Poetry and fiction, like all the arts, are a way of perceiving and of understanding the world. Good writing is as positive a search for truth as is any part of science, and it deals with kinds of truth that must forever be beyond science. The writer must learn, necessarily of himself and within himself, that his subject is the nature of reality, that good writing always increases the amount of human knowledge available.
-John Ciardi “What Every Writer Must Learn” appearing in The Saturday Review, 15 December 1956
Writers are constantly reminded that the best way to produce material and improve their work is to develop a daily writing habit. I couldn’t agree more. And my journal and I are going on two days straight now.
Writing is a discipline; but, until very lately, it had never consciously occurred to me to think of it as a spiritual discipline. I often write my prayers because I find it easier to focus, and I usually journal my thoughts and observations when reading Scripture. However, I often crack open my journal to discover that there have been days, weeks, sometimes months since I have written a single word.
Does this mean that I have not prayed in that amount of time? Unlikely. Does it mean that I haven’t had an important thought about Scripture? No, not necessarily. Does it mean that I have been to some degree distracted? Absolutely.
In that time that I have not written, I have not deemed my daily story, my praise or my worries, important enough to merit the extra time spent in taking a pen in hand.
Spiritual discipline is also found in the self-discovery that comes through carefully reflecting on our thoughts or even in writing stories. Transcribing our “story” often helps us develop our ideas about the world we live in and the people who live in it with us. Ursula La Guine says in The Language of the Night that “We read books to find out who we are…. A person who [has] never listened to nor read a tale or a myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would now know quite fully what it is to be human.” The same applies to the development of our own tale or story as reflection leads to understanding.
My Own Experience with Writing
One fall semester, I opted to take a creative nonfiction writing class as an elective. After the usual lecture about the impossibility of publication, the instructor asked us to focus instead on the writing process. We were to choose a single topic for a portfolio we would craft in the coming months.
It was the last year of my undergraduate degree, and I was looking toward getting married and moving to a new state the following summer. Entering as a freshman, I had planned on graduating college single and independent. I am not someone who likes a change in plans. But now I had fallen hard in love—and at a very young age.
Throughout that semester, I gradually pried apart my feelings—fears for the future and insecurities from the past—while also “publically” sharing them with my instructor and my peers.
At the end of the semester, I bound a copy of my work and gave it to my fiancé as a Christmas gift. Never had I felt so nervous and simultaneously relieved to share my work with another person. In creating narratives of events and poetic essays, I had seen this one aspect of life from a number of angles. I emerged with renewed confidence in my relationship as well as a refreshed perspective on the writing process.
Writing Is Spiritual
Why do you imagine we continually see blogs, essays, short stories, poems about themes like falling in love, coming of age, having children, religious experiences? Why do these same things come to mind when the average person is asked to write a self-narrative essay? Is it that something within us longs to know that our difficult and joyful experiences are shared? Is it because we need to produce an ordered analysis of our biggest fears?
Consider David in the writing of Psalms. Do you picture David sitting in a meadow and humming divinely inspired tunes without so much as a practice session? Personally, I think it is more likely that David endured a more “ordinary” writing process: ending chords with a flourish in the ease of a joyful moment and stumbling through his own weeping words when his sorrows were just too deep to express plainly. But perhaps, in the end product was his peace.
Being created in God’s image, in some ways we are naturally wired for both the strictures of organization and the freedom of creation; writing can provide these things. In prayer, it can foster introspection and be therapeutic in a process of more literally “laying down our burdens” than a thought might do. In art, it allows us to focus on reality through different lenses, deepening our understanding of ourselves, humanity, and, ultimately, our Creator Father.
Try free-writing about a trial you are dealing with. As scary as it is, try writing a poem about a complex emotion. Or simply try writing your prayers this week. Try telling God your story, and see how much you learn yourself.