One None Gets Some

Looking at life through the lens of faith

Friday Livestream

Dear Readers,

On Friday June 10th the talk and reading I will give at Books & Books in Miami will be available to live-stream starting at 8 pm Eastern time (5 pm on the West Coast). Go to and click the live-stream link under my picture from the main page (it is free). If you watch live, a phone number on the screen will be shown, allowing you to call in to ask a question for answer in real time. The video will also be archived for future viewing. I hope I don’t do anything too embarrassing!


An imagination of one’s own

How had this happened? I’m sitting in front of a small audience along with a Christian reverend, Muslim imam, and Jewish rabbi.

Technically, the reverend is Presbyterian, the imam is Sufi, and the rabbi falls on the less orthodox side of the spectrum. Together, they comprise the Interfaith Amigos, Seattle-based religious leaders who came together in the wake of 9/11 to demonstrate and encourage dialogue and cooperation between faith traditions. In addition to the work they do individually, they give presentations communally as well as write award-winning books, a new one of which is forthcoming. (Visit their website to learn more.)

Today, I’ve joined them. (Or, is it more accurate to say that they’ve joined me since the formal reason for this gathering is the release of my book, A None’s Story?). We are at the University Bookstore on the campus of University of Washington, on the second floor where there’s enough room for chairs: several rows for the participants and four facing the rest for the Amigos and me.

This arrangement—me with them—feels like a strange experiment. They are familiar with each other, having worked together for many years, but I’ve just met them for the first time 10 minutes earlier in the bookstore’s café. There is no moderator, no real plan. We’re flying by the seat of our pants here.

Each of the Amigos was given a copy of my book to read in advance, so they know where I’m coming from. In a nutshell, I spent several years rummaging through each of their faiths, and emerged from my journey with the firm stance that—at least for the time being—I would claim no loyalty to any one faith.

Given this, the Interfaith Amigos appear to have more in common with each other than they do with me. They all come from a monotheistic or “Abrahamic” tradition. Their holy books overlap in obvious ways. From my point of view, it doesn’t seem so strange that they would get along with one another.

But what happens when someone outside of their tradition is invited to the table?

As if to underscore our less tangible differences, there are the more apparent ones: I am female. I am a good 20 years younger. Sitting with the Interfaith Amigos feels like a real life version of that old Sesame Street game, “One of these things is not like the other.”

I thought they’d change their minds about this event after reading my book. But each of them is here—having made time and substantial effort to drive from different parts of Seattle—to join me. If for this alone, I am deeply grateful.

To start us off, I read a small part of my book. At every reading so far, I’ve read from a section where I’m still exploring and haven’t quite figured out what my religious identity will be. Today for the first time I read from the conclusion. In it, I share the lessons I appreciate about each of their faiths (and Buddhism) but state clearly that I remain firmly planted outside.

After the reading, it’s time for conversation. This starts off awkwardly. The Amigos are practiced at talking to one another, but how are they supposed to include me? Audience members ask questions, which helps. Usually the comment is addressed to one of the Amigos who provides his own answer. I pipe up here and there, but we are not really talking to one another.

I have worried about what motivates faith leaders and believers to engage with me: is it a hope—even buried deeply—that I will come to understand their way of thinking as the truth? Or is it something bigger and more profound: a desire to connect and communicate regardless of the different points of view from which we come?

Some are very explicit in telling me that not only is their faith correct, but their version of their faith is also the most accurate. In addition, even the nuances within their version must be conceived of in a specific way. Often these righteous will couch it in the nicest possible way: love motivates them to share the facts.

With this in mind, I gathered the courage to pose a question to the Amigos that I haven’t yet asked any other faith leaders. Is it okay, I wanted to know, to understand their faiths—and even the details within their faiths—in ways that might be unique to me? Am I allowed to bring my own thoughts and twists to the task of pondering their religions?

I guess what I was getting at is if they thought I could try to conceive of God and still be me. Does faith require a surrender of one’s imagination?

The Amigos listened intently and then looked at one another to see who might want to answer this strange question. I suppose I was nervous that after reading my book they might not appreciate the quirky ways I had interpreted aspects of Christianity or Judaism or Islam.

