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Writing as Prayer
 

“I’m not very good at praying, but what I experience when I’m writing a poem is close to prayer,” said the poet Denise Levertov in an interview shortly before her death in 1997. “I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” I’m not very good at praying either – at least not the usual kind of prayer. But I think I know what Levertov was driving at. It’s not that I have an overwhelming sense of God’s presence when I write or that I feel I am operating in a sacred space. But neither do I feel entirely alone with my thoughts.

Thomas Mann said a writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people. Well, yes and no. Oscar Wilde once reported he had spent the morning inserting a comma in the proof of one of his poems and the afternoon taking it out again. Given that the source of this story was Wilde himself, we must take it with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I suspect most writers would identify more closely with Wilde than with Jack Kerouac, who reportedly wrote the first draft of On the Road by inserting a roll of shelf paper into his typewriter so he wouldn’t waste time putting in individual sheets of writing paper as he blazed away at top speed. This prompted a vicious put-down from Truman Capote, who sneered, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

Sportswriter Red Smith is generally credited with saying that writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed. As one who has shed more than a little blood, as well as sweat and tears, I can sympathize. But that was before I learned to get out of my own way. Yes, writing is hard – and in my case, slow -- but it need not lead to self-induced bloodshed. You just have to realize you are not the author of the words that flow through your fingers. They are yours in the sense that they do not belong to anyone else. But you are not so much author as amanuensis, from the Latin meaning literally, “servant from the hand.” No, you are not taking dictation from your muse exactly, but you are taking down words that seem to arrive, however haltingly, from God knows where. Think of them as a gift, and you won’t go wrong.

What does any of this have to do with prayer? Normally we think of prayer as asking for something or occasionally giving thanks when we think our prayers have been answered. But the kind of prayer I am referring to here moves entirely in the other direction – not, I hasten to add, as words that arrive fully articulated from the ether, although that has been known to happen, too. This is a kind of prayer that arrives as a silence that settles over you, allowing you to attend fully to everything that happens in the moment. Call it contemplation if you must, but that is just a fancy word for paying attention.

When I am paying attention, I realize that I don’t think up the words I write. It is a process that is best expressed in the passive voice: the words are thought up. They come to me in drips and drabs, a word, a phrase, a sentence at a time. And if I am smart, I will follow along after them to find out where they are headed, not trying to steer them in any particular direction. If I am on my game, the words will surprise me, and I will wind up somewhere new. Yet even when I reread them, it will appear I was somehow headed this way all along.

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