The mysterious, all-knowing Oz figures of the literary world–otherwise known as the collective “they”–tell us to write about what we know. Perhaps they tell us this because writing in and of itself is hard, and if writing what you know is difficult, then writing what you don’t know puts you on the verge of yanking out your nose hairs with pliers (or maybe that’s just me). I have recently learned that this heightened degree of difficulty is due to the fact that writing what you don’t know requires research, and research is a large and fearsome beast.

Part of my novel is definitely about what I know–AP classes, disillusionment with modern society and its ways, troubles in romance. But part of it is not–namely, the Catholicism, and good grief, is this a complicated religion. And then, to make things even harder on myself (because that’s how I roll) in part two of the book, Carmela (my main character) enters a monastery of discalced Carmelite nuns. Score one on the Board O’ Difficulty. To make matters more complicated still, this particular religious order is cloistered, so I have no way of experiencing their life, even for a day. If I were to go to a monastery, I couldn’t even get into the parts of the building where the sisters live and work. As you can imagine, this poses more than a wee bit of a problem.

I’ve been fortunate enough to exchange emails with a handful nuns–and one in particular, who has become this book’s saving grace–who are patiently answering my inane, detailed, nit-picking questions and helping me gain an understanding of their lives. But last week, I hit a wall I couldn’t climb over–I needed more tangible experience. I needed to visit a monastery, even if all I did was walk around it. There is one Carmelite monastery in Oregon: the Carmel of Maria Regina, on the outskirts of Eugene. Due to my perpetual unemployment and lack of travel funds (not to mention my lack of funds in general), if I wanted to see a monastery, this was it.

So last week, when I drove down to Grants Pass to visit dearest Kandy, I detoured outside of Eugene to find the Carmel of Maria Regina.

The view of the monastery from the parking area
Monastery entrance
A sculpture I found around back (while being a sneak)
The chapel (which is the only part of the building open to the public)
Votive candles (one of which I lit, and then I said a prayer for the book because I and it need all the help we can get)
The altar
The nuns’ choir (they attend Mass and recite the Liturgy of the Hours behind the screen, so they remain apart from the public)
Stained glass window by the altar
View of the chapel from the altar
Statue of the Virgin and Child
One of the stations of the cross, the artwork of which I loved
Deer, who might’ve been more surprised to see me than I was to see them
Shrine, cross, and graves of the nuns who have passed
The rosary I bought at the gift shop, because not having one was starting to inhibit my writing, and because it was the only way I could see and speak to a nun (but mostly it was because I needed a rosary)
A booklet on how to pray the rosary (because, again, it’s complicated)

This trip was exactly what I and the book needed. Being in that space stirred something up in me and rekindled my writerly fire, just like I hoped it would. As soon as I walked into the chapel, I understood why Carmela would never want to leave. I felt that peace, that sense of seclusion, of isolation, of being apart from the world and wanting to stay that way forever. I don’t know how long I sat there, taking it all in. Maybe until the thought of writing about that place and that life no longer felt like writing what I didn’t know.

And then, there was the rosary. I wanted a wooden one because when Carmela’s grandmother dies, she leaves Carmela her redwood rosary. At the monastery’s gift shop, the only wooden ones I saw had cylindrical beads, and they didn’t feel right in my hands. I was about to purchase a blue one instead when I decided to look more closely at the display cases. They were filled with ceramics and knick-knacks, but in the corner of one lay a single wooden rosary with perfect circular beads. Like it was waiting for me. I think it knew that I would come and take it home.