God Assigns a Writing Exercise

by John Backman


Sometimes I have the urge to write but there is nothing to write, nothing that springs from the tenderest spot in my heart. Something is alive in that spot but it has no words, so my fingers on the keyboard do not move. Or they do move and make words anyway but the words are pallid: they fade the instant they hit the screen. Even chimpanzees can type words like that if they have enough time. I could do other things but I have to sit with this tenderest spot and I have no idea why.

What I’m doing can’t be called writing so I keep … typing, that’s the only word for it really, except I’m typing with one eye on that tender spot. Part of me is hoping for serendipity—Voilà! The very thing! and an essay pours forth. But it’s a lot to ask. So the exercise becomes a kind of zazen, the Buddhist practice of “just sitting” and non-thinking. The words do not serve a purpose; they just pass through like every other thought.

Except they don’t pass through. They sit there and breed a restlessness that doesn’t fit with zazen. Restlessness can be evidence of God’s calling, or so I’ve heard monks say. But to what? To chimp writing? A stubborn inner silence? Something not uttered because it’s unutterable?

Perhaps the result is the same. If it’s “just writing,” the quality of words makes no difference. If it’s writing as vocation, the quality of words makes no difference (I’ve been asked to be faithful, not create a masterwork). If I send this to a reader, maybe she finds a meaning in it, or a koan, or a Rorschach test. Maybe what she finds is the only thing that matters.

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