In the last post on Prayer and Creative Writing (“Prayer and Creative Writing I – Discovery, Tradition and Invitation”), I suggested you choose a narrative from one of the gospels to spend time with – in reading it slowly every day, in copying it in longhand, in listening to your own voice reading the text aloud.
Now that you have done all this, now that the text had time to simmer in you for a few days, let yourself respond to it in writing.
For this, I will suggest several ways, and the first is to rewrite your chosen passage in your own words. Follow wherever your imagination leads you – maybe all you do is rewrite the text sentence by sentence into words more familiar to you, sentences that sound more like the way you speak with the people around you. Maybe you find yourself writing from the viewpoint of one of the protagonists or you become a bystander who witnesses the story. Whichever shape this takes is good – allow yourself freedom to dive into the story.
To prepare, you only need pen and paper, and the original text for reference. Again, find a quiet space where you are comfortable and where you will not be disturbed for some time.
Say a short prayer to begin with; take a minute to become still and centred – this is God-space. Settle down in it.
Now write the story out in your own words. Describe it. Don’t think too much, write whatever comes to mind, drawing from what you have been reading all week. Take your time. In whatever way it comes to you is the right way. Don’t worry about particulars (or spelling), don’t edit while you write. Just keep going with the flow of the narrative. Include details about the surroundings, sounds, colours, scents. Live the text in your imagination. Write it as if it was your memory or as if you were there right now. Where are you? Who are you? Why are you there? What’s going on? Who else is around you? What do you see, think, feel? Trust whatever you write. It comes from a deep, true place within you. Trust that God is with you while you’re walking/writing into the text like this. Whichever role you take in the story, let it happen. This could go a myriad of different ways. Your imagination might hook into moments that nobody else notices.
Examples from John 9: How does the blind man get to the lake? Does someone offer to lead him? Who? Why? You might describe the moment when the blind man is at the lake and washes the mud off his eyes, what he feels when his eyes are opened. How does he get back to Jesus – how does he find him, still in shock with seeing? He doesn’t know what “green” means, he has so many sounds and textures to connect with visuals. What would this experience be like for someone close to him? Are his parents watching while he discovers seeing? What is it like for them? Maybe you find yourself wondering what it is like for him when his parents tell the priests to ask their son what happened, risking his being thrown out of the synagogue, rather than taking the risk themselves? What is their relationship like with him before that? And afterwards?
Every one of the gospel stories is incredibly rich and complex, and much more comprehensive of human experience than you notice when hearing a familiar text once a year in church! The gospels describe these complexities in very few words. So spend time with the little that is said and let it come alive in your imagination. People were the same then as they are now. There’s laughter, cowardice, anger, hurt, confusion, joy, vanity, offense, … These people experienced births, deaths, family arguments, abuse of every kind, they fell in love, they got hurt, betrayed, annoyed, bored, ashamed, felt guilty for good reason or for no reason at all, felt like failures or were stubborn or felt defeated or pleased. They were people like you and me. They had feelings. Like you. And no, they didn’t understand everything that happened to them either, like you. A lot of very complex events that have enormous impact on the lives of the people concerned are mentioned in one short sentence at times (John 9:7: “So the man went, and washed, and came home seeing.” Or John 9:34: “And they threw him out.”). There are lives of real people hidden in those few words. Take these short sentences and let them become three-dimensional.
In one of his talks, Richard Rohr mentions an occasion when a disciple asks Jesus to let him bury his father first before leaving with him, and Jesus respond with the words, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). Richard Rohr then goes on to ask what would cause Jesus to say such a thing? For any loving son of a loving father, this would be a harsh, unkind and unjust demand. And Jesus was a man of compassion. This was a conversation between two real people. The context for this statement is not in the text. It is okay for you to imagine a possible context. Maybe this passage speaks to you personally. Let it. The text is yours, it’s a gift – you can work with it and increase it and reap the fruits of that work, or you can bury it, afraid to touch it (I was reminded of this story…). These texts can bless you and change you and help you to see the love God has for you – if you allow them to touch you on a personal level. It is good news, after all.
So I encourage you: Dare to work creatively with the text. Let it unfold in your writing; you can be in creative conflict with the text. To work with it in this way means you bring time, effort and yourself into the gospel texts, and that’s all it takes for God to bless you with insight, depth and discovery.
