Right after it happened, the horrible shooting in Las Vegas drew me into reflection on the causes of mass violence. For days I let the thoughts turn over in my mind and heart, paying attention to what emerged. I started writing an article about it, ran into roadblocks, and discovered I had the article’s primary and secondary focus exactly backward. A rewrite was in order.
Meanwhile, time and the news cycle marched on.
Name a current event, and I’ve been late to write about it. At least a week late, often more. This is a big problem for me. Maybe it’s a problem for every spiritual writer who grapples with current events.
The problem has to do with the usual writer metrics: visibility, reads, clicks, results that contribute to author platform. While I have no data on this, it stands to reason that tangible results go to the writers who communicate faster, whose writing hits the same news cycle as the event (or at least the next news cycle). In our short-attention-span world, their writing gets read, or heard, or watched because their topic is still in the headlines.
I can’t do that. I have to do what I did with the news from Vegas. So by the time I publish something, it’s old news, often ignored.
That’s not a whine; it’s just facts. I can’t be a contemplative spiritual writer without contemplating, and contemplation takes time. So my chances for market success slip away.
And yet all that contemplating turns up something different. It may be late, but it is often fresh, sometimes invaluable.
Almost immediately after the shooting, the commentators I heard brought up the same old arguments about access to guns, mental illness, access to guns for people with mental illness. Of course they did: there’d been no time to process anything further. To give them their due, those arguments are important in any conversation on the topic, and the “first responder” commentators do us some service by raising them again. But they’ve also become political footballs, so their restatement after Las Vegas accomplished little.
Meanwhile, the questions that turned up in my deepest self were different and, I would submit, deeper. Why is violence so deeply embedded in American culture? Is there anything we can do about it? Why are nearly all mass shooters men?
These questions don’t get asked nearly as much. Perhaps, if writers like me (and others) start asking them, we might get a fuller, more accurate, more useful picture of what’s happening with mass shootings. It might spark a breakthrough in the steps taken to reduce their frequency.
Is that a good enough result for a spiritual writer? For me it is (though it took me years to get to that point). But the answer will vary with each writer. It really comes down to why we write in the first place.
The marketplace for “late” contemplative writers may be small. But I can’t help thinking we—our world, our species—need them too, as much as we need writing’s version of first responders. If you’re on the contemplative side, your writing may not win you a comfortable retirement. But it can make a difference.
About the Author
A spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing).