Category Archives: Writing and the Spirit

Become Perfect

Somebody asked a master painter how to paint a perfect painting. He answered, “To paint a perfect painting, first become perfect, then paint.”

So, I translated, to write a perfect story, become perfect then write.

I labored over this advice, judging how far from perfect I was, and wondering how far from perfect one could be and still create a masterpiece. And I considered that what I know about certain writers of masterpieces makes me believe they were not much more perfect in a human or spiritual sense than I am.

I decided the advice made no sense unless we interpret it this way: It’s not essential to our writing that we be perfect, or even close, all the time, only when we’re writing.

When we sit down (or stand up, or pace around) to write, we need to cast off imperfections such as our tendency to rush to judgment, our impatience, our preconceptions, our worries about whether we’re going to succeed.

We need to clear our minds of anything that keeps us thinking or feeling out of accord with the fruits of the Spirit as described by Saint Paul, and try to approach our stories from an attitude of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Then we can treat our creations with deep respect and compassion. Even if we don’t approach perfection for a nanosecond (most of us probably won’t) the closer we come, the closer our creations may come to realizing their possibilities.

And the process of writing (or gardening, or fiddling) will be a spiritual exercise that draws us closer to what God would have us become.

Find more wisdom in Writing and the Spirit

Number One is Patience

Master Jeong taught: “Number one is patience, number two is patience, number three is patience.”

Deadlines help some of us. They make us get up and work. They offer us the vision of some respite from the pressure once we meet the deadline. They teach us discipline, something we can’t be writers without.

But when deadlines rule us, we can lose our way. What should rule our writing lives is a pursuit of quality that persuades us to relegate deadlines to their proper place, as tools.

Unless we’re salaried journalists, as writers we will either be the imposers of our deadlines or else we’ll agree to them. Friends of mine who have become commercial successes with popular fiction are urged by their publishers to bring out a new book every year. The implied threat is that if they fail to do so, their bank accounts will suffer.

And many writers complete and publish a dozen books a year. These folks might tell you that they need to produce like that to make a living.

A writer who chooses to make a living by working on such deadlines is making product, not art. Maybe the spirit will in some instances inspire commercial products. But as a rule, art requires patience, not deadlines.

Andre Dubus, author of some inspired short stories, tells of a method he calls writing vertically: “One day or night I decided to try a different approach. I told myself that I would not leave a sentence until I knew precisely what Anna (the story’s main character) was feeling. For years, I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward; now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could.”

We can’t expect a spirit to reveal much in an instant. To hear God, we usually need to quiet our rampaging minds and senses and listen.

If it takes an hour of sitting and waiting to find the right words, to make a scene come alive or to deepen the truths it reveals, any artist will agree that was an hour valuably spent.

Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Repeat after me: “Number one is patience, number two is patience, number three is patience.”

For plenty more wise guidance, read the whole Writing and the Spirit book.


Do It Like Olga

Olga Savitsky taught me (by example, as most important lessons are taught) why David was a man after God’s own heart.”

I used to believe David got that reputation because of his creative side, that God’s heart was reflected in the David who wrote psalms. But Olga taught me about David’s warrior side.

After she got diagnosed with cancer, Olga became an avid fan of ultimate fighting, which at first troubled me. My son Cody had taken up the sport. I don’t enjoy watching anyone get beaten, and the last man I’d ever want to see hit, or kicked, or thrown down and wrenched into submission, is my son. The second man I’d least want to see treated that way is anybody Cody might do it to. So, I failed to appreciate anybody for encouraging my son in that sport.

Meanwhile, Olga came to love ultimate fighting because it was as close to real fighting as our civilization allowed, with few restrictions except eye-gouging and murder. The fighters, she told me, go at it with every fiber of their bodies, nerves and wills, which gave her examples to follow in her fight against cancer.

Like David, Olga was a poet and a warrior, who during the battle devoted her all to believing; to studying scripture and applying its promises; to praying and meeting with the friends who lifted her spirit; and to avoiding those who weakened her, though she might love them. Sentenced to death, she devoted herself to the art of staying alive. To her, ultimate fighting was a perfect metaphor for the way God wants us to fight for all good things.

Which led me to better understand King David.

Before Olga, I tended to view the Old and New Testaments as separate books, since much of the Old Testament is stories and prophecies concerning strife and war, and the chief themes of the New Testament are love, redemption, and the peace they bring.

Olga made the books into one by teaching me that we can live in peace while at war. The better we love, the more peace we find. And to love better, we need to battle the powers of heaven and earth that create discord, destruction and all evils that use hypocrisy and lies in the effort to haunt, confuse, and embitter us.

