Today, I have the great pleasure of introducing you to Myrna J. Smith. You will find details of her novel, God and Other Men, and how to get your hands on a copy, below. But first, I’d like to share an interview, and let you get to know Myrna a little better.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am fortunate to have lived in four different parts of the country: Oregon, Indiana, Wyoming, and New Jersey, and to end up in the one I like the best, New Jersey. I live in the western part of the state in Frenchtown where there are farms and open spaces, yet I can be downtown New York City in an hour and a half. I go there not only for the theater and the opera, but also for the energy emanating from the variety of people on the streets.
For over thirty years I taught English, and for the last few years, Comparative Religion at Raritan Valley Community College. During that time I was able to complete my Doctor of Education at Rutgers and to attend Princeton University on Mid-Career Fellowships, once in English and once in religion.
Besides reading and writing, I have two hobbies: playing duplicate bridge and traveling. I like concentration required to play serious bridge—like writing, you can’t think about anything else. I also like the excitement of going some place new, especially if the trip is not too planned. I just returned from five weeks in Asia, the last two being in Vietnam on my own.
To balance my competitive nature that comes out in playing bridge I am a daily meditator and attend a Unity Church. Luckily I have a great family—three children, five grandchildren, a sister and a brother and some valued in-laws.
When and why did you begin writing?
I began keeping a journal in my early thirties. By that time I had completed an MA program in English and, therefore, had written lots of papers, but I didn’t really express myself, just fulfilled the professors’ requirements. I had not talked about feeling with my parents, nor did my husband and I communicate well about anything but our studies and our drive for material success. We couldn’t even talk well about our three children.
In my journals I first began writing little verses then moved to my personal issues. I started looking forward to my morning session with my journal, a place where I could say what was on my mind.
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I made rules for myself—as a good puritan, I responded to self-imposed rules: I had to be at the typewriter (no computer then) by eight o’clock and had to stay there until one o’clock or until I had written three pages. I did that every day for two months, although one day I let myself be diverted by the laundry, and didn’t write a single word.
I saw that I liked the process: the discipline, the pages stacking up, the figuring out both what to say and how to say it. When I finished the dissertation, I wrote a note to myself and put it in my desk drawer: “I want to be a writer.” I couldn’t tell anyone because I didn’t have enough confidence that I could ever become one.
A few years later I took a temporary administrator’s job. Being out from under the heavy teaching load at a community college, I found time to write more than the occasional essays and poems in addition to my journal. I published articles and chapters in books during those two and a half years, giving me the impetus to keep trying to fulfill my secret dream.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I did not have the courage to call myself a writer until after I published my book.
A conversation I had with an elderly professor at the university where I held the administrative job contributed to my feeling of not being up to the task of being a writer. Everyone in the building knew I would be returning to my position as an English Professor at the community college from which I had a leave of absence, but this scholar asked me about my academic plans. I told him I intended to continue to write. He asked me a series of penetrating questions about my knowledge of languages, my research specialty, etc. When he found out I had no special skill, he made a disparaging remark, “How can you write; you have nothing to say.”
Fortunately, I was able to recover from his comment by finding that I do have something to say and can now comfortably call myself a writer.”
What inspired you to write your first book?
I have written only one book, my spiritual memoir, God and Other Men. I had made other attempts at big writing projects, but none of them took root. After I made my long trips to India and had such unusual experiences, I decided I needed to write a book at least about the teachers I had met there and the mystic I had studied with here in the US. When I decided to turn those experiences into a memoir, the idea just took off. I wrote every chance I had.
How did you come up with the title?
I like to ponder ideas as I walk, and since I live on near a path on the Delaware River, I walk there often. I had determined early on that I wanted to write about my spiritual teachers. My father, a follower of the work of Edgar Cayce, owned his series “The Search for God.” I thought that would be a good title for my book. Then when I decided to write a spiritual memoir instead of a religious book, I recognized that I had to include my search for another husband. But a title “Searching for God and a Second Husband” didn’t sound so appealing. On one of those walks, “God and Other Men” just popped into my head.
Coming up with the subtitle took much more work. My editor and I went back and forth for several months. At first she wanted something about India in it. I said it was more about overcoming abandonment. Finally, she came up with Religion, Romance, and the Search for Self-Love, which expresses exactly what the book is about.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Though I should not choose Russian writers because I cannot read them in the original, but Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky are the writers I admire the most; however I have learned more from Tolstoy. Both deal the big existential questions, questions that have dominated my life for the last forty years.
Like many persons my age I was caught up in both the women’s and civil rights movements and the literature that came with those societal shifts. But that literature seems ephemeral compared to the universal questions that Tolstoy considers.
Even though he develops complex characters, his moral compass stays on his north star. In Anna Karenina Kitty and Levin contrast sharply to Anna and Vronsky on one hand and Anna’s husband on the other. Readers may not buy his romantic vision of country living, but he does have an ideal. In the novella The Death of Ivan Illych Tolstoy not only critiques the values of the middle class, but also lays bare the pain of dying after an unreflective life. Illych faces not just the agony of a painful death, but the realization that he has not, in his desire for material success, cultivated any meaningful relationships or spiritual awareness. In both of these texts Tolstoy is able to offer social criticism while considering life’s ultimate meanings.
