Category Archives: Writing and the Spirit

Find Out Who You Are, Part One

According to the TV show Joan of Arcadia, which I recommend buying on DVD (for some insidious reason, it got cancelled), St Augustine wrote, “To know yourself is to know God.”

Telling our stories is an adventure. We might know what has happened in our past, but as we write or tell it, new insights and meanings come clear. In the process of telling our stories, we discover our lives.

As storytellers who draw on our experience, we see evidence that life isn’t a random collection of events. Rather, it appears to move in accord with some larger plan that forces us to confront our fears and weaknesses. We remember strange happenings at crucial moments. Events we once saw as catastrophes now appear as blessings.

Our life stories may become a foundation of our faith. In his essay “Faith and Fiction,” Fredrick Buechner maintains that our faith has the same beginnings as our fiction, in “the awareness of events in our lives that lead from one to the other and thereby give each other meaning. The ups and downs of the years, the dreams, the odd moment, the intuitions.”

The plots of our lives are foundations of our faith as well as the germs and cornerstones of the stories we write. Never mind whether we call the stories fact or fiction.

Read a whole book of these observations of mine.

Quit Making Excuses

At least until you get six-figure advances, when you meet people and they ask what you do, beware of telling them you’re a writer. Too often they’ll think you make lots of money. If you’re honest, you’ll admit you don’t. And suddenly they won’t appear to find you as interesting as they did when they saw dollar signs.

Or they’ll tell you they too are going to become writers as soon as they can find the time.

Nobody I’ve ever met has ample time to write. We get the time by stealing it. We take jobs that give us long weekends, and/or find part-time jobs or husbands or wives who won’t expect much money out of us, and/or take our kids to day-care and hustle or pray for tuition money, and/or resign ourselves to five or six hours of sleep a night and/or pass up weekend softball leagues or vacations. When our family suggests a day trip to the beach, we often ask them to go without us and spend our first hour of freed writing time suffering flashbacks of their parting looks or comments.

One evening in Tae Kwon Do, when the time for my black belt test was nearing, I encountered Master Jeong in the locker room and explained why I wasn’t coming to class often enough and admitted I realized that to progress required at least three classes a week. I meant to come more often, I told him, once Little League season ended and released me from managing Cody’s baseball team.

Master Jeong listened to all that. Then, without a nod, a grimace or a word, he turned and walked off. I supposed he was preoccupied.

A week or so later, I found him in a congenial mood. We chatted about some mutual concerns before, once again, I explained my failure to attend more often.

Without expression or comment, he walked away.

After three or four such responses (I’m not always quick-witted), I recognized that people making excuses, reasonable or not, might as well be invisible, and inaudible.

Why we fail to perform doesn’t matter. Our reasons are of no consequence. Missing classes (or writing sessions) because of working the three jobs I need to send my daughter to college will affect my performance in the same way as if I missed them because of an addiction to Survivor.

To earn a black belt, I needed to change my habits. Simple.

Get Courageous

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, I read in the college newspaper an interview with the director of the Playwrights’ Workshop. The reporter asked for his advice to would-be playwrights. His response was so outrageous, I remember it after a bunch of years.

He advised, if you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, get rid of them. If you’ve got a husband or wife, disown them. If you’ve got kids, drown them.

I suspect he was practicing dramatic hyperbole. Yet I, like Saint Paul, agree with the basic principle: lovers and dependents can get in the way of our work.

If you dedicate yourself to writing, at some point you’ll suspect people are conspiring to stop you. They will demean your efforts overtly or by lack of appreciation. Your family will fail to hide their resentment of the time you spend dreaming over the keyboard and the fact that you don’t make as much money as you could if you applied the same effort to pulling weeds for minimum wage.

And when you’re having a creative reverie, or even if they catch you transcribing directly from the spirit, they will interrupt.

We can’t blame them. When pursuing our art, we’re lost to the world. We’re remote, boring, often cranky. We’re loners who may elicit jealousy when our loved ones begin to doubt we really need them.

But most of us do need them, at least in times when we’re not creating. So, if I were asked for advice on this issue, I might suggest we try hard to be extra good to our loved ones whenever we break away from our art. And we might try putting a lock on our office door.

In practicing art, we risk alienating family and friends. That’s a fact. Artists aren’t recognized as the best husbands, wives or parents. But neither are soldiers, policemen or preachers, other occupations that require courage.

As Olga Savitsky taught me, King David was “a man after God’s own heart” because he was both a warrior and a poet. I imagine David composing his psalms with the same focus, zeal, and courage as he used attacking Goliath or the Edomites.