To seek truth, as artists are called to do, is to battle against lies.

My grandma was Mary Garfield, a poet, story-teller and painter who insisted that lying was the behavior that grieved her most deeply. And I’ve come to feel the same. Among other evils, lies can lead even people of good will to do awful acts.

While Olga helped me to understand Cody better and to admire him more (though I continue to hope he’ll switch to a gentler sport), she taught me that King David was a man after God’s own heart because he, like Olga, was both a warrior and a poet.

The warrior battles material enemies. The warrior poet battles lies.



Do It Right

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a treatise on attitude.

When I first read the book, I was home in San Diego for Christmas break, from my graduate studies at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Laura, my first wife, myself, and our newborn Darcy had driven from San Diego to Iowa in August and returned in December in a Ford delivery van. It was the stripped-down model, with no insulation, which I had vowed to remedy before driving back to a place that has winter.

My original plan was to line the walls inside with insulation and cover it with cardboard. But while reading Zen and the Art, which taught dedication to care and quality in all efforts, I couldn’t let myself get away with that. So I bought a pile of redwood bender board and spent a whole week on the project. As long as I kept the van, looking at what I had done uplifted me.

Whether our current task is raising kids or counseling friends or writing stories or poems, we owe it to ourselves, families, friends, readers, and God, to use our gifts with care and dedication.

If we writers don’t frequently ask ourselves “Can I do better?” and labor over every clumsy word; if we don’t give our hearts to our stories and ask ourselves at least once on every page, “Am I being honest or just recycling clichés of language or story?”; if we’re not willing to revise until our brains reel from the effort, we’ll be hacks.

The world doesn’t need anymore hacks.

So, given that our tasks are many and our lives are harried, how do we make the time to do everything we do as unto the Lord?

Writing and the Spirit, the book, has some powerful suggestions.

Get Real

I’ll turn this thought over to a couple fellows brighter than I’ll ever be.

SØren Kierkegaard wrote, “A person with originality comes along, and consequently does not say: one must take the world as it is, but: whatever the world may be, I remain true to my own originality, which I do not intend to change according to the good pleasure of the world. The moment that word is heard, there is as it were a transformation in the whole of existence, as in the fairy story–when the word is said the magic castle, which has been under a spell for a hundred years, opens again, and everything comes to life. In the same way existence becomes all eyes. The Angels grow busy, look about with curiosity to see what is going to happen, for that is what interests them. On the other side, dark and sinister demons, who have sat idle for a long while gnawing their fingers, jump up, stretch their limbs: ‘This is something for us,’ they say.

“This is what the apostle means when he says that the Christian’s fight is not merely against flesh and blood but with principalities and powers.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I consider the most influential philosopher of the modern age, contends that while peoples’ most common and dominant quality is laziness their second most common and dominant quality is a kind of nervous fear. He argues that what they fear most is the trouble refusing to conform and exposing who they truly are would cause them. So, he admonishes, become who you are. And, he warns us, creators must be hard and courageous, because the artist’s task is to show how unique people really are, what a wonder each of us is. To encourage the hesitant, Nietzsche offers, “The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously.

In his work on myth, Joseph Campbell advises us to follow our bliss and promises that if we do so without fear, doors will open where we didn’t even know doors existed. He reminds us that in the story of Sir Galahad, “the knights agree to go on a quest, but thinking it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group, each ‘entered into the forest, at one point or another, where they saw it to be thickest, all in those places where they found no way or path.’”

Where we see a path, it’s someone else’s path. So: “Each knight enters the forest at the most mysterious point and follows his own intuitions. What each brings forth is what never before was on land or sea: the fulfillment of unique potentialities, which are different from anybody else’s.”


In church, Olga Savitsky reads poems of hers she feels God wants us to hear. She believes God gave her the poems, as did William Blake and no doubt vast numbers of us writers too afraid of appearing ridiculous to admit that belief.

Olga’s poems are rough. She hasn’t studied poetry writing or even read much poetry beyond what she got in school, and she didn’t major in literature or writing. Yet inspired lines leap out of her poetry and grab us. I suspect the spirit enters her poems because above all, she means them to be honest expressions of her heart.

When I was 13, my dad told me, “If you want a girl to fall for you, don’t try to impress her, just be yourself.”

Each of us is more unique than we have ever suspected. But we’ve been taught to conform, in actions, language, ideas, and even daydreams. If there exists on earth a culture that isn’t structured toward creating conformity I’d like to know about it.

