I’ve gotten several requests lately from people who want to write about their spiritual experiences. A recent email asks, “Do you have any advice?” a question so broad that I could write a book to answer it, though I’m going to settle for a blog post. My hope is that this will be helpful to the many people who feel that longing to share their story in print (and that it will spare me the hours it could potentially take to answer each of these requests individually).

Here’s my first and main piece of advice: if you feel called to write, start writing.

I first started feeling the inner-nudge to write while I was working for a non-profit about 19 years ago. I started typing up funny or interesting things that happened at work. I took a few days of vacation in a cabin in the woods with my dog where I read Brenda Ueland’s encouraging classic, If You Want to Write, and scribbled one of my first articles in long-hand on a legal pad. A few months later, I left my job and became a resident student at a spiritual study center called Pendle Hill where I took a class called Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography, based on Dan Wakefield’s book. It was a wonderful class because it gave me a weekly assignment and an encouraging audience. Encouragement really helps, especially in the beginning.

I wrote a lot during my 15 months as a student and then a staff member at Pendle Hill. By the time I left, I had the idea for my first book, but I had also realized that writing was a craft as much as a calling, so I read books on how to improve as a writer. Because Natalie Goldberg encouraged daily writing practice, I took my black and white composition book out to grimy diners and scribbled descriptions of the people at the counter while I sipped my diner coffee. I worked at my book every day. I joined a writer’s group where we read each other’s work and argued over whether people improved from encouragement or critique (both, I believe, in the right measure). I started teaching writing in a prison. Eventually I was ready to write a book proposal and send it to agents, so I started reading the many bookson how to do that. So far I’ve published two books and many articles by following the standard publishing advice available on the shelves of Borders and many libraries.

That’s how I got started. I’m sure there are lots of ways, but I suspect they all involve writing a lot, at least if you want to get published and do this full time. Maybe you don’t, and that’s fine. I believe writing is a powerful spiritual practice, and there is much value in writing our stories, regardless of whether or not they are ever published or earn money (which is another matter entirely). I learned this teaching in the prison, watching women who had never been encouraged to express themselves find the joy of exploring their inner landscape. If you have the slightest urge to put your feelings and experiences into words, I say, do it! It will certainly be good for you and it may help other people, too. In the bigger scheme of things, I think it is good for the world when people know themselves and share their stories, though I realize that sounds a bit grandiose. 

But here’s where I want to offer caution along with encouragement. There are many myths about being a writer in our culture, and aspiring writers can sometimes get carried away with the fantasy. For example, we know that Elizabeth Gilbert had a rough divorce, ate a lot of gelato, and started praying—and that her memoir about this phase of her life became an international bestseller that has now been made into a motion picture starring Julia Roberts. “Well, I had a rough divorce, and I like gelato,” the aspiring writer might think, and before you know it they are paralyzed by the question of who will play them in the movie version of their life and whether they really want people to know about that time they couldn’t zip up their jeans—and so they stop writing. 

Here’s the thing people forget: Elizabeth Gilbert wrote since childhood. She wrote short stories in college and became a journalist. She honed her craft for 20 years before she published her memoir, which didn’t do nearly as well in hardcover as it later did in paperback. This doesn’t mean you should give up if you haven’t been at it for 20 years. Not at all. It just means you should forget about whatever fears or ambitions her story triggers, and start working. Gilbert herself gives a similar message in the Thoughts on Writing  page of her website, where she encourages potential writers to “take on this work like a holy calling” not from a desire for success or recognition. I agree, and I find it’s advice I need to give myself from time to time.

The questions I’m getting from aspiring writers are reminding me of my first impulse to write, which had nothing to do with amazon ranking or book sales. It’s good to stay in touch with that for as William Blake wrote (as quoted in Brenda Ueland’s book), “Imagination is the divine body in every man.” Nurture it.