Writing as Spiritual Practice
Inspiration, realization, and manifestation are three stages of spiritual development that lead to spiritual fulfillment. The development of a piece of writing mirrors these three stages of spiritual development.
For example, I first heard about Transcendental Meditation (TM) from my cousin Steve, who’d become a meditator and spoke articulately about the benefits he was enjoying from it. Inspired by the picture he painted of meditation’s effects, I was motivated to try it.
However, it took me a year or two to to actually realize what I’d been inspired to do—when I got to a point where I could no longer ignore the need for a change in my life. It was then that I decided to be trained in TM.
Over the next few years, I manifested the kind of life I’d imagined TM could make possible for me, one that was calmer, more enjoyable, more creative.
Inspiration, realization, and manifestation are also the stages of developing a piece of writing.
First, there is the inspiration. It can be something from our own life—a love triangle, a moral dilemma. It can be something we see—a teenager fishing alone at a pond during school hours, a rusted-out car body beside a nice, suburban garage. It can be a bit of news—a woman who called 911 to get a cute cop back to her house, a father who brawled with a mall Easter Bunny. Whatever it may be, it sets us thinking about the implications, gets our imagination juiced, makes us want to explore what happened.
It make take some time for the inspiration to percolate in our mind, develop in our imagination, begin to take shape and begin to be realized as a potential poem, short story, drama, essay, novel, or whatever (one of the things that can take time is determining what form will be best for the telling). Eventually, we get to the point where we decide whether or not we think the story “has legs,” whether it has enough potential and we care enough about it to put the energy into writing something based on it.
Finally, we sit down and actually begin to manifest the story. As we all know, it’s far from a done deal at that point. We may find out that we chose the wrong form and have to switch to another, or we may find that something we thought would expand into a story just won’t. But if all goes well, we begin to enjoy the manifestation of an idea that began small, but was the seed of something bigger. We watch that seed sprout and grow into something full and rich and lush.
And it’s as satisfying as any spiritual experience we’ll ever have. In the end, we write to experience inspiration, realization, and manifestation. It’s this process that fulfills us as writers.
What Should We Write About?
A poet I know puts the following statement at bottom of all his emails: “I’m a writer. Anything you say can and will be used in a story.” When I was in book publishing, my first boss was the editor Robie Macauley, former editor of the Kenyon Review and then fiction editor for Playboy, back when the magazine decided to class up its writing. Robie used to tell stories about the famous authors he knew, and one story was about inviting John Updike to his dinner party and then having the dialogue from the party show up in one of Updike’s novels a year or two later.
Some writers can’t, or don’t want to, break free from the reality of their life—that’s what they want to write about. One of the most famous examples of that approach in current literature is novelist Terry McMillan. I know that her first novel, which I acquired and edited for Houghton Mifflin, was based on her life (a shout out to my friend Dell Hammond, who found Terry’s manuscript on the “slush pile” and insisted I read it). Terry’s novel, Mama, was so close to reality that her former boyfriend sued her for the way he was represented in the novel. He lost, but wouldn’t even have had a case if the fiction hadn’t been awfully close to the reality. From what I’ve read about Terry and her work, she has continued to replicate her life experiences in her novels.
Many of us writers do this to one extent or another. We use things that have happened or been said in our own lives, and, when we can, we cadge things from other people’s lives—friends, strangers, stories in the news, historical events, folktales, myths, legends. A smart writer is always on the lookout for good material. And it’s interesting how different it is to use something from one’s own life as opposed to something from someone else’s.
I actually find using bits and pieces from sources other than my own life more enjoyable. Although there is an immediacy about events that you actually experienced and people you actually knew, there is also a limitation: it’s hard to imagine them doing or being something you never knew them to be. And that includes yourself and your own experiences. The better you know something or someone, the more difficult it is to let the imagination run off on its own.