Read on in Writing and the Spirit

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Pay Your Dues

After his victory over the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus returned in the “power of the spirit.” In other words, Christ had to face temptation before the full power of the spirit was available to him.

Likewise, we may need to prove ourselves ready for the gifts of inspiration.

During graduate school, at a party after a reading, I was talking to Sara Vogan and C. E. Poverman (alias Buzz). Sara was my friend and fellow student. Buzz had come to give the reading. Sara asked Buzz, who had finished Iowa’s writers’ workshop program a few years before, how long it usually took graduates before they sold a book. Buzz replied that even the writers who succeed most always take ten years from the time they got serious about writing.

He was dead right, I’ve observed. And who can count the ones who fail or drop out along the way?

I began to write in earnest soon after I realized my dad, not I, was the musician in our family, and I was the storyteller.

By “in earnest” I mean every chance I could. If the workdays burnt me out, I would write all weekend. If kids demanded my weekends, I rose early and wrote.

I hauled a wife and baby to Iowa largely because I imagined earning a graduate degree that qualified me to teach writing at a college would allow me more time to write than most professions would.

I don’t mean to whine. If anybody sacrificed because of my choices, it was my family, not me. My life has been a great adventure.

What I do mean is this:

If you want the spirit’s help with your writing, the spirit may require that you make writing your top priority.

I heard about a South Korean man who instantly became a hero of mine. Having been imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp for some political crime, he and another former prisoner wrote and were producing an operatic musical about those camps. They found potential backers, but the South Korean government pressured the backers to withdraw and thereby avoid public outcry that could damage economic cooperation with North Korea.

So this producer mortgaged his kidney to pay for the production.

Let’s think about him when we lament missing Saturday morning volleyball in favor of writing.

Pursue Beauty

John Keats wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all we know on earth and all we need to know.”

Ranier Maria Rilke argues in “The First Elegy”:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”

When Soren Kierkegaard defines “dread” as the apprehension of the possibilities freedom offers, I believe he tells us why, as Rilke contends, every angel is terrifying. To Kierkegaard, “This dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when the spirit would posit the synthesis [the uniting of body and soul], and gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself.”

Angels terrify us and the dizziness of dread makes us flee from them, because they are reflections of God. The Old Testament holds that if we saw God we would surely die. Because God is more beautiful than he created us to bear. So he gave Christ, his appearance softened by his humanity, as our standard of truth and beauty.

Yet beauty doesn’t only reside in the divine and the good. Beauty also resides in great sinners, in blinding terror, in death, all kinds of darkness, wonder, and tragedy. It resides in all the places we dizzy writers are sometimes obliged to go, if we hope to write the truth.

From Writing and the Spirit.  To read the whole book …

Get Free

Everybody wants to be free, right?

We read that the truth will set us free.

We’re told Christ came to free us, and that if he sets us free, we are free indeed.

One of the liberties we in the U.S. at least claim to prize is the freedom to speak the truth as we see it. Yet we allow dogmas, editors, critical readers, and the marketplace, to censor us.

The Brothers Karamazov addresses the concept of freedom. In the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, Dostoyevski sets up a drama in which Christ returns to earth in medieval Europe, gets taken captive by the Inquisition and told by the Inquisitor why he failed: because people don’t really want the freedom he granted.

What people want, the Inquisitor contends, is what Satan, while tempting Christ at the end of his 40-day fast in the desert, offered to help Christ provide them:

Miracle. A show so grand it would stop all questioning.

Mystery. Idols to worship.

Authority. A source of unambiguous, strict rules that everybody must follow, so they won’t feel alone and different.

As writers, we can’t afford to be like the people Satan (in the Inquisitor’s story) describes.

If we hope to leave ourselves open to the spirit that moves us, we need to question everything, beware of idols such as the desire for fame and wealth, and to express our uniqueness.

If we’re Christian writers, redemption can free us from the demons of guilt and shame. If this freedom allows us to shed legalistic inhibitions, fear of risking heresy, and whatever hang-ups are blocking the messages the spirit is ready to give us, I suspect we can create more powerful art than writers who haven’t found the ticket to freedom.

Love Your Work

If we love our work, we will treat it with profound respect.

Flannery O’Connor was one of the great originals. She could be honest, profound and outrageous all at once. So I value her opinion more than most people’s.

In Mystery and Manners, a book of her essays, she proposes, “If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

O’Connor explains, “If the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

O’Connor contented that writers ought to push their talents to the outermost limit of the kind of talent they have.

Modern writers, she argues, “…are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself…. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God.”

We need to love our work for its own sake, to take it to the outer limits of our current talent and ability, but not beyond.

