I have always liked to write. In fact, I wrote my first “novel” in third grade—in a big red tablet with yellow paper. My “book,” called Sugar, was about four pages long. It was the story of a little girl my age who wanted a pony (Sugar) with all her heart. When she asked her father if she could please, please have one, he said, “Yes, you may have a pony.” In real life, I had wanted a pony with all my heart too, but when I asked my father if I could please, please have one, he said, “NO.” I think I began to write in order to fashion a world more to my liking.
Throughout elementary school I wrote poems for my friends and family and letters to pen-
pals all over the world: Italy, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper and literary magazine. I also sent stories to Seventeen magazine—which were promptly rejected. During my senior year I began a large diary (7″ x 11 1/2″) on the first day of school. It ended on page 433—the day I left for the convent. As a young nun, I was not permitted to write to pen-pals or write stories, so I wrote parodies and programs for community celebrations instead. In college, I was one of those rare students who loved to write term papers—whether on irony in Hamlet or the conflict between the Amish and state and federal law. Years later, I began writing for publication, starting with articles on education and spirituality. Then came the books. And now, I even have this blog!
Why do I write? It’s easier to say why I don’t write. I don’t write for money. Only the best-selling writers make big bucks. The rest of us tread water. I don’t write for fame or glory. Sure, it’s nice seeing my by-line on something. And getting a “fan letter” from someone in Tampa or Nairobi is gratifying. But most of the time writing means sitting all by myself in a room with a computer, wrestling with words.
I don’t write because writing is easy. For years I didn’t think I was a real writer because writing was hard work for me. Even today writing demands more discipline than almost anything else I do. Oh sure, sometimes a poem or article almost writes itself, but that’s rare. Very rare. Like most writers, I write and rewrite and rewrite. If something is easy to read, chances are the author rewrote those words many times to get them to flow smoothly.
I don’t write because I know what I think and feel and, therefore, I can’t wait to get it down on paper. No, I write in order to discover what I think and feel. Some say the best way to learn something is to teach it. I’d add, the second best way to learn something is to write about it.
Writing is a scary business. That’s because words are essentially self-revelatory. Every time I write something, I’m sticking my neck out and announcing, “Look! Here’s what I think! Here’s where I stand!” Is there anything more scary than that? But I am quick to add: I don’t write definitively or once-and-for-all, but always provisionally.
Everything I write is implicitly stamped: “This is what I think today. But ask me again tomorrow.” New information or new experiences can alter something I wrote years ago or even last week.
I also write because when I don’t write, I feel bogged down and old. Writing enlivens me and makes me feel young. Writing for me is a precious gift. To work with words, to woo them, to coax them into some sort of meaningful expression, is both a privilege and fun. Writing (like reading) also puts me in touch with what it means to be human—with all its nobility and pettiness, its meanness and tenderness, its ache and its charm.
Writing is humbling. Sometimes after I write something, I say, “Where did that come from?!” And I have this sense that, with my writing, I have tapped into this huge river called Grace. Sometimes a reader says, “What you wrote was exactly what I needed to hear.” I think, “That’s God’s doing. Not mine. That’s Grace.” My writing is also intertwined with my praying. I resonate with John Henry Newman’s words: “I pray best with a pencil in my hand.”
Here are two versions of the song “Who Am I?” by “Casting Crowns.” The first version displays the lyrics against beautiful pictures. The second version is the song sung at a live concert while a group of dancers, dressed in black and wearing white gloves, create some fascinating images to accompany the words of the song.
“Who Am I?” with lyrics:
“Who Am I?” with hand choreography:
Does anything stand out for you in this reflection on writing?
What role does writing play in your life? your prayer? What role does reading play in your life and prayer?
What did you think of the song?
PS: This is the last week to take my survey. (See last week’s reflection.) I will share the results with you and announce the winner of my new book The Lord Is My Shepherd soon!