“What was your writing process with this poem?” Recently, I froze when a fellow woman-poet asked me this in a writing workshop.
I was thinking, “Well, I email myself a poem draft 45 times after each minute revision in a different font, and pretend it’s from a poet-friend-far-away. But that’s a quirk, not process, right?”
Then, she said, “You need to articulate how you write. Do you walk in the woods reciting your poems, figuring out the downbeats? Do you internalize your rhythms? Do you black out found texts?”
The question blindsided me because I just didn’t know what process meant for me in that exact moment of inquiry. “I just … I just write,” I said. “I don’t know how to explain how I write.” The advice: Figure out what your process is. Figure out how to say it. Make sure you’re doing it. Do it. Do it more.
So, I’ve been thinking about that lately – writing process, and what happens if a) you can’t explain your process and b) even worse, if you’re unable to get in writing mode and work. From Virginia Woolf’s then-avant-garde idea of women possessing rooms of their own to write (even just a corner of the house that’s painted red where you have a pile of journals and sharpened pencils), we hear about what writers to do get in alternate-mind writing mode or how to break writer’s block. How Flaubert sniffed a drawer of ripening-to-decaying apples to get inspired. Or how there is no writer’s block, according to John Gardner, because if you write every day, even bad writing, you’re processing, working, writing through a dry period.
Also, prayer process. Pray comes from the Latin word precari: to entreat or ask. It also means: please. That simple and yet vulnerable ask. Prayer is a conversation with God, the saints, people who have passed on – and a conversation that implies someone is hearing you, so when we pray we’re supposed to have faith that there’s a listener. I relate writing to praying. I write, but who is reading? Who is hearing? And what’s my ask? What’s my please? Hear, relate, talk back, acknowledge? What do I really need my listeners to do? And yet, with both writing and praying, doesn’t it happen that we say, “I can’t write. I can’t pray. I can’t even remember how right now.”
That’s acedia, the inability to work or pray, a double whammy. I’ve been there, and more so, as I take on more life and job responsibilities, with less time to do them. We writers call this time of no movement or self-doubt "writers’ block." St. John of the Cross calls it the “dark night of the soul.” Jung calls it “the night sea journey.” John of the Cross says that during this time of despair or lethargy, “the soul perceives itself to be so unclean and miserable that it seems as if God had set Himself against it” and the soul “can do so little in this state; like a prisoner in a gloomy dungeon, bound hand and foot, it cannot stir, neither can it see or feel any relief, either from above or below.” That’s some pretty heavy despair there – but there are surely echoes of it in writers’ block or not knowing what to say in prayer.
As a rule, I surround myself with people who are really good at what they do, so I get lots of advice on writing, fitness, the spiritual life, parenting and more. When I’m in stuck in that directionless realm of acedia, that dark night, that night sea journey where I just want to drown out of, there are lots of normally helpful snippets of advices that become missives I take too much to heart. There’s no excuse to:
Cheat on your gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free clean-eating program
Skip a workout day
Miss doing at least one meaningful outing or activity with your children daily
Not spend meaningful time with your spouse every day
Miss weekly Mass or your daily prayer time
Miss daily writing practice
Get less than eight good hours of sleep every night
Write a new poem or a blog entry, revise or submit a poem, or read a book of poetry
Devote some time every day to “me” time when you meditate or recharge.
If I did all of those things every day and more, I’d be bordering on perfect, machine-like, infallible. I’d be the me everyone wants to be. I love what Anne Lamott’s common-sense answer to these all-or-nothing missives is, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “Acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given – that you are not in a productive creative period – you free yourself to begin filling up again.” It’s an interesting thought, that acceptance could be a self-loving way out of the dark night of the soul where I feel helpless or unable to work or pray (or work out or get eight hours of sleep, and so on).
Similarly, John of the Cross writes that during the dark night is when God is laser-focusing his light on us, to purify us, and bring forth a new self when the dark night ends: “the divine touches the soul to renew it and to ripen it, in order to make it divine.” Didn’t Jesus feel the dark night both in the Garden of Gethsemane, when his friends and God abandoned him? That terrible abandonment before the transforming resurrection where a new, better self emerges from the dark night.
Charles Bukowksi says, “Writing is something that you don’t know how to do. You sit down and it’s something that happens, or it may not happen. So, how can you teach anybody how to write? It’s beyond me, because you yourself don’t even know if you’re going to be able to.” Writing and prayer are similar: Do you know if you’ll be able to write or pray when you set out to do so? Do you? No, I say over and over. No. Do I follow the live-a-great-life missives to the letter most days? Not by a long shot.
After I thought about the question: What’s your writing process? And then, what’s your praying process, I wrote a poem called “Acedia,” in part which is:
Bury the village under a bear’s skull.
Oil your dark house and call three grass widows
to broom midnight out. I do none of these
There may or may not be “necessary things” that I need to do in order to write or pray well, or at all. By considering process, I’m also considering not-process, the period of time when I need to not-write, not-pray. When my husband was a child, he remembers a minister saying that everything you do all day, if in a spirit of prayer, is prayer. All living that I do will funnel into my writing. This night sea journey time can be a time of renewal and storing up, until I’m ready to write and pray again.
Poet Anne Carson writes eloquently about her relationship to religion and the search for God, especially in The Truth About God. This short poem, “The God Fit,” sums up in a way what periods of despair are like – and why you should embrace them, rather than trying to escape this period of renewal:
Sometimes God will drop a fit on you. Leave you on your bed howling. Don’t take it meanly.
Because the outer walls of God are glass. I see a million souls clambering up the walls on the inside to escape God who is burning, untended.
Ultimately, whether or not you can explain your writing or prayer process, you’ll find that there are times when you can write and pray, and times you might not be able to – those are both functional parts of the process of growing the ability to talk to God and talk to readers. The dark night is a vulnerable time, when it’s really OK to lay down your head and sleep peacefully.
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