Writing, like faith, means living the questions


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Typewriterphoto © 2010 xlibber | more info (via: Wylio)

As promised, today’s post is the first in a four-part series about writing. I receive so many emails and Facebook messages from fellow writers looking for tips on how to get published, build a platform and hone the craft, I thought it might be fun to spend a few days on the topic. My hope is that even if you’re not a writer, you will learn a little something about yourself, about creativity, or about this magnificent world from which we writer-types draw our inspiration

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Many of us who have wrestled with tough questions about our faith share a favorite quote from Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

I was once asked in an interview to unpack this statement, to explain what is meant by “live the questions,” and I was surprised to find that my mind immediately jumped to the writing process, specifically to another favorite quote, this from Anne Lamott in her excellent book, Bird by Bird. In a chapter famously titled “Shitty First Drafts,” Lamott gives this advice to writers:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later…Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages. 

In another chapter she describes the process perfectly: 

You look up and stare out the window again, but this time you are drumming your fingers on the desk, and you don’t care about those first three pages; those you will throw out, those you needed to write to get to that fourth page, to get to that one long paragraph that was what you had in mind when you started, only you didn’t know that, couldn’t know that, until you   got to it. And the story begins to materialize, and another thing is happening, which is that you are learning what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you find out what you are writing.

As a writer, I spend about 90 percent of my time figuring out what I want to say and 10 percent of my time saying it. The casualties of this process are pages and pages and pages of work that never see the light of day. All that time lost would be enough to bring me to despair if I didn’t know the secret—that I had to write those four or five angsty, wandering pages to get to the page that matters, the one that says something true. I had to “live the questions,” as it were, in order to find the answer.

The trick is learning to patient with this process, to forgive myself when it takes me longer than it should, and to leave myself plenty of time to write. 

This is good advice for writers, I think, and even better advice for people of faith. 

A pastor once told me that looking to the Psalms for solidarity in doubt is a misguided effort because David eventually resolved all his questions to find peace in God. Psalms of despair usually end with praise, he said, so praise is the only fitting prayer for the true believer. 

This “skip ahead” mentality invalidates the very real experiences of King David and implies that we too can simply hop on over to the sunnier meadows of our faith journey without crossing the tough terrain that leads us there, without working through our “first drafts.”

What this pastor didn’t realize is that there would likely be no “I trust in your unfailing love” without “How long, oh Lord, will you hide your face from me forever?” David, as a writer and as a man of faith, had to live the questions first. How fitting that Jesus, when he hung on the cross, remembered David’s most agonizing question: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” The pain of the cross was no less real because resurrection was around the corner. In fact, the pain of the cross was necessary for resurrection. 

Writing has taught me a special kind of patience that I am finally learning to apply to my faith. I find myself repeating the same mantras on a day of doubt that I repeat on a day of writer’s block: Be patient. Don’t rush it. Live the questions. Let this play out. 

And every now and then, after many hours or many years, I bump into something so beautiful and wild, I know I could never have gotten to it by more rational, grownup means. 

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What does it mean to you to “live the questions”? Do you ever try and rush the process—in writing or in faith?

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