A last piece of advice: This is no exercise in critical thinking; and I would also not recommend trying this with the intention of producing the novel that will make you famous! Prayer takes you to places of depth and truth, and the resulting text may well be good, authentic writing. While you write, however, this is not your concern. You write this in communication with God, in exploring scripture in relation to yourself. You will most likely end up understanding yourself and God in deeper ways. It is a powerful discovery to be given words to say what you mean, images to capture what you actually feel, and stories have the power to do all that. Whatever comes up, wherever you find yourself in the story, you might end up understanding more of your own story in the process, your own wants and desires, your feelings of anger, pain, confusion, what role others have played in your life, the impact they had on you, and the way God has interacted with all that. Art in general is a way to access experience, to express it, question, process, understand and accept it. Imagination is a powerful resource in you. Draw on it.
To give you an example of what this could look like, this is how the story in John 9 rewrote itself for me:
I will be dead in a few hours. I know it. The people looking up at me know it. The soldiers have a bet on who is going to last longest.
There’s three of us. I know the other two. One of them taught me all I know. How to get by without money or work or family. How to steal. He got me here.
The third one is one of the street preachers, Jesus, a guy from Nazareth, of all places.
I watched him, months ago, when I was working the morning crowd near the synagogue, making my way towards the tightest corners where nobody notices if you bump into them to steal from their pockets.
I was just doing a quick count of the coins that had made their way into my hands when he stopped nearby to talk to some beggar, a blind guy who had been in that spot for years. Jesus must have told him to go somewhere, I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but I saw the beggar walk off with some of the crowd to guide him. When Jesus sat down and preached, I didn’t listen (but I helped myself from the pockets of those who did!).
After an hour or so the blind guy came back, only – he wasn’t blind anymore. Could have been a trick. Most of the people there found it pretty impressive. But then a few of the crowd got really upset because it was the Sabbath, and why did he have to heal the guy on that day, and they all went a bit mad. Jesus didn’t seem to care much. But then it wasn’t him the priests questioned but the beggar, and his parents. Why on earth they spent so much time on that, who knows. But I was still around when they finished, and they basically threw out the beggar from the synagogue. He didn’t argue. He seemed so calm. He only walked right up to his parents, looked at them for a little while (and they didn’t move a muscle), and then he turned, walked away and asked the people around him where Jesus had gone. He even asked me. Got a straightforward answer too. None of my business.
And then Jesus turned up himself to look for him – which really proves he can’t be all that bright. He got away without being punished by the priests – and then comes back to try his luck again? Clever…
I stayed close to the two of them though, I was sure I’d hear them arrange their next performance. But instead, I heard Jesus ask the beggar if he knew who the Messiah was – as if there was a Jew who doesn’t. And the man said, “Sure I do, why?” And Jesus replied, and I’m not kidding, “I’m the Messiah. I’m the one they’re waiting for”, pointing back to the priests. And then the beggar looks at him and looks at the priests and starts laughing. And then he suddenly stopped, and just touched Jesus’ face with his grubby fingertips as if the man was a ghost or something, or as if he still couldn’t see him, and then they walked away, together. And I couldn’t tell you what it was but I sure as hell didn’t feel like it had been all a joke.
And now Jesus is dying; he’s got nails through his hands and feet like I do. The third one, the one who taught me the trade, he’s still shouting at everyone who’d hear him, wasting his breath. He shouts at the people, at the soldiers who shout back laughing, at all the gods who have temples, at me and at Jesus too. But Jesus is looking down at the people below us, the few who aren’t laughing or shouting, but crying. There are some people who cry for the likes of us, imagine. And I see who Jesus is looking at – I’m pretty sure they’re some of the people he traveled with. And I could swear that guy over there is the beggar I saw that time…and it suddenly hits me –
What if he’s right? What if that’s what they’re doing here – what if they’re killing the Messiah? And I hear myself shouting across at the other guy to shut up already, and Jesus looks up, at me. And right then, I know it’s true.
When you feel you’re done writing, sit with what you have written for a bit.
Just be with it.
Accept your story, your text – no need to “correct” anything. Just observe. What has come up? Let it be what and how it is, and just stay with it for a little.
You can end with a short prayer if you like.
(You can follow on from here to “Prayer and Creative Writing III“)