Life's Companion, you say that you wrote the book three times. What events in your life changed this book so dramatically?
It was partly life events, but even more so, it was the willingness to take the writing down deeper and deeper into the voice required by the work itself. Life's Companion is the book where I came into my mature voice as a writer. I knew going into the project that I had to find that voice in myself in order to do this topic justice, and that I didn't have it when I started writing. My agent sold the book concept to Bantam, and I began seeking my voice/the book's voice, and everything I wrote for the first three months I deleted. Then I finally found a voice that allowed me to complete the first draft. I sent it to my editor, who sent it back with a seven-page critique, telling me I wasn't quite there. I sat on the back steps of my house, had a little cry, a long walk with my dog, and started over. That was when my relationship with the content of the book really took off, and when I got the idea to separate out these little essays on spiritual life from the writing exercises and quotes. Someone who doesn't want to write can just read the essays, and someone who wants a lot of suggestions can make their way through 120 exercises.
This year (2001) is the tenth anniversary of the publication of Life's Companion. How has the book changed your own life?
There is a Spanish proverb which says: there is no road, we make the road as we walk. I would say the same thing about journal writing: we make the path as we write. The journey I laid out in Life's Companion has been a journey I have now made for myself in these past ten years. I remember that, as I finished writing that book, the last four chapters made me nervous because I knew I wasn't there yet. I hadn't found my community, my right place. I had to make a number of changes in my life before I could fulfill my own spiritual quest. I have lived my way through that book, and now have written two more books that I am also living through.
Tell us about Calling the Circle.
I have always taught in a circle. Always said to other journal writers, "I'm not the expert here...we are all writing our life stories, are all co learners and co-teachers." So that spirit has always imbued my classrooms, retreats and seminars. When I met Ann Linnea in 1991, she was looking for ways to work with more women, I was looking for ways to do something besides writing, while keeping journal writing as part of the activity. The first thing we had in common was that both of us had always taught in circles...and that became the place we started to combine our fields of knowledge.
I personally think it was an act of guidance, because when we began studying the impact the circle itself has on groups we realized that there was great potential to intentionally create the kind of spiritual/social intimacy people long for by teaching people circle skills. Once inside the circle people can do just about anything in terms of content.
Circle is like a skeleton, and the intention, conversational topics and personalities of those who gather "flesh out" the structure and make the circle process as unique as we are ourselves.
What are you doing now (2001)? What are you writing? Does PeerSpirit occupy all your time?
I have a new book coming out in a few months called: Seven Whispers, Listening to the Voice of Spirit. It's a book of essays based on seven phrases that came into my prayer life in 1999 and have guided me ever since. I think of these phrases as spiritual commonsense, things like: Practice peace of mind. Move at the pace of guidance. The book evolved into a look at claiming our spiritual lives and our spiritual authority for ourselves, how to trust our own inner voices.
PeerSpirit does occupy most of my time, but what we do under that umbrella keeps evolving. Ann Linnea and I still love to teach together. We love combining her lifelong passion for attuning people to nature with my lifelong passion for transforming experience into story. And we find that the need for story is everywhere: we need to make sense out of what is happening, especially now in the world. The only way we can change what we are doing as human beings is to create a story that brings evolutionary changes into language for we proceed from the story outward.
Every person who keeps a journal, who keeps turning experience into story makes room for a new story to emerge about who we are and what we are capable of. It is the stories of our goodness that lay out the path we can follow into the future. At least that's the belief that carries me forward day by day.
A circle is not just a meeting with the chairs rearranged...A circle is a return to our original form of community as well as a leap forward to create a new community...
—Christina Baldwin, Calling the Circle