I don't care what your faith is--or whether you even have a "faith" or follow a religion--but take any opportunity you may have to hear Barbara Brown Taylor speak. Or better yet, take a workshop from her. She makes spirituality real, practical, and most of all, fun.
A friend told me about Taylor's workshop on writing as a spiritual practice which took place today in the beautiful St. Paul's Episcopal Church just outside downtown Rochester. It was the first time I had ever heard of Barbara.
Writing As Work
By vocation Taylor is an Episcopal priest, so it's part of her job description to be a writer and speaker / preacher. I have heard my share of priests, ministers, and pastors speak and have read some of their writing. As with almost any job, not everyone seeks excellence in the skills required to carry out their responsibilities. Taylor clearly takes those responsibilities to heart and has developed not just an incredible mastery but a love of both.
The Joy of Expression
About 60 or so people participated today, yet the workshop was not frenzied, noisy, or distracting due to such a large crowd. Taylor engaged every single one of us through her humor (never at our expense), her humility about her own journey, and her passion for words. When we all were writing, the only sound was the typing of those who brought laptops. Those of us using pen and paper barely registered. When we were discussing our writing with our table mates, the room was abuzz with energy, warmth, and above all, laughter. Barbara created a perfect learning environment and set things up so all would feel safe and knew we had the right just to listen if we didn't want to share anything.
What I Learned About Writing As a Spiritual Practice
Trust the spirit. If there is ever a time to turn off the critic in your head, writing is it. No matter what your subject (or endeavor, for that matter), that voice is there to reduce risk, keep you safe, and save you from being hurt. The problem is, embracing those things also eliminates the possibility of growth.
Barbara took us through an exercise in which we named our critic (mine is DK, which stands for "don't know," as in "I don't know his name"). She also told us to tell him or her or it to go away and come back at 3pm, which is when the workshop was to end. Crazy as it sounds, this really worked. (I have also asked DK to go away while I write this and come back just before I click "publish.")
The other part is to literally go where your spirit takes you. It is common to start writing based on an assignment or idea. But if what you are writing starts to go in a different direction, follow it. Honor it. The writing assignment's sole purpose is just to prime the pump.
Embody the Word. If you want to connect through the written or spoken word with anyone else or especially yourself, go through the body. Describe things using words that connect to your senses.
For example, if you are trying to communicate about faith, describe it through touch, taste, smell, sound, and eyes. My answer to that exercise was: faith is a whisper (sound), a flowery scent (smell), a cookie (taste), warm and cold (temperature), and seeing two married 80-year-olds holding hands (eyes). Note that your sense choices don't have to make sense to anyone but you.
Show, Don't Tell. This is an oldie-but-a-goodie in writing circles. Ever see the movie "Armageddon"? It stars Bruce Willis as Harry Stamper, a driller extraordinare who is called upon by the US government to save the planet from an earth-killing meteorite. In just the first five minutes of dialogue and action, you know Stamper's position on Greenpeace, that his relationship with his daughter, Grace, is problematic, and his star employee, AJ, has the disagreeable habit of routinely disobeying Harry's orders, to Harry's great displeasure.
For example, I can write "I am tired." Or, I can write "I feel as if I spent the entire day pushing boulders around."
"I loved my mom very much." Or, "I spent one weekend a month with Mom for the last three years of her life, taking her to garage sales, going visiting with her to her friends' homes, or just talking with her over endless cups of tea at home."
Want to Get Started?
This part wasn't covered in the workshop, and I offer it to any reader who perhaps hasn't journaled before. Experienced journal keepers may also find an intriguing idea here to freshen their approach to their own spiritual writing journey.
Simplest: A pad of paper or spiral notebook. A pencil or pen.
Make It Special: Indulge in one of the thousands of journals available from Walmart, Target, Barnes & Noble or dozens of other stores. If you are more visual, get a bunch of colored pens and a sketchbook, which you can also find at any of those stores or at your local art store or art gallery.
Let the Dogs Out: Create an altered book. Jump into the scrapbooking craze or create one out of a simple blank notebook. Get into fabric and create a journal quilt. Just be careful not to let the medium become the point instead of spiritual exploration.
Resources Suggested at Workshop
- Author Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk
- Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir by Elizabeth Andrews and her web site, www.spiritualmemoir.com
- www.AbbeyoftheArts.com (Recommended by a participant)
- The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction by Brian Kiteley
- A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
Ok, DK, it's fine to come back into the room now...