The Courage to Write

The writing retreat has exceeded my expectations. I hope that the retreatants feel the same way. Yesterday morning we had a panel discussion with four monks and three Lay-Cistercians on the relationship between writing and spirituality. What emerged was how wide a terrain this topic covers. One of the monks is a blogger who does not divulge that he’s a monk on the blog; one of the laywomen a diarist who never lets anyone read what she’s written (and rarely goes back to read it herself). Two of the panelists confessed to preferring the spoken word to the written (one of them is legally blind, so of course that’s a factor). And one monk, a published author, very humbly admitted that he feels his writing is just as much the creation of his editors and readers as his.

I see a similar diversity among the retreatants, who include both bloggers and journalists, both published and aspiring authors. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, discipline is a major issue, followed closely by (for those seeking publication) the normal anxieties that come from having others read your work. I see so many similarities between the disicipline of writing and a disciplined prayer life, and I spoke about this yesterday afternoon. We talked about “the terror of the blank page,” which I think is the inverse of “the problem of distractions” in contemplative/silent prayer. What an irony: when we sit to pray silently, we’re plagued by distractions; when we sit to write, we’re plagued by doubts and an insistent sense that “I have nothing to say.” Which of course is the monkey-mind’s lie, for we all have something important say. The trick to discipline, whether of praying or writing, is to relax into it. Lull the monkey to a relaxed rest: find the silence between the thoughts to rest in the presence of God, and find the courage between the doubts to give the blank page (screen) a new shape through words.

Courage, of course, has to do with “heart,” and on the panel yesterday one monk insisted, rightly of course, that writing must come from the heart. But this courageous writing from the heart is only possible when arising out of faith. I’m not trying to be dogmatic here; I know that “faith” will take different forms whether you’re Catholic or Baptist or Buddhist or whatever. That’s okay. But beneath the cultural constructs is, I believe, an existential unity in which we say “yes” to our rootedness in God (however we understand God) and in our blessedness as someone capable, through God, of creating. That saying “yes” is the essential key. It doesn’t make writing (or navigating the path to publication) any easier. Indeed, in some ways it seems harder because faith won’t let us off the hook when we encounter what Pema Chödrön calls “the places that scare us.” Faith calls us through our fears: our fear of not being disciplined, our fear of the blank page, our fear of rejection by editors or critics or readers. Take courage — and write. It’s a beautiful thing… and it’s a spiritual thing, too.

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • zoecarnate

    Is it too much to hope that these sessions have been recorded for potential podcasting? I know ‘you just had to be there’ for much of the energy behind the event; even still…

  • Carl McColman

    I had thought about it. But my digital recorder was stolen when my house was burglarized last month, and I thought setting up the laptop to record would have been too intrusive. So I didn’t. But I’ll pass this on to Fr. James, and hopefully we’ll record at least some of next year’s retreat. Which, of course, you’ll be attending.

  • Kent Ira Groff

    Much of this sounds like what I talk about in my book WRITING TIDES as “writing your way home.” Any kind of writing – from emails to post-it-notes to personal journaling to professional essays – has the potential of calling you home to your true self and the truth force at the heart of the universe. Like a Mobius strip, Contemplation and Communication ripple around the within and the without of our worlds, transforming what we see. It’s all play: Playing with words is praying with the world!

  • Gerhard

    zoecarnate, I attended the reatreat and captured a list, incomplete as it may be, of the powerful “sayings” that came out of the retreat. You can get my view of the retreat at and by searching for “Retreat” on the blog. Carl, hope you don’t mind the unintended plug, but my “Sayings” blog entry may be the only record!

  • abraham

    Just a note of appreciation for your blog. Perhaps you might enjoy what I’ve been writing, too:

  • Sue

    This post was a beautiful thing :) So much of it resonated. Oh, the terror of the blank page, the terror of sitting down to meditate. How bizarre it is. I can understand those who say they’re sitting down to “the void” – the terror of the void I can understand. But the terror when sitting down to the silences that are full? That’s a harder one to comprehend. My monkey mind hates it just the same :)