Need to finish your dissertation? Another writing project?
Pam Poe describes how she gets her writing projects done at Pendle Hill. In this 2011 interview with Shirley Dodson, she talks about her experience as a visitor, workshop participant, sojourner (personal retreatant), and summer student.
Pam, you live within a couple of miles of Pendle Hill. You’ve told me that when you used to drive past the Pendle Hill grounds, you thought we were a convent! What was it that finally persuaded you to drive in?
The day I passed by and visited Pendle Hill for the first time happened to be the day someone decided to hang up a sign that read “Bookstore Open to the Public”!
So I thought it would be interesting to stop by and see what the nuns were reading…. Hill Felder, that wonderful denizen of the bookstore who is sadly no longer with us, used to be delighted when I brought this up, as proof that signs really work. This was May 1, 2006, and I discovered from the table of announcements and brochures outside the bookstore that the “Sent by God” workshop with Marcelle Martin as facilitator started that day. (I incidentally got to wear my own sign that announced I too was “Sent by God.”) What a great introduction that was - to Pendle Hill, sacred women in history, Marcelle’s thoughtful teaching, an excerpt of Shaw’s “Saint Joan” performed by Martha Kemper, Quaker worship, and community – many gifts, all at once.
How did you end up writing your doctoral dissertation at Pendle Hill? What was your experience like?
Well, the day I passed by Pendle Hill for the first time, I had begun to despair of ever getting anywhere with my dissertation. The research interviews had already been completed and logged, but my poor advisor was stuck with me, a former musician and video producer, who suddenly had to learn how to write for academic audiences. You can only do so many loads of laundry and dishes before it starts to look like that’s all you’ll ever do. Goodness, I couldn’t even guess what a literature review was when I started my doctoral work.
So several years into the process, I felt completely paralyzed by the whole thing, with just the vaguest idea of what I needed to say. That sign led beyond the bookstore and my first Pendle Hill workshop to my first experiences with Quaker worship. Somehow that amazing quiet, the supportive silence, coming a few times every week to worship, listening and talking with people, and visiting the library created the magic I have come to see as an inevitable part of Pendle Hill. Whatever seems utterly impossible when you enter the grounds starts to look plausible, then possible, and finally mountains begin to move. It’s unbelievable.
I didn’t have an official role, so I came to worship a few days a week that summer, visiting the bookstore and the library, talking with others at lunch about what they were working on, and then I wrote for hours. I also occasionally met with a woman who had been a pastor and was also attending worship while going through a similar struggle with her graduate thesis. At the day’s end, I would go for a swim or have a yoga class in nearby Swarthmore. The days I was not at Pendle Hill were spent in libraries, cafes, and bookstores, but it all worked together. That first draft of my dissertation was completely done by the end of August! Now it’s already been four years since I earned my Ph.D.
What writing project are you working on now?
This time, I’m an “official” part-time commuter summer sojourner with the goal of completing two writing projects: a textbook and editing a special journal issue. The Pendle Hill magic is happening once again.
The first book is an online health communication textbook I’ve had under contract for over a year now, but I just had not been able to write anything after the first two chapters, since last summer. I had a strong feeling that Pendle Hill was what I needed in order to write once again – and sure enough, it’s working. Since my sojourn began less than three weeks ago, I’ve finished a third chapter on health literacy and gotten a great start on Chapter 4 about workplaces where health communication is practiced.
I have just reviewed the third of four articles for the special academic journal issue I am editing. The issue was my idea, and it’s devoted to future trends in health communication. More and more, I feel a special calling to work with public health, health communication, health literacy, and aging, but it’s one thing to get a hunch or two about a direction you should be heading, and another to really make progress.
What is your usual practice when you come to Pendle Hill to write?
For some reason, I never can just plunge right into writing. That’s why it’s so wonderful to start the day with silent worship. It’s a real preparation for inner listening and thinking. What I’ve decided to do, since I’m “part dolphin” anyway, is to start each day with journaling and a few sacred readings followed by an early morning swim. Then it’s off to Pendle Hill for morning worship.
After worship, I often find my way to the piano to play a few hymn requests. I’m lucky that Gretchen Castle just joined the staff, since she is a good sport and terrific at singing alto on anything. Next stop is the library for a good morning session, with an occasional peek at one of the amazing books in that collection. I’m usually late for lunch, since I’m already deeply involved in writing at that point.
After lunch, I like to draw one plant each day in the art studio, with the huge raft of colored pencils I’ve collected over the years and never drawn with before… another Pendle Hill miracle is that I’m starting to draw horticultural pictures at last, after years of collecting pencil sets and paper. Once the drawing is done, it’s time to get back to writing along with various email tasks, and sometimes other writing projects or business letters.
I bid farewell to Pendle Hill sometime in the late afternoon and find my husband somewhere out in the world, unless there’s a special event or talk in the Barn that evening. My husband has just started coming to Pendle Hill this year and we are now regularly attending a local Meeting for Worship on Sundays too.
There are a good many writers at Pendle Hill. How has your conversation with other writers affected your own work?
Oddly, this time around I’ve had only a few brief conversations about writing. It’s more often the sharing about everyone’s experience and interests that proves to be such a rich learning experience, with plenty of common threads. We did try one “Writer’s Lunch” recently, and I think that may get to be a Tuesday tradition. One of the YALDers (participant in the Young Adult Leadership Development program) made us a sign, and we got two tables of writers together. But more than anything, it’s the richness, the diversity, and the spiritually supportive atmosphere from everyone – staff, visitors, sojourners, students, even family members. Whether others at Pendle Hill are writers or not, they often know all about creative struggles and trying to spiritually discern what comes next. I’ve given up being surprised by how much I have in common with people here, once we start talking. You never know where people are from and they’re often from all over the world, which of course makes it fascinating to have lunchtime conversations.
What is it about Pendle Hill that you believe supports your writing?
I don’t exactly know what makes Pendle Hill such a magical place for writing, but I do know it works. Some combination of the spirituality, mission, focus, dedication of everyone you meet – thinking about, moving into, or actively realizing dreams. So few people are as dedicated as the people you meet here. Also so many people are in some creative growth phase or stage of life transition that you can’t help but learn from them. But it’s also the many quiet places on the Pendle Hill campus to hang out and just think or write or plan. Owen’s Garden is just one of many great finds.
There's an eternality about this place, that goes beyond specific people who come and go, return after long absences, or just remember PH fondly. It's in the fabric of the place itself, the mission, the peace, the joy, and the ever-changing sense of community.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Just that I feel like Pendle Hill is an important “second home” when I’m trying to puzzle out some life passage or big challenge. Thank goodness for that sign!