Archive for writing

With a Lump in My Throat

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 10, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

For the past few days, I was at Princeton Seminary for the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop – something so worthwhile that I have made it into an annual pilgrimage.  Listening to geniuses such as Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and the master himself through other greats speak of the craft is exhilarating.  It always serves as the catalyst that I need to get out of a slump and begin to write again with more passion.

Buechner has written volume after volume about religion and spirituality.  In speaking of the word itself, he says that

[r]eligion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it.

I often find myself allergic to the word “religion”.  When someone launches on a diatribe around religion, I feel my throat swelling, my arms begin to itch, and a sneeze tickle its way out.  Anaphylaxis sets in and my breathing becomes belabored.  The word “spirituality” seems to connote, for me, a more approachable reality that allows for the movement of the spirit and not a mere assent to intellectual understanding or belief.  Buechner provides for me an antihistamine with unfathomable efficacy.

For Buechner, writing  is and was a religious practice.  It is a ritual for the writer to express his or her encounter with the divine.  It is, although often inadequate, an attempt to reveal to the rest of the world what the mystic has perhaps accidentally stumbled upon.  Sitting down to convey such an experience is akin to chanting an ancient liturgy or presenting bread and wine in the hopes that those gathered at the altar can see it as body and blood as clearly as the one who is giving it.

In order to write, to create, to do religion, to actually see beyond the veil, one must acknowledge whatever it is he or she has come upon.  Unfortunately, few of us give ourselves enough credit to be able to see in such a way that our souls converse with the whispers and sighs that are beyond words.  Buechner says:

We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe—life is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.

“To enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.”  And there it is.  The redemption, for me, of the word “religion.”  That’s all it is.  Simply a word that struggles in its simplicity to describe a reality beyond description.  Sacred space, thin places, the setting where the Spirit can faintly be heard dancing over the face of the deep causing ripples that seem to hum something so beautiful that not even Barber could have conceived it.

Some do, however, dare to undertake the impossible.  Those who create art are those who listen for the voice of the muses and attempt to translate their message for the rest of us.  Buechner said that those creative souls who set about this work of holy interpretation are driven by a fire not unlike that of Jeremiah when he said that “the word is in my bones and if I do not speak it, it will consume me.”  The labor of imagination and awareness of an unseen place plants the seeds that allow for the birth of the sacred amidst the mundane.

Buechner shows us what this process looks like for the writer as he or she sits down to create as the experience they seek to record is recalled:

First the lump in the throat, the stranger’s face unfurling like a flower, and then the clatter of the keys, the ting-a-ling of the right-hand margin. One thinks of Pascal sewing into his jacket, where after his death a servant found it, his “since about half past ten in the evening until about half past midnight. Fire. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace,” stammering it out like a child because he had to. Fire, fire, and then the scratch of pen on paper. There are always some who have to set it down in black and white.

Sitting on the Orange Line train from Midway Airport, alone with my thoughts and having nothing better to do than reflect over the wisdom imparted while hoping that with me it didn’t fall futilely like seeds on barren land, something occurred to me.  Those brave souls like Buechner, Lamott, Taylor, Norris, O’Donohue, and many others who came before and after them make visible for us what is otherwise invisible.  Things like the flutter of angels’ wings behind an oak tree whose leaves are set ablaze by the sinking sun.

For us, these courageous ones who use urim and thummim to see beyond the substance of things unseen all the way through to the true essence of creation and being itself are creative mystics.  They use their tools – pen and paper, computer, typewriter, brush and easel, score paper – and open a door to the place where dreams are birthed from the tehom.

They are like the great scientists who challenge us to imagine that the impossible is possible and that hope is more than ephemeral.  Grabbing us gently by the shoulders and leading us over to peer down into life itself through their microscope or out through their telescope where the heavens expand and Browning’s reach exceeds his grasp, they show us.

“Do you see it?” they ask us.

“No.  What is it?” we say.

“There!  Look there.  You’re looking right at it, but not seeing it.”

And then suddenly we gasp as it becomes visible.  Our eyes wide open followed by a smile so vast that it almost hurts our face.  It comes into focus for the first time.  The sacred.  The mystery.  The burning bush that is engulfed in flames, but not consumed.  And silently we remove our shoes and weep.


* Quotes are from Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner


Yeah, But . . .

