I haven’t wanted to call myself a “writer”. It sounds like another big-deal identity label with all sorts of implications. The sound of it brings to mind people way more disciplined than myself, who are way more at peace than I am with sitting in a chair for long hours on end. They’re more organized than I am, and more determined to advertise themselves, and they use desks (I prefer the floor). Writing is just one thing I do as an act of devotion to remembering God.
I can be meditatively content indoors, like a writer, especially on a stormy or smoggy, hot day. It is delightful to be in a beautiful monastic place, like my house or a church or the library. But sitting in a chair? Feet down on the floor, my butt falling asleep? No. I need to sit criss-cross, then lay on my stomach, then my back, then stretch, then squat, then sit back in the chair with my feet up on the table like I don’t have no manners, all while getting up to walk around every 30 minutes or so. There’s a reason most of my pieces are brief. I agree with the sentiment of Thomas Mann: “I would rather live life than write a hundred stories.”
I’ve felt leery about the pantsuit of “writer” as an identity because I sense an attitudinal trend of self-absorption, cynicism and lack of heart-centered joy among the current writing scene, dating back a solid three-quarters of a century or so. People get stuck in their heads, something I’ve certainly been prone to but which I’m getting further away from, and happily.
Back in college, in one of my writing classes, I was engaged in a discussion about the responsibility writers have to real people on whom fictional characters are based. To what extent must we care to disguise their identity and protect their privacy? What gratitude do we owe this great source material that is reality? We covered the moral and legal implications to this, but a number of my classmates insisted they have no obligation to tread carefully with characters who are nearly synonymous with real, identifiable people.
It’s been said that writers don’t participate fully in the magic of imminent life, because they’re too busy writing about it from a distance. I think there’s some disturbing truth in this. The temptation is there for writers to long for the experiential magic of the beautiful world, then find it but not know what to do with it except take notes from the sidelines, where it is lonely. Then they become embittered that they feel shy and self-conscious and depressed and why aren’t they happy being stuck in their head all day? This has become the case of the modern writer.
Again, I say this because I’ve certainly had my own moments like these, but then I figured out it was ridiculous and not good for the human heart. The page is not the world. The vitality of the lifeworld comes first because that is where the sensual life of the world breathes and moves and it is where God is found looking out through the eyes of all creatures. That is the image of God I most love, the Beautiful One who looks out through the eyes of all creatures, feeling as we creatures feel, but larger than our individualism, our stupid notion of segregation from each other. How can life be worth the energy spent on anything else? To be a good writer and a worshipful human is to remember God always and play affectionately with the rambunctious Creator in the off-leash dog park, to look for the mysterious Lord, the Beloved, in all creatures and places, unto the shadows of moments. To worship is to stand in the presence of this deep and powerful Beauty, for you get the privilege to live in the Beloved’s breathing world of natural and ancient enchantment that hasn’t ceased to be in search of us even in modern, cranky cities. (How’s that for a paradigm shift?)
To get into the practice of this state of mind as a writer, it may require not writing for a time, if the result is to come out of self-absorption in your head to live more immediately in the lifeworld. You will finally not think so much about what you are pissed off about, but will revel more in the great Beauty that includes you but is more than you and outlives all our petty problems. Yes, then to write about it, to catch those images with words that strike the heart tenderly –that is to be a good writer. To practice, as devotion, the act of worship in writing. To do anything else with the gift of writing is to waste precious mortal time.
I don’t get the sense that the current “writer” identity has much awareness of any of this. There is not the act of standing in the presence of great Beauty: there is a sour attitude of nihilism. That isn’t to say that the occasional heated bit of written constructive criticism of injustice isn’t good medicine sometimes (the prophets of old knew this well). But now our words are sold for anger, for clicks, for the divisive poisoning of my beloved species.
Back in that classroom discussion, I said we have a responsibility to respect the lives of the real people who inspire fictional characters –and the lands that inspire fictional places–, for this marvelous reality is the world upon which all others are based. We can give praise from our hearts for that gem of inspiration, grateful that we get to live in such an enchanted world as this. We are not to abuse the source of the inspiration itself. This same principle should apply to all who would call themselves “writers” but use words of anger not for healing real and serious injustice, not for shining truth unto evil, but for instigating squalid fights over trivial political pickings that cause not healing for the people. Such poison words you sew are an infestation of resent among your countrypeople, among your own humankind, ye mobbing horseshoe extremists of any and every party.
“Words have consequences; writing is a moral act,” writes Philip Zaleski, editor of The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004. “To recognize this pays a triple dividend, for it inoculates us against the three daily literary devices of pandering to popular taste, creative laziness, and didacticism. The last item may surprise those who fear that any talk of moral writing will unleash an army of bluenoses ready to censor at will or of apparatchiks who will demand a political subtext to every sentence. But such worries stem from misunderstanding the obligations placed upon us by the nature of the craft. To write ugly prose, or to cripple one’s language to meet the standards of the day, or to warp one’s creation into a political placard –all this is to write immorally. The task of the spiritual writer is to uphold truth and beauty at whatever cost, in whatever way his art demands.”
To be a good writer is to accept that writing is limited. It is not a living body, it is not the indescribably glimmering image about which a thousand words must be called upon to cumbersomely begin to describe it. It is not eternal, for language changes constantly and may persist in one intelligible form only a few hundred years, then be lost to the winds of change or forgetting. A thousand thousand languages have already gone this way, for as long as our ancestors had the vocal chords and brains to speak. Writing is not sound or light or touch, but a hopeful second-hand account of these. Writing is young in the age of the earth, and it is brash. Writing thinks itself to be authoritative and know a whole lot, like a teenager.
To be a good writer is to form words with loving joy and reverence, to stand in the presence of great Beauty. The human duty to live with such a heart is more important than getting a book deal or social media followers. Social media shall all someday be ground into dust by the shifting of continents. So, too, may the human heart, but its affect has more serious consequences, and underpins any value our media technologies may lay claim to. This temporality puts our priorities into perspective. Now, when I think about my own self in writing, I worry the most about choosing the right words with the right heart, because life is short, and I have the strange and rare privilege of being born a Homo sapiens with a species-specific power so rare among the eons. That is my identity, Homo sapiens, inheritor of the Phylum Chordata, called to know and love God. The call of the good writer is exuberantly subservient to this.
I don’t want to put anything into the world that I wouldn’t want to eat with my own heart’s hunger in another lifetime to come. I may be a Blue Whale someday, and I may find myself hungry for good krill and the love of my pod and a deep black motherly ocean, so may my words be as good as these. I may be a little worm hungry for comforting good soil to build a little house in the ground; so may my words be as good, as whole and right as these. I may be a cheerful speck of dust or a beam of golden sunlight who rides the space between the sun and sweet Earth; so may my words be as good as these. For God saw fit to make these friends of hers, and to put voices into our hominid throats, but it is we who sculpt our own words. May they remember her, these brief words of humanity. If I am to be remembered myself, I want to be remembered as the one who remembered God amidst my contented, hilarious, peaceful insignificance. Don’t write words that don’t matter, that you wouldn’t want a future intelligent alien civilization to discover five billion years from now and the words you wrote, providing their ability to decrypt your long dead language, are the only account of life on earth they find. There are so many words that don’t matter. Choose the ones that do.
Zaleski, Philip. “Introduction by Philip Zaleski.” Introduction. The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.