Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

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This article was submitted by Kathleen Norris and appeared in the April 2011 edition of Benedictine Bridge.

Kathleen NorrisI have a mixed response when someone says, “I write in order to express myself.” An element of self-expression may be necessary in the writing process, but only in the initial stages, fueling our entries in a diary or journal. But when writing is intended to communicate something to others, the writer becomes accountable to the reader, and writing becomes a spiritual discipline, with the Benedictine value of hospitality coming to the fore. If I am being hospitable as a writer, I want to welcome the reader into a piece of writing, encourage her to linger a while, and then depart, feeling as if the encounter has been worthwhile.

Being hospitable in this sense often means that I have to let go of phrases that are dear to me; as one writer I know puts it, I have to “kill my little darlings.” I may have to drop details that matter to me, but that the reader doesn’t need. I often have to put myself and my feelings aside in order to communicate more clearly. And that involves another Benedictine value, humility.

Writers have a bad rap when it comes to humility. It takes a considerable amount of confidence and nerve — some would even say arrogance — to put work out there in the world and expect people to read it. Everyone has stories to tell, and I do not think that my stories are more important than anyone else’s. But I have taken the trouble to write my stories down. I have made time in my life for the discipline of writing.

Mary Oliver says in one of her poems, “My work is loving the world.” I recently spent some time with an infant who is four months old, and I would say that her work is learning the world. She approaches this daily task with a focus and cheer that I find inspiring. The ability to focus, to be still and listen, is a gift we may receive as infants, but have to learn all over again as adults who are easily distracted. Yet the gift of attention is one we need if we are to write works that are meaningful to others.

The mathematician Bernhard Reimann once said that he did not invent differential equations; he found them in the world, where God had hidden them. And I believe that the writer does not “make up” metaphors and stories so much as discover them. Taking a fresh look at nature, at human encounters, adopting new and unaccustomed perspectives, we learn what it is we need to say and share with others. A writer, it seems to me, is engaged in both loving and learning the creation, bent on experiencing the world with the ear and the eye of the heart.

This may sound fine, even noble, in the abstract, but writers must face the sheer drudgery of writing, revising, and the sheer terror of the blank page. They must face the uncomfortable contradiction that is at the heart of the writing process: they need to be open to the flow, to let the words come out; and then to have the discipline to be in a sense a self-censor, and begin to take some of those words back.

Modern technology makes the first step of this process deceptively easy. A word processor allows us to let the words flow, and flow and flow. Considerable discipline is required to take a cold, hard look at our verbiage and begin to edit. Cutting a word here, rephrasing a sentence, eliminating whole passages that we in fact needed to write, in order to now discard them. I know a person is a serious writer when he or she comes to regard this step as the most pleasurable in the writing process.

When a writer has truly embraced the discipline of writing, the self-expression and stories she considered almost too “personal” to tell will come back as gifts from readers. We write in solitude, but our readers constitute a community. In a sense the reader completes the process of writing, and it is often the most seemingly personal tales that prove the most universal. When a reader says, “You have told my story,” then I know that the writing has done its work.

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Kathleen Norris, award-winning poet, writer and author of The New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk; Dakota: A Spiritual Geography; Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith; and Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Exploring the spiritual life, her work is at once intimate and historical, rich in poetry and meditations, brimming with exasperation and reverence, deeply grounded in both nature and spirit, sometimes funny and often provocative.

 

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