WRITING AS PRAYER
The logos…links the human mind to the mind of God. (commentary on the passage in the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.)
I began writing in earnest in March of 1968. With few friends, three young kids, in a new place, I needed something to occupy my mind beyond family and housekeeping. One evening I put a card table and folding chair in the cellar and went down there after the kids were in bed, armed with a mug of coffee and a chocolate bar to wake me up. I wrote a few poems—“What is it that keeps you sane in March?”—and then started a novel. I’d been having a recurrent dream of a woman walking on a different route every night-- along the Great Wall of China, down a dusty
road, on the Maine Turnpike. I wondered who she was and why she was walking. Although I had done some writing before, this was the first time I had the magical, heady experience of following an unfolding tale, getting to know a character entirely of my own making. North Carolina
The following March I received a phone call from my brother. My mother was in the hospital in a coma. A colleague of my husband happened to be visiting us when the call came and offered to drive me to
. We drove through the night, arriving early in the morning. My brother was waiting for me and took me immediately to the hospital. My mother died three days later, never having awakened. Several weeks after I got home, I went down to my card table and took up the novel of the walking woman. I read what I had last written: “Her mother died when she was sixteen.” Massachusetts
Several times in the next few years I had this chilling experience of writing about something important and then having it happen. Once I wrote about a boy in the emergency room with the parents sitting in the quiet room, and a few months later my son was in the emergency room and Bill and I were sitting in the quiet room. These somewhat spooky experiences gave me a different feeling for my writing. It was not just a hobby, a pleasant pastime to while away an evening. It was, indeed, about life and death.
I conceived the idea of using various books of the Bible as structures for the novels and so wound up studying them for this peculiar purpose, getting a different slant on the books. Flora, Write This Down was based on Revelations, especially as discussed in Austin Farrer’s The Rebirth of Images. Writing novels became for me a form of meditation, of contemplation.
Wise-Ears used Proverbs as its structure; Opening Eye the first part of the Book of Acts; Samara the Wholehearted the second part. I attended a Rod Sykes’ seminar on the Reign of God as imagined in the New Testament, and for The Irrational Doorways of Mr. Gerard, I attempted to understand this reign.
All the novels began with characters who were vital, in settings sometimes unfamiliar but that seemed alive, real, and palpable. My first two published novels are about creating a family and a home in the usual sense of the words. The next three are about creating different kinds of families and homes.
When I am writing, I do feel both inside and outside myself. The words that emerge are from a puzzling place inside me, but they also seem somehow to be connected to some “other.” I use experiences from my life and details I have observed, but also I am discovering the existence of previously unknown individuals and events, and in creating a whole from these two, known and previously unknown, am making order out of the chaos in my head and the chaos of my life.
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I do feel the Presence while I am writing. I’m not the amanuensis of this Presence. It is not giving me the words but is putting me in the right frame of mind, allowing me a deeper concentration. When I read the description of mystics about the quiet joy they feel in the mystic state, I understand, because I have had a similar contentment at my desk.
The difference between having to scratch for every page, my usual method, and having the words pour out of me is immense. I wrote a short story, “Prologue”, in such a state; the words emerged from some mysterious place that didn’t even seem like my brain. The story came out whole. It impressed my writers’ group and won a CBC prize. The incident was unlike anything I’d had before or since. I would long for the experience to come again, I suppose as an addict would long for the drugged state, except that the years have taught me the danger of such longing.
…narrative, like the other basic needs of the species, supports the literal survival of man by providing him with numerous forms of nurture—the simple companionship of the narrative transaction, the union of teller and told; the narrator’s opportunity for exercise of personal skill in telling and its ensuing rewards; the audience’s exercise of attention, imagination, powers of deduction; the spiritual support which both parties receive from stories affirming our importance and protection in a perilous world…; and perhaps most importantly, the chance that in the very attempt at narrative transaction something new will surface or be revealed, some sudden floater from the dark unconscious, some message from a god which can only arrive or be told as a tale. Reynolds Price, A Palpable God
When I am under stress, I know how to cure myself. I come to my study as soon as I get up, around 6 AM, and write. Writing is as calming as prayer. Maybe it is prayer. For the last seven years I have had an added incentive. I’ve been writing a weekly column on the arts, with a deadline, Monday, and a specific number of words, 800. It was my refuge from the sadness of Bill’s illnesses and my frustration with his mental state, and after his death, a refuge from grief. Little by little I have developed a modus operandi. Because I am not an expert on any art, I confine myself to my response to the various arts rather than attempting pure criticism.
I get an idea—from my reading or an event I attend or someone’s suggestion—write a few sentences, a related memory comes to mind, a new thought. I examine what I’ve written; sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, the 800 words slowly emerge. I am learning about my response to art—concerts, exhibits, books, theatre. These experiences remind me of my reaction to my religious experiences.