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.