Jamal, the imam, did the honors. “Only you have authority of your own imagination. Not only is it allowed, it is encouraged. It is the only way, really.” The other Amigos nodded their agreement.

This answer felt pure sunshine. No one resented me for my idiosyncrasies or was interested in explaining how I might be wrong.

In fact, they seemed to welcome my perspective—however unrefined it might be.

With that, I felt safe and the conversation grew deeper and more interesting.

But how will I approach a conversation like this with anyone whose worldview automatically invalidates my interpretations or identity? It doesn’t matter what religion or non-religion we come from, if we’re not given the freedom to be ourselves, I’m not sure a constructive conversation is possible.

As I am being invited to speak with of all types of believers and nonbelievers—some of whom I know will believe they have ownership of the one and only truth—this question is haunting me.

It takes an incredible amount of respect and compassion to go from, “I’ve chosen the path that’s right” to “I’ve chosen the path that’s right for me.”

The future of spiritual practice

The first six stops of my book tour under my belt, I’m starting to get a sense of some recurring questions audience members are eager to have answered after I speak about (and read from) the religious exploration I write about in A None’s Story. One common inquiry is something along the lines of, “What do you think the future is for religion in the United States?” (For book tour updates, “like” my author Facebook page.)

Many people, I believe, are expecting me to declare religion dead—or, at the very least, dying. I know some of the audience members are people of faith, a few have been current or retired leaders of religious congregations, and they fear what’s in store for their communities in the next decade or two. Others are concerned for the growing number of citizens who appear to be operating in a world increasingly devoid of spiritual grounding or guidance.

I understand the worry but, from where I stand, the view is not so bleak. I honestly believe that the core of religion is as relevant today as it has ever been because, despite all the changes we and our society undergoes, something fundamental remains the same. Each of us struggles to come to grips with being here on earth, and with the knowledge that we will leave—as if these realizations are a fresh new thing just added to the human experience. We are driven to makes sense of this knowledge, to come together with others who are also striving for greater understanding, and to work together to find ways to better care for ourselves and others. No, the basic impulse from which religion is born is intrinsically tied to our beings. The growth in the population of Nones does not spell the end of religion. But it does herald a change.

Before my reading in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join an evening of improvisation or “improv” as some like to call it. This is the theatrical act of spontaneous scene-making usually associated with comedy. Now, I have never in my life participated in improv. I have seen it being performed and simply imagining being up there among the performers would send my heart into a spasm of terror. Improv is most definitely not “my thing.” (I’m a writer—words take full minutes, hours even, to come out of me. It is very boring to watch.) But this improv experience piqued my interest because I had heard it mentioned on NPR’s On Point during an episode about religious affiliation and the growth in Nones. (It aired March 22, 2016 and is fascinating. I recommend it. Listen here.)

This particular evening of improv is part of something called “The Sanctuaries,” a community with this mission statement: “Empowering creative people to claim their own spiritual voice and collaborate on artistic projects that promote social change.” It’s a safe bet that some of its members are religiously affiliated in a more traditional sense and that others are Nones like me. The “lead organizer,” Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, graduated from Harvard Divinity School. He formed The Sanctuaries with his neighbors from various walks of life whose most common denominator appears to be that they are all relatively youngish (post-college and up). They invite the community at large to join them in coming together to tell stories—through art, music, conversation, and performance—with a purpose. The one event scheduled for when I would be in town was the “Soulful Improv” that takes place the 2nd Monday of each month at 7 pm. No experience required.

Improv as spiritual practice? The writer in me was more curious than the would-be comedian was terrified. I dragged along my good friend, Cassie, who had been my downstairs neighbor when I lived in D.C. She was even more reluctant than I about improv. Soulful Improv is held at a place a couple blocks from the apartment building where Cassie and I had lived called the Potter’s House, which in itself has an interesting history of being a meeting place in a secular setting, but infused with religious ideals.

