ON SPIRITUAL WRITING
How Do You Write Out Of The Presence?
Brent Bill, Marge Abbott, and Michael Wajda have a couple of thoughts.
By Ellen Michaud
As dusk stretches out over the fresh snow that covers the forest outside my cottage high in the mountains of Vermont, nuthatches, chickadees, redpolls and finches streak from the surrounding pines to my feeders—fluffing their feathers and tanking up before the temperature drops below zero. The air is sharp. The silence deep.
This is my favorite time of day. It’s a moment in which to live in stillness, deeply aware of the Presence that surrounds us. It’s a moment in which to sense the rich love and abundant joy a relationship with the sacred brings, to “hear” the subtle messages that help discern what it is we’re led to do, to become aware of the “twitch upon the thread,” as Chesterton called that clear sense of being tugged in one direction or another by God.
I wish life could be like this all day, every day. And maybe one day it will. But, today, sometimes when I get lost in my work, it isn’t. I’m a writer, and writing a story for one magazine or another, or perhaps a new chapter in my latest book or an essay for my once-in-a-while journal, after I’ve sensed the direction in which I’m being led, I can become totally absorbed in diction and direction and structure and arc and the reader’s interaction with the text. And, unfortunately, when I do, my awareness of the Presence dims. My openness to the Presence dims.
Participants in the writing workshops and classes I facilitate at Earlham School of Religion, Woolman Hill, Friends General Conference’s Gathering and elsewhere report the same challenge. How, they ask, can they maintain their sense of the Presence and prevent themselves from getting lost in the mechanics of writing and the fog of creativity? How can they stay open to the direction of the Presence?
In struggling to find the answer, I’ve come to understand that deep listening is at the heart of writing out of the Presence. It’s a process in which you keep one ear turned toward God even as your mind listens to a cacophony of other voices—people you’ve interviewed for an article, old friends who will appear in a memoir, characters you’re creating for a piece of fiction. But it’s also pausing mid-thought, in simple humility, to ask for guidance, and following that “twitch upon the thread”—that subtle but insistent pull that ebbs and flows, but is ever present, even while you’re intellectually engaged.
The process can be a challenge. But experienced writers who understand their writing as ministry, even those who occasionally experience monkeymind as they pray or meditate, assure us that deep listening is a process that positions us to write—even as it expands and deepens our relationship to the sacred.
Finding the Words
For Brent Bill, director of the New Meetings Project at Friends General Conference in Philadelphia and author of Holy Silence, the first step into deep listening is to carefully set the stage before he begins to write.
“I think of writing as a form of worship,” says Brent, who is also a Quaker pastor. “So before I start, I begin to declutter my brain and soul by getting certain things out of the way. An email here, a calendar update there. That helps me banish all the busy monkeys in my mind.
“Then, as with worship, I try to relax into the work and see where it takes me. I try to relax into the Spirit and see where I am led.”
For Michael Wajda, associate secretary of Friends General Conference and author of the Pendle Hill pamphlet Expectant Listening, the way into deep listening begins with his journal. Since his early twenties, Michael has used a journal that, at first, was just scraps of paper on which he recorded feelings, questions, prayers, observations, and, he says, the surprising messages that were beginning to come to him from within.
Now, as it has evolved, the journal has become a place where he regularly caches his deepest experiences, whether they are inward messages, prayers, struggles, or tiny nudges that offer him a glimpse of “what really matters.”
The result is that his journaling has become a form of prayer that leads him into deep listening. “Sometimes I am the only one speaking, but at other times I feel as if I am in a dialogue with the Living Presence,” Michael says. “I try to write what I hear being said within and I wait to listen if there is more. There can be a sense of deep inward communion with God during this writing, so much so that for years I have closed my journal entries with the words,`I love you’.”
His journal is passionate and alive with the need to quickly jot down the messages he’s hearing or pour out the feelings and observations “welling up from within.” And it’s often the basis of his published writing.
Finding the Way
How can you find your own way into deep listening? Here are a few suggestions to consider as you prepare to write.
Slip into silence. Move apart from others. Sense your own depths, center yourself, then move outwards toward an awareness of the presence of something holy, something sacred. As Douglas Steere pointed out in Listening to One Another, when you enter the silence, you arrive at “…a preciously thin point in the membrane where the human and divine action can be felt to mingle. The human action can begin at any point, the conversation can start where it will, but if it goes on, the living Listener’s presence may almost imperceptibly rise into awareness…”
Reach out. As you become aware of the Presence, take a moment to sense its dimensions, its texture, its fullness.
Forgive yourself when you become distracted. The average human attention span in our culture is 22 seconds. As renegade thoughts rise into the silence, note them, release them and return your attention to the Presence.
Or not. Marge Abbott, author of the classic To Be Broken and Tender, feels that distractions can be helpful. “I keep a jigsaw puzzle going,” Marge says. “I find that moving the pieces around gives space for the heart to find words.”
Give yourself time. As Michael Wajda points out in Expectant Listening, “Sometimes God is hard to hear.”
Rest in the Presence. Experience the relationship without words. Allow it to hold you in the moment.
Ask the question. Pick up your pen or sit down at a keyboard, and ask God directly: “What do you want me to do here?” Every piece of writing starts from that question, and the question should continue through every word, every line, every graph, every pause.
Heed the odd impulse. “It’s amazing how often when I am stuck, a sudden urge to lift a book blindly off my shelves points to the direction in which I need to go,” says Marge Abbott. Don’t worry about getting lost as you follow a little detour. God keeps us following the holy breadcrumbs with a gentle pulling in the direction in which we’re intended to go. It may be a story idea that keeps popping up in your mind or an odd twist of plot that keeps thrusting its way into a novel. Whatever, it’s simply not going to go away until you’ve done what God intended.
Trust. Once you become aware that the Presence is with you as you write, you begin to realize that you’re not the one in charge of where you’re going. You can let go of the wheel—and let your fingers fly.
Marybeth Toomey recently offered a comment in the interim New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice. She wasn’t talking about writing, but the truth she shared also frees us to write out of the Presence: “Most of all,” she writes, “I relinquish my heart to utter trust.”
Let it season. Once you’ve finished what you’ve been led to write, put it aside for a bit. Then begin to revise—smoothing the manuscript’s edges, testing its clarity, sharpening the points you’ve been led to make, and considering its faithfulness to your leading.
Revision is actually a continuation of the listening and writing process, and each author handles it differently. After Michael Wajda reads his final draft of a work, for example, he reads it out loud—which, he says, allows him to sense its structure and truthfulness. Then he puts it aside. When he returns to it for a final review, the added time for contemplation sometimes brings with it a deep inward message that will help him revise the manuscript to clarify what it is he’s been led to bring to the reader.
Work in community. When Marge Abbott approaches the final draft of a manuscript, she first tests her work in community. It’s essential, says Marge, who regularly asks her Anchor Committee and those in her workshops to read her work. “What do you hear from my words?” she asks. “Do you find the Spirit present?”
The answers will be abundantly clear.
©2015 Ellen Michaud