On Writing

Writing is about learning to love, learning to live. Not a way to take you out of life, on the outskirts, writing only what you observe of life outside you. Writing means both observing the life outside you that you seek to take in and recording the life inside you seeking to be let out.

You overhear a conversation, someone talking on the phone. Much of what the person says is just chatter. In another mood, you might think it utterly trivial, senseless, without meaning. But this time you sense something else, below and beyond the words that are spoken, more to do with how they are spoken, and what is left unsaid. The voice does not know how to express the way it truly feels. It is cheerful in its chatter, yet you sense an unspeakable sadness just below each spoken word. You sense in the cadence of the voice what you feel within you. The voice stays light so as not to admit its heaviness; it stays bright so as not to let in a darkness that will engulf it from the inside. The voice is not meaningless; its meaning resides in what it does not say.

To write is to put down on paper what the voice cannot get out. Not to speak for the voice but to speak with your own in such a way that the other voice feels understood, is able to stand under your words as under a roof, temporarily protected from the elements, from the storm of the unspeakable, from the winter of the unsaid. The writer steps out into the winter storm that causes the other voice to retreat. If the one who writes does not perceive the full significance of the storm, why should he seek to bring shelter? He must be battered by the storm himself, feel without any shield the jagged blade of an arctic winter that severs him from all warmth, listen for the voice within him that must speak before the thunder closes in completely. If the writer does not feel the storm, does not feel the need to step out into it, if life to him is a vacation in the tropics, why should he write? Why should he do anything more than lie in the sun and congratulate himself on his good fortune?

I’ve heard people say writing is a talent, one to be grateful for. It is important to realize that writing is not simply a talent. Some people will have more talent, some less. But what matters is not how much or how little talent one has. What matters is how much one feels the necessity to step out into the storm to find the home that will bring true warmth and shelter. Finding this home can only come after you step out of what was your home into the homelessness of the unfamiliar night. You create your home with the uncreated material within you, what you come to find by stepping out into what must be walked through. And so you are walking through, just passing through, and the voice you hear on the phone is light and cheerful. You sense that it has not stepped out yet, that it has not experienced the homelessness that it must in order to come home, in order to create outside itself what already exists buried within.

I’ve heard people say writing is a hobby, like backgammon or ping-pong. Writing is no more a hobby than Search and Rescue is a hobby for those who perform that task. To write is to search for the soul, to rescue it from a world bent on submerging it, a subversive world which wants nothing but the absence of soul, which wants personalities based on acquisition and achievement. One who writes in order to achieve something in the field of literature would do well to step out into the night and search for the soul that is in danger of being submerged by the urge for prestige.

So writing is not a talent, not a hobby. Now to bring this essay back to what writing is. I started this piece by saying that writing is about learning to love and learning to live. To live, to be alive, is to love. You step into the storm when you realize that to love is no easy task, when you sense an absence of love everywhere you turn, when you turn in and sense an absence there, too, an emptiness where a fullness should be. You write not primarily to express that emptiness but to recover the fullness that has been lost, to unearth what has been buried in the climb up the mound where the highest point is also the emptiest point. In writing, the paper is the priest, the blank page your list of sins. To fill in the page is to be forgiven. To write of what you don’t know is to open yourself to what you can’t know. To write of your suffering is to open yourself to some power that might relieve it.

Love, Erich Fromm writes, “is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence.” In this quote, we find why love is the hardest task any human can undertake, and the most crucial. First, what is the center of one’s existence? Where is it, and how can one communicate from it? One answer to the last question is: through writing. The task of the writer is to dig deeper into the center and communicate what this search unveils. Communicating with another from the surface, from the outer edges of one’s existence, and calling that love, is a deceptive way to cover up the lack of any true communication taking place. Writing is equally deceptive if it does not come from the center where love and the soul reside. If the writing does come from the center, it is a way to love, a way to life, a path to becoming oneself. The poem that comes from the center of one’s existence is a declaration of love directed to no one in particular and so open to all individuals who are themselves open to their center.

How can you love, how can you communicate with another from the center of your existence, if you do not know where the center is? In writing, in searching for that center, you remove the superficial layers that separate you from your true self. The Catholic monk Thomas Merton writes, “The way to find the real world is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.” This deepest self is the center of our existence, where each of us is most alive. Separation from the deepest self makes authentic communication impossible. Discovering the inner ground, and writing from it, allows each word we write to point to the wordless truths that cannot be written. “The deepest level of communication,” writes Merton, “is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. It is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

Writing uses words in order to work towards the wordless, is a form of communication that comes from a deeper self in order to open the one who writes, and the one who reads, to the deepest self, the ‘original unity,’ the self who has no need to write. You write until you have no need to continue writing, until you have recovered the fullness that has been lost. But even when that fullness has been recovered, there is a still deeper spring, a deeper self that waits to be uncovered. You write until you have no need to continue writing, but continue anyways, not out of need or compulsion, but out of the joy of uncovering an ever-deepening self, of communicating in writing your discoveries of still deeper springs.

One thought on “On Writing

  1. This is a wonderful and thoughtful piece of writing, which I know springs from your inner most self. Thomas Merton remains a deft spiritual guide even now, almost 50 years after his death. Thanks for sharing his wisdom, and yours.

    I love you Brian, in my own limited and inarticulate way.

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