Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
– Jesus of Nazareth

Long ago I attended a writer’s retreat at an Episcopal monastery overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York. The three-day retreat was conducted by the late Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time and a writer in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. At one point L’Engle was asked to name the most important thing you can bring to your writing. “The greatest thing you can bring to your writing is yourself,” she replied. Earlier, however, she had advised, “You’ve got to get yourself out of the way.” There was a seeming contradiction here. How do you bring yourself to your writing by getting out of the way? I later realized that the self you bring to your writing emerges only after your other self gets out of the way, the one that is forever striking poses. The voice that is most authentically your own is the one over which you have the least sense of authorship.

The distinction between the “I” that you think you are and the real me may not be apparent to many people. For a writer, it tends to play out on the page. Just to think of oneself as a writer is to declare that you have something worth saying and the wherewithal to say it well. George Orwell, a consummate prose stylist, did not discount “sheer egoism” as a motivating factor: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.” There might also be some aesthetic appreciation, either for the beauty of the world or for the beauty of the written word. Eventually the writer may discover a higher purpose, which in Orwell’s case came about during the Spanish Civil War, after which he dedicated himself to opposing totalitarianism and supporting democratic socialism in such novels as Animal Farm and 1984. Inevitably, the discovery of a purpose beyond yourself overcomes the pursuit of cleverness for its own sake or even of beauty for its own sake.

Writers often talk about finding their voice, but the process really begins with learning how to listen – not just to listen to what the world is telling you but also to the place within yourself where the words come from. Above all, you must allow the words to speak for themselves, without trying to bend them to your will. “Quite a discipline, to get words to trickle without fanning them with a feather or stirring them with a silver spoon,” Henry Miller once wrote. You will know the process is working if the writing carries you in a direction you did not expect to go or otherwise surprises you. "The words we need will come of themselves," said an Eskimo hunter quoted by Reynolds Price in A Palpable God. "When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves -- we get a new song." You might be astonished to discover that the song is uniquely your own, even though you have no idea where it came from.

The aim of a writer, Orwell concluded, was to achieve a certain transparency. “Good prose is like a window pane,” he wrote. In this respect, writing can be seen as a spiritual discipline. A common theme of spiritual disciplines in every religious tradition is getting oneself out of the way, so we can say, as St. Paul did, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In the Christian tradition, this process is known as kenosis, from a Greek word meaning “to empty.” In emptying ourselves, our human will is subsumed by the divine will. However, we must not make the mistake of thinking we can empty ourselves by an act of will, since this merely perpetuates the illusion that we possess a will distinct from the will of God. We don’t achieve emptiness; we discover it in ourselves. And once we have learned to see through the self, what remains? We must distinguish between the “I” we think we are and the real me, the one created in God’s image. ·

George Orwell, “Why I Write”
Henry Miller,
Galatians 2:20

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