The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in North Chesterfield, Virginia, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University and a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Century, Modern Loss. A recent essay, “Armed” appears in the current edition of LPR. Connect at elizabethfelicetti.com.
I can’t decide whether writing or books came first for me. I became obsessed with books before I could interpret the words and dictated stories to my mother before I could write. She died when I was six, following a routine hysterectomy. This didn’t make sense to me, so a few months later, when walking home from school with my friend Jeanne, I told her that my mother had been poisoned. When we got to her house Jeanne’s mom made us a snack. As we ate Jeanne repeated my story to her. I was mortified. Jeanne’s mother listened, then said mildly, “I don’t think that’s quite what happened.” I was struck, not only that I didn’t get into trouble for lying, but also because Jeanne had remembered, was even, perhaps captivated by my false story. This fed my passion for writing. In retrospect, I consider that narrative invention a child’s way of grappling with mortality.
Once I could read, I re-read some of the same books over and over, especially books with dead mothers, sometimes savoring certain chapters. I majored in creative writing in college, and rather than picking one of the four genres offered by my university I took all possible classes in all four of them. I minored in literature and began to hoard books after graduation, causing consternation among all movers I’ve ever hired because of my boxes and boxes of books. “These better not be going up any stairs,” they’d grumble.
I dreamed about pursuing an MFA after college but fell in love with my job as an antiquarian bookseller instead. My primary duty was creating catalogues and describing the collectible books: their size and style of binding; the state of the pages, endpapers and dust jackets. I never tired of this, and only stopped doing it when I got married and moved to Virginia, which had far fewer rare bookshops than California. There, I imagined myself writing full-time, as I had always wanted; and again, entertained the idea of an MFA.
I published a few poems and articles and wrote two bad drafts of a novel, while freelance editing and indexing before becoming distracted by ordination. I was attempting to write a Michener-style historical novel about an Episcopal church in Virginia, but the more I read about the Bible and church history and theology, the more interested I became in ordination instead of writing about an imaginary colonial church. It took seven years from the first stirrings of a call through seminary to ordination, but once I became an Episcopal priest, I thought crafting weekly sermons fulfilled any lingering writing desires.
“Ultimately, I write to create and to try to understand.”
My husband Gary transferred his educational credits to me after he retired from the military, encouraging me to pursue an advanced degree in ministry. While the thought of being “The Rev. Dr.” appealed to my vanity, the work involved to achieve that title depressed me. I didn’t want to study the same things I was already doing professionally. I began to explore low-residency MFA programs so that I could pursue the degree while continuing my job as rector of a vibrant parish.
I began a part-time MFA program almost ten years into ordination. Friends expressed concern that I would burn myself out, but instead the pursuit breathed new life into my ministry, especially after I set up a pattern of getting up at 5:00 and writing until 6:15, after which I would begin to get ready for my church work. I earned the degree after four and a half years, and still show up every morning at 5:00 to write.
My new degree also brought my book hoarding back to the surface. I’d been hiding it better due to eBooks, but when reading for writing, I found I preferred something physical that I could underline and annotate, despite my years as a rare bookseller. (Note that I never mark hardbacks unless they aren’t a first edition, and I still, always, use pencil.) I now have an entire writing room with one bookcase and six stacks plus, one basket of additional books. Every room in our house has books, including the dining room. I’ve never felt more satisfied, especially since I started writing book reviews almost three years ago. I’ve reviewed books for four different magazines, amassing a mess of marked-up advanced review copies. As a former antiquarian bookseller, I have no remorse about writing in these. (But still in pencil.)
I struggled with the essay “Armed” in the Winter 2021 issue of The Little Patuxent Review for three years. Most people are passionate about guns. I’m married to a deer hunter and friends with a bunch of pacifist clergy, and I’m ambivalent about guns. I’m frustrated that conversations about them are rarely nuanced. I tried to write about my experiences with guns and with fear in a way that expresses my uncertainty.
Topics I’m currently writing about pertain to why I write: disease and childlessness. In the past year and a half I was diagnosed with two different cancers, breast and lung. These two diagnoses remind me of my own mortality in a way that my religion and even my parents’ deaths did not. I won’t be leaving behind children when I die, but want to leave behind a body of work, even though I believe it will fade into obscurity. Lately I have been writing about childlessness in the context of my faith, which absorbs me and brings together much of my study and experience. Ultimately, I write to create and to try to understand.