This is a question I get a great deal at workshops and readings. So you’re a writer, they say, what do you write? For so long, I found that hard to answer. But now after seven books and another coming out in 2020, some 400,000 words later, I think I know.
Sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? It isn’t meant to be.
The answer came to me after reading the story of one decade-old publisher and the discovery of a brand new publisher—both dedicated to the concept, as one puts it, that the mainstream is not the only stream. Both publishers appear to be bucking the commercial trends. One of them suggesting the kinds of writers—all famous—that would fit into the contemplative genre: Jack Kerouac, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder, and Walt Whitman. I won’t name the publishers because I don’t want them to be seen as the only ones with this philosophy, a philosophy that appears to be growing.
I am not comparing myself to the brilliant writers mentioned. But I am aspiring to think like them, write in their spirit, create from their inspiration. Not everything I’ve published would be considered to be in this contemplative style, but what I have come to find is that my writing has always been born from the contemplative tradition. My stories—both creative nonfiction and fiction—are quieter works, carrying themes that are less boisterous and more introspective. And what I have come to know is that I am still developing that style, discovering something new each time I sit down to write.
I recently finished Patti Smith’s latest—Year of the Monkey. This wonderful book focuses on a troubled year for her personally and also, in her estimation, for the country. And yes, it is contemplative literature—creative nonfiction tethered to deeper thought, memory, and the writer’s interior landscape. Another contemplative writer is Gretel Erlich. Her best work is The Solace of Open Spaces. One of my favorite books—ever. Others in this bucket: Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort; Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar; and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s four book series of short essays, Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer. There are many others.
For me, more than any other style, these are the works that last. The kind of writing that waits on your nightstand you wan to return to again and again. The kind of writing that lingers. It’s not flashy. It’s not plot driven. It’s not of-the-moment. It’s not what’s hot. Instead, contemplative literature comes from somewhere in the inner self and carries with it what resides only in our hearts and souls. These are books with a level of spiritual meaning, with weight, with a poet’s sensibility. If you write, think about what sensibility you are trying to reveal. Not that you have to be labeled or pigeonholed, but defining your work, your style, might help you get to your best writing.
Is it possible for me to ever write like those great contemplative writers? I certainly will continue to try; I certainly will keep reaching for it. And in the meantime when I’m asked that question again: What do you write? I will feel good about the answer.