Recently, I saw a teenager fishing over the railing beside a pond right in the middle of “downtown” Easthampton, Massachusetts. I wondered why a teenager, at an age notorious for wanting to be left alone, would do something (especially something that most teenagers would not find cool) in such a public spot, when he could have simply walked to the other side of the pond and been alone. Imagining what he was doing there inspired a 10-minute play that involved his being approached by a girl who was interested in him. Since I knew absolutely nothing about this boy, I could imagine every detail of his life and personality.
But I also like to start with a “piece” of someone or an element from something that actually happened to me and then let the “what if” kick in. What if my friend had actually left his wife when he started that relatively innocent flirtation with a co-worker? What if that peaceful demonstration in college had turned violent and I’d been confronted with a billy-club-waving policeman? With this approach, the reality of the person or situation anchors the fiction that grows out of it. I picture those time lapse photographs of crystals forming on a rock and gradually growing into long, glittering shapes.
In the end, it’s what you’re comfortable working with. One time it may be imagining the world of a stranger. Another time it might be imagining how different a personal experience could have turned out if things had gone another direction. It’s a rich world out there—and inside yourself. Stay tuned to it, and you’ll never run out of things to write about.
Hoping Against Hope
For many of us, writing can feel like a hopeless activity. You're working on what you hope will be a good piece, and suddenly it falls apart and can't be salvaged. You write a piece you hope is good, but you send it out continually for months—maybe even years—and no one accepts it for publication. You get something accepted for publication and hope people will read it, but you never really know if anyone does.
If you're working with the traditional sense of what hope means, experiences such as these can be debilitating. Enough of them can even drive you to stop writing altogether—I know; I gave up writing for such reasons several times in my life. But, many years ago, I came across a definition of hope by Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel that changed my perspective. Here is how Havel (who, by the way, faced difficulties in life far beyond what most of us have ever faced, including imprisonment) came to understand hope:
"Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good… Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
That definition of hope gives me goose bumps every time I read it, because it turns on its head the meaning I carried with me for so much of my life, that so often left me feeling hopeless. As I'd seen it, one always had to hope for something, a tangible result, so every time that something didn't materialize, hope faded a bit more—until, finally, it was extinguished entirely, at least for a time. With writing, I always managed somehow to relight it, but that doesn't happen with everyone. Some people just give up writing for good because it's not "obviously heading for success."
But what if we operate according to Havel's definition of hope? Then it's a matter of attitude, not results. Can we believe that writing itself is a "good" thing? Can we enjoy it for its own sake? Can we believe it's worth doing, in and of itself, even if our only audience is ourselves and a handful of family members, friends, and fellow writers? If we can do these things, then there is hope, then we can write because it is something that "makes sense" to do, something we can "work for…because it is good."
I can also tell you from personal experience that doubts about one's self as a writer almost never go away, even with successful writers. I worked with a few of them when I was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and they were inevitably disappointed by how brief the experience of success was, even when they'd been published successfully. Most writers short of the bestseller list get a few months of attention, at best, and then they are forgotten again. My point being that even when writers achieve the success that Havel refers to, they are soon back in the same position as any writer, working on something they hope will be successful and wondering if it will be published and read.
So, I'll tell you what I told those Houghton Mifflin authors: Write because you love writing, the process of delving into your own conscious and subconscious mind to create something with words; the trying, the failing, the trying again, the satisfaction of getting it right, once in a while. Write because, as Havel says, "it is good" and it "makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." That is where the deep, lasting satisfaction lies, that is where true hope lives.
Follow Your Curiosity
I just had the pleasure of listening to the podcast of a recent interview with author Elizabeth Gilbert on the radio program On Being. Krista Tippet, the interviewer, has entitled the program "Choosing Curiosity Over Fear," which is a concept that Gilbert discusses during the interview. But that concept grows out of a more basic epiphany that Gilbert had, which was realizing that the commonly used advice, "Follow your passion" (sometimes stated as "Follow your bliss") could be crippling to creativity.
Why might this be so? Because words such as "passion" and "bliss" are loaded. How often do we experience those states of mind? They are tremendously heightened states, and I don't think it's even possible to maintain them for any length of time. I love writing, but, much as I enjoy it, I don't often feel passionate or blissful about it.
