The Writing Process and Transcending the Self


I was thinking about how in college I came to a point where I trusted my writing. It’s not that it wasn’t a struggle, sometimes it was, and it’s not that it was easy, or that it was good writing even. I just mean that eventually I knew that when I needed to write, it would come. I didn’t need to force it, or to be anxious about it, because it would come in time. This also doesn’t mean I could be lazy or procrastinate, because if the writing wasn’t flowing yet that usually meant I needed to think more, or research more. Sometimes I would begin and my thoughts would be so scattered, or all that would come out were generalities or clichés. And then I would have to stop and try from a different angle. Or talk to someone, or take a walk, something to get out of my own head. So it wasn’t that I didn’t need to try. It’s more that underneath the trying (or perhaps above it) was a sense of calm, of assurance, that if I just kept at it, things would eventually work out.

To me this is very much like our relationship with God. The striving in itself is rewarding, the struggle necessary. But apart from that (and despite our mistakes and failures) is the knowledge that things will be OK in the end. We don’t know how everything will come to pass, or what the end will exactly look like, but we have a glimpse of it. This is also like the process of writing, where I have a vague idea of what the end result will be, but I can never really know. And I wouldn’t want to even, because the real end product is always better and different than I expect because of the process of growth that its creation requires. I am a different person when I finish writing, just as I will be at the end of my life. Sylvia Watanbe wrote, “…the act of writing transforms even as it records.”*

Writers often try to explain how their writing might begin with a clear idea or purpose, but that it usually changes significantly through the process of writing, and that this change is beneficial. T. Alan Broughton wrote this about his story “Ashes”:

Like many of my stories, “Ashes” began with the recollection of an event in my own life, a brief period one summer when I was hired to be a companion to a young man who had recently emerged from some months in a mental hospital. If any trace of me remains in the story now, it is in the person of Mr. Anthony, the hired keeper who is more concerned with the chance to fish than to watch over his ward. But, as usual, very early in the process of revising (which I do interminably and with enormous pleasure), the story became a world I no longer recognized as mine, one which demanded whatever insufficient powers I had to help it be fully realized. That it began as a novella over one hundred pages long and ended as a short story no longer surprises me…

When writing gets good it often seems that the words come from elsewhere, and the writer is simply searching around, feeling about until the words expose themselves. It can happen in any number of mysterious and inexplicable ways — through an experience, seeing something new, learning, a new emotion — something totally unrelated can bring a new light that makes things suddenly clear. And the writer can’t take credit for this, it isn’t because of the writer, but it involves the writer and her effort and her striving. It’s related to her unique mind; the words would come differently to someone else. But it also involves something much bigger, something universal, which is of course what makes writing significant.

This connection to something greater than the self I hardly understand in writing, but to me it makes more sense with God. Through Christ I know both that our individual striving is crucial, but also that there is something greater than all of us, something that mercifully transcends our personal effort, which will never alone be enough. Being open to something other than the self allows us to tap into (spiritually and literarily) ideas and experiences that we would never otherwise reach.

The faith I have in my writing was only possible through years of practice, through experiencing both success and failure, and an almost constant contact with writing itself. I believe I was only able to feel the way I did about it because I was forced to write so much during my college years especially. Only through this I did I become aware of its potential. And just like this, we are only able to feel truly confident in God if we are in constant contact with Him.

Writers are always in the back of their minds looking for something to write about, distinctly observant at all times. Martha Lacy Hall wrote about her writing process: “My head is bristling with composites of characters, and I keep adding every time I see a face or hear a voice.” I would like to be this way spiritually, where every interaction, every experience is an opportunity to see God through His creation and understand more about my place in the world, my relationship with Him.

*All my quotes in this post come from the back of the 1991 collection of O. Henry Prize Stories, where the authors tell a little about their experiences of writing.


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