Writing as a Spiritual Practice

The Milarepa Center in Barnet, VT

My writing isn’t going well. This makes sense since I’m not actually doing it.

I’m not sitting down at a pre-determined time or any other time, either. When I do sit down to work on my novel, I inevitably realize almost immediately that the cats need feeding or my guitar just MUST BE TUNED RIGHT NOW. Or my room needs cleaning. Or my partner is in distress and needs my attention–even though really she’s playing out in the garden, happy as a clam.

I’ve just begun to practice very limited mindfulness in the Tibetan Buddhist sense. But even I, in my decidedly un-evolved state, can tell that I am resisting writing. Why?

I’ve just started reading Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring. She talks about the personal risk a writer takes:

[T]he risk of writing is an internal risk. You brave the depths of your own being and then, oh my, bring it back up for commentary by the world. . . .

But what of the novelist who has a persistent pull towards tulips, or who hears the whisperings of an old man in her ear? Does she know what she’s risking? Likely not at the beginning, but the risk will become evident through the writing. . . . When you discover what you’re risking, you may “block.”  . . . I’ve noticed that the closer I get to the heart of the story, the quicker and more solid the “block” seems to feel.

Why do we do this? Why do we plump the depths of our souls to bring up stories that are so true that they scare us? In Tibetan Buddhism, I have learned that they often dedicate a meditation or a class or teaching or work party or any number of things to something outside of themselves. I think about this when I ask myself why I write, and there are two reasons: I write to answer the questions buried so deep inside of me that I don’t even know I’m asking them. And I write to share those answers with all the children and teens who are hurting in the specific way that makes them have the same questions.

But it scares me. The muck of a life lived fully has potholes and sinkholes and quicksand and monsters. And the real questions almost always deal with them. I believe that I am becoming a better person by doing this work. I believe that I will help someone with it. And yet still I avoid it. And the closer I come to getting somewhere, the more adamantly I avoid it.

This is the practice. To notice my resistance. To notice the fear. To be gentle with myself when I can’t write it. And eventually to sit back down and do it anyway. To sit with the discomfort of whatever comes up. And to keep trying. And when I notice that all my frantic energy has just been to keep me from the real work, I gently, with compassion, rededicate myself. This is the practice.

I believe that this work is worth doing. I believe that we all have something to give to the next generation whether we are weird or normal or happy or misunderstood. Whether we are damaged or whole or fearless or scared. We all have stories to tell that can help someone else. It’s just whether we have the courage.

I’m working on it. The picture above is of the Buddhist retreat center where I’ll be spending the summer working, meditating, living, and writing. We shall see.

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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4 Responses to Writing as a Spiritual Practice

  1. Anne says:

    I love what Laraine Herring wrote. Thanks for posting that.

    The way I cope with all of the distractions (avoidances) you mention is to (1) close my Internet browser before I begin my writing time, and (2) keep a pad of paper beside me. Then I write. Every time a non-writing-related thought pops into my head, I write it on the paper, promising myself that I will turn to it when I’ve finished my writing time. Then I write. On a typical morning, at the end of my writing time, that paper will be full of items like “tune guitar” and “clean room” and “listen to ____ [partner]” and Lord knows what else. Also on a typical morning, and particularly if I am struggling with my writing — if I’m getting to the emotional core (as Herring suggests) and the desire to avoid it is getting stronger — I free write. I write very badly. But I write. Sometimes none of the writing on a particular morning makes it into the manuscript. But writing happens, and the process takes me to a spiritual place. Even when the writing is bad, and especially when the writing is bad, in the process of writing, I find fulfillment. The process, itself, is like meditation.

  2. pamwatts says:

    I love that, Anne. That’s great. I’m not sure for me, though. I mean, I’m nearly constantly journaling or doing other sorts of writing. For me it really doesn’t feel like it counts unless it’s page-forward directed motion.

    Two weeks ago I deleted my entire novel (including my whole CT) except for one scene. I feel that it was right to do in that still, honest place, but I’ve been even more terrified to write since then. But I think my thinking about the novel has been more free and productive. I’m just scared to get back to the part where I actually WRITE. Which is unfortunate since I have a deadline in two days . . .

    Although, I did design an entire curriculum guide last night while procrastinating.

  3. Anne says:

    Yeah — I hear you! See… I let the writing “count” even when it’s bad. Hahahaha. And you designed an entire curriculum guide last night? I’d let that “count,” too. Deadlines? Well, OK, fair enough, if you’re under a deadline, I supposed you do have to figure out how to write in a way that you meet your deadline. But if you’re not under a deadline and you’re flogging yourself for insufficient progress while designing an entire curriculum, I ask: why are you being so hard on yourself? You’re looking for reasons to scold, “Bad girl!” Time to love yourself a little. You’re amazing.

  4. pamwatts says:

    Thanks, Anne. Right back at you! And I do have a tendency to self-flagellate. I do need to figure that out.

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