A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by my church, downtown presbyterian to speak on how my faith and my creative life interact. What a wonderful night it was! I did a brief reading, and then shared what Is copied below. Of course, my former teacher self came out and I led (invited?) the audience in a writing exercise that lead to creating a poem--my favorite part of the night by far!
I am grateful to be part of a church body that honors the creative life. I am grateful for an opportunity to pause and think about how God made me.
So I've been invited to speak to you this evening about my writing life, my life with God. Part of me wants you to think that each morning I rise before dawn, shake the sleep from my mind, float to my immaculate and inviting desk, select a fine writing utensil, touch said pen to paper and find that each word, each line, each idea is heaven-sent. That I wear tweed often. Elbow patches a given. That I practice daily, that I never doubt my calling, that I call myself a writer with confidence and squared shoulders.
Of course, if I could actually lead you to believe any of this, you might also think that I'm a complete jerk.
My life with words is something I can't shake. Poet Francis Thompson names calling "the hound of heaven." And that's as good an image as any: the chasing relentless panting pest of my calling as a writer has followed me for years, loping along, nipping my ankles. It began in elementary school. I remember copying a small story from a book when I was maybe in second grade and showing it to my mom. "You wrote this?" She exclaimed. So proud. I paused a little too long, just soaking up the undeserved praise. "No, I didn't." I finally admitted. Mom was rightfully appalled. So my first taste of writing was plagiarism.
At the end of third grade, my best friend Jessica Martell's mom gifted me a blank journal. And I began then to write what was around me, to list celebrity crushes, to put on personas that were not me...this also meant my mom and dad (hey there) tolerated and let's be honest probably worried a lot about my dark angsty high school poetry.
And no matter what the season of my life, I can't shake this longing to write. I'm hounded by words.
My life with God and my writing life, to me, is one and the same. Don't get me wrong, God doesn't speak to me directly through my pen--if only it were that easy! Frankly, I'm glad that it isn't that easy--most worthwhile things come through struggle. But the more I think about it, the more striking the similarities are between my spirituality and my writing. The lack of discipline I struggle with in my daily practice of writing or daily Scripture reading or prayer, the desire to share with others in community or with readers, the longing to create sacred in the mundane over a meal or in an essay...
Mostly, the marked similarity between my relationship with Jesus and my relationship with words is this: He is constant. Every time I choose to turn from daily distraction, He is there. God shows up, the words come. The more I practice, the easier it is to listen.
You know one of my favorite feelings? I'm at a gathering--a laugher filled room, maybe after a meal, a party of some sort... I don't know. But the space brims with life and friendship and joy. And I slip away to the next room. The sounds of conversation muffle, but I'm next door, near it, warming myself but not within. Like being a child sent to bed during a parents dinner party. Sitting at the top of the steps and eavesdropping, mostly just delighted to be close to something so fun.
I'm beginning to realize that I why love this feeling is it's familiarity--because I feel like this most of the time. Outside looking in. A part and apart. That this is what it means to be a writer, an artist. That God wants me to observe and listen and mostly--to tell the Truth.
I mean, that's what we're all called to do, right? Tell that One True Thing. Even if and because it is difficult, not for the hearer but for you the sharer. I might think that a phrase like "the metallic taste of a bad memory" makes sense, but I have to wonder if you get it as well. That the way we see things or especially feel things can so singular, almost shameful, like being in that room next to the party. On the tip top step with footie jammies on. Outside, other, apart. Cocooned in doubt. It's one thing to write in a journal and figure nobody is ever going to see it or read it or hear it. But when I choose to put my thoughts and observations out into the world, I don't do it with confidence or ease. Over my shoulder, clawing along my spine is the demon of doubt: telling me that I'm not good enough, that my thoughts are awful, that I will be rejected. Even as I prepared to talk with you this evening, sharing with people who love me and know me, I am fearful that you will be bored, that you will see me as I "really" am, and hate it.
But when I write, when I give myself over to that holy courage, I find connection with a reader, and that encourages me toward more: to record what I see and feel and experience, to send it back in to the world. To hope for that beautiful faint echo of "me too me too me too..."
And that's true connection, that's when I feel close to the Creator. When I write and share something that resonates clearly and cleanly, it is obvious that it's not by my hand but something more divine: yes, they are my fragile frail words, but that small spark of connectivity is IT.
My life is small, I spend most of my time doing the same thing over and over. We all do. These little cycles of drudgery, of daily life. Yet in this, God breaks through. I think of Father Lawrence, the illiterate monk in the 1600's elbow deep in dishwater, communing with God. He said, "can it not be that we simply do our common business wholly with love for him?" My common business is a cycle of dishes, laundry, and disciplining children. Also laughter and poetry, community. It's small; It's more than enough. There is the holy in that, when I stop to listen. And I listen best with pen in hand.
I've been told since I little that I am too sensitive. Only recently, and even still not all of the time, I recognize that my sensitive nature plays a crucial role in my creativity. I can't help but mark a moment as sacred, to paint meaning onto the mundane, to create sacraments from shards. The kingdom on Earth is now, and there are little altars everywhere pointing to the ultimate victor in the midst of the mess.
The Irish call these "thin places," these places or moments where the veil between heaven and earth thins, where time "stands still" as we usually say, but really in a thin place, the very essence of time seems to widen and loosen. A thin place is not necessarily found in a holy space, though it can be. More often, the more I talk about them, the more I share my own, the more I stop and mark them and breathe deep...more often thin places are found in the ordinary moments of living: in a car, the windows rolled down a song comes on the radio and you are swept up out of the humdrum. Around the table after a good meal, lingering over crumbs and an almost empty cup, and the world collapses into just that singular moment, and breath of heaven blooms and breathes. Maybe even with our elbows deep in the dishwater.
There is nothing precious about the writing life, I always want to set apart my artist friends, to pose them on pedestals in whitewashed studios. I guess you could do the same for me, but I know better. I want you to know better.
Most of creating something is hard and lonely and difficult. It's a lot of failures, you have to wade into the muck of frustration, the mire of being really bad at something and sometimes hunker down and wait. I don't sit down and write and feel the fluttering of angels wings all around me. It's all I can do to put my butt in a chair and write. And then when I do, my words typically comes out awful and awkward.
But it's an optimistic thing to create. To know it's going to be hard, to know the world might reject it, to hear and mostly heed the "I can'ts" and "the you're no goods" whispering their sulphuric lies down your neck. To do the thing anyway. That's how the light gets in.
Our world right now seems particularly tumultuous and violent. Our country feels heartsick and worn down. But we're called to be light bearers, to be joy-bringers. As believers, it's easy to take ourselves too seriously, to forget that we are loved first, that we aren't defined and marked by our daily patterns, our scurrying steps. We are called to play and enjoy, to look up and around and say "me too me too me too." To look left and right in the produce section, at the gas station, in the laundry room, in car line, at the coffeeshop, in the sanctuary--and remember again that we all are image bearers, story tellers. Children. His.
And He created. The first thing he did out of love is create.
The first thing I do when I create is write total shit. Most of my journal is just me chastising myself, why do I do this? Why don't I do this more? But I do. I do. And you do too, it may not be words, but we're all gifted our holy callings, we're all chased and dogged with them. We can shuffle under the weight, we can bury it deep and call it meaningless and small, or we can raise it up, cup it to our ears...and listen. To that still small voice. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word...was light. The Word was love.
May our lives hum with the echoes of it. May we be brave enough to stop and mark them as significant.