“So what do you do with your time?” I’m asked.
“Write and work with writers,” I say.
“What do you mean, ‘work with writers’?” they respond.
“I am primarily a companion, someone who walks alongside them as they do the work only they can do.”
Then comes the Minnesota reply. “That’s interesting.”
Present to the Creative Process
Indeed, it is interesting to spend time with writers and to be present to their creative process. Not everyone will write a best seller or create a poem that will reveal the mystery of God. But I am convinced that too many people don’t write because of loneliness. It is a loneliness that comes in part from writing without knowing how the poem or story actually sounds. We can read our material to ourselves which is in itself an important way to tune our ears. There is no substitute, however, for speaking aloud something we have created to a group of compassionate listeners. The point is not to hear oohs and ahs about the golden quality of our words. Rather, to have someone engage our words helps us to see them in fresh light, to recognize something in our writing that even in its creation we did not know was there.
This process of writing companionship is quite similar to what I know about spiritual direction. No one can nurture my inner life for me. How that life grows and develops over time is my responsibility. At the same time, people who do spiritual direction and participate fruitfully in it tell me that the opportunity to have someone accompany them in the process keeps them alert, encourages them when they feel like they are falling behind, and reminds them to stay steady.
Staying Alert to the Practice
I don’t imagine myself to be a spiritual director to writers. My role, however, bears some similarities. When I convene writers in a workshop or retreat, I am trying to help them stay alert to the practice of writing and in particular to what inspires their writing. Inspiration is seldom a thunderclap. That happens occasionally but not enough to sustain a writer. Instead, inspiration is what breaks through as a person pays attention to the ordinary flow of a day, the small details that in themselves may seem insignificant but bear the seeds of insight.
Writers also need encouragement because writing is a process of feast and famine. Some days, for instance, a poem unfolds in my writing book as though it has been waiting in the wings for me to discover it. Words and images pour out and take shape with an ease that tempts me to believe I might be magical. That experience finds its balance on those mornings when my mind seems a gray slate of blankness, my pen turns to stone, and what words I actually find beg me to submit them to the eraser. The following poem catches the tension I am describing.
Writing Daily Poems
A daily poem can be fresh
as dawn’s blue light
setting boulevard trees
aflutter with giddy delight.
But daily poems,
can also be a millstone
strapped to a bent back
unable to stand upright,
the only view the cracks
in the sidewalk and trash
thrown out by a speeding car.
A daily poem records a moment,
something catching the light
something that stirs the heart to sing,
though it is just as true it can report
the dull thud of routine,
a descant whose echo
keeps a writer on edge.
Gaining Strength in the Doing
My point in all this is that writing is a practice that gains strength in the doing. Writing through the days when everything sounds like ‘the dull thud of routine” is the price – and the ticket – for those days when you see and hear something you know comes from the center of your being. Seeking companionship as you write can take many forms – joining a writing group, attending a workshop, having a conversation with someone else who writes, or participating in a writing retreat. We can all benefit from improving our technique and becoming more skilled at revision. But seeking companionship is a moment of recognition that writing is not just something you do. It is who you are as you seek to make sense of the world, plumb the workings of your soul, and create beauty.