Essay: Of Dreams and Poets by Susan Yanos
Susan Yanos was selected last year as our 2018 Frontier Fellow—she is a wonderfully insightful writer and represents a voice and perspective not heard enough in our shared creative spaces (order her debut collection The Tongue Has No Bone from Finishing Line Press today!). We’re grateful to her for sharing with us this essay—so often our community gets attention-trapped in the political fight for equality and justice, that we forget the original spring that likely drew us to poetry: contact with the eternal.
Of Dreams and Poets: The Links between Creativity and Spirituality
Several years ago, children haunted my dreams. In one, I was given a box of puppies at work I didn’t want but took home anyway where they promptly transformed into wailing babies who urinated on my husband’s side of the bed. In another, a son I didn’t know I had was found after years in captivity, pale and thin, barely alive. Other dreams were more sinister. It didn’t take a Jungian therapist to tell me these children manifested my creative source, and it wasn’t coincidental they’d come when I was researching links between spirituality and creativity. Only when I started practicing what I was reading did the children leave me.
I now realize the creative process, especially if entered intentionally, is spiritual work. It’s a discipline I embrace to encounter the mystery of being. Walt Whitman said a poet’s life is her/his greatest poem. I’ve decided he meant poets should search for meaning, for truth, in such intentional ways they not only write poems which are truth; they actually live it, become it. The truth within responds to the truth without. Emerson called this the moment when the spirit leaps to the trope. I agree. Without literature, my spirit would have withered, malnourished like that little boy of my dream. Yet without spirit, literature remains so many dead words on the page.
Research shows that spirituality is necessary for resilience. At the heart of spirituality is connection. If we’re to be resilient writers able to thrive through the challenges of a writing career with its solitary endeavors and frequent rejections, we’d do well to consider creativity as a way toward connection with our material, our readers, our world, our deepest selves. Here are four aspects the creative process shares with the spiritual journey, revealing the liminal space between them. (I’ve adapted these from Earle Coleman’s Creativity and Spirituality.)
The potter M.C. Richards opens her book on creativity, aptly titled Centering, with a joke about a husband who believes the secret to his long and happy marriage is that he and his wife divide responsibilities. She makes all minor decisions, such as where and how they’ll live, educate their children, and plan for retirement. He handles the major decisions such as what U.S. policy should be in world affairs.
The joke illustrates what goes on in marriage: a union of separate concerns. Similarly, poets fuse the separate concerns of wife and husband: the questions of technique and the questions of meaning. Where should I insert this image into the poem? Why do I need this image? How does metaphor work?
Yet what prompted these questions was an encounter—a sensory impression, idea, being. Both spiritual journey and creative process are triggered by an experience of spiritual/aesthetic presence (the “meaning”) followed by a search to understand this experience, often aided by specialized preparation (learning the tradition’s “technique”).
Don’t be surprised if dryness follows a sublime experience. Although we may feel dry, we’re actually undergoing a slow refinement of understanding and skills. Metaphors for the writing process reveal how it acts as an incubator for what the aesthetic experience engenders: unwrapping the gift (reminding us that creativity’s products are more given than made, more received than labored for), owning your own story (suggesting that the self is an important element of the artistic process), or my favorite, centering clay on the wheel. To position clay, a potter must position the self in regards to the clay, as well as to the wheel and surroundings. Some potters take years to master centering. The trick, I understand, is not to leave things out—by shutting out distractions—but to bring everything in. For writers, centering is integrating all the realities we encounter of body and spirit, emotions and will, even those we’d prefer not to claim.
Eventually we “see” the way to continue, becoming in-spirited with meaning and form. Both pilgrims and poets are mystics in this sense. And both need compassion, for isn’t compassion a mode of perception? Compassion allows us to feel what another feels, identify with others, imagine ways of living other than one’s own. In this way creativity becomes the bridge between the invisible and the visible. “Art does not reproduce the visible,” said artist Paul Klee; “rather it makes visible.” And poets make readers trip on the concrete, helping them see what they’ve missed due to preoccupation or insensitivity. Before we can do that, we must first trip on the concrete ourselves!
Because becoming visible isn’t a linear process, the spiritual/artistic journey may circle back to further incubation, or new sublime encounters occur. Spiritual writers describe the journey as a spiral, ever returning but never quite to the same place.
We produce individual poems, yes, but also a way of life, requiring a commitment to hone the perception gained. Ironically, it’s best to commit to the work, not to a lifestyle. It helps me to work in many areas, not just those which might result in publication, and to try new forms unfamiliar to me.
When I rediscovered writing as play—delighting in process for its own sake—I became more receptive, capable of wonder, and flexible. Like a spiritual pilgrim, I adopted a pregnant passivity enabling me to abandon obsessing over the outcome, to be in a state of readiness for vision and action, to explore material without committing too soon to a particular form or even a particular project. After all, the key difference between a poor and skilled writer is that the poor writer cannot tolerate the chaos of the writing process and wants to end it quickly.
If spirituality is consciously living an authentic life, the journey/writing should change its pilgrim/poet because of the engagement with process. I believe that’s what Whitman meant. The writing act does transform me as I transform my encounters into words and lines on the page. As I write, I am also written.
Susan Yanos is the author of the collection of poetry The Tongue Has No Bone (Finishing Line Press), Woman, You Are Free: A Spirituality for Women in Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press), and is co-editor and co-author of Emerging from the Vineyard: Essays by Lay Ecclesial Ministers (Fortuity Press). Her poems, essays, and articles have appeared in several journals and publications, including Saint Katherine Review, Presence, Bearings, Dictionary of Midwestern LiteratureVolume Two, and the on-line journal Atrium. She is also the recipient of the 2018 Frontier Poetry New Voices Fellowship. She has been a professor of writing and literature, pastoral minister, spiritual director, and editor. She lives with her husband on their farm in east central Indiana where she tends to her hens, fruit trees, and gardens.