Encouragement, Coaching and Prompts for Writers
A monthly blog by Eve West Bessier, Poet Laureate Emerita of Silver City and Grant County, New Mexico
This month’s post is an excerpt from the 2020 publication, Deep Down & Dirty Writing Secrets, edited by EJ Rawlings. The article posted here is the chapter I contributed to this anthology for writers, with permission from the editor. I hope you will enjoy it, and do check out the book, which contains great advice for writers on many topics by several local authors. I will provide a link below.
In this article, I will present six points on how to encourage the spiritual in your writing. These points come out of my own experience as a writer, a reader and a spiritual seeker. I hope that they will be useful to you.
Before I delve into those points, I need to make a distinction between three types of spiritual writing. The first is writing that is by its very nature spiritual, such as a book of prayer. The second is writing that speaks about the spiritual in an expository way, such as an essay about metaphysics. These two are easy to identify as spiritual writing, but my guess is that you are more interested in the third type. I will be talking about writing that embodies the spiritual but does so in a less direct, yet thoroughly organic manner. This type of writing can be of any genre, on any topic and probably won’t even mention the word spiritual, which after all can mean so many different things to different people.
For our purposes here, let me define spiritual as anything that relates to an individual’s spirit or soul, anything that speaks to a collective higher consciousness or universal energy and anything that promotes the awareness of either of these. Combined, all of these can be encouraged in our writing and all of these together make up what I would call spirituality.
Spirituality is a lifestyle rather than a fashion statement, although mass media might tease us into thinking otherwise. I have found that the spiritual doesn’t always poke its enlightened head into places or situations in which you might expect to find it. It often shows its most potent aspects in places and situations where you least expect to find it, and that is the kind of revelation you want in your writing.
So, let’s delve into those six points.
1. Spiritual practice. In order to encourage the spiritual in your writing, it’s essential to encourage the spiritual in your daily life through some form of regular practice. A spiritual practice is foundational. Meditation, prayer, reading inspirational texts, learning to breathe deeply, doing yoga, taking walks in the forest, being of service to others are all wonderful spiritual practices.
You have no doubt found your own best fit for centering, but let me remind you that daily journaling and writing from the heart are also a spiritual practice. That’s good news because it means your writing practice itself can be a spiritual practice that encourages the spiritual in your writing. That’s a very nifty loop! In daily practice, spiritual depth comes into writing through authenticity of presence, through genuinely being there for your work and for yourself, day by day. When it comes to spirituality, there are no tricks or shortcuts. You can’t fake it, you can’t pick it up on the way home. It is the way home!
The most important first step to encouraging the spiritual in your writing is making sure that you write every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. The discipline of sitting with the blank page or screen and allowing yourself to begin is key. I find that a physical journal and pen create a more welcoming environment for writing on a daily basis, especially as I can write in whatever location I desire, even ones that have no power source except my own imagination.
2.It’s in the details. Let’s get to the nitty gritty, if you can say that about the spiritual, and I think you can and must.
The first impulse to resist is to inject your writing with spiritual terminology. Some of these terms have become so over used that they have taken on a cliché quality. What does ethereal realm really mean? What does it look like, sound like? What makes something sacred, and to whom and why? Just dropping such words into your writing without further description is like trying to airbrush spirituality onto the page.
Your writing will reflect the spiritual when its language originates from the organic heart of your poem, story or essay. Just like a seed germinates under the soil before sprouting into the outer world, the spiritual in your writing needs to germinate and grow from a well-tended, nourished core. The tending is in the details.
For example, let’s say you are writing fiction and you want your readers to know that your protagonist, Janie, is a deeply spiritual twelve-year old. You could write, “Janie is a deeply spiritual twelve-year old.” But what does this actually tell us about Janie? What makes Janie spiritual is found in the details of her behavior. Does Janie volunteer to help at the animal shelter after school every day? Does she talk to trees in the moonlight? Does she read Zen koans before breakfast? Does she write personal prayers to the Universe in her journal and whisper them aloud before she falls asleep each night? Janie’s unique flavor of spirituality is divulged through providing the details of her personal experience.
Get out your magnifying glass and focus on the nitty gritty. Fill in the five Ws. The what, the why, the where, the who and the how. I’m counting that W at the end of how!
If you’ve attended even one writing workshop, you know all about the importance of descriptive details, but did you know that not just the Devil is in the details? The divine is too!
3.Authenticity and balance. If there is one thing your readers feel almost instantly, from your first paragraph or stanza, it’s whether or not you are being genuine. Even if you’re writing a fictional character who is a pathological liar, what you write, especially in dialogue, has to ring true. Authenticity often comes down to your own firm belief in what you are putting on the page. If you are fooling yourself about what’s true, or thinking you might be able to fool your readers, take a deep breath and take out your red editing pencil. Authenticity is a channel for the flow of genuine spirit in your writing.