Curiosity is a much gentler word. It is a state of mind that can be held lightly—and can be maintained over the long run. I'm always curious about writing. One of my favorite epigrams about the writing process is, "How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say?" (This could be rephrased for fiction as, "How do I know what the story is going to be until I see what I write?") Writing is a process of discovery, not of building something preconceived.
Being curious is also childlike. It gets us back to that simpler state of mind when we used to do things just because we were interested in them—not because we were trying to achieve anything in particular or thought we had to prove something. It was exploration unfettered by expectations—or, at least, by significant expectations. The main expectation was that it would be interesting, and that was enough.
And it ought to be enough. Too often, we stop ourselves before we really get started because our expectations are too high. Either we expect the experience of writing to be more exciting than it usually is (Gilbert believes that 90% of any creative process is boring) or we expect to be more excited about what we produce each time we sit down (which is a good time to remember the epigram, "Mediocrity is a starting place"). But if we're motivated by curiosity, we'll always be interested in what we might come up with, or what might come through us, next, or in what we might do with a mediocre piece to make it better.
On a larger scale, expecting to experience passion/bliss during creativity, or expecting the writing life to be passionate/blissful, sometimes leads a writer to believe that he's "not really" a writer. I certainly felt this many times during my life. It took me a long time to get to the point where, essentially, the whole experience of writing and being a writer became a process of following my curiosity. Now, if an idea arouses my curiosity, I go with it, as far as that curiosity takes me—which could be a few lines of a poem, a few paragraphs of a short story, half-a-chapter of a novel. If my curiosity continues, the piece continues; if not, I put it aside.
And if I don't have any ideas that arouse my curiosity, I don't write. I no longer believe, as I used to, that I have to write almost daily in order to be a writer. I am a writer. I will always be a writer. And when something arouses my curiosity, I will write about it.
Follow your curiosity. It will take you where you need to go.
A "Critical" Exercise
In my last blog, I talked about the Critic in myself, the one who used to keep me from getting much writing done by convincing me that I was no good. I mentioned doing an exercise in a Psychosynthesis class that helped me put the Critic in his proper place. While I don't have that particular exercise, here is another that was helpful to me in the process of making peace with my Critic. If your Critic gives you trouble, try engaging with him or her using this exercise:
Confronting the Critic
Sit quietly, close your eyes, let your mind empty out, as much as possible.
Imagine entering a forest, which grows deeper and darker, until you come to the base of a mountain. In the brush, find a hidden door. When you've found it, open it and enter the dimly lit passage on the other side. The passage slants downward, gradually taking you deeper and deeper into the earth below the mountain.
At the bottom of the passageway, you come upon another door. Open the door and enter a long, book-lined hallway. At the end of this hallway is another door. When you open the door, you find on the other side your dream study. (Even if your dream study has high windows, lots of sunlight, a view of the ocean, or whatever, that is what you experience here—this is a magical place.)
On your dream desk sits smooth, creamy paper and a beautiful, perfectly balanced pen. Sit down at the desk and pick up the pen, feeling comfortable and purposeful—like you truly belong there.
Then you hear someone clear his throat and turn to see…the Critic—the one who always makes you feel unconfident and prevents you from writing as much as you'd like. Take him in. Notice his physical characteristics, his posture, his gestures, the look in his eye.
Does he say anything? If he does, take it in.
Do you want to say anything to him? If so, say it.
When you're done with him, look back at your beautiful piece of paper and, in spite of the Critic, write slowly and smoothly and gracefully the words: "I love to write." Look at those words and enjoy them.
Set the pen down, put your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and savor all of the ways you've loved words in your life: in stories you read or had read to you as a child, in a diary, in letters to people you love, in novels, poems, essays. Just sit and enjoy your memories of what words have meant to you.
When you've finished doing this, notice a large, black cloth, the size of a blanket, lying on the floor. Stand up, pick it up, take it to the Critic, and throw it over him, covering him completely. Now, walk out of the study, down the book-lined hall, through the door, up the long, slanted passageway, and out into the forest (which is no longer dim, but green and bright). Walk through the forest and emerge in the bright white light of the sun. Savor the warmth and brightness of the sun for a moment.
