The Posture of the Writer - Part I

Okay, before you laugh and go way, let me just say that by "posture" I am not talking about the way a writer sits at her desk, hands poised ergonomically over the keyboard. This is not about yoga or zen meditation, however cool both those things may be. In using the word "posture" I'm thinking about the writer's view, the way she sees, the attitude she possesses. I'm thinking about something that exists within the writer herself. 

I think most of us will agree that good books--enduring books--stand on more than the author's mastery of skills. But would you also agree that the author's inner life effects the execution of his or her work? 

The late great Madeleine L’Engle meditates on the writer's inner life in WALKING ON WATER, particularly in regards to the posture of the writer towards art, or writing.  And Anne Lamott talks about the idea in BIRD BY BIRD, by concentrating on the posture of the writer towards the world.

For today, let's consider the posture of the writer towards her art:

L’Engle says that for her, writing involves “being.” 
“When I am constantly running, there is no time for being.  When there is no time for being, there is no time for listening” (13).
Listening to the “work,” the art, she says, is essential. This is because she claims “the work often knows more than I do” (24).

L’Engle sees the artist as the “birth giver,” or the servant of the work (18).  The art is larger than the artist; therefore, if the artist does not listen to the work, the result will be less than it could be.

This makes me think of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” (hence the gorgeous Waterhouse paintings above and below!). Shut in her high tower, away from the cares of the world, she can weave her “magic web of colors gay.” She can pay attention to her art. But if she looks away from the mirror that shows her the things that are happening in Camelot and sees the world with her own eyes, she will be cursed.

Thank goodness we’re not under such a curse. But it is a delicate balance, isn’t it?

I’ve found that this sort of single-mindedness toward writing requires me to plan ahead, as well as be a bit ruthless about what I take on beyond my normal daily responsibilities. Sure, I long for the Lady’s tower, but since I live in the real world and have a growing family, I have to schedule in blocks of time to contemplate and listen. I’ve also learned to be cautious about what sort of noise I allow into my life, so I don't have a cell phone, or cable, or GPS. For me, they  invite too many disruptions. Blips that turn into pauses, pauses that turn into minutes, minutes that turn into half-hours. Time that I need to stay simple and focused on the tasks and people at hand, the ones right in front of me. Going without  in this way helps me to listen to my work, even when I am not “doing the work.”

I don’t think L’Engle is saying this sort of listening has to be a solely passive activity. The paradox of any artist is that she must work.  L’Engle herself says,

“We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it” (24).
I think she is talking more about a constant, intentional awareness of the importance of this work we do. L’Engle gives us permission to acknowledge its magnitude and see it as our master. To realize the “privilege” it is to serve it (23).  She helps me see that writing ultimately isn’t about me. The moments of sharp, bright, consuming inspiration don’t make me special. They are gifts. But if I’m not listening, I could miss them.

Kind of humbling, isn’t it?

So how do you make time to be, instead of “act?” How do you make sure you are listening to the work?

(check back next week for Anne Lamott's wisdom on the writer's posture to the world, okay?)


  1. Lovely thoughts, Bethany! A guru of my acquaintance says a spiritual teacher's words need to be "transparent," need to let us pass through them into experience. I've always felt that way about writing as well: if I get caught up and entangled in my own language, then I know I'm not caught up in my character's experience. And I'm not giving the transcendent gift of story...

    1. This is a lovely thought, Louise. If we as writers seek to be transparent, our stories have a better chance at existing as whole, breathing creations, separate from ourselves. And dare I say it, they have a better chance at being universal.

      It's just so easy to hear the sirens of 'look at me, see how cleverly I can arrange words' etc. You've given a terrific lecture on this very subject. For those of you haven't read it go to Writing Too Well

      Louise addresses the pitfalls of getting so caught up in our ability to craft sentences that we end up saying either nothing at all or convoluting imagery or pointing at our own literary muscles, instead of wooing the reader into believing time stops while the story unfolds, as real (or more real) than life itself.

      Thanks for sharing, Louise!

  2. Beautiful blog-- Madeline L'ENgle is one of my heroines! I "listen" to my work by closing the door to the TV room and carving out time to write. I am also totally rewriting my WIP (Rather than copying and pasting which I did at the beginning!) and am finding that I am getting out of the way by doing that. I also SHOULD turn off my email notifications. TRue confessions: I don't always do that. Thanks for the post. WIll FB it now. Carol

    1. Great tip, Carol! Re-writing by typing new words lets you truly re-vision, or "see anew" - an excellent way to "listen." I think L'Engle would approve!

      Thanks for the FB post!

  3. Like you, I have had to create blocks of time away from all distractions. I go to the coffee shop or the local mall which had great seating just to be away from the internet.

    Lovely blog.

    1. Thanks for the compliment about the blog, Cat! I hope you'll stop in again.

      Re: the morning a week I use a classroom at my church to write. The internet access there is tricky; I have to go to another part of the building to use it, which I rarely do. The hassle makes me focus on what I'm supposed to be doing while I'm there anyway - spending time with my creative work. Yay for inconveience!

  4. This post has made me step back and think about "stepping back" in a way that allows my work to appear more fully enlivened. Thank you, Bethany!
    Kathi Appelt

    1. You are welcome, Kathi, though I think you already know how to do this!

      Just look at SOMEONES' COME TO OUR HOUSE or MY BABY, LITTLE ONE. And I can't wait to read KEEPER. It just so happens to be next on my reading list.

  5. New follower here. I found you through Verla's. It's nice to meet you, Bethany. I enjoyed this post very much. And as I'm at the point of trying to get back into a WIP that I had set aside for some time, it's very timely. Indeed, I need to get back to listening to the work. Thanks for this motivating reminder.

    1. Hi there! It's lovely to meet you too. I have a WIP that I need to return to as well. Perhaps the time away from our projects will give us more sensitive ears?

      Best Wishes!

  6. This is lovely! I've been reading a book about introverts/extroverts, and it turns out that introverts have more brain activity and therefore, to achieve balance, need to shut out the world on a regular basis, whereas extroverts crave more stimuation. Well, maybe this is an oversimplification, and it seems kind of unfair to extroverts, but I've always felt the need for quiet and listening space, not only as a way to go deeper into my writing but as a way of being in the world. A posture, if you will. I suspect that most writers are introverts, but there must be some who are extroverts, eh? I wonder if there are writers who are fed by external stimulation more than by the need for silence?