5 Things: Writing as Soul Care

Since graduating with my English degree, I’ve noticed myself dropping the craft of writing in favor of my spiritual to-do list, as if the two are mutually exclusive.  In those seasons when the pragmatic prevails over the luxury of art, I categorize writing as an ad hoc part of me and dismiss the urge to put pen to paper as selfish, a hobby reserved for a more seasoned, elegant version of myself. I focus all my attention and emotional energy on getting my act together, when what I really need is to just get my craft together. My act, as it turns out, will politely follow.

Writing, like any other creative act, is a form of sowing, and it sows seeds into our souls. Planting anything requires equal parts practice and patience, so it should be no surprise we don’t see a harvest straightaway. What matters is we’re planting something, and at just the right time, when we’re ripe for it and when we need it most, we will explode into harvest. Wielding words, for me, is an integrative practice, a steep and winding road leading me to the version of myself I’d been waiting around for all along. Here’s what I mean.

1. Writing summons emotion, giving us permission to break.

You know how the professionals warn us not to stuff our emotions, lest they seep out of us in some undesirable way later on in life? When we take our hands and write, we remind our hearts it’s okay to feel. I wrote a line in a poem once in about benching my emotions, blaming whatever melodramatic college season I was in at the time. The line was something pithy about building dams to redirect my pain until a time “better suited for breaking.” Ironically, I employed poetry to process an emotion about non-emotion, which, in retrospect, would have lent some texture to my poem had I mentioned it. All that to say, the act of writing, whether or not we like it or even know it, guides us through our own emotion, the deeper places of our souls. Putting pen to paper is like a memo from our outer lives to our inner lives: “you can come out now, old friend, there’s a safe place for you out here.”

2. Writing calls forth hope, reminding us of what could be.

In practicing our art, we feed our souls the hope they crave. Sometimes the only thing to sustain us in the dark pit is the little glimpse of light we see through the cracks, reminding us we’re not there yet, but almost. Words do that, too, because writing down our stories not only tells us what was and what is, but also what could be. In this way, an ad lib journal entry poured out in the thick of things can be about as spiritual as a psalm-- a symbol of our humanity, a song we sing to woo the light back in.

3. Writing creates space, showing us what we believe.

I’m not Buddhist, and I think you know that, but a friend I sat down with recently told me about a Buddhist retreat she attended at a Franciscan convent. What she observed about herself resonated with me, and it’s something I want to try. She said she noticed thoughts she normally wouldn’t have in the intentional time of quiet. For me, writing cultivates a similar mindfulness. I heard a metaphor once that writing is like dipping your brain in ink and stamping it on paper. How visceral is that? Pardon the new age adage, but noticing things happening in our brains is a stepping stone to change. Again, but in Christian-ese: we are transformed by the renewal of our minds. 

4. Writing releases energy, guarding us from spending it on anxiety.

Just like exercise is a release of pent-up physical energy, art releases emotional energy. When we’re anxious or frustrated or heartbroken our bodies physiologically respond to protect us, creating energy can either well up into something unproductive or into something fruitful.  We could impulse spend that energy on further anxiety, or we can revisit our crap and work it out of us. I usually choose the former, but when I choose to engage and look my life in the eye through writing, things move forward.

5. Writing redeems our pain, shaping it into beauty.

I really believe writing, and all art, mimics redemption. We take our pain, our messes, through the chrysalis of our craft, and it emerges in an altogether different form. Something almost unrecognizable. Something that infuses our lives with meaning. Like a kiln, our writing seals the trial, turning raw material into art-- a piece of art we can hold up to the world as a sign that we are here, we are alive, we are enough.