The Back Story: Part 7 – Maria Kelsey
Back Story is a series about some of the regular contributors to igNation. It’s a series of short interviews with writers, their influences, how they go about writing, and what they hope their work for igNation will accomplish. The interviews address their approach to writing in general rather than an exploration of any particular piece they have authored for the blog.
Each of the participants in the Back Story series was interviewed by Kevin Burns by telephone. He asked each participant the same set of questions, plus a few more based on things that surfaced during their conversation. What follows is an edited version of a much longer conversation.
Because the igNation format has a limited word-count, each of the interviews in this series will include an additional audio component: “To hear more about [whatever the topic might be]: Click here.”
Today, it’s the St. John’s based educator, Maria Kelsey. Her observations and commentaries appear regularly in igNation. She lives and works in Newfoundland, the province that in the 1990s held two referenda on faith-based schools. The result was a single, secular school system that was brought into being for the 1998-1999 academic year.
Her work reminds us that despite historic contributions to health, education, community service and pastoral care, Catholic culture is always fragile in a predominantly secular environment. As is Newfoundland and Labrador’s power supply. A brief St. John’s power outage had just ended when Kevin Burns phoned her. Power had just been restored.
MK: Your timing is perfect! There’s have been multiple outages and it just came back!
KB: Let’s get right to it then while you still a phone that works. Maria, let’s start with a question I’m asking everyone in this series. Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw a work of yours in print? What is that experience like, seeing something you have written actually in print?
MK: I’ve been thinking about that since we set up this interview, thinking about “How did this writing start?” It goes back to my time as a primary school teacher. There was a teacher in our school who was extremely gifted.
Whenever there was any kind of special event at the school Mary would write a poem dealing with the history of all that led up to that particular event. She always wrote with a very wry sense of humour and there was always some special insight to it. But she would never read out loud what she wrote. I became her presenter.
She died after a short battle cancer and we decided to dedicate the school library in her honour and I was asked to speak at this event. I wrote and then spoke. After, someone said to me, “You know, Mary has passed along her gift to you.” That startled me, but that’s how the writing started.
Then the first time I saw something in print was when I started writing for the bulletin here in the parish [St. Pius X]. How did I feel? I was amazed because seeing something in print carries more weight. It seems that people listen – and that’s a strange word to use – but they listen to it more when they actually read it. But this act of writing does carry a sense of responsibility with it. And, you know, I never thought of that before.
[Click here for more on Maria Kelsey on the responsibility of the writer:
KB: Many writers follow special rituals when they write, using certain pens, or special notebooks – you know, the paper kind. Do you have any such rituals?
MK: This is how I write. It’s usually something that’s been in my head for a while and I want to work it out. When I sit down with pen and paper, then it all flows. It’s been there in my head and the only way to get it out of my head it to put it down on paper.
I don’t edit as I go along. I usually wait until it’s done, or I think it’s done, and then I go back and edit. I’ve learned that there are times when you have to be absolutely ruthless, especially when you have a word limit. Maybe that’s the teacher in me coming out.
KB: You write for this Jesuit-based online publication. Tell me about your interest in things Ignatian.
MK: I taught in this parish [St. Pius] is a Jesuit parish and I taught in the neighbouring school, but it’s only in the last six or seven years that I’ve become seriously interested in Ignatian spirituality, not only for myself, but to share it with other parishioners. It makes me look at things, external, and look at my experiences from a completely different perspective.
I’ve always had a strong reflective sense that emerged a while ago through the process of journaling, but it never had a focus or a direction, or even a format. And that is what Ignatian spirituality has done for me. In doing the Spiritual Exercises there is a format.
And as a former teacher I’m one who believes in structure, but on the other hand, structure provides something that you can stretch like an elastic band and go out in a different direction and then come back. I find that Ignatian spirituality gives me both to structure and to come back to. As a matter of fact, though, for a long time. I was really involved in Carmelite spirituality.
Click hear as Maria Kelsey explains her attraction to Carmelite spirituality.
KB: Can you tell who the writers are who have influenced you most?
MK: I go on reading binges. There are many books, children’s literature, that have really struck home with me because of their profound messages. As for writers… Well, in the last ten years that have had the most effect on me I have been greatly influenced by the work of the Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister, and the Servite sister, Joyce Rupp. And lately, Margaret Silf.
One book that changed my image of Ignatius was Just Call Me Lopez – Getting to the Heart of Ignatius Loyola by Margaret Silf (2012). That book helped to soften his image, to make him more human because the standard picture you have of Ignatius, is often in that mystical moment and in the elaborate garb. It may be heretical to say, but I don’t see anything in that image that’s attractive because it’s not a picture of what Ignatius did and said.
Then there’s Chris Lowney’s Heroic Leadership – Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World (2003), and also his Pope Francis – Why He Leads the Way He Leads (2013).
In fiction, there’s a wonderful writer here in St. John’s, Trudy Cole Morgan. There’s Esther – A Story of Courage (2003) and her novel, By the Rivers of Brooklyn (2009), a story about three generations. It’s about coming home and it also reflects the parable of the return of the prodigal son.
KB: What books on are your bedside table right now?
There’s one. Julian of Norwich. I’m reading her again. She’s the one who has inspired me more than anyone else I’ve read. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love (1395), I’ve read and re-read it.
Her theology is just out of this world and she is such a brilliant woman. She’s hard the first time that you read her because she is not a literal thinker; she goes in sort of spiral mode. But even within that spiral she is very organized. I certainly appreciate that sense of organization and I also appreciate that spiral mode that she has.