In a large back room, men and women of every shade gathered. Cassie and I were among the oldest; several teenage girls in hijab were the youngest. It was soon apparent that most people present were not any more skilled at improv than me. The leader, a woman named Brittany, started us off gently with warm up exercises: in a big circle, after introductions, we “tossed” words or phrases to one another. They might be the same words said a little differently each time or new words inspired by what came previously. As nervous as I was, I could tell others felt the same—that and the initial brevity of our individual contributions put me at ease. Brittany eased us into longer “scenes” by degrees.

Surprisingly, I was having a darn good time, but what did any of it have to do with religion or spirituality? I had no idea at first, but as the evening progressed, it got clearer. Brittany helped by dropping hints as we went. “It’s about building trust,” she called out at one point. Or, as interactions grew more involved, she shouted, “To react, stay in the moment.” She also said that participating in these impromptu interactions forces us “to assess the situation from the other players’ eyes.”

Thinking back on all the worship services I attended during my religious explorations I realized, in these exercises, I was having similar feelings. The initial fear of being the outsider and idiot transformed slowly through group activity—communal prayer or singing—into something that more closely resembled teamwork or community. Each of us takes a risk in coming together, everyone shows up despite feeling vulnerable, to get on the same page for a shared goal for an intangible reward: a sense, however fleeting, of connection. How quickly one’s isolation can flip into expansive belonging! To suddenly become aware of one’s being present in the room, alongside the presence of others, to contemplate the world anew and then to consider it through alternate perspectives. Worship can help us do this and more; an evening of improv was having a similar effect.

Could improv be the new face of worship? Maybe. Or at least one of them.

So when someone asks what I think will become of religion, I tell them I feel hopeful about its future. Many of its teachings have seeped into our culture in ways we are only beginning to understand. The cross-pollination between the religious and the secular continues and I’m excited to see what blooms.


The dot!

In a blog post a few entries back I discussed the imagery of the circles on the cover of A None’s Story. Each color represents one of the faith traditions I explored, and the shading variations within each circle speak to the unique way individuals may understand or practice their beliefs.

You may recall that I made a special request to the publisher that somewhere on the yet-to-be finished back cover at least one circle show a splash of all the colors. I felt such a Technicolor dot could be the rough equivalent to my thinking as I emerged from this journey, for I had come to hold in high regard aspects of each of the religions I explored. I was going forward with the intention of incorporating facets from each into my everyday life.

I am happy to announce that my book jacket has been printed with one such colorful dot and that finding it was about as exciting as zeroing in on a well-hidden Easter egg back when I was oblivious to the message dyed eggs and candy placed throughout a park conveyed of hope and new beginnings (though perhaps feeling it on some instinctual level).

Just as I hadn’t realized the importance of a multi-colored circle until I didn’t see one on the early version of the cover design, I’m starting to understand how hopeful I am that my book sparks multi-faith dialogue, and not only among people like me with no religious affiliation (though I’m happily anticipating that). As I move further along on this path, I am increasingly interested in inter-faith exchange.

Which is why I am thrilled (and terrified) that the Interfaith Amigos have agreed to join me at my book event in Seattle. For those who haven’t heard of these Amigos, they are a Jewish rabbi, Muslim imam, and Christian minister who have joined forces to give talks and make presentations together. They have their own website. They’ve even given a TED talk and, in 2009, the New York Times wrote a story about them.

It is a bit surreal and perhaps a little hilarious that soon I will be sharing a panel with them participating in a discussion about faith (or the lack thereof). I have no idea what to expect—what, if anything, I might add to the conversation or if I will simply smile mutely as I wonder how on earth I landed among them.

Will this be the first of many interfaith discussions I might have the honor of joining…or a total train wreck? Can I really have a meaningful conversation with three religious leaders? If so, what will that look like?

All three of the Amigos will be reading my book shortly so there’s still time for them to back out!

