When Carol Sexton, Arts and Spirituality teacher at Pendle Hill, invited me to give a lecture at the Quaker conference and retreat center, I was thrilled and honored. This year’s “Way of the Artist” Speakers Series featured ten artists—painters, writers, musicians, photographers, storytellers, poets, actors—“who have followed a deep call to the creative life and discovered the power of the arts for prayer, spiritual practice, healing, teaching, building community, and creating social change.” On May 17, I spoke about “Writing as a Path to Spirit.” I’ve excerpted the lecture here; you can listen to the entire talk at http://www.pendlehill.org/images/lectures/20110517_Writing_as_a_Path_to_Spirit.mp3.
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Writing as a Path
Words are powerful; they come back to us and draw us closer to Spirit. Think of a time you were touched by God through words on a page. Think of that time, and remember how God moved in you through those words.*
As a child, the excitement I felt every fall when it was time to buy new pencils, pens, and notebooks for school was an early clue that I might someday be drawn to creating with words. Still today, I can’t walk past an office supply store without stopping in to flip through blank journals and scribble on those little scratch pads beside the pens on display.
I developed an appreciation for people’s stories from my mom: first, as a fifth-grader, reading her weekly “Bellmont News” column, with its reports of who visited whom, that was published in a small town newspaper in Southern Illinois; later, sitting beside her in the studio of the local radio station while she discussed recent events and interviewed folks from our community; and finally, through her news stories and personal essays in the daily newspaper.
Years later, when I became a nurse, I again listened to stories. In hospital rooms, clinics, and homes I experienced an uncommon intimacy as patients shared their fears, hopes, grief, and pain. I knew my listening supported healing; it also fed my love of narrative.
Most of my nursing practice has been in public health. I felt called to that specialty’s priority of promoting health for all and for being a safety net for communities and people who typically are under-served. In the early 1990s, however, I discovered that concern about the bottom line was gaining greater influence over public health policy and practice. At the same time, I felt helpless and overwhelmed by my caseload’s never-ending stream of pregnant teens and young women ill-equipped to deal with parenting complicated by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, or domestic violence. I admitted to myself that I no longer approached my work with the passion and compassion I once had. For me, that was a crisis.
Just as my disillusionment was rising, my family was feeling squeezed by Middle America’s compulsion to move faster, consume more, and question less. We embarked on a sojourn in the remote mountain community of Stehekin, Washington to re-evaluate priorities.
There, nestled in a valley surrounded by the craggy peaks of the North Cascades, with no phones nor television, and only 80 neighbors, I sought to reclaim the spiritual footing I’d lost. Two years later, I left Stehekin with more clarity about new directions in my work, a commitment to devote more time to writing, and ample material for personal essays. That journey is the focus of the memoir I’m working on.
Still preferring a remote community, we moved from Stehekin to a rural island in Puget Sound. I figured out how to do the parts of nursing I enjoyed most and developed a public health consultation practice. In October 2000, instead of attending the annual fall public health conference as I usually did, I enrolled in a week-long writing course led by Tom Mullen at Pendle Hill. During the workshop, we discussed how to fit writing into our lives. I realized a number of my consulting contracts would be completed by the end of the year, and I saw an opening to try a new schedule. Why not fit nursing work around writing, instead of the other way around? I announced to my fifteen workshop classmates that in January 2001 I would start a new job. Since then, the desire to promote health and healing that drew me to nursing in my twenties has found expression more in my writing.
What I hadn’t anticipated when I took this “job,” was just how much writing would feed me spiritually. Vinita Hampton Wright is someone whose thinking about art and spirituality speaks to me. She explains in The Soul Tells a Story—Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life:
“I have become a more spiritual person because I write. The creative process is a spiritual one and when we receive it as such, it deepens our gifts and edifies us in general. To write true stories, I must encounter truth. If I truly open my eyes and express in words what I have seen, then I will have participated in a spiritual act. I receive the vision from beyond myself, and I express it through who I am. This is God at work.”
Wright's words describe well my experience writing Hands at Work. While not explicitly Quaker, this book grew from my understanding of the Quaker testimonies of simplicity and equality and from my belief in that of God in everyone and of the importance and value of everyone’s story. Listening to and writing the stories ministered to me in my own seeking to do Spirit-led and Spirit-filled work. I know it ministered to the people I interviewed—they told me how they appreciated being watched and listened to as they worked. And I know it has ministered to others who have read the stories and looked at the images and felt inspired, challenged, or affirmed in their own work.
Every time I sit down to write is an act of faith. I typically come to my writing with questions, rather than answers. Through the writing, I tap into a wisdom that is beyond me. Wright claims, “It’s easier to trust the creative process when you also trust that a greater force is somehow guiding that process.” She refers to the faith required to engage creativity with spirituality as “submitting to a divine process that is beyond you.”
Wright claims that in the creative process, the only control lies in the mastery of one’s craft. “Give up the illusion that you’re in charge,” she says. “The best you can do is develop your gifts with all the strength and mind and heart you have.” Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, also urges building skill. “We have to learn to be good technicians of the craft,” he says. “We’re not just telling stories; we’re transforming people.”
As a writer who experiences this craft as a path to Spirit, it seems fitting that much of the language of the creative process is common to the spiritual life. Wright’s term—submit— is the same one used for the action of sending work out for publication. Release is the first presentation of a work to the public, such as a book release or a CD release. Many artists call celebrations of their work openings. And in order to not just tell stories, but transform people, we have to practice.
I welcome your thoughts about how writing or other creative work serves as a path to Spirit for you. I leave you with a few queries to consider now and in the days ahead.
How have creativity and spirituality been linked in your experience?
What characteristics of creativity do you recognize in your life?
What spiritual practices do you already know of, or use, that might apply well to creative work?
What is your next step in being faithful to creative work you’ve been called to and/or to support someone you know to be faithful to a call to creative work?
*With appreciation to Christine Hall of Whidbey Island Worship Group who shared this reflection when she introduced plans to start a School of the Spirit program in the West.