Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lost & Found

Almost two weeks ago, I received a thoughtful letter from a reader about my previous post, "Lost in Thought." Unlike most comments I receive, which are usually either warmly complimentary or downright argumentative, this letter was a mix of appreciation, unasked-for advice and some mistaken assumptions about the "depth" of my spiritual practiced based on occasional read-throughs of this blog. The following is my response:


Thank you for your letter, and for your honesty. I admit, I did find it difficult at first to accept a compliment which included the implication that I hadn't deserved it 'til now, but I'm sure you meant it kindly, at least, so I've tried to appreciate it in that light. I can relate to your feeling "left cold" by the occasional post of mine you've read in the past. Even my favorite blogs more often leave me with amusing anecdotes, useful information or sparks for later contemplation than with powerful, inspiring reading experiences in themselves; and the gods know not every post of mine is spectacular writing, or even the best thing I've written that day! I think this is probably pretty common, maybe even a natural aspect of the blog as a medium. Every once in a while, if the noise and chatter of the internet happens to be at its ebb and I happen to be in a particularly receptive mood, something will strike me deeply. But usually, my favorite posts are the ones that sneak quietly into the back of my mind and give me something to think about (or argue with!), and I'm grateful that others are out there practicing, thinking, and trying to craft those thoughts and experiences into something they can share.

One thing that did confuse me about your letter is that you seemed to suggest that it was my "colored-pencil landscape" style of writing that you found uninteresting (even shallow)... and yet the post "Lost in Thought" was actually itself written in exactly that style. I sat down and jotted it off in a quick half-hour, hardly rereading it before posting and certainly not struggling with it the way I had been struggling with my previous posts on pacifism, writing and rewriting, revising and rethinking, expanding and deepening and sometimes spiraling out of control on tangents. (I even joked in passing about this fact in the post itself! "Today, I want to write about what it's been like to write...") And yet it was the "Lost in Thought" post, and not the more difficult or complicated posts, that you found most enjoyable and engaging, that moved you enough to write me a letter. You can probably see why I'm getting mixed signals. My only guess is that it's not really the writing style itself, but the subject matter, that made the difference.

I don't think you're alone in this. Almost always, I receive far more feedback when I write something full of complaints or confessing annoyance, anger or difficulty, than when I write in praise of simple beauty or intrigued by some obscure philosophical question. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps it's because, when I'm feeling angry and inspired, I suddenly become more eloquent or tenacious in cutting through cool-headed intellectual language and flowery description. But I bet it's also something having to do with our social makeup. When others feel anger or fear, it certainly works to the benefit of the group if those negative experiences can be communicated quickly and spark immediate reaction--like a herd of horses suddenly stampeding because one of them heard a twig snap, it's safer just to run than to wait around to confirm the danger. Also, since annoyance, fear, confusion and struggle are all very common human experiences--whereas quiet contemplation and rapt appreciation seem increasingly rare, as well as tending to be solitary--we feel more connected with others when we can commiserate and comfort, or argue and debate. We feel the fire of resistance and tension, or simply the warmth of others' presence, rather than being left out in the cold of solitude where we alone have to do the work of attending and growing.

So of course, it's natural that you would feel engaged by reading about someone else's struggle to deepen intellectually and spiritually, since it's something you yourself have probably also struggled with. The difficulty is familiar to you, it reminds you of yourself, of your own experiences and of what you share with others. You've even run across mythologies and shared cultural references such as "Mythago Wood" that depict and describe the experience, providing a common ground from which understanding can begin. So for that (and for another intriguing fantasy novel series to add to my to-read list!), I'm very glad you found my post meaningful and decided to write to me. Though I've received many positive comments about that particular post, yours in particular has provoked the most contemplation on my end, about my writing style, my relationship with audience, and my processes and goals in my spiritual life.

