I recently spent the weekend in silence and centering prayer at a retreat center run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Cape May. It’s a glorious place overlooking the dunes and sea. I was there with some other folks who, like me, are trying to stay sober one day at a time.
I had a little room with a single bed, a chest of drawers, a bedside table and a rocking chair set up in front of a window which looked out on those aforementioned dunes and sea. When I wasn’t either walking on the beach or in meditation, I spent much of my time sitting at this window, looking out onto the water and listening.
The Ineffable meets you where you are, and among other things, what I am is a writer trying to begin a new book.
As I sat there I realized I’m also writer who perhaps doesn’t listen as often as I might.
Mostly, I talk. Even when I’m alone, I talk. Sometimes to my dog, sometimes to myself, but mostly I chatter away through my writing. Writing is, after all, a form of verbal communication (which also relies heavily on images and subtext of course). Lately, however, I’ve found myself somewhat muted. I sit and I try to focus, to concentrate, to will myself into the state of semi-trance where my best work is done. Frankly, it hasn’t been working very well. Oh, I’ve managed a few words here and there, a few paragraphs that aren’t entirely horrible, but I feel as though it’s lacking . . .something.
So there I sat, both in my little sea-light filled room and in the centering prayer circle in the main room of the house. The marvelous Sisters Rita and Marianne invited us to sit, to become still, and to listen. (For anyone who’s not done centering prayer before, or “Prayer of consent” as it’s sometimes called, you can click here for more information.) And so I did. Minute after minute after minute after minute. Moment after moment after moment. One moment following another like drops of rain off a leaf. Eventually, something began to happen. I started listening. What was I listening to? Oh, call it anything you like — God, The Silence, Inspiration, The Muse, The Ineffable, the Soul — and after some time an idea began to form: perhaps I could try writing this way. Silence myself. Listen for a sentence. Write that down. Ponder it. Silence myself. Listen for another sentence.
I’ve heard other writers talk about the process of following one sentence after another, one word after another, letting themselves be guided through the work, and I thought I was doing that. In fact, I suspect I WAS doing that, unconsciously, every once in a while when the work was going really well. But up until this weekend I thought I couldn’t just dive into such seas of inspiration at will, that I had to be sitting at my desk, fingers primed over the keyboard, ready to pounce when inspiration appeared, and that in the meantime I’d write whatever turned up.
In other words, I had the idea that The Creative Source was a fickle sort of will ‘o the wisp, rather than a deep, warm nourishing ocean in which I could swim whenever I wished.
After one meditation period I remembered something I’d heard Isabel Allende say. She said she always began her books on one particular day of the year. She wrote down a sentence on that day — the first sentence of the new novel. Then, she wrote the next sentence, and so on, right straight through to the end. Even during the editing process, I recall her saying, she never changed that first sentence.
I thought it was a rather mystical process for a rather mystical writer, and I still do. Now the difference is, I think that sort of mystical methodology, or some personal version of it, may be accessible to anyone willing to practice the discipline of sitting, becoming still — willing to receive — and listening.
I have often said writing is, for me, a kind of prayer practice. However, I think over the years I’ve slipped into the habit of forgetting that prayer, like good conversation, is a give and take. It is listening as much as talking. A few days of silence — which I found profoundly restful — has taught me the benefit of listening again.
So, here’s a writing prompt for anyone who’d like to try it: Have paper and pen handy. Or perhaps your computer. Start by sitting quietly. Take a few deep breaths. Find a word that resonates with you — just one word. It could be “peace” or “pray” or “bless” or even “help”. It can be any word from whatever sacred tradition you follow – “Allah” or “Christ” or “God” or “Glory” or “holy” or “Spirit” . . . repeat the word silently a few times, and then just let go and listen. If you find your mind wandering, gently repeat the word again. Sit like that for a while — 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes . . . . (You can use a timer if you like, or just sit until you don’t feel like sitting any longer.)
Then, begin writing with this sentence (or something else that’s come to you while you sat listening): “I stood on the dark street, looking up at the window, waiting for the light to go on..” Write it down. Say it out loud. Close your eyes and say it quietly to yourself. Listen for the next sentence. Write that down. Say it out loud. Close your eyes and say it quietly to yourself. Listen for the next sentence. Repeat until . . . well . . . until you’ve finished.
Let me know how you do.