Until then, here is the information in case you or anyone you know would like to plan to attend:

May 22 at 2pm
University Bookstore (with Interfaith Amigos!)
4326 University Way NE
View Facebook Invite

He drew a circle that shut me out


The monastery

As some readers of the blog may remember, one of the first steps I took on the journey detailed here (and now in the book A None’s Story) was a week-long stay at a Benedictine monastery. I was inspired by the example of Kathleen Norris, a poet and essayist, who beautifully recalls the periods in her life that she lived among Benedictine monks. She writes about this and other subjects in The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

I decided to copy Norris. Preferring my destination to be within a day’s drive of my house, I went online and searched “Benedictine Monastery Washington State.” This little “spiritual vacation” wasn’t meant to be the beginning of anything; it was supposed to be the entire journey. I imagined it as a divine car wash: in one end I would go with the jangled nerves and disconnectedness of modern life; out the other I would appear with the serene smile and beaming aura of the Virgin Mary. What were the events that I thought would transpire in between? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure angels would sing.

This did not happen.

I stayed for a week in the guest house of the monastery along with a ragtag group of other visitors. I did hardy chores (this monastery was also a farm and the “monks” were all nuns), dutifully took a contemplative walk every afternoon, and sat in the little chapel twice a day as the nuns sing-songed their prayers. I returned home with a sense that religion may offer something substantial, enough to sustain these women on this remote farm, but I had not grasped what it was.

As is often the case, failure was a launching pad.

The truth was, by duplicating Norris I had hoped to bypass the hard work of a spiritual journey that would be authentic to me. It was dawning on me how much effort it would take to chart my own path. I thought my lack of religious inheritance meant I could adopt anyone’s I wanted. What I couldn’t see at the time was that, as a None, I had my own inheritance, as complicated as any other. The way to understand Norris better wasn’t to reproduce her actions, but approximate her intentions.

blessing and curse



Publishers Weekly

A None’s Tour of America’s Faith Traditions: PW Talks to Corinna Nicolaou

Like her fellow nones, Corinna Nicolaou claims no religious affiliation— a growing trend among Americans. To find out what she might be missing, the writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, and more began attending services of major faith traditions around the country. Her experiences are featured in A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam (Columbia University Press, April 5).

What motivated you to write the book?

I grew up in a very secular household, and I was just personally really curious about religion. I didn’t know where to start, and I was…(follow the link to read the full interview).


The countdown begins

_He who knows one knows none._As the countdown begins to the April 5th release of A None’s Story, I want to share some tidbits that inspired me along the way.

I ran across this quote on the first pages of an old academic book on Christianity I found in the college library. This was in the early days of my quest. I had no idea who the man who said it was, but the synchronicity of his words with my project made me do a double take. The sentiment (exploring religions) was similar to my intention, but it was his use of the words “one” and “none” in close proximity that made what I was doing feel like a reply to his long-ago statement–an echo a century in the making.

Intrigued, I found out more about him.

Max Müller (1823 – 1900) was a German-born scholar credited with popularizing the study of comparative religion in the West. A practicing Christian, he studied the ancient language of Sanskrit to read and translate ancient Vedic texts, which are believed to be the earliest known religious documents. His research led to explorations of Hinduism and other world religions past and present and eventually to an Oxford teaching post where he taught comparative “philology.”

His official resume is impressive, but what I have found most encouraging about Mr. Müller’s example is just a side note: he was thoroughly criticized for his efforts. Some called his unwillingness to disavow other belief systems besides Christianity anti-Christian; not only did he not disavow them, he went on teach their fundamentals to the best of his ability. Others hated him for the opposite reason: their faiths were being manhandled by this ham-fisted outsider.

It’s safe to say Müller regularly received a thorough pummeling from all sides. And it is this small detail, all these years later, in which I find the most comfort. Because I’m sure some of those lashings had to sting—I can only imagine he thought what he was doing was positive, that he believed his efforts might contribute to a greater understanding among people and it had to be painful to get a solid smack down at every turn. But he picked himself up and carried on. He stepped on toes and no doubt made a buffoon of himself from time to time, but the internal spark that drove him to do what he did, captured in that simple quote, spoke to me at the start of this project and speaks to me still.

Blog vs. book

As the date (4/5/2016!) approaches for the release of my book, A None’s Story, I thought it might be a good time to explain how the book differs from the blog that came first, One None Gets Some.

