October 19, 2017

Adam McHugh: The Writer as Mystic and Madman

Note from CM: One avenue of interest that I like to explore as I write is the craft of writing itself. Today, Adam McHugh helps us think about writing as an ancient practice “that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.”

Adam blogs at Introverted Church, and is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture.

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The Writer as Mystic and Madman
by Adam McHugh

I spend a lot of time reading what other writers say about writing. It’s an excellent way to procrastinate from actually writing. In reading the words of seasoned authors, who themselves are usually writing about writing in order to avoid other projects, I have discovered two recurring themes. The process of writing may very well make you crazy. And it may also make you a mystic.

Sometimes the crazy is the charming kind of crazy, like the retired journalist in my hometown who walked the streets for hours a day, waving at everything that passed by: cars, people, planes, squirrels. Philip Yancey says that the first phase of his writing process “is all psychosis. I don’t even subject my wife to it. I go to a cabin in the mountains. I don’t shave. I’ll go a week without speaking to a single person, except maybe a store clerk. I work really long hours just pounding out junk.”

But sometimes the crazy is the life-choking, relationship-poisoning kind of crazy. It doesn’t take much experience with the madness of the writing life to understand Hemingway’s routine on Key West while writing A Farewell to Arms. The alarm bells start to sound when spending the mornings writing with six-fingered cats, the afternoons getting bombed on cheap scotch, and the evenings shooting at sharks with a Tommy gun begins to sound like a viable lifestyle. Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, pondering that her greatest writing success is likely behind her, confesses “It’s enough to make you start drinking gin at 9 in the morning.” She laments that the pressures of the creative process have been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

The writing process is an emotional roller coaster that threatens to run you right off the rails. Writing is about so much more than sitting down and typing. It’s more like a war, as you, your ideas, and your words all battle each other for supremacy. In writing, your hopes, dreams, fears and inadequacies are exposed. You learn what it is you most want in life and how incompetent you are to actually achieve it. It’s easy to see how the first casualty of this war is your sanity.

But the process of writing may also make you a mystic. A life of writing can transform the most committed atheist into someone who talks of gods and spirits and muses. Countless authors attest that, in some mysterious way, the discipline of writing can connect us with outside forces, as our words become channels for other voices speaking in the universe. C.S. Lewis said, “I never exactly made a book. It’s rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say.” Others take a more earthy approach when they claim they don’t invent a story, rather they excavate it. They imagine themselves as literary archeologists, discovering a story or an idea that has been buried deep within them yet cries out to be found.

Some writers seek to renew our belief in muses, those ancient spirits that inspire the creativity behind great works of art and music and literature. Elizabeth Gilbert says that in ancient cultures people themselves were not considered geniuses, but they had a genius who sparked their creative impulses. In a different spirit, Stephen King envisions his muse as a fat guy living in his basement, smoking cigars and admiring his bowling trophies and pretending to ignore you. But, says King, “the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.”

Some people may consider the writer’s tendency towards madness and mysticism as one and the same. But from what I can see, the first leads to restlessness and despair while the second moves toward peace and freedom. Gilbert hopes that resurrecting the muse will give writers a necessary distance from their work, releasing them from the destructive side effects of the creative process.

As much as I appreciate Gilbert’s views, as a Christian I am not ultimately satisfied with her solution. I agree that there is another power that overlaps with our creative efforts, but for me it is the Holy Spirit. I won’t reduce the Holy Spirit to a muse, but I do believe that the same influence that inspired the apostles to preach and write is also, in whatever lesser form, present in my work, even in the very messiness of the writing process. I consider writing a spiritual discipline. It is one of those ancient practices that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.

The ancient muses, it was thought, helped create works of art and literature. But the God in whom I believe is about creating certain kinds of people, shaping them into men and women who believe, hope, and love. While I do think God cares about the works we create, I believe that God is more interested in the process and its effect upon us. God is in the dying – the struggle and the wounds and the agony, just as much as he is in the rising – the gleaming product at the end. Out of the chaos of the writing life, God is forming us to be people who are humbled, disciplined, persevering, surprised, grateful. And if, through the writing process, we allow ourselves to be shaped into new kinds of people, then perhaps writers will come to be known for more than just being crazy.

