Writing on a Prayer

“But I have trusted in thee, O Light, and said: Thou art my saviour. And my commandment, which thou hast decreed for me, is in thy hands. Save me out of the hands of the emanations of Self-willed, which oppress me and persecute me. Send thy light over me, for I am as naught before thee, and save me according to thy compassion. Let me not be despised, for I have sung praises unto thee, O Light. Let chaos cover the emanations of Self-willed, let them be led down into the darkness. Let the mouth of them be shut up, who would devour me with guile, who say: Let us take the whole light in her, – although I have done them no ill.” Pistis Sophia, First Book, selection from Chapter 48, translation by G.R.S. Mead (revised edition, 1921)

I will admit to enjoying the eggheaded pastime of reading the sacred books of the world’s many religious traditions. To me the correct approach in this is to take any given work as a piece of literature and give claims to exclusivity no truck. There is no doubt something to the numinous, but truth has many forms and can be found in many guises. “Let that which speaks, speak” would be my motto if I were to have one. History calls to us from these books of the distant and near past, but for all their epochal idiosyncrasies there is so much recognizable in these authors’ cries. Being human, after all, is not so different now from what it was in the third to fourth centuries CE (the above’s likely period of composition), nor the sixth century BCE (for Job – surely one of the Hebrew Bible’s highlights), nor even the fifteenth to twelfth centuries BCE (for the Rigveda). We are social animals of remarkable consistency amidst all our situational changes, and our needs then are our needs now as our needs tomorrow will be too. A shrug of the shoulders, a return to the page, and another passage of prayer found – calling out to the divine for help, for benefits, for recompense on those who have wronged the writer.

You have to wonder if this is how the divine wishes to be addressed. So many desires, so much of “give me this” and “please for that” and “don’t let them get away with it”. It can all seem so petty, but then the world is a scary place and who among us hasn’t wished for some help from time to time? We can perhaps cut our ancient friends some slack. But our characters? In many ways we stand in relation to them as the standard understanding of the divine does to us. Creator, controller, interactive and in charge. (And incidentally, one of gnosticism’s many interesting points is that for its theology the divine is only some or none of those, depending on the subgroup.) The people that we inhabit our worlds with very quickly take on lives of their own and then raise their concerns to us as we might in our moments of need. Do we listen?

The question is deeper than it may appear. You have your structure, your plot has been laid and meticulously planned, your characters have layers of details to them – some more than others – and the relations between she and he, they and there, it now onto that, all have careful forethought invested. Then suddenly out of nowhere Main Character A runs off the page in an explosion of spontaneity as you’re in the middle of writing chapter four. You didn’t see this coming; but then that’s when a story gets really interesting, when it takes on its own momentum and asserts its own voice. Or does it? Does it be allowed to? This is where we must choose carefully.

If we grant our imagination free reign all organization may well go out the window, but what a ride it will be. Maybe – it could after all prove to be a disaster. If, on the other hand, we pull back, rein in, and return a firm hand to our work in progress and its mutinous denizens we do maintain control, but at the cost of stifling potential serendipity. Is there a middle ground here? Rewriting later is always an option, but only for those with the time and patience to do so. How much are we ready to give? The craft, I think, does seem to call for both, and so to favor the former of our listed options. The creative process is a spontaneous one, the muse strikes when she will, and a writer with neither the time nor patience to rewrite is, well, a journalist. To my mind then rather than playing God to our characters we instead say our prayers to them, we pay them heed and let the lives we have breathed in break loose and teach us what they will in the worlds we have shaped. We see what happens, where the paths lead, and then – then – we rework, re-plan, juggle, shift, and twist, smiling all the while at the unpredictability of our own penned fiction.


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