Advice to a Young Writer
by Patricia Adams Farmer
Dear Patricia Adams Farmer,
I am twenty-two years old and an aspiring “spiritual” writer. I recently graduated from a liberal arts college in Oregon. I’m not really religiously affiliated; I guess you’d call me “spiritual but not religious.” I find that on some days I believe in the kind of God you describe – the beautiful one who is a lure toward love and creativity – and on some days I’m not so sure. Still I feel something in my heart that people call spirituality. Or at least that you do in your writings for Spirituality & Practice and Open Horizons. I want to write essays that help people and bring out the better angels in us, without hiding from our darker sides. So here’s my question: Do you have any advice you might give to an aspiring “spiritual” writer like me? Thanks for anything you have to say?
Thank you for your letter and for what it reveals: your natural sense of honesty and openness, two of the most important characteristics of a good writer. Honesty gives your work authenticity while openness gives it freshness. Especially when writing about spiritual matters, it's important to keep the window of your soul open. So don't worry about the days you're "not so sure." Those days may be your most significant moments as a writer.
Yes, authenticity matters. Beauty matters. Love matters. But certainty is no friend to creativity. Rigid thinking boxes one in a room that soon becomes stale, so I am glad you are comfortable with the fresh air of openness. We do live in an unfolding universe of possibilities! Writing is an act of faith in the not-yet, the almost-there, the liminal spaces where vulnerability and trust meet. As Rilke affirmed, "I believe in all that has never yet been spoken."
You start there, with an open window in your soul and with faith in something or someone beyond yourself. As process theologian, I believe all these possibilities flow out of the mind of a beautiful God—a loving and tender presence in the world, who lures us to imagine fresh ways of looking at a goldfinch or a problem or a face. For the creative writer, this divine presence tends to offer wisdom in the form of stories or poems or essays that are grounded not in reason alone, but in the dark and vulnerable soil of feeling, and the way light filters through a canopy of trees and the thrill of a robin's song in spring.
And so, with openness and honesty as your starting point, here are some practical suggestions:
1. Don't wait for inspiration to strike. Sometimes it will—especially in the shower! But mostly it demands a more disciplined approach. If you view your writing as a spiritual practice, as I do, then you must choose a time and sit and write, even if only random thoughts or later-to-be-deleted paragraphs emerge. It is like meditation. I'm sure you know how some days of meditation are filled with a peace that passes all understanding. But on other days, distractions abound and you feel a pain in your foot. But still, you return to the practice. It's that way with writing. Sometimes it feels amazingly simple and inspiration flows like a waterfall. Other times, you end up paddling around in stale water, but you still return to it, to this sacred calling of writing. Have faith in possibilities. Have faith in you.
2. Don't write to please. To write with part of yourself asking Will this please? Will this impress? Will this make me money? is to write with a severe handicap—and your muse will go limping home, and possibility call in sick the next day. To worry about your audience's reaction is like throwing a blanket over the flame inside of you, the fire that called you to be a writer in the first place. Of course, there are times we are called on to write for a specific audience—a sermon, a talk, a magazine article, an academic paper—but that's another kind of writing. But when you sit down to write a spiritually nourishing essay or story or poem, I suggest that you put all questions of the audience away for the moment and write what is in your heart. Be yourself, be authentic, and let the gladness in your soul spill out as it chooses. Your inner flame needs the oxygen of freedom. Don't write for an audience; let the audience find you.
3. Write with your whole heart, or as you say, "including the dark sides." To offer your best self is to acknowledge your whole self, even the parts that are not so lovely. For example, if you write about racism and bigotry, you need to also acknowledge those dark places inside yourself, too. And don't pretend that you are writing as one set apart or above it all, cured and ready to ladle out wisdom from a golden pot labelled: From Someone Who Has It All Together. Nobody does. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable about your own wounds and shortcomings. (Ann Lamott is a great guide here!) Only by reaching into the vulnerable places can you offer yourself and the reader fresh possibilities for transformation.
4. Trust in the beauty of your unique voice. Never judge yourself by other writers or by the comments or by the number of "likes" on Facebook. As a writer in the area of spirituality, you must allow the Spirit to do its good work and then let go of it, as imperfect as it may be. Once you have written something and put it "out there," you have no control over other people's reactions, or even if it is read. You will get discouraged and wonder about your calling. You will sometimes feel that you are writing into the wind. But remember that words are powerful and do catch hold, and sometimes even blow into the right places at the right time. It is like the Parable of the Sower: some of your words will be eaten by birds. Some of them will fall on rocky ground with little soil. But some of them will fall on fertile ground and will sprout and grow into something quite lovely in the hearts of readers. Your words might even become "lures for feeling" as Whitehead would say, words that change another's way of thinking or behaving. You will probably never know. Writing is not like building a piece of furniture that you can see, touch, and enjoy. As a writer, results are hidden from you for the most part. It's all about trust—trust in your calling, trust in your inner voice, and trust in God's unflagging presence in you and your work. Your task is not to write in order to change the world; your task is to write and trust. Write and trust. Otherwise you will lose your mind. Peace, said Whitehead, is " trust in the efficacy of Beauty."
The poet Rumi once wrote, "I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.” This is your calling, Nicole: sing like the birds sing.
Blessings on your creative journey!