The philosopher Josef Pieper is known for his call to true leisure: “For nothing less is at stake here than the ultimate fulfillment of human existence.” A key component of this brand of leisure is contemplation, which he equates with seeing, meaning having the “spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.” In the last essay of his book "Only the Lover Sings," he expands the definition of contemplation beyond that of seeing to include also loving.
on useful practice
If you do any kind of creative work, or think about doing any kind of creative work, whether or not it's your day job, I commend this excellent book to you.
on grace, faith, and incarnation
Buechner's "Alphabet of Grace" explores the mysterious visitation of grace, faith, and incarnation in daily life and calling. This short book isn't an easy read but it is full of reward.
on availability and vulnerability
Availability means first and foremost availability to God through time in solitude and then availability to others. It’s a word for the inner and the outer journey. Vulnerability means refusing to change reality so that things are easier to deal with. It’s a willingness to face and confront things as they are, intentionally and deliberately, a preparedness to find truth – or God – wherever it exists. These two words and the meanings conveyed directly speak to the vocation of the writer. To be available to God is the spiritual discipline of writing. To be available to others is the hospitality offered on the page and the sharing of one’s life with others on the page. To be vulnerable is that need to be open to where the writing leads us and where it pulls us in the first place, that need to struggle as we write.
This is from a scene in a short story by Isak Dinesen, not God speaking from within a canon of divinely-inspired scripture, so it's not theology, but it is literature and it has the ring of truth about it. Not in that sense of, "God will never give you more than you can handle." No, not that. But more along the lines of that you usually go through a few tough spots before you have something to give other people in the way of wisdom, encouragement, and insight. I think this is true whether you're a writer staring at a blank page or a friend sitting across the table from another friend.
In a way, the lines above from Dinesen's story suggest a scary thought, because it is basically a guarantee that distress in one form or another is a pre-requisite to writing or being a person who longs for wisdom in any sense; but in another way, it is also an odd sort of promise of provision of raw material and brokenness as preparation for the tasks ahead.
In her essay "Work and Love," Fanny Howe quotes the words of an unnamed Jewish mystic. She has "scrawled" his words into her notebook:
"[T]ake ink, pen, and a table to thy hand and remember that thou art about to serve God in the joy of the gladness of thy heart." [my excerpt]
I love those words and the suggestion of divine inspiration that follows in the full quote. Awhile back I paraphrased the above sentence into a personal intention that I wrote on an index card and placed on my desk next to my computer.
"I commit to serving God today in joy through my writing."
Through writing on my creative projects. Through writing on my blog.
It's important to remember that Howe describes joy as part of the intention rather than a passive feeling. It's a way of serving. Can this intention extend even to the day job? Sometimes – like today – the card, and the intention, gets buried under work papers and bills. But I know it's there.
(You can find Howe's essay in her collection, "Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life.")
on pocket notebooks
The notetaking habits of people intrigue me. I love finding out about notebooks carried or index cards in pockets. A long tme ago when reading a book of essays by poet Mary Oliver called Blue Pastures. I was delighted to turn to the essay, "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air" and read of her back pocket notebook and how she uses it:
"For at least thirty years, and at almost all times, I have carried a notebook with me, in my back pocket. It has always been the same kind of notebook–small, three inches by five inches, and hand-sewn....I don't use the pages front to back, but randomly, in a disorderly way. I write wherever I happen to open the notebook. I don't know why this is. When the notebook is fairly full, I start another."
on transforming suffering
While at the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2016, I heard Dani Shapiro speak. One of the many things she said that I wrote down in my notebook was: "Insist that suffering not be meaningless." Shapiro encouraged that writing is a way to do that.
Alice McDermott had a wonderful piece in Boston College Magazine a few years back: “Astonished by Love: Storytelling and the Sacramental Imagination.” You can read the essay here online. She started by using the way a novel “happens,” between novelist, narrator, and reader, to explain to a student friend the three-in-one nature of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – which reminds me, by the way, of Dorothy Sayer’s comparison of the Trinity to the writing process in Mind of the Maker.
This conversation between McDermott and her friend yielded an exploration of how the sacramental imagination plays out in her storytelling. It’s not a motive for the stories she tells, not a kind of behind-the-scenes trigger for writing to convince anyone of anything, but rather it enters the process nearly unbidden with her aesthetic choice to write what she sees.
Sunday mornings driving to church used to overlap with the last half of Krista Tippett’s radio show “On Being” (formerly, “Speaking of Faith”), and we usually listened. So it did and we did on a Sunday when Tippett was interviewing Sarah Kaye, a then 23-year-old spoken word poet and founder of Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression). Honestly, I hadn’t heard her before but loved the force of her voice and words, a force that was all the stronger due to her humility. She talked about her work as not a set of answers but as a way of exploring and she invites her readers/listeners to join her in exploring.
Of course you have to trust the person with whom you’re walking beside in the figuring-out process, but so you also have to trust the person, even more so, who is telling you what to do in bulleted check lists. There are books I pick up because I want to learn something specific, to find out how to do something; there are other books I pick up because I want to walk alongside someone for awhile who is walking a path I’m either interested in or find myself on, and we can then think together for those 250 pages or so.
Several years ago I wrote a piece for a creativity series that my friend Ross Gale was hosting on his website. He had invited a group of writers to respond to the questions: "What is the role of the creator? How does being a creator inform our work? Do you see yourself as co-creator? Re-creator?" Gale describes the series as a "conversation, a meditation, and an inspiration." My contribution to his project was a short essay, "Three-Part Harmony," about writing as creating, as discovering creation, and as participating in creation. Someday I'll bring the entire piece to this site, but for now you can read it at the project's website.