Why Writing is a Spiritual Discipline

“The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Why do you write?

It’s a common enough question these days, one to which I should have a better answer. But find me at a dinner party, ask me, and I’ll trip over words, bumble and blabber some non-sensical gibberish about Lewis, and Hemingway, and the greats before I catch my rambling and sum it all up with, “I just gotta write; you know?”

See my knack for language?

In early April, I was graced with the opportunity to assist in leading a mini-retreat at the Faith & Culture Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. There, the conference attendees asked this question of me time after time, enduring my incoherent ramblings.  By Sunday morning I decided perhaps it was time to formulate a less squishy answer.

Why do I write? That’s a great question. Let’s explore.

I’ve heard some say they do not know what they feel, think, or believe  until they’ve hashed it out on the page. And though neither incessant talking nor incessant writing are the equivalent of thought (mull that over for a bit), I think there’s some instructive wisdom here. Writing requires us to slow down and contemplate language to express the complex condition of our hearts. Intentional writing allows us the opportunity to put language to the emotions, opinions, dreams, and visions we’d often otherwise ignore.

To be clear, fire does not spark the flint, and the churning of the engine does not fill the tank. In the same way, I don’t suppose  writing creates thought. But, when used in conjunction with its sisters observation, contemplation, and creativity, the written word can provide a great tools for uncovering hidden truths. It’s the shovel for the treasure, the key to the chest holding the diamond of great worth. It gives gives us the ability to see experience the buried truth.

In Portland, I sat with a group of writers in a conference room at Warner Pacific College. “We’re on a writer’s retreat,” I said, “so let’s carve out thirty minutes; let’s observe the world around us and write what we see, feel, or hear.” We scattered into the beauty of a Northwest Spring, pens and paper in hand.

After thirty minutes, we reconvened. There, I asked if anyone would be willing to share their writing, and in a moment of silence, Velynn Brown spoke. She said it was difficult to be fully present at the conference, that she and her husband had been talking about the “Black Lives Matter” campaign just days before arriving in Portland. A black family living in the Northwest, questions swirled about how they would raise their sons, what they would tell them about the state of racism in America. She paused, looked at the  sheet of paper in her hands, and said, “outside, I walked by an evergreen, and drips of thick black sap came from its side. I looked, considered, and heard God say, ‘see? sometimes even I cry.’”

Taking a deep breath, she began to read the poem she’d written by that sap-sobbing tree. The poem explored God’s lament for the recent turmoil in America, and showed God’s deep solidarity with Velynn and her family. “I haven’t revolved it yet,” she said at the end of the poem, “but I experienced God through it.”

This is the beauty of writing. Before taking her pen to nature, Velynn knew the sadness of her own heart. Writing did not create that sadness, nor did it fuel it. But, by engaging in active observation and writing with intention, she uncovered her beliefs about her relation to God, her family’s relation to God, and ultimately, God’s heart toward a lamentable world. What’s more, she gave our retreat group a gift–the gift of understanding.

Why do I write?

If I’m honest, the ego-centric part of me hopes to craft the great American novel one day. The exhibitionist part of me enjoys showing a fanciful turns of phrase, too. But more than any of these things, I write so that I might uncover the hidden gems of the heart. I write so that I might pull thoughts from the self-mine, so that I might expose them to the light and see if their facets glow. And like Velynn, I write so I might better understand my relation to God, and God’s relation to the world.

Writing is, then, a spiritual discipline.

Granted, not everyone enjoys turning a phrase on paper. But when is the last time you sat in the quiet and listened to God with pen and paper in hand? When is the last time you journaled about the anxieties that keep you up at night, the joys for which you are grateful, or those people who’ve impacted your life? When is the last time you incorporated writing as part of your practice of the spiritual disciplines?

If it’s been too long, grab your computer or a pen and a journal, sit in the quiet, and ask yourself: “what am I hearing in my heart.” Then, just write.

*****

Consider these sample writing prompts for further direction.

1. What is your deepest source of current pain, and how is God trying to meet you there?

2. Where are you finding joy with God? Describe it in detail.

3. What does the world around you say about God’s relation to you and your relation to him?

*****

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*Photo by Mary Vican, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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The Diagnoses

For my friend John, and my many other friends–namely, you.

*****

The Diagnoses

Asthmatic, inattentive, shcizotypic, bipolar
Baptist, disruptive, obssive, compulsive
Papist, malignant, maligering, maligned,
narcisistic, nihilistic, arrhythmiatic, benign,
infectious, unregenerate, failure to thrive,
distended, convulsive, collusive, catholic,
cancerious, alcoholic, anorexic, pornoholic,
anemic, allergenic, esophagitic, antisocial,
constipated, religious, autistic, agnostic,
dreamer, believer, night-terrored un-
orthodox, sacramental, mental, reformed.

Sum-certainswhich suffocate should
we think them whole truth.

*****

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When Children Grow

I tucked myself in the floorboard of the Subaru, my back against the floor curve and my legs reaching into the seat. A plastic blaster in either hand, I scanned the galaxy for any sign of Imperial scum. I was the gunner of the Millennium Falcon, and Princess Leia was my pilot.

“You’ve gotta shake ‘em!” I shouted. Leia took a sip of coffee from a travel mug, holstered it back in the cupholder and said, “I’m doing the best I can! There are too many of them!” I pivoted the turret of my imagination, spotted an encroaching tie fighter, and blew it into bits in the pale-blue sky with the mouth-sound of my blaster cannon.

