Writing as Spiritual Practice
For my whole adult life, I have paid my rent by putting words on paper and selling them: magazine articles, Web content (odious phrase), books, book reviews. But it is only in the last year that, when asked what do you do—say, at a cocktail party or on an airplane—I have begun to answer, sometimes, haltingly, I’m a writer.
Possibly my hesitation to claim that moniker comes from living in Manhattan for so many years, where everyone is a writer, or an actress, or a painter, though really most of those artistes are waiting tables. In my heart of hearts, I have always wanted to Be A Writer, but it’s an intimidating label, and sometimes I wonder who the heck I think I am, ascribing it to little ol’ me.
My hesitation to proclaim myself a writer comes in part from a sneaking suspicion that if I were really a writer, writing would be easy. I once heard a sermon in which the pastor said you knew you were called to something—lifelong singleness, say, or a career in the culinary arts—if the thing in question, living unmarried or whipping up soufflés, came easy to you.
At first blush that makes sense: surely God does not call us to seemingly impossible, joyless tasks. And yet, upon reflection, ease seems a funny way to discern call. Writing comes easily to me—very occasionally. Equally occasionally I hit that place psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow,” and that is downright delicious. Most of the time, however, writing does not flow in any sense of the term, and sometimes it is downright hellish—though even at its most grueling, it is a lot easier to sit at a computer all day than wait those aforementioned tables for eight straight hours. (And while we’re on the subject, what would the equation of calling and ease mean for marriage and parenthood, not to mention pastoring a church? Surely we know that many people are called to those holy tasks, and yet few would pick “easy” as the first adjective to describe any of them.)
The more I write, the more I understand that writers are not necessarily people for whom writing comes easily. Nor is a writer necessarily someone who publishes, nor necessarily someone who gets paid to write, nor someone with a burning urge to put pen to paper every single day. In my book, a writer is someone who comes to understand the truth of a thing better, more clearly, more wholly, by writing their way toward the truth. If you don’t know what you think or feel about something until you’ve written, and re-written, your way inside it, you might just Be A Writer.
In this way, writing can be understood as one of a panoply of spiritual disciplines that helps us become new creatures. Writing is not merely a tool for catharsis or self-expression, or a place for unleashing wild creativity. It can, properly and wonderfully, play a part in our spiritual lives.
Christians have long recognized that writing can serve spirituality. In the 4th century, archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom told his parishioners to write down lists of their sins, for “if you write them down, God blots them out….If you omit writing them, God both inscribes them and exacts their penalty.”
Athanasius tells us that Antony instructed his monks to “note and write down” the “stirrings of [their] souls” in diaries. More recently, memoirist Kathleen Norris explained her vocation, to Christianity and to writing, thus: “I used to think that writing had substituted for religion in my life, but I’ve come to see that it has acted as a spiritual discipline, giving me the tools I needed to rediscover my religious heritage. It is my Christian inheritance that largely defines me, but for years I didn’t know that.” It is sometimes writing that helps us know these most basic, defining things about ourselves.
“Writer” is not the only label that writers contend with. If you’re a Christian, you must always be prepared to accept, or reject, the label “Christian writers.” Many writers, who are Christians, and who write about palpably Christian things, reject the label because they don’t want to be ghettoized (after all, most of us think of Tim LaHaye, not Walker Percy, as a “Christian writer”).
Sometimes I squirm when I’m described as a Christian writer, because it too seems to be a scary big title. But I will claim those nouns and adjectives, Christian, and writer, and Christian writer (or perhaps writing Christian), not so much as descriptions of what I successfully am, but as statements of aspiration. They describe what I am trying to become.
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