Telling the spiritual truth doesn’t mean avoiding all things that lurk in the shadows. In fact, it means exposing them. Don’t be afraid of the dark. The spiritual is often associated with light, but darkness is essential for the recognition of light. We all contain both the light and the dark, hopefully in balance like the classic yin-yang emblem. If your writing has no darkness, it has no balance and is not yet fully authentic. The hero’s journey is not a pleasure cruise. It’s a challenging voyage that descends into darkness before it can overcome fear, doubts, various multi-headed monsters and ascend into light.
Your writing needs to address the dark with genuine courage in order to release the light with genuine brilliance.
4.Humility. This point is so vital. When I am reading, nothing turns me off more quickly than hubris on the part of an author. Being steeped on the particulars of a subject, being an authority is a blessing; but being a pompous authority is a curse. I think this is an especially gnarly issue in encouraging the spiritual in our writing. Don’t think that you need to be an authority on the spiritual in order to bring the spiritual into your writing. Who exactly is an authority on the spiritual anyway?
You might say, how about Thích Nhất Hạnh, or Pema Chödrön? What about Depak Chopra, or Oprah, or the dude at the Zen Center who runs the meditation program? And I’d say, sure. We’ve been blessed with some terrific spiritual guides. However, I want to point out that while each of these teachers, (okay, I don’t know the dude at the Zen Center to whom you are referring, so I can’t include him) all recognize that they are the channel of the wisdom, not its source.
Be the channel of wisdom in your writing, and let your characters or the subject of your poems be the channels.
Whatever you do, don’t come off like the bouncer let you into the Club of Higher Consciousness based on your being so darned enlightened compared to the other fools in line. Maybe he just liked the sequins on your bell-bottoms. Or maybe spirituality is more readily found at the jazz dive around the corner. Humility goes a long way in establishing your authenticity.
When you write, don’t be afraid to show your readers that you have lingering questions, even doubts. Spirituality is about seeking answers, but sometimes the answers we find are simply more complex questions. Don’t be afraid to show your readers how your own hero’s journey enriches your experience, or the experience of a fictional character you are writing. Which loops back to details, details, details.
5.Small is spiritual. When I moved to San Francisco from the Netherlands at age seven, I was a devout Catholic child. It was 1967, The Summer of Love. Obviously, I didn’t come to the City to drop acid or drop out. I came because my divorced mom had remarried a man who lived there. And, by the way, neither of them were dropping acid or dropping out either.
The first time I accompanied my new dad on a grocery shopping trip, I was blown away. The interior of the grocery store was an overly bright chasm filled with seemingly endless shelves of food.
In Holland, mom and I bought our bread at the corner bakery, our vegetables at the green grocer or the weekly outdoor market, our meats at the butcher. You get the picture. No mega stores existed.
The thing that mesmerized me the most, however, about this first American shopping experience was the resulting grocery receipt. It was longer than a school ruler, a white ribbon of type in an as yet unintelligible English.
Stay with me, I’m just about to make my point. Earlier that week, I’d saved an empty Chiclets box. Inside of this flat, colorful gum carton, I lovingly placed a postage stamp-sized picture of Jesus. Then I slid the box between the metal frame and the mattress of my bed. There it stayed as a sort of holy relic. I was so impressed with the epic grocery receipt that I folded it and folded it until it also fit into the Chiclet box. It too became my religious artifact.
My point is that this small, pragmatically unimportant gesture was a symbolic act of devotion. That ratty little box stayed in my bed frame for years. It became a metaphor for the treasures stored in my personal heaven and in my innocent Catholic girl’s heart.
That’s the kind of stuff you want to encourage in your writing. Don’t be grandiose. The spiritual dwells in a tiny house.
6.Catch and release. With all of your hard work, you have brought onto the blank page some amazing shiny pearls. You have sought out, waited for, excavated and stretched high to catch those brilliant jewels. But once you publish, you have no control over whether readers will recognize their brilliance. Some of them may think your shiny pearls are just not shiny enough, or they may miss the brilliance entirely, or they may stomp on your work with a bad review, or perhaps even worse, ignore your work all together.
As writers, if we want our words to live beyond the binding of our personal journals, we have to take courage and release whatever wisdom we catch. We all want to protect our tender green sprouts of literary grain. They were germinated in the privacy of our writing cocoon. They contain our deepest inspiration. They expresses our vulnerable hearts. They are filled with all those hard-earned details, details, details. They carry our authentic voice, and we offer them with such humility.
If we decide to publish, our work is sent off into the wide world to be praised, ignored, loved, stepped on, cherished, and a million other fates. It can be hard to release and to recognize that our literary work is its own entity now. When we have encouraged the spiritual in our writing with our earnest integrity, we can trust that letting it go is the best thing we can do. Our work will be fine, no matter what. The gift of release is that our energy is now freed up to focus on our next writing adventure!
Bless you, writer, for having the courage to put it all down on paper, to catch and to release the light! May all of your seeds germinate into robust, generous oaks, pines, maples and aspen.
Scroll down to About The Author for more information and check out Eve’s website at: www.jazzpoeteve.com.
Check out the full anthology, Deep Down & Dirty Writing Secrets, at this direct link. Available in paperback and Kindle eBook editions.