Some say there is a distinction for some between being an author and being a writer–authors write books and writers, write. Many of us, who serve as clergy in congregational and communal settings, especially at this season of the year, strive to resist being authors of sermons, articles or blogs and focus instead on being writers rabbis and teachers and leaders writing from our experiences about the issues and topics that touch us and trouble us, hoping to find the words that will open our own hearts and those who we serve, to do the sacred work of teshuvah.
For several years I used my writing practice at this season to explore the words of Psalm 27, verse by verse and phrase by phrase and my reflections were recently published as a book, technically makes me an author, but in my soul and practice I remain a writer. But as Elul approaches I find myself in need of a reminder, of what to do, how to begin writing that will open my heart on each of these 50 sacred days that will lead from Elul to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and finally to the joy of Simchat Torah.
This excerpt from the introduction and invitation of my book, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is as much about the daily practice it encourages as the work of writing that the season demands of clergy. It serves as a reminder to me of how to get started and I hope will encourage you as well.
Following the practice of my writing coach from nearly twenty years ago, with a more recent endorsement from John Grisham, I try to write in the same place, at the same time, every day. This builds muscle memory. “Ah yes,” my body says, “I sat in this chair, at this table, facing
this window, this wall, in this room, and I know what to do here.” The light is different, the temperature is different, the material, the fragment for focus is different. I am different today, but this time and this place are the same, and I know what to do here: I write.
I also need a clear uncluttered space in which to write, to limit my distractions (which I highly recommend even if you think all the stuff doesn’t bother you). Billy Collins says it perfectly in his poem “Advice to Writers”:
Clean the space as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
I’m not expecting the Pope, but am hopeful that I might encounter something holy—maybe God’s presence will alight on the desk or wrap itself around me or inspire me for just an instant in these five minutes. And so I prepare to experience Collins’s words:
You will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
What better way to welcome God’s presence,
to encourage it to join me for even an instant of inspiration.
I know it seems almost counter-intuitive to train oneself to write by writing, but as Mary Daly teaches, just as “we learn courage by couraging” we learn to write by writing. And so the practices of Opening the Heart with Psalm 27 are not only for lay people to use 50 days a year, they are for us, rabbis who are writers, at this season and in our souls, people who write not only to motivate others but to open our own hearts. And so this last bit of advice for myself, and perhaps for you my colleagues as well, also from the introduction and invitation (page xviii):
Writers, like athletes and musicians, have rituals that help them succeed at their work. While these rituals may seem to be quirky or repetitive, the routine is often transformed into a spiritual practice. Just as we can train the muscles of the hand to write, we can train the muscles of the heart to reflect, to create, and to connect with emotions, experiences, memories, hope, ourselves, and yes, God. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is a way to begin the training.
Rabbi Debra J. Robbins has served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas since 1991 and currently works closely with the Social Justice and Adult Jewish Learning Councils, the Pastoral Care department, a variety of Worship initiatives, and teaches classes for adults. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press.