There it is, right before me: sometimes inviting, sometimes mystifying, sometimes terrifying. Sometimes I dive into it with gusto, and things seem to blossom and flow. Sometimes it baffles and resists my most heroic exertions. Most often, however, it is just a matter of plodding ahead, pausing, going back, trying again.
But what is “it”?
That blank page! Be it a yellow legal pad of the kind on which I used to do all my writing, or the light blue tinted screen of the word processor now before me, or the back of a crumpled envelope I pull out on the subway so I can scratch out a fleeting thought: there it is, inescapable, featureless, refusing to divulge any of its secrets.
Well, is writing more like prayer, or more like life itself, or a little like both? I am not sure. They all seem remarkably akin to me.They all exact something from us, but it is hard — maybe impossible — to know in advance what that something is. My wife, Nina, an eloquent writer, has a little sign on her desk. It says: “Writing is easy. You just sit and stare at the blank page until the drops of blood form on your brow.” Those who remember the gospel account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, however, know that when the drops of blood formed on his brow, he was not writing. He was trying to pray. He was facing the biggest crisis of his life, and he was trying, if at all possible, not to go ahead with what seemed to lie before him.
Writing, prayer, life: they meld and fuse for me, although if I had to choose, I would surely dispense with the writing before the other two. But so far I have not been required to make that choice, so it is hard to think of any one of them without the other two peeping in from the wings. Consequently, I have come to think of writing as a kind of spiritual discipline. Linger with me awhile as I try to explain why.
A spiritual discipline is something you engage in on a regular basis, and you do it whether you feel like it or not. Of course, prayer can be spontaneous, and some of the most heartfelt prayers are: “God, please get me out of this!” “Please make it stop hurting!” “Thank you for this dazzling day.” Some prayers may be traditional ones, even written in books. These were the ones my very low church Baptist parents disdained (“Pray? Out of a book?”). But I no longer share their disdain since gradually, and to my surprise, some of these oldies but goodies, like the ones in the Book of Common Prayer, now speak for me, despite centuries of repetition. After all, does Hamlet or Mozart’s Requiem become less powerful because it has been around awhile? Besides, when we pray a prayer that has been around a long time, we sense that we are praying with a lot of company, past and present, and often that company feels very good.
But the discipline in spiritual discipline kicks in, I have learned, when spontaneity slumbers, and traditional prayers begin to sound like what my parents, and many like them, said they were: “vain repetitions.” You need discipline when the skies turn leaden, when God is absent, when no desire for communion with the great mystery claws inside, when no birds sing. You need it when what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul” smothers you and when you have begun to wonder whether the light will ever again appear.
I have never written a book without suffering through the writer’s equivalent of the “dark night of the soul,” that ghastly moment — or hour, day, week, or more — when nothing comes to mind. This paralysis has crept over me during the writing of every book from The Secular City to When Jesus Came to Harvard. What to do? Good writers I know tell me that when they feel stalled (as we all do sometimes), they just start writing, anything, even “Well here I sit and can’t get started writing.” I find that a good tactic. Usually something then begins to come to mind. But not always. Then what?
When St. Jerome tried to write in the desert, he was assailed by demonic visions, sometimes — it is reported — of beautiful, scantily clad women. When Martin Luther was trying to translate the Bible in his cold chamber in Wartburg castle, the devil reviled him from across the room, so he hurled an inkpot at Old Harry. I think what these wonderful stories tell us is that when we are treading water in the dark night of writer’s block, the biggest danger we face is distractions. I know that is true with me. Mine are — alas — not as colorful as Luther’s or St. Jerome’s, but when I am in such a state it is terribly easy to get distracted. What to do?
I don’t think the inkwell strategy is a good one. It just isn’t useful to try to drive the distractions away. That just empowers them. One of the most valluable things I learned from Trungpa Rinpoche at Naropa was that when I am meditating and stray thoughts pop in, as they always do, noticcccce them. Do not follow them or try to expel them. Just watch them with the aloof attitude of a detached observer watching flotsam float by under a bridge. It took me a while to develop this skill, but eventually it helped me to be less distracted by the distractions. Treated gently, they lose their power to befuddle us. On a more terrestrial level, it also helps sometimes to take a trip to the bathroom, drink a glass of water, do a couple of stretches. Sometimes, when I’ve done that, then return to my desk, the stream of flotsam has moved on.
This is a point at which prayer and writing almost exactly coincide. Maybe I am too verbal, but if I mumble something similar to the blocked writer’s mantra, it often helps. “Well, God, if you are really out there or in there, here I sit with nothing much to say.” It sounds vacuous, and it undoubtedly is, but if God hears the prayers of both the verbose and the stammering, I am sure God also hears the prayers of the vacuous.
I use “prayer” here in a broad sense. It includes speaking; the “groaning” that St. Paul speaks about, in his Epistle to the Romans; sitting in (sometimes sullen) silence; raging; listening; and much more. Let’s start with the speaking. My first rule is this: it does not have to be eloquent, or even coherent. Martin Buber somewhere tells the story of a Hasidic rebbe who was becoming discouraged because the prayers of his congregation seemed flat. They sprawled, inert and bloodless, just over the heads of his people and never rose to the heavens. Then one day he noticed a poor shepherd who always stood in the back of the synagogue and never joined in the prayers. Was he the problem? Eventually the rebbe asked him why he never said the prayers. Shifting from one foot to the other, the shepherd confessed that he could not read and could say only the first few letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbi’s heart was touched. He said, “Then just pray those letters, and God will understand.” So the shepherd prayed, “Aleph, beth, gimmel . . .” Suddenly, the prayers of the whole congregation began to soar up to the divine throne. The point of this story, and of St. Paul’s words about “groaning,” is that God does not require good grammar or even comprehensibility. The Pentecostals know this; so do the Quakers.
Did I also say “raging”? Yes, I did. But is that an appropriate thing to do in prayer? Well, just read the Psalms. They are mostly prayers, and they include literally hundreds of curses and imprecations, some of them quite imaginative, aimed at the enemies of Israel. The Hebrews seemed amused at the idea, for example, ...