Now and then, someone breaks through the programming, discovers who she is and lives as her real self, and we either view her with amazement, or with suspicion, or we send the police or the church ushers to restrain her.

A few writers impress me as being so original we have reason to wonder if they came from another planet or another reality. Franz Kafka, SØren Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor, and Olga come to mind as such masters at being themselves.

Though I may never find my original self to the degree they did, or even dare to expose what parts of me I do find, I’m convinced that to the extent I can be real, honest and true to myself, at least while writing, people will read and value my stories.


By the way, an ebook copy of Writing and the Spirit makes a swell (and mighty inexpensive) Christmas gift?


Begin With the Spirit

When I moved back to my hometown of San Diego from Chico, California, I left behind a tenured professorship. My kids lived with me and cost plenty. So I started teaching all around.

One semester, I was teaching 9 classes at 4 colleges, about 90 hours a week. My son Cody and I went to Tae Kwon Do classes twice a week. And I was managing Cody’s Little League team, hoping he might become a pitcher instead of a ninja. All this left me too weary to write, or so I thought.

Probably because I didn’t sleep enough, my emotions had shut down, and every day I sensed impending doom. Something had to change. My kids didn’t deserve a catatonic dad.

One late afternoon as I sat on the grass at the University of San Diego, overlooking the harbor and wondering how I could fix my emotions, I mumbled, “Okay, where should I start?”

Then I remembered advice Master Jeong, our Tae Kwon Do instructor, often gave. He told us, “Everything begins with the spirit. From the spirit come the thoughts. From the thoughts come the actions. From the actions come the habits. From the habits comes the character. And from the character comes the destiny.”

Stupefied by stress as I was, I sat a while wondering where on that continuum I should start trouble-shooting, until the obvious made itself clear.

Start with the spirit.

So, I thought, what could best set my spirit on the right path?

I believe it was God who sent the message: “Look here, you’re a writer. But for months you haven’t been writing, which has grieved your spirit into a coma. Sure, teaching nine classes and raising kids is hard, but it’s not going to kill you. What will kill you is not writing.”

The next morning, I got up at 5 a.m. instead of 5:30, which allowed me to write for a half hour. Not much, but enough to give me hope, which is the antidote to despair.

The stuff I wrote during those half-hour sessions became crucial parts of my novel The Loud Adios. About a month after the semester ended, I sent the manuscript to a national contest.

I won.

Which meant I earned enough so I didn’t need to teach as much and, after too many discouraging years, I would see a new novel of mine on bookstore shelves.

Which can be an inspiring sight.

By the way, need I remind you that the book or ebook Writing and the Spirit makes a swell Christmas gift?

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus would tell a story.

When my son Cody was 14 and more troubled than I can write about and keep from feeling my heart break all over again, I gave him a Bible. I had only recently begun attending church. Sometimes Cody would go with me, but though he would never admit to being baffled, I sensed he didn’t have the background required to take much from the messages. So I bought him a Bible of his own and suggested that if he read at least Matthew and Acts, he’d get some basics that would make church less strange and tedious.

Late that night, he ran upstairs. Sounding more animated than he had in a couple of years, he said, “Hey, I thought this Bible was a lot of preaching, but it’s a great story.”

Didn’t Cecil B. DeMille title his epic film, The Greatest Story Ever Told?
In his essay “Faith and Fiction,” novelist Fredrick Buechner contends that whether what we call inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, from the muse (who or whatever she may be), or results from a lucky break in the process of imagining, it’s possible at least every now and then to be better than we are, to write more than we know. And he points out that St. Paul asked, “Do you not know that God’s spirit dwells in you?”

And 1 Corinthians 2:16 maintains, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Which could mean that Christ’s mind has entered ours, thereby giving us its capabilities. Or it could mean that we can use our minds in the same ways Christ used his.

Either interpretation tells me we are capable of tuning in and getting divine help with our essays, poems or stories. And if we aren’t tuning in, if the spirit isn’t helping, the problem may lie with our attitude.

One Sunday Gary Goodell, a pastor and former seminary professor, proposed that it may be through the act of communion that Christ enters our being.

Let’s suppose this is the case. Then having the mind of Christ depends upon receiving communion, and according to 1 Corinthians 11: 23-29, receiving communion (rather than just gobbling it) requires a humble and honest attitude.

So, attitude may be the key to the place (or places) the spirit (or spirits) rests. Our attitude may determine which spirit can move us, as well as how much we hear of what the spirit has to say.


Edward Hirsch’s book The Demon and the Angel is devoted to enlightening us, often through the insights of master writers. about the spirit that moves us.