In my writing I have tried to keep in mind exactly what it is that I am trying to say. In my memoir I left out many great adventures that I would have enjoyed writing about simply because they did not add to my main idea.
What books have influenced you the most?
The books that have influenced me the most are all religious. Most importantly is A Course in Miracles, which presents a complete philosophical system written in Christian language, but is more Buddhist in thought. It has a text and a 365-workbook for students. In addition there is “A Manual for Teacher,” but since we are all teachers and all students, that too is written for all.
The Indian text the Bhagavad Gita has also been important. Written in dialogue between Arguna, the reluctant warrior for the “good” side in an epic battle, and Krishna, one of the gods in the Hindu pantheon, we hear the words of wisdom in story form. Krishna tells Arguna he must fight because his spiritual path is one of action, but that he must not be concerned with the outcome of the battle. Krishna also points out three other paths to god, guides for any spiritual seeker.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Once I had in mind the form of the book, the only chapter I really suffered over was the one on A Course in Miracles. How was I to explain three things: (1) The unusual way it came into being. It was channeled in the voice of Jesus through a Ph.D. psychologist who proclaimed to be a militant atheist. (2) Its message with emphasis on forgiveness, but not the way most of us understand that word. (3) Most importantly, its influence on my life.
What was your favorite chapter to write?
The first and easiest Chapter to write was the one about Satya Sai Baba, fifth in the book because I knew what I wanted to say. The one I had the most fun with was Chapter one. Once I came to the idea of going around my house looking for what my ex-husband had taken with him when he moved out, I felt I had struck on a device to convey my feelings without being sentimental. I named kitchen objects and pieces of furniture that were missing, showing how fair he had been. I was intent on not blaming him for the demise of the marriage, yet still showing my devastation.
I also enjoyed incorporating a part of Ann Sexton’s poem “Live” and a reference to Emily Dickinson’s “white sustenance, despair” because they expressed some of my own thoughts. I had taught both of these poets in my college English classes and found they spoke to both men and women.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing?
Writing dialogue is the most difficult part of the process for me. In my memoir, I rely on one or two spoken lines to emphasize an important statement and make a character come alive. Though I tried, I was not able to write even a half page of conversation. On the other hand, I have just read a memoir in which the writer uses a lot of dialogue that seems to have no other purpose than to show that people are talking. In my book I was intent on making sure every sentence gave new information. I could not figure out how to do that in dialogue, something I know I will have to do if I turn my hand to fiction.
Myrna J. Smith held a faculty position in the English Department at Raritan Valley Community College, Somerville, N.J., from 1970-2004, where she took leave for two and a half years to serve as Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning housed at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. She received a Ed.D. from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick, N.J. Smith also had two Mid-Career Fellowships to attend Princeton University, one in English and one in religion. Smith, who was 74 years old when she published her memoir, now resides in Frenchtown, N.J, a small town on the Delaware River.
She recently returned from a five-week trip to Asia: two weeks with a small group to Myanmar and a few days in Hong Kong, where she has friends, and Vietnam for 10 days. The year before Smith traveled to Thailand and Cambodia and the year before that to Indonesia, both with small groups. She also travels in Canada and the northeast U.S. with her sister, brother, and their spouses most years.
Myrna Smith opens her story one Sunday night when she returns home from a ski weekend with her three children. While she was on the slopes, her husband had moved out. That had been the plan.
Yet her story, though it encompasses her divorce, is much larger. Ultimately, Smith sets out to love herself, to find an inner place where she can rest and grow.
In this search-for-the-holy-grail memoir, Smith traces her travels toward enlightenment as a middle-aged American woman with a wry humor and heartfelt longing. On the journey she discovers spiritual fulfillment doesn’t come easily, or all at once. For her, it is quite elusive.
The quest really started, she realizes, in her childhood on an Oregon farm where she and her older sister were once “converted” in their father’s pea patch by two young Bible summer school teachers barely out of their teens. The school was part of the tiny church their mother attended while their father stayed home, read Edgar Cayce books, and mused on reincarnation.
Later, drawn by the mysticism of the Hindus, Smith’s journey leads to Bangalore where she touches the robes of Sai Baba, the Indian saint. Back home in New Jersey, she finds herself in a country farm- house getting prescriptions channeled through a medium for every- thing from her back woes and diarrhea to an obsession with money.
She also writes of the demons that surface during a years-long love affair with her beloved Charlie and what A Course in Miracles stirred within her.
Smith’s story is one of adventure and effort that, in the end, reveals three simple yet essential truths that are both the journey and the destination.
Paperback: 240 pages
Genre: Spiritual Memoir
Publisher: Cape House Books (October 23, 2014)
God and Other Men is available in paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CreateSpace, and Indie Bound.