I write fiction from time to time. I make no comments on the quality of such fiction – usually of the speculative kind – but I found that I am surprisingly nit-picky about the ideas I use. When I’m deep in the flow of it all, or the inspiration, if you prefer, I can be brought up short by running into a gap in my story. I have friends who just keep plowing on, and are able to write the next part of the story. I cannot. Until I have resolved the jump from one idea to the next, I cannot keep writing. This has lead to days where I have been unable to write because I cannot form a specific sentence to accomplish the transition from one plot point to the next. Often, when I’m able to resolve the transition, it is when I’m able to hunker down and provide undivided attention to my story – making the leap from simply getting out the idea, from casually writing, to a feverish intensity where my story gains all my focus.
Writing for academic purposes actually hits me a bit differently. There I have an outline, and that helps me bridge the gap. But I also structure my environment differently. When I’m writing for my own pleasure and (perhaps one day) profit, I just plunk down and write in the midst of my family, not segregating myself from them except perhaps for my level of distractedness. When I am working on a paper for school – I make sure to clear a space in my schedule and in my home to be able to write with fewer interruptions.
But there is an inexactness that I experience when I’m writing about the divine – when writing theology – that I simply do not experience when I am writing fiction or even non-fiction about the real world. Part of this is the simple understanding that I cannot completely encapsulate God in words. If I could, there would be a disheartening finitude to my ultimate concern. All writing about anything truly divine is at least to some degree, done in metaphor. Even Jesus recorded parables instead are full of assertions: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who has lost a coin…” Let’s be honest, if Jesus used metaphor to describe divine things, the best we can hope to do is the same. Sometimes that is frustrating because it feels like what I’m writing is false – and perhaps deliberately so – as I’m only catching one corner of the divine personage, one angle, that I happen to glimpse in the moment.
So I take well the admonition from Stephanie Paulsell in her “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline,” where she says: “We need the audacity to believe that our writing matters, to stick with a difficult task, to live a life that makes room for the discipline of writing. We also need the humility to know that our writing must always be under revision, to do slow, painstaking work with no immediate external rewards, to be writing to seek and receive the critical response of others. Allowing writing to focus our attention, we may have our capacity for attention honed and increased.”
The thing that I have found most helpful with my academic and theological writing is how it has forced me to more clearly articulate my half notions into full notions. To be able to communicate my understanding of the divine, however limited it may be, I have to get my idea sharp enough in focus to lay it out in a way that someone else can follow my logic. The side effect that Paulsell suggests of having my attention increased comes on the reverse side of the writing – it is not an after effect of the writing but an effect generated by the discipline of reading other ideas, growing my vocabulary and focus and creating the associated synthesis of ideas to express my own perspective. My attention grows as a result of exposure, and leaves me just a bit more perpetually aware, a bit more attentive as I challenge myself to find just the right words to express my thoughts.
This discipline is something that I have to forgive myself for failing in, and rededicate myself to often. It is too easy in a busy life to let my attention be split or fully diverted, to shirk the time needed to be set aside for writing and focusing my ideas. It is easy to let the internet, or a show, or my family demand my time – “spending my time” as if I am not instead choosing what I make priority. There is a way to strike a balance – I say this in hope because I have not managed it for longer than a week or so myself – between the discipline of being fully present for my family and being fully present for my writing.