Spirit literally means “breath.” Something takes our breath away, renders us helpless or transformed or transfixed, calls forth a new way of seeing, a different way of hearing or touching or sensing. Often, these happenings arise when we least expect them—walking to work, washing the dishes, encountering another human being during a day. But how can we convey such breathtaking instances to others—especially when the very nature of such things is often beyond words, when we lack the vocabulary to articulate what has happened to us?
Ask Questions, Use Details
Start with humility. You are trying, but in terms of being able to completely understand or explain something, you may be far off. Acknowledge for your reader that they are accompanying you on a journey, where together you can consider some sort of query sparked in you—but the writing itself is in process. One way to talk about nonfiction writing is by using the terms “what,” “why,” and “then.” The “what” can be the larger question leading you forward, the “why” can be what’s at stake for you in pursuing it, and the “then” can be the movement in a piece, some sort of takeaway or shift in consciousness.
I often find that it is through play, through allowing myself to wander all over the page and the map of my memory, that phrases or details that I hadn’t thought of can emerge. If something happened to me in a particular place, for example, I go there fully, using the five senses to help me return to that state of being. Just push the pen and steep yourself in that moment. Focus, as you write, on noticing and acknowledging concrete things—rather than just expressing an emotion, intuition, or some belief or idea. Discern specific ways to illuminate the “what,” which can be so large and abstract (love, fear, God) that it needs to be surrounded with layers of actual experience and people in order to come alive, the way Annie Dillard evokes an eclipse in Washington or Pico Iyer observes grandmothers, children, and deer in Japan. This takes time, many drafts, because you are just unearthing your “what.” “We dance round the ring and suppose,” Robert Frost writes, “but the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson adds. No detail is wrong or out of place as you play at the beginning, because you’re giving your subconscious room to roam.
Let yourself go, what some theologians call kenosis, or self-emptying. For it is often the self, the ego, that gets in the way of the divine, and of our ability to connect with others, religion scholar Karen Armstrong reminds us (check out her powerful memoir The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness). Don’t be too concerned with perfection, either in who you are or were on the page, or how you get it all down.
Practice and the Body
The act of writing is itself a spiritual practice. Writing forces you to step back from daily life, to see it anew. When I am feeling far from hopeful, I find that taking time to write calms me, grants me perspective. It might be that I spend fifteen minutes just getting down raw footage from the day—the way someone looked on the bus, an epithet scrawled on a mailbox, the smell of a bakery on the corner. Maybe I will even write of myself, or someone else, in the third person, as if I am telling a story, and sometimes this practice allows me to detach from whatever I’m living, just a little, and see it from the angle of adventure. Anaïs Nin, who faced her own inner demons, dissolved discord through story; “I take my distance. I look at the dramatic possibilities,” she writes, so that she’s “changed into an adventurer faced with every obstacle, every defeat, every danger, but as they increase the sense of adventure increases too.” Writing can serve as a tool to hand you back your life, your center—your body.
For writing is also a bodily thing. Not only do we use hands and fingers and arms and trunk to swing into typing or writing—even our mouth and lips when using speech-recognition technology—but we also make words like we make music, like we dance. Our first storytellers, from African folklore to Homer, were oral ones. We have long sentences, our punctuation like short breaths or skipping steps as we move through a thought or image or sensation. We have short sentences. We write in rhythm, just as we breathe in and out, long breaths, short ones, sometimes none at all. Writing is sound; writing is meant to be heard.
Awe and Hesitation
The problem of defining spiritual writing, I think, comes from the fact that what is indeed a “breath” of inspiration or revelation to one humanoid is anathema or humdrum to another. Still, I think that the word awe can be a good place to start when considering this genre: “awe” in terms of something “awesome” or being “awestruck” as well as “awe” in “awful.” Big events in our lives (sometimes delivered in the most mundane packages) make us sit up and think, and reconsider—wonder. Try approaching your writing with a sense of curiosity, rather than certainty or let-me-tell-you-the-truth-with-a-capital-T. We can all speak our truths, of course, but we can share them as an offering, not a demand, to the reader. We can invite the reader along.
Writing in the New York Times, Philip Zaleski proposed that spiritual writing “deals with the bedrock of human existence—why we are here, where we are going and how we can comport ourselves with dignity along the way.” In the 2013 edition of Best Spiritual Writing, which Zaleski edited, Sy Montgomery wonders to what extent an octopus can understand her, can recognize her, maybe even have feelings about her, and this morphs into a larger “what” about connection with the Other or with some spark beyond the human. There’s an element of testimony, of bearing witness to something, as the apostle Paul was wont to do in his letters. But there’s also a trace of I-don’t-know-what-this-is-but-I’m-on-the-path-to-find-out—an attitude that really lends itself to good nonfiction writing across the board, prose that scrutinizes itself in more than a cursory, know-it-all way. Of course, we also bring to paper our passion, our heart, our own unique set of experiences that have taught us to know (or want to know) something real in our bones. To me, the spiritual resides in that tension between what we understand about ourselves and what we do not—and writing becomes the bridge, the conduit, holding these two lands together, sometimes barely. The fact that Augustine’s Confessions (composed in 397 A.D. by the North African Catholic bishop) is arguably considered the West’s first memoir demonstrates the strong affinity between nonfiction and the spiritual.