“Our shields won’t hold much longer!” I erupted, brow furrowing.

“Prepare to make the jump to hyper-space,” she said, shifting into fifth gear.

It was 1982, the glory days of Star Wars and relaxed seatbelt laws, and my mother was carting my sister to school. Making our way down Texas backroads, I stared upward through windows, saw only the battlefield of my imagination. We were fighting for the Rebellion, struggling against the tyranny of the advancing Empire, and every morning we made this perilous journey. Every morning we arrived victorious.

I don’t remember the morning it happened. I don’t remember crawling from childhood into adolescence, but at some point, I stopped sitting with my back against the floorboard. I stopped propping my legs in the seat and making blaster sound effects. I didn’t call my mother Leia anymore, or my sister Chewbacca. Instead, I sat upright, craning out the window into the Texas scrub. I called my mother, “mom,” and barely spoke to my sister.

My imagination turned inward and private. I recited math formulas, grammar rules, or spelling test words. I dreamt of being a pilot of war planes, or of the names of the girls I thought were pretty.

The summer of childhood turns to autumnal adolescence without warning.

***

On the morning commute, the boys and I listen to music at parentally irresponsible levels–Rich Mullins, The Beatles, Queen, John Denver. We sing, dance, and laugh as Titus nails the chorus of “Rucy in the sky, wiff DI-mon!” It is our boyish ritual.

Yesterday, we pulled into the school drop-off line, van swaying to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.” Stopped near the back of the line, a few of Isaac’s classmates strolled past the mini-van on the sidewalk. Ike waived, then turned to the front.

“Dad, could you turn down the music?”

“Sure,” I said, “but why?”

“It’s kind of embarrassing. The boys in my class might hear it and make fun of us.”

I reached for the volume knob, turned it to a whisper. Through the window, I saw the green grass rising to blue sky, the sky I once imagined as the zero-gravity stomping ground of Seth Skywalker. I considered my mother, how she must have felt when the scales of boyish naivety fell from my eyes, when the days of my ignorance to embarrassment faded. One day she woke, and that was the day childhood wonder was defeated by the empire.

In stop-and-start fits, the boys and I made our way to the back of the school. At the rear entrance, Ian slid the door open. Three boys bounded from the van–fourth grade Isaac, second grade Jude, and first grade Ian. I saw them, and in my parental imagination, they shot up like fireworks, turned into adults with their own children in their own drop-off lines. They watched their children run to the schoolhouse door. And then, my children’s children aged in a blink and were dropping their own off. I imagined the tyranny of this cycle, how childhood wonder always looses the war against early-onset adulthood.

Isaac slid the van door closed, took three steps forward, then stopped. As is his morning ritual–and has been since kindergarten–he looked back, waived, and smiled. I waived back, mouthed “I love you,” and watched him turn away and run to a group of lanky fourth-graders gathered by the door.

There will be a day when Isaac no longer turns back and waives, and when Titus learns to pronounce “Lucy” and “with.” Every season eventually passes. But while it’s today, I’ll store up these memories.

***

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The Portland Pinnacle

This weekend, I had the privilege of leading the mini-retreat at the Faith & Culture Writers Conference. There, a wonderful group of writers gathered, and we took a break from the noise, production cycle, and comparison-culture of modern life. During the retreat portion of the conference, we disconnected from social media (for the most part) and took time to explore presence–presence with nature, with each other, and with God.

On Friday afternoon, I hiked a steep climb into the heart of Mt. Tabor Park. I sat in pink blossoms shed from Spring trees. I listened to the wind blowing through the firs, the birds singing in their boughs. Instead of brimming with inspiration, though, I was blind-sided by irrational fear. What if that moment was the pinnacle of my most interesting days? Melancholic though it was, I asked myself “what if it’s all downhill from here?”

In my most recent Tiny Letter, I’m exploring this question, and sharing a little more about my experience at the Faith & Culture Writers Conference. I’m also sharing a book update you won’t want to miss, and announcing the winners of last month’s Chasing Francis giveaway. If you aren’t a subscriber to my monthly Tiny Letter, sign up to read along!

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Thanks to all of you who attended the retreat at the Faith & Culture Writer’s Conference. We had fun didn’t we? And thanks to all of you who consistently read along. This place wouldn’t be the same without you.

****

As an aside, and on an unrelated note, please allow me to leave this little Public Service Announcement.

Public Service Announcement…

A photo posted by Seth Haines (@sethhaines) on

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America #2

Last night, I read this article in the New York Times about Walter Scott. Scott, a 50 year old black man in South Carolina, was shot in the back by a police officer who claimed Scott had taken his stun gun in a scuffle occurring after a traffic stop. The article was disturbing. The video unspeakable.

*****

Dear America,

I am learning this new condition:
waiting in the flickering light
of television’s images of the dead;
the crying mother, daughter, or spouse
of another black man law-lynched.

It is a nightly anticipation,
the result of a force-fed diet
of truth, or the shock of a
different reality, or the descaling
of once-blind eyes, whichever.

And so, should you become
convinced in the pride of your
most exceptional dignity,
turn your eyes to your veins,
tap them, bleed them dry, test,
and know this:
your father is violence,
and your mother fear.

 

 

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