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2015 by thecrossingchicago

what i talk aboutOne of the great things about being a pastor (and there are many), is the opportunity to do a lot of writing.  I enjoy writing and the places that it takes me, but I am constantly wanting to take it to the next level.  I want to publish the non-fiction book I just wrote. I want to write novels. I want to publish more short stories. I want to develop a unique voice that moves people, etc.  I do ok and I realize the only way to become a good writer is to write.  There are other factors such as reading the works of good writers and setting aside a number of hours a day to write, even if I just end up staring at a blank page the whole time.  As much as I know all this and realize that I can probably become a fairly capable writer, there is always this nagging, “Yeah, but . . . “ going on in my head.  In the end, I am my own biggest critic and hurdle to overcoming mediocrity. 

“Yeah, but I have nothing important to say.”

“Yeah, but I can’t write like the great or even good authors.”

“Yeah, but I just don’t have the natural talent.”

“Yeah, but I will never be able to write anything worth reading.”

“Yeah, but I don’t even know where to start.”

You get the point.  Despite reading that a writer’s first draft is hardly “worth a damn” (Hemingway) and that it takes lots of practice, that nagging voice is still there.  Knowing that a disciplined writing regimen would elicit results that I can’t even yet fathom still sometimes leaves me paralyzed. Hearing writers like Stephen King say that even an average writer can get good merely by writing frequently (but a bad writer doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell – thanks a lot, Stephen), I am still plagued by a lack of confidence.  Even when folks are kind enough to tell me that I’ve got a gift for writing, I usually figure they’re just being kind.

On occasion, though, I hear something that gives me a burst of confidence or at least a glimmer of hope.  I hope these little nuggets will reach you, too, wherever you are and in whatever struggle you are plodding through.

I just finished a book by one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami.  He is not only a good writer, but he has an imagination that is second to none.  Whenever I pick up one of his books, I can be sure that I won’t be disappointed.  The book was called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  It was a memoir of sorts of his dozens of marathons and triathlons and a little bit about how he got into writing. 

The book has energized me not only for writing, but I’ve also increased my running as a part of my daily workout.  I am amazed by the fact that, by tuning out my negative mind with music or podcasts on my iPod, I am able to run a lot farther without thinking about how my legs hurt or telling myself that I’m not a runner.  Instead of thinking about running, I just run.

According to Murakami, he was sitting watching a professional baseball game in Tokyo when he caught a foul ball and at that moment had the epiphany that he could write a novel (I don’t see the correlation either, and neither did he). He had no experience writing whatsoever and was running a small jazz bar with his wife at the time.  On his way home from the game, he bought a fountain pen and some writing paper and got to work.  Over the course of many months of writing from 3 am when he got home from the bar until the sun came up, he completed his first novel.  He submitted it for a contest and won.  The next year he released his second novel that was also written in the wee hours of the morning.  He sold his bar and convinced his wife to move out of the city so he could embark on a full-time career as a novelist.

What struck me the most was that a man who had no writing experience whatsoever put his mind to writing and got to it.  He stumbled along the way and had plenty of excuses not to write, but he was determined.  So determined, in fact, that he did his writing after a full day’s work when most of us are dead to the world.  He honed his craft and, through perseverance, became a very good writer.  His mindset about hard work paid off in his career as a novelist.  Having completed over 40 marathons and two ultra marathons (62 miles) as well as being strict about his allotted time for writing, translated into some very fabulous books that have brought joy to many readers.  It wasn’t so much that he had a savant for writing (although he obviously had to start off with some aptitude), but rather his mindset and discipline that helped him live his dreams.

The other part of the encouraging equation is something that my son’s coaches say at almost every practice.  It has been attributed to a number of motivational speakers and athletes, but rings true regardless of who first uttered it.  “The two things in life you are in total control over are your attitude and your effort.”  Here, here.

I may or may not have an aptitude for writing that is any better than anyone else’s.  But I am quite sure that, with a good and positive attitude (meaning kicking the yeah, but right in the yeah, butt) and giving all the effort I can (I will reap in direct proportion to what I sow), then I will succeed at making my dream a reality.

This is not only true for me, but it is true for YOU!  Is there something that you’re aspiring to do?  Is your mind trying to tell you that you’re any less than you really are?  Do you feel like life is dragging you down and keeping you from being who you know you were made to be?  Then don’t take it lying down!  If you’re reading this now and saying “Yeah, but . . . “ then I’m saying right back at you, “Yeah, but it’s who you were made to be!”  So don’t settle for anything less.