When you're ready, bring yourself slowly back from this place and into the present moment. When it feels right, take out your journal or a piece of paper or sit down at your computer, and record what happened on this journey.
I think you'll find that this exercise—which you can certainly do more than once—will help you keep the Critic under control.
I have been writing since childhood, but when I became "serious" about it, in college, my relationship to the process became a stormy one. Part of that stemmed from my discomfort with my Blob "subpersonality," the person I became as a child in order to avoid confronting the world. Fiction was an escape for me, a divan for the Blob to recline upon. I dreamed of what I wanted to do, instead of doing it. For a long time, I wanted as much to be a writer as to write. I was in love with my image of what it meant to be an artist. This realization hit me while I was in grad school in creative writing, and it led me to leave grad school and go into publishing, where I could be involved with writers but not have the pressure of trying to be one myself.
I always felt the pressure when I would try to write, or even think about trying to write. My Critic was always there in the background, telling me that I had too little talent or too little discipline, or both. During any period when I wasn't writing, he was constantly whispering in my hear, "See, you're not a writer." He took the joy out of the process, focusing immediately on results, giving me little room to experiment and fail. With his insight, it was far too easy for me to envision where I would fail, so I would quit—sometimes before I even started. Even when I did succeed in completing something, I found other ways to quit, such as by rarely sending anything out for publication.
I was happy not to deal with my own writing during most of the years when my editorial career was taking shape at Houghton Mifflin. For a long time, I thought my obsession with writing was unhealthy, something I needed to give up in order to be truly happy. For a while, I substituted acting as my form of creative expression. But I could never give up writing completely. Something always drew me back. But I lived in fear of my Critic.
This Critic emerged more clearly in a powerful session I had while I was training in an approach to psychology called Psychosynthesis. I envisioned the Critic as a tweady, professorial type, who sat in a Morris chair smoking pipe. He was utterly scornful of my Writer, who was contentedly tapping away at his keyboard, a big smile on his face. I realized that the Critic had been taking the joy out of writing for me since college. I also realized that he was connected with my father, whose impatience so often showed itself when I was doing a task with him and with whom I felt so little room to fail. I also realized that I was carrying on this tradition of impatience with my own son.
The woman leading me in this session told me to become my son, to get in touch with my own inner child. Then she asked me what I wanted from my father. I said, "For him to put his arm around me and say, 'It's all right. Take your time. It's okay to make mistakes. There's no hurry.'" This experience gave me the power to gradually re-parent myself and diminish the negative impact of my Critic, making it easier to write and think of myself as a writer even when I wasn't writing.
But the Critic has not been banished; he has been integrated. In his proper place, he is very useful—in fact, essential—to me as a writer. When I have completed my stories, when the joy and glow of creation has waned, when I have had some time to disidentify with what I've written, the Critic steps in and gives good and fair advice about what could be better. He's become less stodgy, though, for he can even manage to tell me what he thinks is good, sometimes.
So, I now write with greater ease and peacefulness. Writing has become the form of meditation that I've always known it could be. When I write I transcend my everyday experience. Not rejecting "real" life, but simply stepping aside from it and immersing myself in a timeless creative flow. Now, more than ever before, the words seem to come through me, rather than from me, and the experience of being a conduit for them is blissfull.
And when I'm not writing, I'm simply not writing. "No blame," as the I Ching puts it. I feel no pressure to write, but I enjoy writing when I do it, and I know I will be writing for the rest of my life.
Who Do We Write For?
A number of years ago, I had gotten myself into a state of mind—partially fueled by frustration at being turned down by a lot of magazines and publishers—where I decided I didn't need a big audience for my writing. I decide that when I wrote something that I liked and shared it with a friend, and the friend appreciated it, that was satisfaction enough. Why did I need to beat my head against the wall trying to get my work in front of a larger audience?
One day, I shared this feeling with Jay, a good friend of mine who is an avid reader and an occasional writer, himself. I was proud of how enlightened I'd become, unattached to the ego drive for success, free from the demands of trying to get published. I expected him to say that it was wonderful I'd gotten myself into this state of mind about writing.
