Writing about writing

I wrote a lot in my younger and teenage years – essays, journal entries and poetry – quietly harbouring the dream of becoming a writer. In our parish youth group I’d write reflections which would be shared in place of the homily in our monthly youth Masses.  I even wrote a romance novel, sneakily turning my own real experiences into fiction! After publishing installments in the high school paper, which received surprising reviews, I even sent the manuscript to a publisher who wrote back politely that I had potential and wished me luck.

writing-with-penLife took me on other waves of adventure for quite a few years, and for a long time the only writing I did was in my journal, until even that halted when, for several years, three adorable children demanded time, attention and energy every minute of every day.  Besides, I had by now changed languages, no small occurrence when one’s mode of creative expression is the written word. In fact, it was because of this that my writing dreams withered away. After all, how could I possibly write creatively, competently and engagingly in a language other than my mother-tongue?

Thus the desire & creative call to write almost went to sleep; almost, as I had resumed journaling (in English) once my youngest turned one year old (now 28). However, journaling is a most private affair, not intended for public consumption. One day I found myself a student, writing essays and exams, eventually leading to theological papers and sermons – in English of course. Never having taken a university-level English class, I wrote off ever writing well (interesting pun 🙂 ) until feedback from professors, friends and fellow-students claimed otherwise. I was quick to brush aside such compliments, claiming that these couldn’t be right as English is not my first language. Until a friend got tired of the glib ways I disregarded the power and quality of my own written creations: “It’s exactly because English is not your first language that you are much more conscious about using the language well.”

Her words stopped me dead in my tracks. Slowly my perception changed; I began to observe my own creative writing process, strikingly resembling the biological processes of pregnancy and giving birth (the section titles in my first book). In the preaching classes I learnt the difference between writing for reading and writing for oral delivery. Learning to write and preach sermons claimed my whole being in unprecedented ways. I discovered parts of myself I had lost touch with long ago and had even forgotten they existed. The process of preparing, writing and delivering the sermon challenged me more than anything else had previously, pushing me into prayer and solitude with God in a way that nothing else did. The personal and spiritual growth, the sense of ministry and the deep love for the preaching task became new sources of life. In giving all I had to the task of preparing, writing and preaching, I found life in abundance. The creative process, however arduous and demanding, became a surprising new source of life. I started to feel in my bones the meaning of Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” In surrendering my whole being to the creative writing process to accomplish the task at hand, I found life in abundance. No one was more surprised than I. The call to write and to speak a holy Word was re-awakened with a radiance and beauty so glorious; I felt as if head over heels in love again yet for the first time, smitten with the gift of God’s gracious and passionate kiss on my soul …

Ever since, writing, publishing and preaching/speaking have become one of the fullest expressions of my creative self. I have learnt a tremendous amount about the four types of writing I engage in, each one with its own demands, features and rhythms: poetry and journalling (mostly private), writing for publication (books, news articles and Scripture commentaries), and writing for oral delivery (preaching and speaking at conferences and workshops). I take seriously the need for ongoing learning by reading other people’s books (which also helps to Writing2expand my vocabulary), even if I have yet to be excited about fiction, mystery novels and most poetry (I read mostly non-fiction and books of a spiritual nature). Even my favourite word games of Scrabble and Bananagrams serve a continuing learning and growing in my writing ability.

In order for the creative process to be fruitful, optimum conditions are required. But this process is seldom linear and one-dimensional. It is true that time and attention need to be carved out of one’s daily schedule. It is true that the process can be obstructed by life crises, depression and other negative emotional states. However, the reverse is also possible. In fact, engaging the writing process in hard times has often acted as a de-stressor for me, as if enjoying a refreshing, cleansing bath. I will never forget the insight which hit like a lightning bolt when asking God the agonizing question of why the impossible callings/tasks and insurmountable obstacles cause so much pain, heart-ache and flood waters of tears – in order to write about the experience. That insight forever (at least so far) unlocked the prison doors of any hardship I was to endure in life – if nothing else, I can always write about it.

Writing my first book was an almost surreal experience. With a job, three teenagers and one car there was no time, and often no energy, to sit down and put words on paper/computer which could form a coherent whole and tell a worthwhile story. And yet I had  the distinct, deeply spiritual, feeling that the book/story wrote itself, as if Someone Else wrote it and I was simply the scribe, from the very first moment I sat in front of a blank computer screen and asked “the question:” if ever I’d write a book, what would it be about and look like? Every writing minute was time pressed like juice from grapes, sometimes only a few drops at a time, and in the course of a full year, the manuscript was complete. Writing the second book was a much more arduous process, but the experience of writing the first book continues to inspire and mesmerize me. I know I will write more books in the future, but I’m also learning that when living a book, it’s not time to write the book. As with most forms of creative expression, some distance in time of real life experiences can act like the aging process by which good wine becomes vintage wine.

When I look back to discover when and where this call to write and preach/speak first germinated in my soul, a particular time and place emerges in my memory. I am 17 years old, living in my Dutch home town, and I am happily involved with the parish youth group. With this group of young committed Christians, I engaged in intense soul-searching, for the purpose of writing “sermons” and for the purpose of preaching the Good News, in all the wild ways we employed back then. The fire of the call and of the creative writing process was kindled in those years, even if the name of the call eluded me at the time. Now I give glory to God for the gift of creation going on creating in my own body, mind and soul through the written word.

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AutumnLeavesas the greening glory of summer passes
so I surrender to colourful transformation
giving birth to new and abundant fruitfulness
crisp and cooling air pushes birds
south in flying formation …
once again the cyclical dance of
life – death – life
determines the rhythm and moves my soul
growing – birthing – feeding – dying
form the reason for my being …
yet, deep within, hidden yet visible
is the pain and loss
of letting go of greening glory
and my baby, fruitfulness …
pick me, use me, change me, grow in me
divine giver of life
the aching hunger of my soul
comes to the fore as
autumn turns to winter
waiting eagerly for your holy presence
to impregnate my emptiness once again
readying me to birth new life
in the colourful dance of
the seasons …
(written when turning 40)