Yesterday I sat in a little office in Trinity Church, Princeton. It has cream walls and book shelves a sort of subdued jade, and a mullioned window looks out over the old cemetery, where the bone-grey tilting stones, more than a few graced with a Celtic cross, mark the graves of churchgoers dating back to the founding of the church 175 years ago. There’s nothing like looking out over a cemetery to give you a poignant reminder of how precious and brief life is. (I sometimes think everyone should have a small graveyard to look at once a day.) In front of me steams a cup of spoon-meltingly strong tea in a thick mug that says “Writer” with a thick period after it — which communicates, ‘writer, period!’ and I think it’s funny. Pen and paper lay on the desk, and I’d lit a candle. I said a quiet prayer to prepare myself for the work I was about to do. And soon, my first appointment arrived, pages in hand, hopeful heart at the ready.
Yesterday was Thursday, and so, as I do on every Thursday, I was at Trinity Church in Princeton, where I’m writer-in-residence.
Now, the first question most people ask when I say that is, “What the heck does a writer-in-residence at a church do?”
Well, it’s pretty much like what a writer-in-residence at a college does — I hang around and write and people pop in and we talk about their writing projects, and the rector pops in the door now and again asking me to edit an article of some sort, and finally, hopefully during my tenure (which at this point seems delightfully open-ended) I’ll produce a book of some sort.
I have all sorts of people coming to see me as writer-in-residence, and it never ceases to amaze me how many people out there use writing as a tool to find meaning in their lives. I have poets and memoirists, novelists and people working on personal essays. They are from all religions, or no religion at all, they are young and old, working on science fiction and self-help books, they own their own companies, or are unemployed. And what a great gift they are to me. One man writes a novel about racial issues and immigration in this country and says he hopes to have men read it and recognize themselves on the pages, in a way that might make them want to rethink their attitudes. A woman writes about angels and nursing and the courage and compassion in her stories will one day, I’m sure, inspire others. A woman tries to deal with a heart-breaking childhood full of hypocrisy, cruelty and emotional neglect. A man has had a profound spiritual awakening and wants to share it with others in the hopes it might, in turn, offer hope to others.
They come with their sometimes scattered thoughts, their aspirations, their inspirations and sometimes with their brokenness and we spend an hour reading what they’ve written, talking about what it means to them, and what the next steps might be.
So much of a writer’s life is spent alone. So much of it is spent waffling around in our minds, our own memories, our own dark corners. I don’t know about others, but I think my mental health is improved by this time with others who are, just like me, struggling to make meaning of my time here by scribbling on paper. Perhaps it’s just that being around other like-minded folks bolsters my opinion this is a reasonable way to spend my time, but I think it’s more. It is by watching the breakthroughs others have, that I am reassured there is more to this work that simple anti-social psychosis. I think of what Natalie Goldberg said in WRITING DOWN THE BONES:
As writers we are always seeking support. First we should notice that we are already supported every moment. There is the earth below our feet and there is the air, filling our lungs and emptying them. We should begin from this when we need support. There is the sunlight coming through the window and the silence of the morning. Begin from these. Then turn to face a friend and feel how good it is when she says, “I love your work.” Believe her as you believe the floor will hold you up, the chair will let you sit.
Does that mean I do nothing but heap praise on the work of those who come to see me? No, of course not, that would be short-changing people who honestly want to produce good work. But it does mean that I want to always be mindful that the creativity flows most easily from a place of nurturing support. By providing this (and honest, constructive feedback) I also reinforce the universe’s support and nourishment of me and my own work.
How can I explain what it means when a woman who, for several years, has struggled to find her voice, a voice which was ripped away from her as a little child, appears one day with a short essay describing, in the most evocative details, a flashing intuitive moment when the universe truly held her in the palm of its hand?
How can I explain what it means when a man, writing all around the issue, but successfully avoiding it for months, comes in with a piece of writing in which he lays out his dangerously addictive behavior, and then looks up and says, “I think I need some help.”
How can I explain what it means to have an elderly gentleman, clearly frail in body, although razor-sharp of mind, read to me the poetry he has written for his dead wife, describing their 50-year plus love story?
Or the young woman who writes one month about being bullied in school to such a degree it caused a mental breakdown, and the next month about taking a solo glider flight? Or the clergy-woman who just got back from Gaza and is nearly incandescent with longing to share what she has experienced and burns to fight injustice? The man who, with every paragraph he writes, says he is coming to a deeper understanding of a theory of human social structure he’s been wrestling with for years.
Some write love stories, some write rage-filled memoirs, some write childrens’ tales, some complex fantasy novels of alternate realities, some spiritual, some secular, but all of them use the act of writing as a tool by which to shape meaning and understanding from their lives, and their thoughts.
Let’s be clear. It’s not therapy (and I’m certainly no therapist), but there is an undeniable healing aspect to the practice of writing. In putting pen to paper we must order our thoughts, we must slow our jangling minds and reflect upon our world and our place in it. We have to figure out what we think about things, and why. We find objectivity, and lance a few boils, we reach out to others, we reach down into ourselves, we find both passion and compassion, self-containment and empathy.
Writing is, in my opinion, a form of spiritual practice, of confirming the creative energy of Creation, if you will. And it is a great privilege to walk part of someone else’s creative journey with them. The time between our first breath and our spot in that graveyard is fleeting, but what a gift it is not to have to do it all alone.
Who do you share your creative journey with? How does it nourish you? Support you?