Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Writing Process for Writing Prayers

Yesterday, I wrote about writing prayers for Bread for the Day.  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).  I was to write a prayer based on the Bible passage given.

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 (this 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.

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.

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