Inspiration: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

What inspires you to write? Why do you do it? Finding and tapping into your larger purpose can be extraordinarily motivating. Many great writers have spoken about the writer’s responsibility to ease suffering and not contribute to it. That’s a powerful directive. 

A good story shows us that we can overcome our suffering, transcend it, and maybe even turn it into something meaningful. This explains my penchant as a kid for female protagonists who used their imagination to overcome their demons and find the latent power within themselves. In literary fiction maybe the overcoming takes on a more metaphorical dimension, but I think it’s still true. 

Another related point is about faith. Writers need to cultivate faith: in themselves and in the writing process. Especially with a difficult or long story, like a novel, it’s often hard to see the way forward, at least in the beginning. It’s a vast undertaking. It feels like a stab in the dark. Still, you sit down to write with the blind hope that at some point it’ll take shape. If the going gets rough, you might blame writer’s block, the writing gods, your muse. There’s this persistent notion of the fickled muse, the idea that writers can get lucky or that their genius is somehow fleeting. Maybe that’s a nice thought because then you aren’t really responsible for what you do or don’t accomplish.

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 I don’t mean to diminish the role of mystery in writing. I think it is very mysterious. I also think that good writing taps into something beyond yourself. Beyond, but not outside. And, if you look at writing as a practice–maybe even an act of devotion– I think that gets closer to the truth. The practice of writing is an act of faith. The words on the page are your offering.

I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Looking for Lost Graves

In 2012, I went to Martins Ferry, Ohio, looking for James Wright’s grave. I never found it.

For those who don’t know, James Wright is a poet who died in 1980. He grew up in Martins Ferry, right across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. Though he left his hometown at age 18, rarely to return, the place looms large throughout his books.

I’ve been thinking a lot of poets recently: I must have been about 20 when I declared, rather prematurely I suppose, that I was going to become a poet, as in a profession. No doubt James Wright’s work, and the feelings it inspired, loomed large in that declaration. (Of course, less then five years later, I was filling out applications for law schools on the East Coast. I’m certain I would have been better off a penniless poet than a debt-saddled lawyer, but that’s a subject for another time.)

But James Wright was one of the first poets for me. I heard him first in Mr. Lampert’s AP English class, where we read Wright’s “The Accusation.” Strangely enough, not one of my favorites by a long shot, but it still contained this eerie balance between fear and fondness, at once both longing and revulsion.

How can I ever love another?

You had no right to banish me

From that scarred truth of wretchedness,

Your face, that I shall never see

Again, though I search every place.

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At the Martins Ferry library, where a picture of Wright hangs, partially obscured by a computer monitor. 

I was also struck by the fact that Mr. Lampert called him one of America’s great contemporary poets and I had never heard of him. I found Above the River, his complete poems, and read it straight through.  And then I wrote my final paper on the significance of the word “wing” throughout his body of work. (Wings = a vehicle of both observation and escape.)

I fell in love, in some kind of way, with this man who wrote about rural Ohio like it was the most beautiful place you could go. The saddest, most gut-wrenchingly beautiful place.  There’s something really authentic underneath it all–through all his poems, you can see a man who is searching. He is desperate, he is compelled, he would tear himself open to get to the heart of it. He’s wild like Whitman, recalls beauty like a Romantic, but there’s a deep foreboding that you won’t find in Whitman or Shelley. I love him because he unabashedly searches and tells the truth about what he finds. Through his sensitivity and sincerity, he has gifted me indescribable hope.

He is a man who searches for god and goodness, in spite of everything. Something drives him to obsessively wade further into the darkness, the gloom of the mines and the factories and the polluted Ohio river.  Ultimately, despite all the confusion and lostness, the pain he presents on the page like an offering, I think in some ways he arrives at a place of understanding, maybe even love. It’s a special kind of love reserved for home, for the soul of yourself, for that place in your childhood both bewildering and precious, this elusive thing we might search for our entire lives and never find.  His final book, published after his death, sums this up perfectly in its title, “This Journey.” I hope he came to believe that life is more about the search than what you find.

Many men

Have searched all over Tuscany and never found

What I found there, the heart of the light

Itself shelled and leaved, balancing

On filaments themselves falling. The secret

Of this journey is to let the wind

Blow its dust all over your body,

To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly

All the way through your ruins, and not to lose

Any sleep over the dead, who surely

Will bury their own, don’t worry.

It turns out, Wright’s grave isn’t in Ohio. I don’t know if he wanted to be buried there or not.  At the very least, his relationship with his hometown is fraught. I think he missed it and longed for what it represented, but also it haunted him. Part of him was already buried there long ago.

Oh all around us,

The hobo jungles of America grow wild again.

The pick handles bloom like your skinned spine.

I don’t even know where

My own grave is.