Read an Excerpt
Writing Spiritual Books
A Bestselling Writer's Guide to Successful Publication
By Hal Zina Bennett
Inner Ocean PublishingCopyright © 2004 Hal Zina Bennett
All rights reserved.
Writing in Spirit
The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have gone ourselves. — E.M. Forster, Longest Journey, 1907
Writing a spiritual book at times presents us with wild contradictions. How can words possibly duplicate the awe, or even ecstasy, that wells up in us as we lift the veils of our everyday world and catch a glimpse of the spiritual aspects of life? We find ourselves reaching, even yearning, for something that cannot be described or named, yet is made no less real by our inability to encompass it with words.
Throughout the millennia, spiritual teachers have avoided words, or used them sparingly, favoring object lessons instead. For example, there's the traditional story of the Buddhist master who whacks his students on the head with a stick, forcing them to come into the now. As a Buddhist friend once remarked, "The wisdom of that stick outshines the power of thought." What he referred to was the fact that approaching the spiritual only from our intellects distances us from the present. The pain of that firm but harmless whack on the head brings us back into the now, which is exactly where we must be to encounter the spiritual.
Ironically, the more we come to know the spiritual, the more frustrating it can be to express it with words, regardless of our skills with language. We can no more capture the spiritual with words than we can paint or draw the wind. But we can suggest the presence of the wind with flowing lines or swipes of paint on canvas. Similarly, we can suggest the presence of the spiritual by offering anecdotes of other people's experiences, or our own. By entering these experiences voyeuristically, readers essentially borrow the author's eyes to view an aspect of their own lives that was invisible until then.
To accomplish these ends, we sometimes borrow the craft of the poet or novelist, conveying to our readers not just factual information but sensory and emotional information as well. For that reason, we might be advised to study how poets and novelists immerse their readers in the author's experiences, or in the experiences of a person the author wishes to tell us about. Some people call these techniques "creative nonfiction," since they call upon the creative and imaginative powers of the writer.
I am not speaking here of creating make-believe worlds so much as using the writing techniques of creative writers. The key is in describing what you sense, that is, what you see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and feel (emotionally) rather than only what you think. There is a strange irony in this, is there not, since logic would tell us that abstraction and the intellect, more than our physical senses, would carry us into the spiritual? But like counting breaths in meditation, these tricks of the pen often reveal to us the truths that reality obscures.
When writing in our journals about the spiritual work we're doing, or the epiphanies we've had as a result of that work, it's not unusual to find that we have used physical descriptions and even dialogue to capture those experiences. After all, we understand the world only by first encountering it through our senses. Go back and review your journals. Look for passages where your descriptions were particularly vivid and effective. It just might be that you are already quite adept with this kind of writing. If not, have patience: we'll be exploring many such techniques in the pages ahead.
Putting Your Readers into the Picture
Another way to write about the spiritual is to describe ways your readers can experience it for themselves. After all, what's better than firsthand experience? Experiential exercises, as they are called, put your readers into situations where they are most likely to get what we are saying not through our explanations but by their own feelings and senses. I am reminded here of something that happened several years ago, while teaching a writing workshop at Mount Shasta, in Northern California. As anyone who has ever spent much time there knows, Mount Shasta is a spectacular formation, rising over 14,000 feet into the sky. Most of the year her peaks are crowned in snow; by October she is completely blanketed in white, down to about the 3,000-foot elevation. The breathtaking beauty and spiritual power of Mount Shasta are often compared to Japan's Fujiyama, recognized by many as her sister mountain. Both are known for their ability to awaken visitors to the spiritual dimensions of all life.
My visit to Mount Shasta was in the spring, with bracing winds still sweeping down from the snowy peaks. From the place where I was teaching, the mountain dominated the skyline, a view that ordinarily left me in sublime awe. But on that weekend, this same view aroused a sense of sadness. I simply could not connect with it as I had done in the past. To me it might as well have been a painted backdrop on a movie set. Between a heavy writing and teaching schedule, I'd been feeling there was no space in my life for taking in the joys of the present. I hadn't even taken time to reflect on personal issues that had been piling up. (All of this was a great contradiction, of course, since these were the issues I was teaching.) As a result, my life had been reduced to meeting the demands of my too-busy schedule. There was no time for creative endeavors. I felt completely out of touch with Spirit.