Comments

  1. As a writer, I could not agree more with Adam McHugh. My spiritual practice is the foundation of my writing and my writing has become my spiritual practice. For me, the two are one and the same. Thank you for sharing this post!

  2. Even though I live by what I write, I do not think of myself as a writer…in the same sense that if I were a preacher, I would not think of myself as a “public speaker.”

    To me, writing is more like the toolbox I take to work every day. The toolbox is not who I am and it’s not even what I do. It serves what I do. I don’t take identity from my tools.

    Having said that, I do like this piece. McHugh is very insightful and he does describe what my working day looks like. Thank you so much for all that you do! I love this site.

  3. Tokah Fang says:

    This piece also speaks to and describes well every good, simulationist or storytelling game master I’ve ever seen. (That isn’t to say that gamist GM’s are bad, just very different.) To make a table top roleplaying game feel consistent to the players, it has to be real in your head in it’s own way. The non player characters, the vast majority of the world, have to be people with realistic motivations and lifelike complexity, the nations have to do what any country in their economic and geopolitical situation would do, etc. You end up with a whole world living in your head, and more often then not it tells you what would happen after any given stimulus, it’s not something you can just make up as you go.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Same thing when you’re writing in a consistent imaginary background universe (like the space-opera one I write in). The imaginary universe and its people have to be real enough to you to make it work yet not so real it detaches you from “meatspace”. You have to do a balancing act. Like a crossover fanfic balancing off Manly Wade Wellman and My Little Pony while being faithful to both sources.

      Game Masters going into writing also have a special danger — Worldbuilder’s Disease. As a GM, you’re primarily worldbuilding the background universe, and if you transfer into writing there’s the danger that all you’ll write is background worldbuilding. Or not write at all — too busy defining the brand of underwear worn by aristocracy on this one planet in your universe and then some. I’ve seen it happen.

      • Tokah Fang says:

        I imagine it would also be tough to self motivate. As a GM, you have the advantage of players constantly throwing thorny questions at you, it’s sometimes more reactive than proactive.

  4. This is where I am with the Bible. ” God speaks to us,with us, and through us.” So well put.

    It’s why I don’t get into shouting matches over what the Bible says. My mind set is “What do these words mean to YOU” I can read a verse one time and it says one thing. If I read it in a year, I will be surprized by something I had never seen before.

    • So true, Liz! When describing this phenomenon to others, I often use the story of the Prodigal Son. At different times in my life, I relate to various characters in the story. Sometimes I am the father needing to explain to a friend why I have seemingly acted unfairly. Sometimes the son when I stamp my feet against someone working out a return from sinfulness. And sometimes the prodigal himself as I prostrate myself (figuratively) to someone I’ve hurt. The story’s meaning changes and moves as I experience my life. The process of reading and re-reading with new context shapes who I am and through the writer, God speaks exactly what I need to hear at that precise moment.

  5. Great model for spiritual writing, however I don’t really agree all to powerfully with his theology…..

    • Care to elaborate? I’m a bit confused by your statement “… I don’t really agree all to powerfully with his theology.” I mean, the phrase is clear enough. However, what is it exactly about his theology that you find objectionable? Just curious.

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      I’d kinda like to know as well.

  6. Judy /Ca says:

    Great piece, writing for me has became a tool of healing. For years I have journaled everything, my thoughts, prayers, meditations on scripture etc. I have been able to look back and see where God has brought me from a lost broken place to healing and spiritual wholeness as my thoughts and perhaps the thoughts of the healer have taken shape on the page in front of me.

