Writing as a Spiritual Discipline: Limits and Creation

Today ESN launches a new Spring 2017 series on Writing As a Spiritual Discipline. At various points throughout the spring semester, authors in a variety of disciplines will share how they experience writing as part of their spiritual lives. Brandon Spun starts off the series today. See Brandon’s previous ESN reflection on hospitality here

What do the films Funny Farm, Throw Mamma from the Train, and The Shining have in common? They each feature writer’s block as a central motif. Writer’s block is a notorious blight of writers, but it is only one challenge we face. Writing is hard, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.

The following are three general attitudes that have made writing a little bit easier for me. The motif which they have in common is that of creaturehood. It is essential that our practices reflect and honor our reality as creatures, that is, as unique, limited beings with particular strengths and weaknesses.

1. Praxis

Do I write every day? I do not.

“But a writer writes!” urges the chorus.

I’m a teacher, a father, a warehouse worker, and a human being. Not only do I have other work, but I need rest, leisure, time with family and friends, and even time to do nothing at all.

Writing is important to me, even fun and rewarding at times, but for me it is about trust in God’s timing.

For me, this means becoming attentive to the seasons of life, long and short. There are weeks and months when it seems I can write almost daily, but there are also long stretches in which the time, the energy, or the mental readiness is just not there.

What has worked for me is not a stricter schedule or deeper commitment, but cultivating peace and trust, remaining ready and open to what is meet and fitting at the time.

This often means jotting down notes so that I am ready to go when a real opening presents itself. Rather than worrying about when I will find the time, I try to wait in hope and expectation for how God will prepare a time for me (and me for the time).

For those of you beset by assignments and due dates, this may seem wildly unrealistic. Perhaps you can foster this attitude toward those pet projects which always seem out of reach. If they are meant to be written, you can trust they will be. The discipline of attending to the true task of each day is the greatest preparation for any writer, and really the greatest work we can ever do. Of course, discerning the task of a given moment is a whole other problem.

2. Process 

I am a percolator and not a French Press. Or maybe, if I am a French press, I have come to accept the mystery of the steeping process. Once upon a time, I would sit for hours and hours, guilt ridden, in front of a computer screen, urging myself to write. Despite leveraging all the weight of my will upon the plunger of the press, I rarely succeeded in doing much.

Eventually, I came to accept that I work better doing a little bit at a time rather than trying to plunge through the process in one great press. Jotting down notes, thinking about structure, and revisiting an assignment or topic are things that keep me moving and ready.

This steeping process means an assignment often needs to begin the moment I hear about it. Just creating a document with a note or two can be helpful, and as long as I keep pressing onward (or percolating?), I really am making strides.

Just sitting in front of the computer is not enough. In fact, the longer I sit in there in the shame seat, the less likely I am to do any useful work. Force of will is rarely much more useful then aimlessly browsing the internet. Perhaps that is why they are so often connected!

3. Content: All Things to All Men? . . . Not for the temperate writer!

For those synoptic thinkers who want to capture a vision of the whole, writing can be a daunting process.

I have to constantly remind myself that the life of a piece is in its limits. There can be no excellence without focus, clarity, and attention to audience, and purpose. The death of a piece of writing is in its attempt to be everything to everyone. This mistake can take the form of:

  • Trying to say everything I know about a subject
  • Trying to anticipate every possible objection
  • Trying to please or persuade every potential reader

I have neither the time nor the intellectual excellence to write a summa on a given topic. Equally important, no one really wants me to.

From the vantage of classical metaphysics, to be limited is to exist. Therefore, if I want my writing to exist, it must have clear limits. To be unlimited is to be either God or nothing. Therefore, of the three options (being limited, being God, or being nothing), it is important I recognize which one works for me. Seeing that I am neither Thomas Aquinas, nor God, I have found that the first option works best for me.

When writing, it is always hard to leave avenues unexplored, to delete those brilliant sentences, to stick to certain topics, however narrow. But as a topic narrows, as the fat is trimmed, the path becomes clear and I find room to breathe.

It is in limitation that I discover the particular glory of creaturehood. It is there that I also find the love and providence of God.

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Brandon Spun

Brandon Spun is a senior fellow at New College Franklin (http://www.newcollegefranklin.org/) in Tennessee. Mr. Spun received his bachelors from the SUNY Geneseo in Philosophy and English and his M.A. from St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland in Liberal Arts. He is currently pursuing a second M.A. in Philosphy. He is a lover of good books, classical languages, philosophy, and woodworking. He also has two children who don't know what to make of their Daddy. When he has free time, he does enjoy writing for his blog Same & Other (https://sameandother.com/).

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  • Brandon Spun commented on February 24, 2017 Reply

    Maybe it is bad taste to comment on one’s own piece, but if I could, I wish I had added that this way of waiting should be a form of prayer. I am working on a piece right now that I have been stuck on for a few weeks and it really opened up as I invited others into the process and see how God made this possible! Writing really is a form of waiting on God, just as Simone Weil describes it.

  • hannaheagleson@gmail.com'
    Hannah Eagleson commented on February 24, 2017 Reply

    Hi Brandon, This kind of thoughtful followup comment from the author is always welcome! And this story is a great illustration of how writing is a spiritual discipline in both our relationship with God and our relationships with others.

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