Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Pen and the Bell—almost here!

As many of you know, I've been working on this book with my friend Holly Hughes for over four years. Now, after an incredible collaborative process, The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World is about to emerge into the world! It will be published by Skinner House Books in May 2012.

We just received the cover image Friday. Phew. Waiting to see the cover of a book after one spends so long writing it is always a little nerve-wracking: will the cover really echo the voices inside? Will it draw the reader in? Will it welcome the reader to its pages?

We think it does.

Would you like a little sneak peek? Here's some excerpts from the Preface. Enjoy!

The Pen and The Bell

"A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me—a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic—or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can."
    —Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”

Denise Levertov’s poem describes a state of mind many of us would love to achieve in our daily lives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel that each day we’re granted an “honor and a task,” and each day to know that we can easily do this work—with pleasure, focus, and joy?

This book is about how to carve out  space for writing in a world crowded with so many distractions. It’s about how many of us long to be “a bell awakened,” and yet how difficult that state can be to achieve in the face of our massive to-do lists. It’s about being able to gain access to our deeper selves in the work-a-day world, and to bring forth this authentic self in our writing.

We spent a year writing letters to one another about the twin subjects of writing and contemplation, about how these processes have manifested and evolved in our own lives.

And the most wonderful thing happened: the letter-writing, for both of us, became a deep and rich practice. The letters took on their own life, showed us details or memories we never would have found otherwise, because the simple words—“Dear Holly”, “Dear Brenda”—became our bells of mindfulness. And we had each other as an audience to these thoughts, a listening ear that helped us settle down.

We came to fully understand that all those interruptions are really life itself, not something apart from that life. Contemplation and writing do not happen only in quiet places, in sanctified rooms. In fact, we need to be in contact with the world, to feel ourselves in dialogue with our ordinary lives, rather than resisting them. If we train ourselves, we’ll see that our writing material, and our contemplative state of mind, can be found anywhere: in the Volkswagen repair shop, at the doctor’s office, in a traffic jam, at PetSmart.


At the moment, as we write this introduction to you, we have been lucky enough to work in a quiet place, where the day begins with the ringing whistle of red-winged blackbirds in the marsh, and ends with Great Horned Owls calling for us to pay attention for just one more minute before the day is done. Here, we really feel ourselves imbued with Levertov’s mantra: I can.

We pulled a book of Levertov’s poems off the shelf at dawn, opened it serendipitously to this message that reminded us why we are here, what our “honor and task” might be for today. Levertov wrote her poem in dialogue with the poet Rilke, and so it seems even more fitting as our opening “bell.” Because through writing the stories that make up this book, inspired and supported by one another, we realized that we are—all of us—truly writing together, in dialogue with one another, even in the midst of stillness and solitude.

We hope that you will find yourself whispering I can, I can, I can when you next sit down to write.


  1. Very exciting. I just can't wait to read it. Ever since you mentioned it, several years ago, I've felt that the world needs your quiet voices.

  2. I too am very excited about your new book. I love the way you write, how you share your particular way of looking out upon the world. Just the anticipation of waiting for your book to be released into the world is a gift in itself! How much greater the gift will be when it is here!

  3. Inspiring post! We are so on the same wavelength--I had something similar in mind for tomorrow. I can't wait to read this book! I must have it as soon as it is out there.


  4. Congratulations to you and Holly!

    I really appreciate the perspective that letter writing serves as a "bell of mindfulness." In the process of writing a letter, I see more deeply and often with more clarity.

    I look forward to your book.

    1. Thank you Drew! I just took a look at your blog and love it. If you ever need/want an author interview with me and/or Holly about this book, we'd be delighted!

  5. Thank you Brenda!

    And yes, let's do an interview. I've long admired Holly's work, and yours with the Bellingham Review. Let's talk!

    1. Great! You can email me at The book doesn't come out until May, so perhaps sometime then?
      Thanks Drew!

  6. So delighted, Brenda! Wonderful news, and can't wait to read it.


What say you?