    My life, and faith has been encouraged and enhance by many writers whose words never fail to touch the very depth of my soul and bring a needed truth to my life such as Philip Yancy, Brennan Manning, and Henry Nouwen as well as other classic Christian writers and Mystics going back to ancient times.

    We become so caught up in the controversies of our day it is easy to loose touch with what is going on in our own souls, writing down what is inside is one way to face our real selves, it has brought me to repentance and change many times.

  7. “God is in the dying – the struggle and the wounds and the agony, just as much as he is in the rising – the gleaming product at the end. Out of the chaos of the writing life, God is forming us to be people who are humbled, disciplined, persevering, surprised, grateful. ”
    Good stuff! Out of chaos, new life.

  8. humanslug says:

    As the author of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of unwritten works, I sometimes fear I’m going to literally (or literarily) explode from the sheer volume of unexpressed junk germinating inside my head. That annoying, never-sleeping “thing” inside me just keeps gushing out ideas and pictures and plots and characters and melodies and entire alternate universes without any regard to my work schedule or what needs doing around the house and yard or my need for sleep or vegetative time.
    Maybe someday (Good Lord willing), I’ll be able to break free from all these entanglements and responsibilities, retire to a cabin in the mountains, and actually get some of this junk in my head assembled into a complete, working, readable form.
    Then again, I might just end up skulking through the woods at all hours, eating bugs, and having loud and lively conversions with myself about things that only me and my invisible friends can understand.

    • “As the author of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of unwritten works, I sometimes fear I’m going to literally (or literarily) explode from the sheer volume of unexpressed junk germinating inside my head. That annoying, never-sleeping “thing” inside me just keeps gushing out ideas and pictures and plots and characters and melodies and entire alternate universes without any regard to my work schedule or what needs doing around the house and yard or my need for sleep or vegetative time.”

      I know that feeling. What is especially enjoying is when I’m working on one story, and a brand new plot bunny hops on into my head.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I’ve known at least one guy who ended up never completing anything because of that. No sooner did he start on developing/writing one idea than a new Great Idea would come into his head; he’d drop what he was working on and start on the new Great Idea, only to have a Newer Greater Idea…

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    It doesn’t take much experience with the madness of the writing life to understand Hemingway’s routine on Key West while writing A Farewell to Arms. The alarm bells start to sound when spending the mornings writing with six-fingered cats, the afternoons getting bombed on cheap scotch, and the evenings shooting at sharks with a Tommy gun begins to sound like a viable lifestyle.

    Never mind Hemingway, what about Hunter S Thompson?

  10. Adam McHugh wrote: “Writing is about so much more than sitting down and typing. It’s more like a war, as you, your ideas, and your words all battle each other for supremacy.”

    Compare with this, from Franz Kafka. I had saved it in my quotes file with other gems (some from iMonk commenters):

    If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.

    Adam, I’m interested in what you said about the muse. I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea that the muse can serve to distance the writer from his work, thus freeing him. I’m also amazed, when I’ve attempted to write fiction, that the story or a character starts to take on a life of its own, as if under the influence of an outside power. You’d prefer (but not quite) to think of that not as a muse but as the Holy Spirit (and I understand the “not quite” part, because otherwise it might elevate your writing to scripture status). But, another problem for Christians arises if we do think of the phenomenon as the muse: the problem of polytheism or, if the work is really profane, then perhaps demonic influence. Where do we tell the difference? Is it better not to write at all?

    You said, “I consider writing a spiritual discipline. It is one of those ancient practices that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.”

    I guess I’m asking, is it always God who speaks to us and through us when we write? I used to read Nietzsche quite a lot for various history courses, and although he at first gave me headaches (literally, and painfully) I developed an appreciation for his gutsy writing (as Kafka advised, above) and for his challenging viewpoints in spite of his anti-christian tirades. Does God speak through the anti-christian writings of someone like Nietzsche?

    Or, in a pandering-to-Headless Unicorn Guy- manner of asking, can God endorse the writing of someone outside the guidelines of the Christian Booksellers Association?