Hirsch reports that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journals, “Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.”

He informs us that Garcia Lorca referred to the spirit he sought, so that he could ask it to inhabit his poems, as the duende. He believed the duende was associated with the spirit of earth, visible anguish, irrational desire and enthusiasm, and a fascination with death. He held that the duende will not come unless he sees death is possible.

Writers seeking Lorca’s duende ought to heed an admonition of Master Jeong, under whom I studied Tae Kwon Do. “Don’t fight unless you’re willing to die,” he warned us. A writer might translate, “Don’t write unless you are willing to die (or risk everything).”

I’d like to know whether Lorca’s duende is a spirit of creation or of destruction. Czeslaw Milosz might ask the same question. Milosz, who attests that poems are dictated to him by the spirit, concludes his ars poetica “with the hope/that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”

I’m convinced that both good and evil spirits exist. Hirsch quotes poet Charles Simic (from Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell), “…one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.” And “Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.” I would scratch “in America,” insert “on earth” in its place, and argue that the mythic conflict the Faust legend presents, in which a creative person meets with the temptation to exchange his soul for powers granted by the devil, is a theme present in each of our lives.

Perhaps blues singer Robert Johnson as well as Fredrich Nietzsche, Garcia Lorca, the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudalaire got inspired by the spirit that granted Faust’s wish. Then the duende could be another name for what Dostoyevski’s Ivan Karamazov calls “the dread spirit.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, Satan is talking to Ivan. “Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sometimes sees such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy could not create.”

Artists can get addicted to such visions. Emerson confessed, “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget our-selves, to be surprised out of our propriety, and to do something without knowing how or why.”

W.B. Yeats believed spirits need us as much as we need them. He agreed with Irish folk tradition that the spirit may offer us wisdom but only humans can deliver the wisdom. Which implies the same spirit (or spirits) we’re looking to access is looking to access us.

Maybe all artists are possessed.


An anecdote about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke tells of his being invited by his friend the psychologist Karl Jung to undertake psychotherapy. Rilke declines the offer, saying “I’m afraid if my demons go, my angels will go with them.”

In legend and literature are a host of characters who have bartered with the devil and traded their souls for creative powers.

William Blake, especially in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” portrays the angelic and the demonic as equally powerful and necessary. A Christian reading Blake may wish he could ask the poet, “Hey, which side are you on?”

Blake might explain that he roamed like a foreign correspondent through the spirit world, in the midst of a heavenly battleground, surrounded by firefights and war cries, reporting on what he saw and heard. He may have simply felt called to write what he witnessed and leave judgment to his readers.

Suppose a spirit gives us strange words, wild combinations of words, lines rich with meanings we have never consciously meant, and suppose they make us feel wicked, cruel or severely deranged, in a fearful way.

Just because inspiration strikes doesn’t mean we’re obliged to accept it. Perhaps Hitler was inspired to massacre people, Eric Rudolph to bomb abortion clinics.

Artists are called to partner with the spirit, not to be any spirit’s pawns.

Inspiration or Imagination

William Blake believed every word he wrote came from God. I’m not so blessed as that. Most of my words come from my imagination.

I’m not convinced distinguishing between imagination and inspiration is critical to our stories or our lives, but it could be, so let’s pursue the question.

In a lecture entitled “Imagination vs. Inspiration,” poet Garcia Lorca maintained that the imagination was a form of logic which could do many things but couldn’t “touch the darker forces of nature or the most incandescent light, or the realm of the unknown.” Imagination, he explained, always works with facts borrowed from the “most clear and precise form of reality.”

In my experience, imagination usually begins with connections. I build Juan out of character traits I’ve witnessed. Then I lock Juan in a broken elevator with Lucy, who may have red hair, and I watch what happens. If it charms or excites me, I write it down.

Or a taste reminds me of a hamburger stand named Jub’s my friend Eric Curtis and I used to frequent. Soon I’m writing a scene that happens in Mission Beach, where Jub’s was located.

That’s imagination.

But inspiration appears out of nowhere. Or from somewhere we can’t locate. It could be some as of yet unidentified part of our brains. Or it could come direct from God. Whatever the source or path, it manifests itself in moments that can make us gasp in awe of a truth we hadn’t noticed before.

And it usually gives the kind of truth we can’t express in any other terms than the one we’ve just encountered. If we try to analyze, we may sense that this truth comes from beneath, beyond or above our reality.

It’s the kind of truth we find so often in the Bible. The kind that comes clear yet remains a mystery.