But he surprised me.
"That's great," Jay said. "If you're really satisfied just closing the loop that way, that's good. But here's a thought. When you read a writer whose work you really like, aren't you glad that he went to the trouble to get his work published?"
Jay has a real talent for seeing things from an unusual perspective, and this was one that had never occurred to me. Did I really want to write just for myself and a couple other people? Didn't my whole desire to write stem from both the pleasure I took in writing and from my desire to communicate what I thought and felt about human life?
Now, it may seem the height of ego to think that the world is sitting out there waiting to hear what I have to say, that I shouldn't deprive them of my perspective on life. But I don't think that was what Jay was saying. I think he was asking me, "Why do you write if you don't want to communicate with other people, if you don't think you have something to say that is worth reading?"
What he was saying (without saying it) was that I was being selfish, that it really wasn't up to me to decide if what I wrote was worth reading—that was up to those who read it. But if nobody had the chance to read it, how would they ever know if what I was writing was worth their time?
He was saying that if I had any belief at all in what I was trying to communicate, I had to put in the work to try to get it out into the world, in the hope that more than one person would feel grateful that I'd done that, because they were moved or inspired or just entertained by what I'd written.
Since then, I've been much more willing to work at trying to get published. Now it just seems like part of the equation: writing + publication = communication. And that is why I write, to communicate. I have no idea who I will be communicating with. I just have to trust that they're out there.
Writing as an Act of Love
I am in the midst of reading a marvelous novel—more of a thinly disguised memoir, I suspect—called Dreams of My Russian Summer by Andrei Makine. In it, the protagonist tells of summer-long visits with his French grandmother, who lives at the edge of the Russian steppes, where she relates stories about growing up in France. For him, France becomes a magical, far-away land, with strange places, grand people, and mysterious foods, such as the "bartavels and ortolans" served at a state dinner for the Russian tsar in Cherbourg.
This magical perception of France continues throughout his childhood, and, then, as an adolescent, he is moved to learn more about this mysterious country. So, he embarks on an independent study of French history and culture, the end result of which is not deeper enchantment, but simply an accumulation of knowledge. This, he finds when he visits his grandmother afterward, has destroyed the magic of her stories.
But then he finds a way to reclaim the sense of magic, wonder, and, I contend, love that had previously characterized his perception of France. After contemplating a yellowed newspaper image of three women in Victorian dress photographed on the street in Paris, he is bitterly disappointed that their image seems flat and unreal. But he continues to think about them for the remainder of the day, and, finally, standing on the balcony of his grandmother's little house, he finds a way to enter their world and experience it in his mind and heart:
"It was then that, returning to the memory of the elegant trio, I had this simple thought, this last echo of the sad reflections in which I had just been sunk. 'What they had in their lives was an autumn morning, cool and clear, an avenue in the sun, strewn with dead leaves, where they paused for a moment, motionless before the lens. Bringing the moment to a standstill…Yes, there was in their lives a clear autumn morning…'"
"I was suddenly transported with all my senses into the moment that the smile of the elegant trio had captured. I found myself amid the ambience of its autumnal smells; so penetrating was the acrid scent of dead leaves that my nostrils palpitated. I blinked at the sun that shone through the branches. I heard the distant sound of a phaeton bowling over cobblestones. And still the confused murmuring of a few laughing remarks that the three women exchanged before freezing before the photographer…Yes, intensely, fully, I was living their time!"
I don't think I've ever read a passage that captures so accurately the complete immersion in an imagined scene that good writing requires. The author has clearly fallen in love with these characters, with this moment on a Paris street. He is as enthralled with it as he would be with a woman he was falling in love with. In fact, he enters into it so fully that, for a moment, he says, "I was suddenly afraid of being trapped there forever." Anyone who has fallen in love knows that feeling of being totally enthralled with the loved one.
It is this immersion in, this willingness to give one's self over completely to, an imagined scene that makes those scenes come alive for the reader. As Robert Frost succinctly put it: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." If we want our readers to inhabit the worlds we create, we must first inhabit them ourselves—love them so much that we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel their reality. No love for the writer, no love for the reader.
