Thursday, May 16, 2013
Very often when I am on the road and do a Q&A after a reading or presentation, people will hesitantly raise their hands and when called upon will ask: "What inspires you?" It's a question I always dread because the answer is too simple, and too complex, all at the same time. When I give my honest answer: "Everything," half the audience might think I'm being facetious while the other half may think I'm corny. But it's true. As writers, we must be open to everything in the whole world moving us to write. For me--and it doesn't have to be like this for everyone--writing feels like a kind of worship, or prayer. Not just the act of tapping out words on the keyboard, but the actual thinking process of writing. It is meditation, prayer, worship, living. If that sounds overwrought, so be it.
In my new novel I am often looking to the writings of Thomas Merton to guide my lead characters. Merton was a Catholic writer, poet, activist, mystic, and a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky although he was a native of France. He lived from 1915 until 1968 and became a priest in 1949, the year after his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, became an international bestseller and inspired thousands of people to flock to monasteries in the United States. He wrote more than 70 books that often focused on spirituality, social justice, and interfaith religion. His most enduring legacy is probably his ecumenical work. He was a pioneer of melding the Christian tradition with Asian spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama.
Although I was born and raised in Southeastern Kentucky just about two hours from where Merton lived most of his life, I was brought up in a very anti-Catholic environment and never knew about him until I was studying for my Master of Fine Arts at Spalding University (a Catholic school, coincidentally) in Louisville, Kentucky. While out on a stroll I found a historical marker about Merton--only about a block from my dormitory--that changed my life forever. On the corner of 4th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in the heart of downtown Louisville the historical marker gives a nice, brief biography of Merton on one side, and on the other states:
Merton had a sudden insight at this corner Mar. 18, 1956, that led him to redefine his monastic identity with greater involvement in social justice issues. He was "suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people..." He found them "walking around shining like the sun." Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
This is a strange kind of historical marker to be found in America. In this country we are not much on marking mystical sites, as would be much more common in Europe and Asia. So I continue to be surprised that this plaque exists. And I continue to be so very glad.
Because it was another sign to me that we must constantly be on the lookout for discovering new things, which has been the key mantra I have adopted as a writer and have talked about many times before, including a few times on this blog.
And because it made me know that I had to find out more about Merton. The first book I bought by him was New Seeds of Contemplation. It is now one of my all-time favorite books and is definitely the one that had the most tremendous impact on my spiritual education.
As soon as I read that plaque, I looked around, and I had a better empathy for the people around me. I remembered a favorite quote by Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." And I thought: that'd be a good thesis for a novel. And that's when Little Fire was born.
Years went by before I was able to start that novel that I tucked in the back of my mind until other projects were borne. And finally I was able to work in a scene where someone else has a revelation like Merton's. After a long battle with doubt, my character has an epiphany of goodness around him that changes everything.
The lesson here, again, is that we must always be on the lookout for everything to inspire us to write. When people ask what inspires writers they expect us to say our children, or nature, or something like that. But we must be inspired by everything. As Merton said, Everything that is, is holy. And if that's true (I think it is), then everything is worthy of our attention and can feed our creativity.
To learn more about Merton's revelation, including reading his journal entry about the moment, visit this great page. There is also a beautifully written look at the marker here.
Photo credit (Merton): www.internetmonk.com
Photo credit (marker): www.spiritualtravels.info