The Joy in Writing

Another year of writing this blog comes to an end. A colleague at work the other day commented on this practice, wondering whether I have found it to be a good discipline. I think that to be true. I don’t quite write something every week, although most weeks I do – generally alternating poetry and prose. I sort of wind my way through each week, looking for a muse in some form or the other to generate a thought, or spark an insight. It doesn’t always happen, and when that it is the case, I sit downstairs in the basement on a Saturday night and start pondering the first thing that comes to mind. Generally something comes together. Writing is funny that way: sometimes it just clicks and other times, not.

I mentioned this to another colleague the other day; we were talking about academic writing in this instance. She was asking me about a paper I gave at a conference, and I could tell her that the paper under discussion nearly wrote itself. An idea fell in my lap, and I did some research around it, but the basic form of the essay was in place and I researched to span gaps and to strengthen pillars. But at other times, I do copious research; reading and reading with a view to finding some idea to chase after. For such a paper, every paragraph is pure effort.

I think, to some degree, I have been well served by another colleague of mine, who speaks of the classroom as a workshop, inviting students to test out ideas and play around a bit – not being too anxious about piety, or fidelity, or orthodoxy in his space. They can take on those concerns when they leave his class, or not. In a way, I find this space to be something like that. Here, I sit down and write and refuse to worry about my writing passing the muster of an editor, or a publishing gate keeper of some sort. I just write for the joy in writing.

But this joy, like so many other joys, is fueled by facilities empowered by practice. I write more easily when I write often, I think. And so, when it is time to write an academic piece, I think that the time I have spent in this workshop, or gym, or studio called “stillvoicing” has prepared me to get to work. Or at least that’s what I’m imagining today. The freedom this space affords, allows me to stretch in new ways, and develop new skills that make their way into a different kind of public.

And so I write: sometimes prose and sometimes poetry. I remember hearing Leonard Cohen in a CBC interview some years ago, where he said that being a poet is a verdict not a decision, or self-declaration. I suppose that is true for writers of other genres as well. Many people write; but I’m not sure how many writers there are, or poets, or artists. But then again, I don’t know that this much matters. If writing brings some joy, or meaning, or relief, that is reason enough to write. And perhaps, from time to time, that reason translates into something worth reading.

Running the Faith

Yesterday I entertained a luxuriously long run. I’ve been slowly working up to longer distances after 6 weeks away from jogging while on my most recent jaunt to Switzerland, and then India. I am happy to be working my way back up to my pre-travel fitness level. I walked as much as I could while away, and did a few exercises – a push-up here, a sit-up there – but now is the time to do a little catch-up.

I find running to be relaxing. I know that not everyone has this experience. But I find that I sometimes enter a Zen-like zone on the trail, something I’ve written about elsewhere. Jogging is pretty much meditation for me. I have a profound sense of God’s presence when I am running. I’m not at all surprised that the apostle uses a running metaphor to describe the spiritual life in 1 Cor. 9, although the idea of running to gain a prize isn’t altogether intriguing for me. Running is the prize, in my experience.

While on my most recent run I started thinking about running a marathon. Once upon a time, I was asked if I would ever do this, and I said no. At that time, I think the idea of the physical and time demand was a bit overwhelming. But now I find that I crave this time on the trail. I get lost in my thoughts, or perhaps my lack of thoughts. The idea of a marathon intrigues me because it will demand of me the sweet discipline of clocking in a significant number of kilometres each week in preparation. And so the idea of running a marathon marries the discipline of training and the experience of spiritual communion. I suppose it becomes, then, a spiritual discipline.

Spiritual disciplines are notoriously hard to define. It is easy to point to prayer, scripture, worship attendance etc. But I like an expansive definition, and readily include art, and conversation with friends, and walking, and baking, and running, etc. A spiritual discipline is an activity that promises a more intense awareness of God’s presence, although sometimes in the modality of a delayed gratification. There are so many ways in which I experience a more acute sense of the presence of God. To think that running has this benefit, as well as the joy of increasing one’s physical, emotion, and mental health too, is an amazing thing. But that is true, too, for other spiritual disciplines.

I am not absolutely certain that I will run a marathon this summer, but a seed has been planted. Perhaps the plant will be a surprise, but that’s the nature of grace, ever giving me joy in new and wonderous ways.

Enough, Already!

I am in the middle of a painting right now. Not so long ago I was near the end of it, but I have fallen victim to the propensity to do what a teacher of mine some years ago described as over-painting. There is a kind of painting-over where you re-use a canvas. Alas, that may be the fate of this particular piece as a result of the other kind of over-painting – the propensity to put too much into a work. The instructor who spoke to me of this danger told the class that an artist doesn’t need to cover every detail when interpreting a scene. In fact, it is sometimes more effective to allow the human imagination to connect the dots, and finish the painting in the viewing. Perhaps this is most often the best. And it might be that this is a good lesson for life.

I remember as a child, doing a craft project at elementary school. It didn’t much interest me, and its being assigned near the end of the school year provided me with the opportunity to drag it out in the hopes the year’s end might bring to an end my need to finish it. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well, and both my teacher and my parents reminded me of the importance of completing what we start, a lesson that has served me well over the years. It is an important and laudable strategy in life, as long as we remind ourselves that some projects are best completed by not being finished. This latter bit might mean, I suppose, two different things. One the one hand, some projects need to be brought to completion by recognizing that they are not viable. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves, “I gave it a go, but now is the time to let it go.” I had a great conversation with a pastor the other day about just this. She and I talked about the gift of allowing ourselves to fail, recognizing that sometimes what we aimed for just isn’t going to happen with this or that particular project. If the gospel accords us any right, it most certainly accords us the right to fail, and to embrace failure as a gift that is an occasion for learning and growing in the discipline of accepting our acceptance – as Tillich was wont to describe faith. On the other hand, sometimes we complete a project by not crossing every “t” and not dotting every “i.” Sometimes, what a project most needs is a little breathing space; some white between the colours and a pause between the notes.

I find art that is spacious to be the most invigorating, and yet I find it the most difficult to achieve. Being able to know when to quit is an important skill for artists, but really for all of us. Ending well is really a life project. I am grateful for the many ways that life affords us small opportunities to learn to let go; to let this creation or that project make its way into the world, removed from my propensity to add just a little bit more, and in so doing to take away so very much.