Laraine Herring on Writing Practice and Self-Knowledge

Kore Press, a highly regarded feminist literary publisher, hosts the Persephone Speaks online forum on women and literature. In April’s entry, author and educator Laraine Herring discusses writing as a spiritual practice and why we resist it:

I’ve had students complain to me that they aren’t writing enough, and when I ask them if they’re writing, they say, “Well, no…” To this I respond: writing begets writing. There is no way to write but to write. There are no tricks, though there are plenty of diversions. One of the points I make in my book The Writing Warrior is that any structure someone provides for your writing, or any structure you create yourself, is only as useful as your ability to work freely within it and to stay centered and focused. The structure or the concept doesn’t make the writing work. Your discipline, practice and flexibility make it work. When structure of any kind (relationship, job, religion, writing, city) becomes a prison, it’s time to move on.

Now, what writing practice does is illuminate. It yanks out into the open everything that the writer has been trying not to look at. And so the writer goes away. This is normal, but a book about writing, or a class about writing, can’t address the nuts and bolts without addressing the real reason writing is hard. It holds up a mirror to your own demons. It dares you to look, dares you further to write about it, then dares you even further to share it publicly. Yeah, is it too late to change majors to something safer like Pyrotechnics in the Middle East?

Writing practice brings up your limitations. This is a gift, not a problem. The more you know about what you do and why, the more room you have to make authentic decisions. Writing practice shows you your belief systems about yourself, your family, your world. It shows you where you need to be right and where you feel invisible.

Writing, for Herring (and for me), has some parallels to meditation. Both practices help us cultivate non-attachment to fixed concepts, replacing them with open-ended interest in whatever actually occupies our minds. And both are made more difficult by the common fear of discovering that our true selves are “unacceptable”.

That’s why, these days, the intentionally Christian aspect of my writing is more about process than content. The two are intertwined, of course, because until the experience of grace and forgiveness becomes more embedded in my consciousness, my novel characters won’t be able to reach that same resolution in their lives. However, I’ve tried to shelve the perpetual question “Is this preaching the gospel?” In an odd way, last year, the agenda of “the gospel” came to feel like a false artifact, a mask of God, no different from the manufactured images that are my fashion-photographer protagonist’s stock-in-trade. He and I despaired of finding The Real. But don’t worry, because we both have a short attention span for sitting on the pity pot, eventually we’ll grow bored with that and commit to some imperfect instantiation of the divine. Or as he would say, get over yourself, girl.