On process and preparation

On process and preparation February 16, 2018

Writing photo – free from Pexels

When I wrote my ‘conversion to liberation theology’ series last December, Sam Rocha wrote to commend me. He said that he understood a little better where I was coming from, and then he said something interesting: It’s about process.

I seldom think of myself as having a process. I remember hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about his process of writing and trying to get John Legend to talk about his process with regard to music, and then I bought We Were Eight Years in Power, and I saw Coates’s process. Colleagues and friends have asked me about my process, and I hate that question. They have also accused me of not having a process – of not blocking time off to write, of seeing too many people and spending time on what does not matter, of producing all the wrong kinds of things – and that reinforced for me over time that I had no process. So when Sam, who is a friend and a colleague, wrote me to say that this was my process, it was incredibly validating.

One of the questions I have been mulling over during this Preparation period for the Great Fast is what that process exactly is. Clearly, it is different from the typical practice of blocking time off and shutting people out while I write. It is not only about moving forward; a lot of it seems to be about looking back and reflecting. It does not seem to be only about production; some of it is intangible, like prayer and spending time with the people that I love.

When Sam wrote me to say that this is the process, it turned my wheels into high gear. I asked some close friends and family – people whom I could trust to tell me the truth – if I had a process, and they said that I did. But it was a counterintuitive process. For most people, especially in the academy, the process is about compartmentalization and repression: you block off time, you shut people out, you get into your own space. But the way that I have been producing throughout my life is to live fully, and then to reflect upon those actions, relationships, encounters, and experiences. As another trusted colleague told me about his process, he has to have lots of meals and tea with friends, keep Facebook messenger on, and spend time with his family. The energy that that process gives him has enabled him to write fifty books over the last fifteen years. The writing happens in bursts, but it is very effective. I could relate to that. Cut off the living, and my writing goes to hell.

Reflecting on these conversations, I began to understand what Sam meant when he told me how he had revised his Internet postings into Tell Them Something Beautiful. He said that he and his editor overhauled the entire manuscript, radically revising his prose so that it would be punchy, clear, and direct. I read some of my own writing – after which I even went back to my old high school writing – and I began to understand why.

It turns out that a blog has nothing to do with content. I tried to articulate this principle in the early days of my Patheos blogging, especially when the trolls would come after me. But for all my talk of a ‘log on the web,’ I was very insecure then, and I felt that I had to advocate an Eastern Catholic identity politics in a representational way while claiming that I wasn’t doing that. In that way, I came to misunderstand my task as producing content.

Yet Sam’s experience with his book, coupled with his comments on my blog, has helped me to rethink what I have been doing here. A blog is not about content; it is about process. These posts are not works in progress; they are writing experiences in the process of unfolding. They are not ends in themselves; they are time stamps as I quietly work on the scholarly work and the teaching at hand. I am not spending too much time on the blog; the log on the web is part of the process of getting everything out. Repress the writing here, and no writing is going to happen, period.

Repression in my process is the surest way to paralysis. Writing is an action; it is something that I have to do, and it is part of the practice of my everyday life, which is indeed lived among those whom I love and shared with food and drink. It is not all fun and games; the price of conviviality is the pain that actual relationships, fraught with intense feelings of love, inflict, and this too affects the process of writing. Writers talk a great deal about loneliness and insecurity, and I think it is not really from having to shut ourselves off from the world. It is that when we reflect on the pain of everyday life, the process of transfiguring those experiences into the art of writing is uncertain, ambiguous, frightening, and even re-traumatizing.

What I have learned in this Preparation period, then, is that there are three tracks that I am on simultaneously. At the most basic and fundamental level, I am a person like everyone else, going through my everyday life, encountering people, and experiencing the supernatural. These experiences are raw and cannot be translated onto the page without some pondering. Often, I understand them to have a kind of liturgical structure, although my use of the word liturgy is loose here and will need to be unpacked in a future post. What I mean here is that in liturgy, our encounter as persons makes the Lord present in our midst among us. 

The first step in my process is to reflect on what happened. This work of reflection may take place in prayer before the holy icons in my beautiful corner or in a handwritten journal. I also have to read voraciously in a wide range of fields. Sam recommends that writers in all disciplines read fiction. I could not agree more. It’s why I’m having a Tolstoy binge during the Great Fast.

But having pondered the experiences, the second level is the act of public reflection on those experiences. This is what the blog is for. It is about working through the process with some accountability to a readership that actually clicks on these posts and tries to glean what they can from it. This too is work, but it is a necessary work for the third step, which is the scholarly writing and teaching. These are the peer-reviewed articles, the book (hopefully I’ll have more soon), the chapters, the reviews, and so on that take even more reflection, more practice, more revision. For this part of my writing to be activated, I need to keep reflecting on what I am doing, especially on my process. Without reflexivity, all of that becomes what Paulo Freire calls ‘activism,’ actions taken without thought. Process is about praxis, a practice that is reflective upon the past even while I act in the present.

I do have a process, then, and this is it. It is a praxis through which I hope to cultivate dispositions of humility, chastity, and radical openness to a future that is actually in the world, not just in my head. The material that I am hoping to create is the manifestation of this approach to reality. In this sense, the blog is part of that process, the means to the end of having something to say. In this sense, this Preparation period before the Great Fast has been very helpful. It is me reflecting on the past so that I can actually fast.

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