Every morning, Pam Wynn sets a timer for 20 minutes, pulls out her journal and her favorite pen, lights a candle, and writes.
"It's a ritual," she says. Pam is a poet and Adjunct Professor of Writing, Poetry, and Theological Interpretation at United. "Like liturgy, ritual is an ancient way to connect to the divine. Writing as a ritual reduces anxiety, promotes self-confidence, and increases one's sense of empowerment."
Pam teaches online workshops about writing--specifically journal writing--as a spiritual practice (including one that is being offered this spring through United). Below, she shares some of her best tips for getting started with a regular writing practice.
STEP 1: WRITE FOR YOURSELF
Writing as a spiritual practice isn't just for professional writers. "A lot of people are nervous about writing," Pam says. "But I use William Stafford's definition: a writer is someone who writes."
Pam encourages her students to see journal writing as something they do for themselves--not something they need to share with others (unless they'd like to). This helps ease some of the anxiety that people might bring to the practice of writing because they're used to being judged or graded on it.
"My approach is to use journal writing as a way to explore what it is to be--to be alive, to expand our understanding of our place in the world as spiritual beings," she says. "I'm focused on helping people develop the practice itself. This isn't a test. Use it as it's helpful to you."
STEP 2: ESTABLISH A ROUTINE OR RITUAL
Just as Pam has a ritual that she's established for her regular writing practice (hers is to write first thing in the morning, set a timer for 20 minutes, light a candle, and write by hand), she encourages others to find what works for them. "For some, it'll be writing in the morning; for others, right before bed. Maybe it's writing with a particular pen or using a typewriter. The important thing is to make it a regular practice."
Pam draws a distinction between spiritual practice and practice in other contexts. "Often we think of practice as the repeated exercise of an activity with an eye toward 'perfection,'" she says. "That's not what spiritual practice is about. Spiritual practice is undertaken with the aim of helping us focus on our spiritual journey. Very intentional practices help us become open to the sacred encounter of the divine."
STEP 3: MIX IT UP
Pam emphasizes that there's a difference between journal writing as a spiritual practice and journal writing in general. "Regular" journal writing is more about recording one's day-to-day activities and frustrations--something that Pam says can certainly be useful, but can also get a little boring.
To keep the practice fresh, meaningful, and engaging, Pam suggests mixing it up with a variety of different prompts and exercises. Some suggestions include:
- Write a response to a poem, photograph, or piece of art that struck you
- Write a dialogue between two people (who aren't you) who are affected by a situation you are trying to understand
- Write a reflection on a scriptural passage
- Choose a theme like "grace" or "suffering" and freewrite whatever comes to mind
- Write a letter to someone about an emotionally charged topic, but don't send it
- Draw in your journal
- Write in the third person about an experience you had to practice "altered perspective"
- Write a prayer or meditation
- Write a myth
- Write a poem
- Make a list
STEP 4: TRUST THE PROCESS
"The nature of practice is that it's not always going to be fruitful, but that's okay--because it will be the next day, or the day after that," Pam says. "Trust the process. Writing helps us pay attention to what's going on, to know ourselves, to live intentionally."
And to Pam, that's the most important part of writing as a spiritual practice. "The fact is, I'm going to die one day," she says. "I want to know everything I can about being alive."
TRY IT FOR YOURSELF
Here's a writing prompt that Pam wrote for her students in her last Writing as a Spiritual Practice workshop. Give it a try!
In Ecclesiastes 3:7 we read there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." There are times when we must speak up for ourselves or others, for as Audre Lorde wrote, “Your silence will not protect you” (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches). However, there are times in our lives when we must be silent, for as Leonardo da Vinci claimed, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
Make two lists:
- List the times when you have refused to be silent.
- List the times when you have purposely kept silent
- List the times when you should not be silent.
- List the times when you should be silent.