10 Spiritual Lessons I've Learned From Writing

Written by Joanne Fedler

Writing is an exercise in consciousness and can become a deeply spiritual practice. Here are some of the writing lessons that have helped me in my life beyond the page:

1. "Show, don’t tell" is one of the golden rules of writing.

We should aim to be illustrative rather than didactic, to paint a picture rather than connect the dots. Instead of, "She loved him," we could offer: "Inside her heart, something heaved when she gazed at him." In my life, I find that instead of telling people how I feel or what I believe in or what I think is meaningful, I try to show it by my actions, by the life I am living.

2. Active rather than passive.

Writing loses power when we don’t allow the subject to carry the energy of the narrative but rather to be acted upon. So, "The book was read," is less powerful than "I read the book."

This truth applies to our lives too. To be in our spiritual strength, we need to be responsible, active subjects, rather than passive victims of circumstances.

3. Edit.

All writing is improved through a ruthless edit. Editing is the art of beautiful compression where we choose the best phrase and trim the excess. And so in life, we can aim for simplicity instead of clutter; fewer special material things with more meaning attached to what we have; less consumption, and more value.

4. Avoid the cliché.

A cliché is someone else’s words or thoughts. It’s been said before. Cliché dulls our writing. In our lives off the page, we can strive to live beyond the cliché — "the happy marriage," "the troubled artist," "the desperate housewife." We can invert expectations, question convention — and be truly, outrageously, unpredictably who we are. When we refuse to borrow other peoples’ desires and longings for our lives, we inhabit our uniqueness fully.

5. Play with paradox.

Writing becomes interesting when we pair light with shadow, dawn with twilight, love with greed, or hate with lust. The phrase "killing me softly" is so much more intriguing than "killing me brutally." When we invite the shadow into our lives, we honor the complexity of experience instead of squashing it into one dimension.

6. Turn the personal into the universal.

In writing, a falling leaf becomes a commentary on dying, or a steaming cup of tea a gesture of love. Writing takes the specific and turns it into the abstract. It has taught me that in my day-to-day life, I can turn the ordinary into the sublime, and wring meaning from every common encounter.

7. Kill your darlings.

William Faulkner’s warning to writers is for us not to get too precious about how beautiful and clever we are on the page. When we love a phrase or a paragraph too much, we may be attached — but for the wrong reasons. Writing has been one of the greatest practices in teaching me humility and non-attachment to a self that is aging and changing. The darling that I was when I was 20 lives only in my memory, and to be fully who I am right now, I may have to let her go.

8. Remember that first drafts suck.

Our first attempts are often clumsy, inept and can always do with improvement — in writing we call first drafts "the first shitty draft." Where in life is this not true? We are all learning every day how to be more fully human. So when we make mistakes, we should smile and think, That was just a first draft. Time to go back and rework, rewrite and remake.

9. Ask whether what you're doing serves the story.

When we write, we have to keep coming back to the question: does this serve the story? It is a question that hones our intention, sense of sufficiency and discernment. When we’re confronted by situations in life, we can ask ourselves, Does this serve my story? Which of course begs the question, What is the story I am living out? Ah — this bring us to the most important lesson of all.

10. Know what the story is about.

In writing, we have to keep coming back to the central question: what’s this about? And so with our lives — what do we want our story to be about? What is the legacy we are living out?

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