“A complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Or so Annie Dillard believes. This is a peculiar metaphysical statement: Creative work makes a difference regardless of audience. How is this possible?
Sometimes a theme rises up from our days, uniting otherwise random events. Consider these, from my last week:
- I’m at a parenting class on how to use nonviolent communication with our kids. Like many parents I use coercion and shaming—instinctively, impulsively—and only recently am I coming to see this. The instructor draws a flow chart: Your kid does something that stimulates you. You can go down the path of control by judging the situation, thinking up a strategy, and demanding action, or you can go down the path of connection by observing, feeling your response, identifying your need, and requesting action. I’m amazed by how hard it is to take this second path.
- I’m reading my church newsletter. The interim pastor has written a column challenging us to ask ourselves during this time of transition, “What do we notice?” Our habit is to see a change and jump to an opinion or judgment. He encourages us to first simply observe.
- I’m leading a class in a tried-and-true writing exercise: Begin with an object from childhood. Describe it in detail. Only once you’ve brought it fully onto the page, allow it to lead you to other memories. The class, as always, is profoundly moved by what emerges.
- I’m doing Centering Prayer, my candle lit, my knees on the floor. Ideas for this column pop into my head. They’re good ideas, but I remember Thomas Keating’s advice: Even should the Virgin Mary Herself tap me on the shoulder, I’m to say, “Not now, dearie; I’m doing my Centering Prayer.” I observe my thoughts then let them go.
The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…
Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)
I can’t tell you how often writers hand me pages and ask, “Is this worth it?” All creative and spiritual endeavors ask of us time and energy. In our outcome-oriented way, we want some sense that our work (both the process and the product) will have value.
Ken Wilber, Buddhist and Integral Theorist, recently turned my understanding of value on its head. I suspect that, if we apply his ideas to our creativity and our spiritual practices, we’ll radically shift how we think about their worth. (more…)
Regardless of what you think of the Christianity of my upbringing, its one unambiguously worthy value is that of loving others. “Love your enemies,” “Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and with all your strength,” “Love your neighbor as yourself”: Pouring love into the world is Christianity’s core mandate. For five decades of church-going and three decades of serious spiritual practice, loving others has been my orientation and effort.
So when my friend Michael Bischoff cavalierly told a crowd, “What matters is the degree to which we can receive love,” my jaw dropped. (more…)
Ask what I’m learning in the Living School and I’ll blather incoherently, enthusiastically, and at great length about the Christian mystical tradition, the significance of contemplation, and a complete overhaul of my faith. I was doing just that at Easter dinner a few weeks ago. My father-in-law asked, and all eleven relatives at the table stared at me blankly while I answered. Afterward, my brother-in-law quipped, “You should say you’re studying an ancient wisdom tradition. Calling it ‘Christian’ just throws everybody off.” Well, yes. (more…)