And we need to disallow the temptation to use it as a vehicle for preaching or propagandizing except insofar as the stories themselves call us to.

“The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art,” O’Connor maintains. “He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”

She would have us Christians realize that Christian stories are not necessarily about Christians and their concerns but are simply fiction “…in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”

Love Your Characters

From Writing and the Spirit:

I told my daughter Darcy I’d been convicted to take more seriously the injunction to love our enemies.

“But suppose,” I said, “a neighbor comes roaring home daily at 3 a.m. in his ’55 Chevy with dual glass-pack mufflers. And suppose when I ask him to quit roaring he only says, ‘You think I should walk?’ Then he laughs and slams his door on me.

“Now, my question is, what does it mean to love him? If I act like his friend, he might take that attitude as approval of his behavior.”

Darcy said she believes loving your enemy means doing your best to understand him by considering the things that might’ve caused him to act like a jerk. An ethicist or theologian might call that interpretation of love simplistic. Still, it’s useful. Most often, if we can understand what fears and insecurities might lead somebody to offend us, we’ll let go of a grudge and be healthier for it, and not act rashly against the person.

We can apply this sort of love to our characters. Read any Dickens novel and you’ll notice that, with few exceptions, the author appears to have a deep sympathy for all his characters. He relishes their uniqueness and does his best to present their quirks and motives in ways that make them come alive and that remind us to beware of passing judgment.

Love Better

From Writing and the Spirit:

In church, Olga said she believed that when people prayed for her, the prayers were effective because the people who prayed loved her. A light flashed in my dim brain and I saw that prayers given in love will always be the ones most acceptable to God.

Because God is love, God exists in a dimension of love, and for us to communicate in that dimension, we have to enter that dimension and speak in that dimension’s language.

Similarly, the more able we are to approach our writing with an attitude of love, the closer we will be to the dimension where the spirit that moves us resides, and the better we’ll be able to translate its message.

In the book of Matthew, Christ says to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that spitefully use you and persecute you.” He explains that if we only love our friends and do good to those who treat us well, we are no better than the worst of humanity. So the more and better we love, the closer we’ll get to being like God, to becoming perfect.

If we need to become perfect before we can make perfect art, then the key to perfecting our art is to grow in our capacity to love, and to exercise that capacity.

In light of the above and Saint John’s injunction that “perfect love casts out fear,” let’s suppose the Beatles were right in singing “Love is All You Need.” Then let’s exhort ourselves to love even the antagonists of our lives and our stories. And let’s allow the power of that love to help us create fearlessly, without worrying about the judgment of readers, editors, reviewers, or the folks who sit next to us in church.

With our hearts and minds lightened by love and the absence of fear, the spirit can easily move us.

Be Perfect II

Pointing to some children, Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Which implies we can’t be perfect unless we can be like children.

Since we all have been children, we’re able to take real or imaginary journeys back to the places of our childhood, and to the people and dreams of that part of our lives. And once we get there, we can let those places, people and dreams refresh our minds and help us cast off jaded parts of ourselves, and go to the territory on the boundary of the kingdom of heaven where the spirit most often seems to reside.

When I first got married and started a family I became someone other than who I am. I became somebody I’ll call “Responsible Man”. My ex-wife and probably my grown children might argue, “You weren’t all that responsible.” But, though I did quit jobs and spend what I otherwise might’ve saved on the time and opportunity to write, we always had a home and food. We never had to shop in thrift stores, except for furniture.

Master Jeong had us students sit in meditative posture. “Think about who you are,” he said. “Not what you do. Think about who you are at your essence.”

We are not who we generally feel we are. What we feel we are is what we’ve become. Who we really are is closer to who we were as children.

Therapists sometimes guide people to seek their inner child. New Age gurus take men out into the woods and have them yowl and wield big sticks.

I tell myself to banish “Responsible Man.” I can do that now that I own a home in California and my big kids are grown and educated and have real jobs, and my little Zoë has a professional mama and income from me that she’ll get no matter if I land in some asylum. But “Responsible Man” won’t let go of me. He has become a parasite. Maybe he’s my evil twin. Or maybe he knows that without him I’ll go wild and wreak havoc upon the world. “Okay then,” I tell him, “at least go to sleep when I’m writing.”

All of us artists would be wise to learn how to put whoever we have become asleep long enough every day to let us be who we essentially are, because that person is closer to perfect than the one we’ve become. And the closer to perfect, the less programmed and jaded, the more like those children Jesus pointed to when he proposed that to enter his kingdom we needed to become like them, the better at hearing the spirit.

From Writing and the Spirit