Learning to See: Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

Nov 1, 2013 by

mask

by Cara Strickland (’10)

I started writing because of how other people’s writing made me feel. I could dip into a book, a poem, an article, and come in contact with another person right there on the page. Sometimes, it was messy, or sad, or overwhelmingly lovely (often—with good writing—all three). It may seem ironic, then, though not surprising, that I found myself trying on an assortment of masks to use in my writing.

I wrote fiction right on the surface, using luminous words and shy little smiles. My readers, many of them in my writing classes at Taylor, would describe my writing as cute or sweet. Strangely enough, this was also how they described me.

I started blogging in college, five years ago, and what started as a way to keep in touch with distant friends and family has become a place of connection and vulnerability. I have written plenty of “sweet” and “cute” blog entries. Recently, however, I discovered something that changed everything.

After college, I stopped writing fiction. I felt like a failure for a time; I wasn’t writing anything, and I didn’t want to. Slowly, the words returned, but they weren’t fiction.

Near the beginning of this year, I committed to write three times a week and publish whatever I wrote on the blog. I was strict about my deadlines, not taking sick days or giving myself excuses. I did this with great fear: what if I ran out of things to say?

I started paying more attention to the conversations I was having, replaying them in my mind as I was walking away. I stopped and noticed the way the sun fell on a pile of dirty dishes, what it felt like to be hungry or bored or anxious. I started to see my life.

My go-to prayer, these days is: “Help me to see.”

To do that, I found, I have to take off my mask. Not only does it make me difficult to see, but it blocks my view as well.

As a sophomore at Taylor, in Modern Middle East class, I hatched the brilliant plan of wearing a burka around campus for one day and seeing how it affected me. I felt safe, wrapped in that swathe of black, no one knowing who I was, but I had a lot of reading to do that day, and the holes I needed to look through were small and far apart. My head was pounding by the time I hit the pillow that night.

It’s taken me years to realize that I’ve been draping a burka over my writing. It’s been safe and warm and “cute” and “sweet,” brightly colored, beautiful even. But it obscures my vision, and as anyone who’s ever passed a semi on the highway knows: if I can’t see you, you can’t see me.

Three times a week, I’ve been asking: “What do You want me to see here?” before writing down the answer. Far from staying contained, this practice has been spilling out into my life. Now, instead of shying away from something hard, confusing or joyous, I find myself stopping, asking for open eyes and a receptive heart.

If I know what I’m going to see, I always see it, which is why I was so shocked when I started reading the Bible with this question in mind. Verses and stories I’d been reading for years took on new layers of meaning, drawing me in, challenging and encouraging me.

This whole thing is very uncomfortable. I can’t un-see things, whether it’s a horror movie, particularly graphic public displays of affection, or truth. The burka obscured my vision, but it also kept me safe, in a way. And so, I’m learning to dive into the discomfort, taking a long look and asking, not for the sensations to be taken away, but for the courage to see, to learn, even if it hurts my eyes.

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Cara Strickland graduated from Taylor with a degree in creative writing. She lives in Spokane, WA, where she is currently the food editor for a local magazine.

You can connect with Cara through Twitter, Facebook,and her blog, Little Did She Know….

Cara

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(photo credit for the mask on flickr)

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4 Comments

  1. Cara, I can relate to this post! In college (which was, um, awhile ago), I turned in a lot of writing that was “pretty” and polished, but I hadn’t yet looked into what scares me, what I needed to process. Especially what I needed to process about God and the Bible. It’s been a long journey of being honest with myself and God through the writing process, but I am so glad I’ve stuck with it, even on sick days. Many blessings as you continue this journey, too.

    • Tania,

      Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words.
      I have spent my life avoiding the things, feelings and situation that scare me, instead of trying to understand why that is. And yes, there are things in the Bible which terrify me, as well.
      One of the things that I love about writing in community is the opportunity to have conversations like this one, and to hear from people who are also pressing through (or into) the discomfort, and are still alive.
      Thanks again, for sharing your thoughts here.

  2. Cara,

    Thank-you for your thoughtful post. I was reminded of the words writer and teacher Bret Lott often repeats: “Writing is, finally, a matter of being alone and putting words on paper and hoping they will capture as clearly and deeply as humanly possible the sense of what you are seeing and feeling and discovering as you write those words.”

    Choosing the Artist’s vocation often means– much akin to entering into prayer–choosing to ignore those things “I wish to see” or “others wish me to see.” Even, and this is often the hardest part for me, ignoring those things the people I love and admire wish me to see. But, faithful writers must see the imaginative beauty and horror in the actual and true.

    But you have already made the essential first step. “I’ve been asking: “What do You want me to see here?” before writing down the answer.” We are not alone when we write.

    When asked about choosing mentors or which authors might be profitable to read Lott often produced his own eclectic list (or eclectic by standard “churchy” norms) First, the skilled authors like James Baldwin and Raymond Carver or O’Connor were followed by unexpected unknown names of certain of Lott’s teachers and even his students. In the same breath he would remind his students of Hebrews 12:12, particularly the portion of the verse referring to the “Great cloud of Witnesses.” “. . . what is meant by the word witness here is the quality of the lives lived before ours; the measure of faith, and life in that faith, that each brought to his or her relationship to our creator God; it is the example, if I may, of the artistry by which each lived his or her life in service to that God.”

    I wish you well and look forward to seeing where the journey takes your words and your life.
    David Clark

    • David,

      I love your mention of Bret Lott. He is one of my cloud. It’s amazing how similar writing and prayer are, as you suggest. I’m sort of wondering how non-writers (and other artists) do it. But our journeys are all unique, and while I’m happy that mine is a bit relatable, I’m also aware that not everything is shared.

      Thank you for these words, I’m looking forward to checking in with you a little further along on the journey.

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