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The Writer and the Monk


From Writing as a Sacred Path:

In The Monastic Journey, Thomas Merton writes about “special groups of men and women who separate themselves from the ordinary life of society, take upon themselves particular and difficult obligations, and devote themselves to one task above all: to deepening their understanding and practice of their own religion in its most basic implications.” Merton is describing the life of the monk in this passage, but if we substitute the word “writing” for “religion”—and it’s not a far-fetched trade—then his words depict the writer’s life as well.

Of course, a list of monastic qualities would hardly appear to fit most writers. We avoid poverty whenever possible, engage in manual labor only when we have to, and are disinclined to be celibate—and anyone who knows a few of us would laugh out loud at the suggestion that we cultivate humility. Nonetheless, correspondences between the monastic world and the writing life run deep beneath the differences.

In the past few weeks, my pilgrimage has taken me to the four paths that I explore in Writing as a Sacred Path—four distinct ways to live the writing life. So far, I’ve blogged about The Way of the Shaman, The Warrior Road, and the Mystic Journey. This week, I’ll be writing about the fourth path: that of the monk.

Of all the sacred paths, this is the one that resonates most with me. Not because I consider myself particularly monklike—I’m too social, busy, materialistic, distracted, and happily married to think of myself as monastic. Yet, there is a distinctly monastic quality to the way I live the writing life. In fact, I think most writers are more like monks than they realize.

For one thing, there’s the lack of remuneration. Writers might not take a vow of poverty, but they might as well. Few writers—even successful ones—make as much at their craft as they would in other professions. Many publish their work for nothing or next-to-nothing; others never publish at all. Still, like the monk who rises before dawn to pray, we sit down at our desks everyday because of a distinct sense that it’s what we’re on this Earth to do.

Like monks, writers don’t quite live in the mainstream of society. Even if we don’t dwell in walled monasteries or mountain hermitages, we’re always a bit strange and marginal. If you doubt what I’m saying, try thinking back to the last time you told someone you’ve spent every night for the last decade writing poetry. Remember the look they gave you? If you happened to also mention that you’re often troubled, lonely, or terrified when you write, but keep doing it anyway, you’ve pretty much established yourself as a stranger in the world. People who think the only reason to do anything is because it’s either lucrative or fun will never understand you, any more than they will understand someone who chooses a life of prayer over a regular job.

Writers are like monks in many other ways as well. We are dedicated. We work hard. We tend to be introverted and reflective. We have a profound belief in the intrinsic value of what we do. And our deepest work is often solitary and silent.

I’ve found cultivating a monastic approach to my writing a blessing. When I feel like abandoning a difficult passage to check my Facebook page, I remind myself that monks don’t break away from meditation every time a stray idea pops into their heads. When I feel isolated, as writers often do, it helps to think of my writing as a kind of solitary prayer. And whenever I start getting a case of the why-aren’t-I-rich-yet-blues, the monastic approach reminds me that, as much as I’d love a giant advance on my next book, I’m not in this for the money. I’m doing it because it’s what I do. Monks pray. I write.

Like this post? Check out more at the Writing as a Sacred Path Blog.