Beyond humility, emotion, and detail, spiritual writing also can delve into history and culture and science and other bodies of knowledge (see Dillard’s information on planets and space in “Total Eclipse” or Iyer’s references to Japanese nature gods and the habits of elephants in “Grandmothers”). Whether it’s scholars writing about the origins of sacred texts or a reporter filling us in on the reconstruction of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, what separates this kind of writing from, say, academic writing is the fact that there’s something at stake for the writer, some sort of pebble in the shoe that’s prompting them to share their musings and research. Often, this endeavor has to do with how we position ourselves among people. Philosopher and mystic Simone Weil praised the notion of hesitation, a prayerful posture that is good to take before speaking with another person, a sense that we as individuals are only a part of something greater. Here’s our slice of it, written down—and here’s how it may or may not fit with other slices, other truths—and here’s how that might affect how humans orient themselves toward each other, and toward living in the world, breathing in and out.
Engaging the Other
Whether we face a religious institution’s complicated history, a family tradition, or a burning bush, we all encounter uncertainty through things seen and unseen. Spiritual writing can welcome the strange, sow a story that involves our own yearnings but also intersects with mystery. The tension between what we want to be and who we are can drive a piece of nonfiction; the gap between our different selves becomes the story itself. Often, we confront this gap only when we run into other beings or landscapes that baffle or scare, like a great storm edging slowly toward us, beautiful and frightening at the same time.
To rescue yourself from navel-gazing, stop and look around. Observe anything long enough—a house, a tree, a person—and it can take on fresh meanings, triggering insight and imagination with its very color or smell or sound. And whether you’re exploring a lover’s body or speaking directly to a higher power or exhorting a community to rethink its ways, you’re participating in communion. You’re seeing and being seen.
Charism and Prophecy
In his essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” published in the New Yorker in 1962, James Baldwin begins with memory, and a problem: he’s fourteen years old, and he’s afraid— “afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without.” As a black male growing up in Harlem in the 1940s, he realizes how little separates him from the streets, from a life of crime: “I had no idea,” he writes, “what my voice or my mind or my body was likely to do next.”
To speak, to commune, with readers (in this case, a predominantly white audience), Baldwin draws on a charism, or spiritual gift, for language, for a preacher’s rhythm. He draws us in with his honesty, his objective, self-reflexive look at the lost person he was, but he doesn’t stop there. He extends his eye to the signs of the times, from his youth to his narrative present to the future, into our day now, which is what makes a prophetic voice: one that speaks to us not only of a different way of seeing but also of cold hard truths that readers may not want, but need to hear (“whoever has ears to hear, let them hear,” Jesus exhorts his followers). The word obey stems from obedire, “to listen, pay attention.”
One prophetic paragraph shifts from descriptions of “every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway” and “clanging ambulance bell” and “every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores” to the fear that exists between blacks and whites, where “only the fear of your power to retaliate” would make whites treat blacks with respect—“but I do not know,” he adds, “many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.” Here, he pivots, and speaks directly to his audience: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other”; and once they have found a way to do this, “the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
Baldwin’s persona seeks God’s love but finds that he’s “yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me”; because he’s been raised in a culture where God is white, where blacks look up or down but not at each other and whites look away, he “[gives] up all hope of communion” with a divine source. And yet he doesn’t stop writing. The essay could have ended there, but it does not—we learn that Baldwin discovers preaching in church as the “gimmick” that keeps him from turning criminal, a charism that allows him to commune with his congregation when the Holy Spirit descends—“Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine were theirs”—and then to run home “to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart.”
What kind of voice might you adopt to transmit to others some truth of your intimacy with the earth, or with someone you know well, or even with some spirit? Try grounding your very experience in the signs of the times. In one essay I write, I respond to our country’s recent presidential election and the violence I witness around me through the prism of my own body, my own religious practice, my own divisions raging inside. I toggle back and forth between looking outward, closely, at race-based killings or fear-based politics, and slowing down and listening to my own troubled heart, to where God might be speaking. By moving in time—skipping around from inauguration to video clip to political outsider to voting booth—I follow kairos, or God’s time, rather than chronos, linear time. Consider what kinds of memories you might arrange together to explore something both particular and universal in your writing, and how you can make them ring out in words, like a bell.
Into the Unknown
Trust in the process. Patricia Hampl notes in her essay “Memory and Imagination” that “writing a first draft is a little like meeting someone for the first time.” She adds:
I come away with a wary acquaintanceship, but the real friendship (if any) is down the road. Intimacy with a piece of writing, as with a person, comes from paying attention to the revelations it is capable of giving, not by imposing my own notions and agenda, no matter how well intentioned they might be.
And so it is with us, with matters of the spirit. Pay attention, be a noticer, and let the act of revision transform you, bit by bit. You may find yourself changing your mind, your perception; fittingly, that’s the original meaning of the word repentance. You may have to start all over again, or lose your favorite sentences. Embrace those things that scare you about your subject—as with any spiritual quest, fears can perhaps take you to where the writing’s “what,” or purpose or question, lies. It takes courage to be a good writer. It also takes faith.