The most obvious difference is the title change. The new title was given to the manuscript by the publisher, who explained to me that the book needed an identity distinct from the blog. What she didn’t say is that the name of the blog–with its tongue-in-cheek use of the vernacular “gets some”–might be seen as lacking a certain gravitas befitting Columbia University Press. Who was I to argue with either of these points? Here was yet another opportunity to practice letting go of things over which I lack control.

The new title alludes to the blog, but also references a 1956 novel called A Nun’s Story by Kathryn Hulme. A New York Times best-seller in its day, Hulme’s book was later turned into a film starring Audrey Hepburn as the title character. Even though I wasn’t familiar with either the book or the movie when I started this project, I find the synchronicity between the two titles interesting—the play on words and themes. In that book—which is fiction, though based on a true story—a nun struggles with her faith-bound life given that her passion, nursing, is considered a secular endeavor. Should she leave the convent to pursue a career? Did it have to be one or the other? In my version, I struggle with that same topic in mirror image: feeling that I must maintain the strictly secular life I inherited despite the tug on my heart to step foot in the world of faith. If A Nun’s Story was a reflection of its time, I suppose A None’s Story is equally a reflection of ours.

Other than this, the differences are what one might expect when a serialized version of a story is turned into a single piece of writing. I had all these little patches and now I needed to make a quilt. I needed to pick the ones that would add to the cohesion of the larger version, and leave out the ones that didn’t. Sometimes this meant getting rid of patches on which I had worked really hard, but maybe their complicated embroidery detracted rather than added to the overall picture. Most of the patches, even if they seemed to belong, still needed some work. I had to fix frayed edges and pay more attention to the sorts of enhancements that would make them function better both individually and together. Luckily, I was given a small but dedicated team of professional tailors who spent a week or two with me in my sweatshop taking a close look at my patches under their magnifying glasses. They caught all sorts of goofs—typos, verb disagreements, spelling catastrophes, grammar disasters, and just plain awkward turns of phrase.

One of the main differences between the blog entries and the content of the book is in the structure of the story connecting the religious experiences I describe. In the book, I put more flesh on the bones, particularly at the beginning and at the end. I provide additional context for what motivated this journey, a fuller picture of my personal struggles and the ways in which, when I was living in Washington, D.C., the events of 9/11 shook me and influenced what would later become this book.

Also, parts of the ending are entirely new. I describe the experience of creating and maintaining the blog after my Op-Ed about my religious curiosity and project appeared in the Los Angeles Times and, subsequently, was picked up and reprinted in newspapers across the country. I fancied myself a courageous religious adventurer, but some people saw a potential convert. In the book, I explore people’s reactions to my project, the messages and items I was sent both online and via the mail, how unsettled and distraught I became for a time before I learned to embrace my truth.

Other than that, many of the experiences in the book are as they appear in the blog. Because of this, I debated whether to hide all or portions of the blog. It seemed strange to be charging money for a printed version of what is, in essence, available online. Even though I believe it is a more pleasurable experience to hold a book (I, for one, like to have the entire story in my hands, with pages to turn), it seemed a little counterintuitive to keep all my old posts available for anyone to read.

For a while I considered deleting the entire blog. Then I thought it would be best to keep some of the posts but hide a percentage of them—like every third one—so that the online story would be the Swiss cheese version—thereby both intriguing readers and forcing all interested parties into buying the book. I was congratulating myself on my diabolical marketing skills, when it occurred to me that the single most important argument for keeping the blog had nothing to do with what I had written. What made it essential and beautiful and important was the comments section: it’s what the readers wrote.

The stories, the reactions, the encouragement—the instances in which some readers tore into me or others for the opinions we expressed. How readers worked through differences, and more often than not, came to respect one another despite early tension. All of this created a story as significant, and in some instances more so, than my story.

So, I’m leaving everything as is because to hide any blog posts would be to hide their comment sections. The comments offer a small but poignant slice of cultural debate that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Far from being disposable, they are an essential companion piece to my book. In my eyes, every single comment is important. They were all part of this journey for me, expressed by a virtual group of congregants struggling for understanding and acceptance.