One thing you've helped me to realize is that writing simply cannot be exhaustive of experience. It was probably a mistake on your part (albeit an understandable and entirely forgivable one!) to assume that just because my writing hasn't seemed all that "deep" to you until now, that must mean I have never had occasion to think deeply about subjects before. True, attempting to write polished and coherent prose for a public audience on a topic that is embedded so deeply in my own psyche is a relatively new experience for me: most of my "deep thinking" until now has taken place entirely in private journals (thousands and thousands of pages, which I have written since the sixth grade), or in conversations with close friends. And while the challenge of writing about a deeply important idea in a way that can sum up twenty years of thinking about and experiencing its implications is not entirely new (some of my contemplations on beauty and aesthetics and how they relate to the spiritual life, for instance, have already appeared in this blog), writing about pacifism specifically was. There are some challenges that, no matter how many times we face them, continue to present new obstacles and test new skills. I've heard many writers talk about how, every time they sit down to write, the terror of the blank page seems as great as the day they first picked up a pen or sat down at a keyboard. But thank the gods for that! How awesome, that there are practices and activities in this world that never cease to lead us to new depths and provide new opportunities for learning and growth! If writing weren't one of them, I would have gotten bored with it a long time ago.

One aspect of writing that I think you might find interesting (and relevant to Paganism and Druidry, I think) is that, over all these years, I have noticed a definite pattern in my writing style according to the season. During the summer months, my urge to be outside in the sun and wind and fields becomes almost overwhelming--I take on new exercise routines and more physical, body-oriented hobbies (like drawing, yoga, hillwalking and guitar). Naturally, the time I spend on writing lessens quite a bit, and when I do write, I tend to spit out quick "colored-pencil landscape" bits and pieces that remind me more of the poetry I used to write in school when time was necessarily divided primarily between class and homework. As the autumn rolls around, I slow down again, sink into deeper contemplation and usually find myself getting caught up in intense debates that I can obsess over for days, even weeks. Plenty of these obsessions end up as blog posts here. Then the pattern repeats itself again as the winter holiday season drops away into the doldrums of February and March (almost every year, I seem to end up writing some kind of "series" of philosophical posts around this time), and with the first warmth of spring in late April and early May, another rush of energy sends my fingers skittering across the keyboard for a couple weeks until it's warm enough outside to distract me from the computer screen.

Blogging has served as a great record of this on-going shift in focus, attention and style in my writing, and so every once in a while I intentionally try to work in a style or on a subject that goes against this natural tendency. Over the past several months, I worked hard to write accessible, musical posts about spiritual practice, not only as a way of engaging readers who were also feeling the twitterpation of spring but to bring home to myself and my readers the truth that grace and beauty are just as "deep" subjects as longing, struggle and suffering. Then in June, I ran diligently against the grain of my own tendency and buckled down to write tough, complicated posts on intellectual and philosophical concepts. I think engaging in this kind of intentional work--work that acknowledges and respects the natural seasons and cycles of one's own mental and emotional landscape, while also learning how to work within them to accomplish willed goals--helps to strengthen weak areas and improve a person's mastery of their art or craft. I suspect this is probably just as true in spiritual practice, and the Pagan or Druid is perhaps one step ahead of other spiritual seekers in having the earth and her seasons at the heart of their spiritual life already.

Of course, your less-than-resoundingly-positive response to some of my posts just goes to show that pushing yourself this way doesn't always mean you'll end up with writing that other people can connect to. And that's the other challenge I'm always striving to meet: how best to communicate with readers in a way that is engaging without being daunting, and which is communicative without being dictatorial. I used to want to try to say everything I possibly could, but more recently I've taken the view of writing as a kind of scattering seeds and hoping that at least a few will find fertile ground. How can I make sure that the seeds I scatter are the best for the job, or that I'm scattering them the best way I can? Some plants release hundreds upon thousands of seeds because only a few will ever take root; others wrap their seeds in deliciously sweet, pulpy flesh in the hopes that birds and other animals will swallow them up and then shit them out again in some new soil far away, surrounded by the warm, stinking fertilizer; still others hardly release any seeds at all and spread mostly through the intimate sprouts of their own root systems creeping slowly but surely along. What kind of "seeds" do I hope to create with my writing? Do some ideas travel better on the wind, and others in the gut? Are some best communicated intimately among friends who share experiences and common roots? It seems to me that most of these questions are things I can only learn from experience, and from feedback from readers such as yourself. Luckily, I still have plenty of time to learn, and lots of people like you willing to take a moment to respond thoughtfully and honestly. For that, I'm very grateful!



  1. I'm mentioned (and linked) you again in my most recent blog post and I've had feedback that the "reply" function doesn't always inform the person i'm replying to, so I wanted to thank you for leaving me a comment and mention that I have replied to your comment (it's appeared under your own comment). =)
    Thanks for popping over to read my entry,

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