Writing as Meditation
There are two situations where, when I answer the phone, people inevitably ask if I've been sleeping. The first is when I've just been meditating. The second is when I've just been writing. I'm convinced that it's no coincidence.
One of the things I enjoy about writing is that it takes me out of myself. Many people imagine creative writing as being a highly conscious process, where the writer is sitting there trying to think things up. And, sure, there are moments when I'm trying to think of what a place would look like, what words would best describe something, or what a character would do next. But most of the time I'm just in the flow, the words coming out from wherever they come without conscious effort.
(And, often, when I get stuck trying to figure what a place would look like, the words to best describe something, or what a character should do next, they suddenly arise out of my unconscious when I'm not even thinking about writing—which is why it's always good have a notebook at hand).
When I am engaged in writing, there is no ego involved. (The moment I start worrying about what someone else might think of what I'm writing, I can't do anything.) And that is also the purpose of meditation, to free oneself from the ego. Where the mind goes when we meditate or write is anybody's guess, but it goes somewhere—hence the confusion of folks on the phone, who guess that I've just gotten back from dreamland. But neither meditating nor writing leads to dreamland; it takes me to a calmer place, a place that feels blank, but is, in fact, the threshold of something bigger than myself, a place from which I get intangible but important things: peace, insight, images, creative ideas.
Call it the unconscious, called it God, call it Nirvana—or don't call it anything; but it's real. When I meditate successfully and when I write successfully, I, too, feel as if I've been somewhere else. And it's a wonderful place, and I want to visit it more often.
Someone once said that writing successfully is about getting out of your own way. I couldn't agree more. To be a better writer, I have to learn to ignore the inner critic, to let go of trying too hard, to practice getting myself to the threshold of that place where good ideas, powerful images, and insight into characters comes from.
One of the best ways to practice getting there is to just start writing—quickly, almost automatically, just putting down whatever flows out of your pen. Much if it will be muck, of course, but often, sticking out of that muck, will be thoughts, images, and ideas worthy of further investigation. I've worked this way when writing background bios for characters in novels, and it's amazing what can emerge that helps me understand the character better. If you want to learn more about this approach to writing, check out the classic Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.
I believe that the more often you can manage to get outside of yourself while you write, the more often you'll enjoy it and the more often something will emerge that you, and others, will enjoy.
Writing and the Spirit
In contrast to the popular image of the creative writer as an egotist eager for praise, I'd like to hold up the image of the writer as a monk in a cell praying for inspiration, begging God or the Muses or his own subconscious for the words that will express what he passionately feels about the world. And if he sometimes comes across as an egotist eager for praise, it's because he is so insecure about whether or not he is capable of producing something inspired, something that will move people to tears or laughter or make them think more deeply about something.
Even the most talented writer can find herself blocked by the lack of inspiration, which creates a lack of confidence, which creates a lack of will. And writing is, at least in part, an act of will. Someone (Rilke?) once wrote that no one should be a writer if she isn't compelled to write. But even if one is compelled to write, it is still difficult to find the courage and patience to start from scratch, to face a blank page and attempt to put something meaningful on it.
The purpose of this blog is to help writers explore and understand their relationship to writing, to put that relationship in the context of a whole life, to find a way to make the act of writing a spiritual practice that nurtures as well as challenges. This blog is intended to help writers begin to free themselves from the inner critic, reconnect with essential sources of inspiration, and recognize the psycho-spiritual blocks to creativity. Occasionally, it I will provide exercises for achieving those ends.
Over time, "Writing as a Habit of Being" will explore creative writing as:
If this approach to the writing life speaks to you, this blog will speak to you. You may not be religious—nor am I—but I believe that most writers are deeply spiritual, and that nurturing the spirit makes writing a bit easier and a lot more satisfying. Follow "Writing as a Habit of Being" and nurture your own spirit .
Lawrence Kessenich has written in virtually every genre, was a professional editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston for 10 years, and