The Cover

I’d like to share with you a little about the story behind the cover design for my book. It may look, at first glance, like a miniature version of the game Twister, but it actually has a deeply symbolic meaning.

For those who haven’t seen the cover, check it out here:

When I handed over my finished manuscript to the folks at the press, they sent me what they call an “author questionnaire.” This is the writer’s big opportunity to express all the stuff she wants everyone involved in the book’s production to know. I imagine it is carried from office to office as the book is handed from one person to the next—like medical files for a patient. It’s a sensible way to allow the writer to have a voice about the various aspects of her book’s production while protecting the press’ staff from her progressive stages of blossoming neurosis.

One portion of the questionnaire is about the cover. It asks what colors you like and what sorts of designs you think would be appropriate given the content of your manuscript. It requests that you pick out a handful of covers from the press’ past releases that you find particularly becoming.

I had never thought so hard about book covers. I’m a fairly voracious reader. I’ve worked at bookstores and libraries of and on for years. I have seen thousands of book covers, been fond of hundreds, absolutely adored quite a few. I wanted the cover of my book to be cool and sophisticated, but what made a cover cool and sophisticated?

In thinking about this subject, I realized I preferred designs that were sparse. I liked an image that was simpler as opposed to one that had lots of little details. I scoured the press’ backlog of publications and picked out the ones with covers that spoke to me. I was drawn to contrast and bold colors. I enjoyed something that hinted at what was inside, though not in an obvious way. I liked when a book’s cover was a bit quirky, making me curious about what was inside.

On the form, I wrote down all these thoughts and more.

I worried that incorporating the well-known symbols we associate with each religion—like a cross for Christianity, Star of David for Judaism, etc. –would be too hackneyed, too easy. I wrote that down.

I supplied a bunch of suggestions that I thought might convey the main idea of the book, which was that of an outsider exploring these powerful belief systems. I tried to put myself in the mind frame of a visual artist. Was there a picture of a doorway or some sort of opening? Could there be, like, light emanating from the other side? I wrote a bunch of stuff that probably made the real designer laugh out loud.

But one thing I was fairly insistent about was the image of a circle. Throughout the journey depicted in the book, I had encountered circles as significant symbols. In religion, they imply unity and receptivity. At the same time, “None” in mathematical terms is depicted as a zero—also a kind of circle—meaning the absence of information. So, in this funny way, being a None is to lack something but it’s also to be wide open and receptive—to experiences, to ideas, to what comes next.

I sent back the completed questionnaire with a little prayer that I could accept with gratitude whatever the professionals involved in the process produced. This was one of those instances where I would have to let go—which, fortunately, had been one of the huge lessons I had learned in the actual book. Things happen that don’t match my expectations. At first blush the failure of reality to align with expectations can seem like a huge disappointment. If you give it time and the freedom to do so, the lack of alignment can offer something better than you were capable of imagining.

What came back several months later is the design you see, work by a man named Martin Hinze. Each religion I explore in the book is represented by a color: red for Christianity, blue for Judaism, yellow for Buddhism, and green for Islam. These just happen to be colors associated with each faith, though I had never focused on that fact too much. If you look closely (it’s more apparent with a bigger image), you can see that each circle—even within the same color grouping—is different. The outside is not perfectly drawn and the shading is inconsistent. Though he and I have never communicated directly about it, I interpret this as a graphic representation of the different way each individual expresses their faith. No two people understand or practice in the exact same manner.

Are the circles depicted supposed to be believers, each with their unique take? Or are they actual Nones being filled with the wisdom of faith? I don’t know for sure, but I love that it hints at these ideas—and does so with an element of surprise and graphic boldness. And even if someone looking at it sees nothing more than a miniature Twister board, well, that’s kind of awesome, too. The journey depicted under that front cover had me, at times, about as tangled up and uncomfortable with new ideas and people as a game of Twister.

Thank you, Mr. Hinze!

