Henri Nouwen on Writing

Henri Nouwen’s words here about writing resonate with me. In the excerpt that follows Nouwen describes the challenges that face him and his students in their writing. Even now the anxiety he describes lurks over the keys, and I wonder after all these years if this ever completely resolves. Years ago when this blog began, Kyle and I were happy for any chance to write something other than our dissertations! Times change. So much of our creative energy is now poured into classes, and what is left is carefully managed for a host of publishing commitments; what is left of mine after all that might find its into a poem but less often a blog post. As I pulled together seminar readings for my seniors, I came across these remarks from Nouwen and they have been a timely encouragement to continue writing on TF, even when there appears to be little time or creative energy for it.

Writing…is often the source of great pain and anxiety. It is remarkable how hard it is for students to sit Henri Nouwendown quietly and trust their own creativity. There seems to be a deep-seated resistance to writing. I have experienced this resistance myself over and over again. Even after many years of writing, I experience real fear when I face the empty page. Why am I so afraid? Sometimes I have an imaginary reader in mind who is looking over my shoulder and rejecting very word I write down. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the countless books and articles that have already been written and I cannot imagine that I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said better by someone else. Sometimes it seems that every sentence fails to express what I really want to say and that written words simply cannot hold what goes on in my mind and heart. So there are many fears and not seldom they paralyze me and make me delay or even abandon my writing plans. [...]

Most students of theology think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, or visions. They feel that they first must have something to say before they can put it on paper. For them, writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach, true writing is impossible. Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do no know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves, “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.” Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to “give away” on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and gradually come in touch with our own riches (Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, 29-30).

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2 thoughts on “Henri Nouwen on Writing

  1. By way of analogy: I am a bookstore — or for that matter, any kind of retail store. Some part of me (my ego?) walks up and down the aisles of the store, looking at the products, selecting a few, wishing I could buy a lot of things that I cannot afford.

    Writing is EXPESNSIVE — taxing our minds and emtions in a thousand ways. When we first begn to write, we learn to “buy” truths that we can easily obtain and manipulate. A typical high-school writing assignment in my day was to describe some common item that we knew in daily life. But, then, as we age, we come to things that we cannot quite manage to get down on paper.

    Take, as a famous example, the former president of the U.S., Richard Nixon. It seems unavoidable for us to say today that there were some things that he could have brought himself to put down on paper, things that he thought were too “expensive” (though he may not have thought of using that word). But how much he knew, how much of the corruption he was really responsible for, that is not my point. There were no doubt some things, at the age of 60 in 1973, that were truly too difficult to even say to himself, let alone put on paper.

    So, in terms of my analogy, writing comes down to careful shopping in our own minds. “A journey whose final destination we do no know?” Yes, sometimmes buying a bag of rice can be a questionable journey, as those among us with allegies can attest. But it’s better than sitting “at home” and letting someone feed their imagination/reports to us via video or games.

  2. Pingback: Learn to Feel Your Feelings | Real Rest is the Best

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