As the class was breaking up and people were packing their cars to leave, I overheard Robyn, one of the women from the workshop, talking with two others about a shamanic process she'd learned at a workshop she'd recently attended. It was a reflective technique that she'd found very useful. She said that it helped her get in touch with thoughts and feelings that had been blocking her and that it was great preparation for vision-questing or for a daily meditation practice. I was eager to find out about this exercise, hoping it might guide me into a reflective space where I might sort out some of the things that had been troubling me.
I excused myself for eavesdropping and asked Robyn if she had the time before she left to show me this technique. She answered yes. She was planning to stay in the area for two more days and would be glad to do just that. Immediately, the two women she'd been speaking with asked if they could join us and said they were planning to stay through the next day. I had things I had to do the next morning, so we made plans to meet in the afternoon.
At three the next day, we met at the high school parking lot and drove up the mountain together in Robyn's SUV. We stopped at about 8,000 feet and headed out along one of the less-used trails. Robyn said we should each find a place to sit alone and meditate. I was very much looking forward to this, regardless of what other skills she might bring to the experience. She promised that after a certain time had passed, she would come around and work with each of us individually.
I'd climbed for a half hour or so when I stopped to catch my breath. The place where I stopped offered a spectacular view of the mountain. Dense white clouds nuzzled the distant crests against a deep blue sky. In that special moment, I could remind myself that all the tensions I'd been carrying for the past several weeks were just beliefs and feelings I had created and was holding onto. As real as my problems might be, it was clear they did not need to consume me. While I could see this was true, my monkey mind continued to chatter away, keeping me focused more on the past and future than on the present.
Nearly an hour passed as I sat atop a great rock waiting for Robyn to show up. I started wondering why she was taking so long. I knew two other people were involved, though this did not satisfy me. My mind was going a mile a minute, refusing to slow down what had become my habitual pace. Maybe Robyn had been unable to find me. Maybe I'd gone further up the trail than she'd intended us to go. Maybe I should return to the car. What if the others had already finished and were waiting for me?
I became so distracted by the waiting that I could not even focus on the issues that had brought me here. I saw the irony in all this but was helpless to do anything about it.
At last Robyn showed up. She asked how I was doing and I admitted that I'd been too distracted to meditate or even begin to stop my busy mind from chattering away incessantly. Her response to this admission took me completely off guard.
"Go find a rock," she said. "Something around the size of a loaf of bread or slightly smaller."
"Just any rock?"
"Choose one you can easily hold ... one that appeals to you."
I was feeling dubious and began to regret having come on this escapade. What could this possibly have to do with personal reflection and clearing my mind of distractions! Nevertheless, for the next few moments I wandered around looking for a rock that appealed to me and that met the criteria Robyn had described. I brought it back to the place I'd been sitting and took out the pencil and small notebook she'd instructed me to bring.
"Now, turn the rock several times, looking at it from all angles," Robyn instructed. "When you are ready, stop, study the surface facing you, and describe anything you see. When you've seen something, quickly write it down in your notebook, just a word or two, then turn the rock ninety degrees and repeat the process."
Over the next twenty minutes or so, I did as she instructed. On the first side of the rock I saw only a kind of trail, in miniature, working through the rock. It might have been a trail in the mountains: "Precipitous trail," I wrote.
I turned the rock ninety degrees. Now I saw a cat, perhaps a puma, stalking its game. I wrote: "Puma hunting."
Twice more I turned the rock and recorded what I imagined seeing in its veins and configurations. That done, Robyn asked me to go back to my notes, and use the rock as my reference to revisit what I'd written down. She then left me and walked back down the trail, presumably to spend time by herself.
I do not know how much time passed, but as I worked with the stone, expanding on my notes, I became immersed in my reflections, easily focusing my attention on the images I'd seen in the rock. Not unsurprisingly, they all related directly to the issues that had been piling up in my inner life over the past several weeks. Truly, I had been feeling like I was treading a "precipitous path." The images I projected to the rock were telling me much about the broader, more spiritual dimensions of the problems I was encountering. Most had to do with personal changes I was facing in my life. Others were more mundane, each one a small matter that, if approached individually, had a relatively quick solution. I soon realized that the accumulation of all these small issues had led to my feeling overwhelmed. The imagery I found in the rock helped me to more clearly see what I had to do.
