Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing Prayers, Writing Poetry

It's been an interesting spring, in terms of writing tasks.  I've done some writing and writing-related activities that I've never done before and gotten money for some of them!  It's been the kind of season where I feel like I'm getting affirmation that writing is indeed one of my skills and talents, where the universe smiles and says, "Yes, dear, this life is the one you've been waiting for."

One of the things I did this past season was to write a month's worth of prayers.  Careful readers of my blog might remember that I wrote about getting the assignment here.  These prayers will appear in Bread for the Day, a book that has a Bible reading for each day, a hymn, a prayer, and some special seasonal additions.  I wrote the prayers for August. 

Because this is my creativity blog, and because the writing process might be useful to some of my readers, I've decided to write about this experience further.  For those of you who are instantly turned off by any mention of spirituality (well, you've probably stopped reading my blog by now), you might want to come back tomorrow.

From the editor, I got the Bible reading that appears in the book, one for each day excluding Sundays (unless there was a special day).  Here's an example (which I'll put in blue):

Saturday, August 18, 2012
Time after Pentecost

Job 13:1-19
When silence is wisdom

John 4:7-26
Christ, the living water

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:11-15)

Psalm 34:9-14
Seeking God

I was to write a prayer based on the Bible passage given.  Here's what I wrote for the above day:

August 18

Creator God, we live in a time of drought. Our circumstances leave us parched and thirsty. You have promised us a spring of living water. Replenish our depleted wells. Leave them overflowing with wet promise.

Here's what made the assignment interesting:  I was limited to 35-40 words.  It sounds easier than it is.  Some of my prayers were too short.  More of them were too long. 

But I think that my poetry training served me well.  I'm used to examining words and making sure that every word counts.  I don't always do it well, but I'm convinced of the importance.

Likewise, the teaching of countless sections of Composition served me well.  Year after year of talking about the best verbs (and as much as possible avoiding the verb to be) meant that I was five steps ahead.

I felt a bit of trepidation as I started, although I'm not sure why.  I'm not unfamiliar with the genre of prayer, after all.  I've been praying all my life.  I've been part of groups (primarily Lutheran) who use prayers of all sorts.  But I haven't written down my prayers, at least not very often (my theology blog contains a few, but that process didn't really prepare me much for this assignment).

And I'm familiar with this devotional resource, and that spooked me a bit at first.  I thought about people like my grandmother, who would pick up this book every morning after breakfast.  I didn't want to let those readers down.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with the daily lectionary, but the additional challenge was to avoid being repetitive.  August is one of the tougher months:  reading after reading about bread, for example.

In the end, I decided to follow the best writing advice of all:  just get something down on paper.  Anne Lamott more famously advised us to write shitty first drafts. 

Once I did one or two prayers, I got into a rhythm, and it wasn't really hard.  I felt like I almost entered a meditative state.  Some of my more religious compatriots might say that was God taking hold.  But it felt more like that state of flow, where time suspends and my writing ligaments are warm and flexible.  Before I had such a digital life, I entered into that state more frequently--but that's a topic for a different blog post, once I get through reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows.

In the end, I enjoyed the whole process very much.  It's too early to tell whether or not my poetry (or other writing) has improved because of it.  But that wasn't really the point.  I'm looking forward to seeing the prayers in book form, when I get my contributor copies.  Another bonus: I got paid in real dollars.  As a poet, that doesn't happen often (as an essayist and blogger, more so).

It would be great to have more of these opportunities.  And I'd like to see more poets writing prayers.  It's tough being a teacher/writer in the world, because I'm keenly aware of how much bad writing surrounds us.  It's especially painful to find poorly written prayers, which should be simple and beautiful and economical in word use.  I'm happy to have tried my hand at it, and my hope is that I've launched some elegant prayers into the world.


Jim Murdoch said...

There’s something doesn’t gel here with me. Reading a prayer that someone else has written is like reading a poem to your loved one that you didn’t write. Even a bad poem written by you – that’s written from the heart – should mean more than the most eloquent words composed by someone else. It’s like when we were given the Lord’s Prayer in the first place, it wasn’t to repeat rabbit fashion, it was to tell us what were appropriate subjects for prayer. The words are unimportant anyway if you think about it if God does, as the Bible says he does, know what’s in our hearts before we do anyway. As an exercise, fine, but that’s all.

Kristin said...

While I understand your view, Jim, I also know a lot of people who have trouble praying--they don't feel comfortable talking to God the way they'd talk to their mom.

For those people, it's helpful to have a prayer already written out for them. It's why so many people memorize the Lord's Prayer and use it so frequently.

I also think it's a helpful meditative exercise to have an already written prayer. And of course, my hope is that the written prayer will inspire the reader to pray a more personal prayer.

gloria said...

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Lynn said...

We had a prayer printed in our church bulletin the other day that I was very grateful for--it expressed feelings I didn't know I'd had until I read the prayer. I'm always grateful for the eloquent prayers of others.