Only one tiny thing occurred to me a few weeks after seeing the design for the first time. I was thinking about what my own belief system would look like if it were one of the circles on the front. I realized it wouldn’t be just one color, that it would have all those colors, maybe more, in smears and blobs and dots. It would look like one of those circles as rendered by Jackson Pollock. So I emailed the publisher and asked if somewhere—perhaps on the back cover, which hadn’t been designed yet—there could be at least one circle that was a mixture of colors. I was promised a definite ‘maybe.’

I still don’t if my request will be honored, or if the designer has something else in mind. The back cover is being created right now, so we should all know soon.

I’m curious: what are your thoughts about the cover design? What did you see when you saw it for the first time?

The story behind the story

For any book, there is the story depicted between the covers—the “official” story that people will read. Hopefully, this version is somewhat tidy. It has been edited and polished and made as presentable as possible.

But then there is the story of how that story came to be. This one is a big sloppy mess, filled with tears and self-doubt.

Because this same duality applies to any creative endeavor, I wanted to share a little here about the story behind my book, A None’s Story. My hope is that it encourages you to continue on the path of something important that you may be trying to accomplish at this very moment.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered myself a writer. This makes no sense because I didn’t necessarily enjoy the act of writing for its own sake and I almost never wrote anything that wasn’t an assignment. I longed to be the kind of person who crafted short stories for fun or religiously kept a journal, but I wasn’t that sort of person. Sometimes I’d start one or the other thinking I could make myself that person, but the effort would peter out after a few lines. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say—much less how I might say it.

I’d read interviews with writers I admire and they almost always said their brains were bursting with words they had to put on paper ever since they could hold a pencil. I thought if I wasn’t like that then I must not be a real writer. A real writer has a story or an idea or a message that needs to get out of them bad enough that they will do the hard work of committing it to paper.

I wrote for a grade and, later, a paycheck. I would arrange words around other people’s ideas and actions. It was writing, sure, but it was writing as more of a technical act, from which I could keep a safe distance.

Yet, a faint voice kept telling me I was a writer—and it meant the kind whose writing originates from her own heart and mind regardless of whether she has anyone to whom she must hand it upon its completion. At first the gap between what it was telling me and my reality was small enough that I could easily ignore it. But the more years that went by, the vaster that chasm felt. The misalignment went from a nagging discomfort to a much deeper ache, which I tried to soothe with food, television, inebriating substances—anything, everything, but my own writing.

At last I grew so miserable that I decided to talk back to the voice. I said: If I’m supposed to write, tell me what I should write about.

I didn’t think it would have an answer, and then I would have won. But it did. It replied: Religion.

That’s when I understood this voice was a fool.

Religion? Of all the topics in the world, religion was the least I was likely to pursue. I knew nothing about it. I had grown up with no religion. The depth of my ignorance on that particular subject was bottomless. Wasn’t the advice about writing to “write what you know”? Religion was the stupidest answer it could have given me.

You don’t write what you don’t know, dummy.

At first I felt better because I had a new excuse to ignore the voice. Then I felt sad because the voice hadn’t given me a better answer. Then I got depressed because I still had nothing to write about.

Finally, it got bad enough that I once again engaged the voice.

I told it: But I don’t know anything about religion.

I was in bed, wallowing in despair, when a reply came. It said: Then learn, and write about that.

I sat up.

Now this was a new twist. I had been extremely curious about religion for as long as I could remember. Was it possible that somehow my lack of expertise on the subject could work in my favor? Maybe my ignorance didn’t make my voice matter less; perhaps, in a strange way, it made it matter more.

Still, the logistics of such an undertaking were overwhelming and I put it off until the pain of not doing it was greater than the pain of taking one tiny little baby step at a time toward the goal. Even then, the two sides—the one saying I could do this and the other telling me I was an idiot for even trying—duked it out daily.

I was lucky in that the voice saying I could do it, though much quieter, was more persistent. It didn’t win every single day. In fact, it lost more times than I care to recall. Then, for a time, I would feel defeated and ridiculous, eyes swollen from crying, ready to give up.

For five years, the battle raged.

That’s how this book got written.