Monday, October 18, 2010
The Writing Life and the Spiritual Life – Part Two
(This, my second exploration on parallels between the writing life and the spiritual life, is also my final blog. I am grateful to the Writers’ Guild for this opportunity over the last months.)
Twenty years ago, the local library sponsored a writers’ group with an acclaimed Canadian writer-in-residence. I hesitated. I was not sure I was as “real” a writer as the others surely would be. And I felt shy about letting anyone read my work-in-progress.
I took the plunge anyway and was glad that I did. We were a mixed group. One young woman was writing poetry; something I’d never read. A young fellow was doing a “graphic novel,” the first time I heard that term. A middle-aged woman was writing a romance. Another writer was penning inspirational pieces for children. And I was attempting a mystery. We liked each other and had lots of fun. The romance novelist wanted me to put sex into my mystery and I wanted more mystery in her book.
I appreciated the give-and-take, support, and criticism of peers. Their perspectives helped improve my work. And accountability was useful. On a regular basis I had to provide a chapter for others to read. When I had trouble motivating myself to write some weeks, I felt the compelling priority of producing something for colleagues.
The greatest benefit was psychological. Writing is solitary work, sometimes devastatingly so. Often I sit in front of a blank computer screen or blank page and wonder: “Why? Why am I doing this? Why do I bother? Everything worth saying or writing has been said or written before and more eloquently or elegantly than I ever could. What’s the point?”
Because of the writers’ group, however, even though I was still alone in my study, I no longer felt isolated. I thought about Sarah and Brent, Ann and Mary. I knew that they faced similar monumental challenges. And they cared about my work and about me too. That encouraged me to plug away and keep going.
It’s no coincidence that within a year or two, I finished a book. (Not the mystery; that has still not seen the light of day.)
A similar dynamic happened in my spiritual life. I have tried since I was a child to be prayerful. A lot of efforts were hit-and-miss. It’s easier to pray when there’s a lively sense of God’s presence, when scriptures “sing,” when prayers are answered sooner rather than later. It is not so easy when God seems absent, scriptures are dry, or the only prayer that rings true is “How long, O Lord, how long?” Alone in my prayer corner, I do not always know how to persist.
Over a decade ago, I became an oblate at a Benedictine abbey. I had been regularly going on retreat there for years. Eventually, I felt a call to firm up my commitment. I took a vow to live out Benedictine values and priorities as best I could in daily life, work, family, and ministry. I am accountable to my brother monks for how I do.
The monks serve for my spiritual life in ways parallel to that writers’ group. Now when I try to pray, I no longer feel so isolated. The monks uphold me with prayers. They want me to persist in my spiritual life. Unlikely cheerleaders, they nevertheless hearten and cheer me on.
Someone once said that those who pray with the support of others are mountain climbers roped together for their tasks. But those who pray alone are solitary pioneers who learn mostly by trial and error, without the helps, supports, and guidance of others who have gone ahead.
Praying or writing, we are still solo. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, said: “Anything we fully do is an alone journey. No matter how happy your friends may be for you, how much they support you, you can’t expect anyone to match the intensity of your emotions or to completely understand what you went through.”
I’m an introvert. I get that. But even solitude and solitary pursuits – prayer and writing – benefit from support along the way.
Arthur Boers is the author of The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (InterVarsity) and holds the RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.
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