When I at last looked up, I had my bearings and could take action to resolve the issues that had been troubling me. I knew where I was going with them and felt confident in my ability to proceed. I set aside the rock and my notebook and looked around me. My mind was no longer cluttered. A sense of solitude and contentment came over me. A tiny bird fluttered in and settled down on my rock, less than two feet away. It stayed for only a second, chirped, then flew away. For that moment, it seemed to relate to me as just another animal in the landscape.
I began to notice other small animals, chipmunks, a squirrel, birds overhead. Had they been there before I'd worked with the rock? If they were, I hadn't noticed them. For several minutes I sat there, enjoying this moment of communion with the animals, the rocks, the mountain, the sky, and the sparse vegetation. Immersed in the landscape, I felt so much a part of it that the thought of leaving filled me with regret. However, the sky was growing dark and I became concerned about the others who might be waiting for me.
I carried my rock back to the place where I'd found it, as per Robyn's instructions, thanked it for its service, then made my way back down the trail to the car where, indeed, my friends were waiting for me.
Over dinner at a restaurant in town, we shared our experiences, with Robyn answering our many questions. Several things became clear to me that day: First, that this process had been tremendously helpful in allowing me to get focused on issues that had been preoccupying me for days; second, when I finally addressed those issues, I was able to be in a contemplative space in my being that allowed me to be present with the mountain and all the small beings who made it their home.
The tiny bird who had settled on the rock so close to me had made me feel that I had made a definite shift of consciousness that even the animals noticed. Certainly I was feeling more at one with the world around me. Was it possible they had felt this about me as well?
As I look back on that day, I am reminded of how important tools and exercises such as this can be. The rock definitely helped focus my attention, allowing me to reflect calmly on everything that had been piling up in my mind. The rock had become a mirror of my inner world, allowing me to come to terms with the challenges that lay ahead.
* * *
As you were reading the previous passages, with Robyn guiding me through the process with the rock, you might have noticed that I wasn't the only one learning how to do it. So were you! If you wished to, you could probably repeat it for yourself, based on what you just read. Simultaneously, you were experiencing a little bit of what I was going through — what I was feeling, thinking, sensing all around me, and learning. What just happened here is that I took you into my own learning experience, using the craft of the novelist and poet — such as physical description, character description, and dialogue — even as I was giving you enough description to do the rock exercise and experience it for yourself firsthand. And, yes, for the record, this really did happen.
You can effectively guide your readers into the spiritual realm through anecdotes about other people, by sharing experiences of your own, by describing exercises for experiencing what you're talking about firsthand, or through a combination of all three.
More than with most types of books, you'll want to keep in mind that you are taking your readers into territories that many may not yet be comfortable with, and thus they've been reluctant to venture too far on their own. There's a certain responsibility in what you are writing; of that we should all be aware. What's often not obvious to us as writers is that readers have entered into an unspoken agreement with us. Readers appreciate authors who seem able to understand and support the processes of change and expansion that they, the readers, might be going through. As authors, we need to be conscious of this. We need to build upon and honor the trust our readers have placed in us.
Contracts Between Readers and Writers
Way back when I was studying creative writing at the university, there were lively debates about whether or not there was an implied contract between author and reader. The arguments covered a wide spectrum, from writers who believed that their only contract was to be true to their own creative gifts, to those who believed that our only responsibility was to not disappoint our readers. The latter was pretty self-evident, since authors who disappoint their readers are soon looking for other work.
No doubt there was some truth in those arguments we defended so passionately back at the university, but as the years passed — now more than thirty — it has become obvious that life teaches us lessons we aren't ready to hear when we're sophomores in creative writing school. Chief among those things we learn is the implied contract we have in every human interaction, whether it is writing a book or buying stamps at the post office. If we're buying stamps, the implied contract is that our interactions with the clerk will result in an exchange of like values — stamps for money. If we're choosing a book to read, the implied contract can be found in what the book promises and how well the author fulfills that promise.
What exactly is the promise? In a mystery book, the contract might be that the author will keep us guessing and provide a satisfying resolution. In a book about American history, the contract might be to deliver in an interesting way some semblance of truth about what has gone before us. In a book about how to run a software program, the implied contract is that we will be better at running our computers. And so it goes. But spiritual writing often involves a contract that goes much deeper, and is perhaps less obvious than any of these.
Excerpted from Writing Spiritual Books by Hal Zina Bennett. Copyright © 2004 Hal Zina Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Inner Ocean Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.