Overcoming challenges to write
Today we have an interview with author Paul Maurice Martin, whose non-fiction book Original Faith: What Your Life Is Trying to Tell You came out last year.
Paul has a wonderful story about writing while overcoming illness.
Thanks for being on DayByDayWriter today, Paul, and congratulations on your book. Please tell us a little about Original Faith and how it came into being.
Thanks for having me, Samantha. Original Faith is a nonsectarian guide to spiritual growth. It speaks in terms of direct experience instead of doctrine about topics that include love, faith, work and getting beyond our egoism. The book offers readers insight as well as practical suggestions – I see the two as very much related. Original Faith is meant to enrich the faith of believers while highlighting the most energizing and creative features of inner life for nonbelievers.
The book started itself. When I was twenty-three, I had a spontaneous experience of the kind that people often seek through meditation. At that time, I’d never meditated or studied religion. I only knew that the experience was profoundly positive and a direct challenge to the despairing world view that I’d developed beginning in my teens.
I started to see things differently, to experience life differently. I started jotting down ideas that were occurring to me just to help my own thought-process along. Several months later, I noticed it looked like my notes might be shaping up into a book manuscript.
By then, my life had been truly transformed. I’d gone from a mental state that I’m sure was clinically depressed to depression free – and the depression would never return. I was headed in a new direction that would soon take me to the University of Chicago Divinity School for a master’s degree and later a second master’s in counseling from the University of New Hampshire.
You had a break in writing due to illness. Was it difficult to starting writing again after so many years, and if so, what helped you finish?
It was a long break all right. I had to stop writing for ten years because I was working full-time, my health was declining, and I was dealing with ongoing medical travel, research into rare diseases, and major health insurance struggles.
Starting to write again was difficult only in the sense that I had to re-familiarize myself with my notes and files. But in another way, it was easy. I was at a point where my illness was progressing so fast that it was clear that if I didn’t organize and transfer my handwritten notes to the computer soon, then I was going to run out of time. I was rapidly losing the mobility and range of motion needed to work with paper files.
Do you have a routine that you use for your writing, and if so, could you tell us about it?
Most of the creative work on Original Faith and most of my creative writing in other areas as well was done when I was still healthy. I used to get up in the early hours of the morning to write before heading for work. Late in the afternoon or early in the evening at the end of my workday just didn’t work out – it wasn’t a creative time for me.
When I’ve heard other writers interviewed, I seem to notice that more often than not they write in the morning. Ideally, I’d have written between maybe 8 AM and 11 AM or noon. But since I had to go to work, getting up at around 3 AM and writing until between 6 and 7 AM was second best.
Of course, the hard thing about 3 AM is getting up that early and having to go to bed early. But in writing terms, it worked well. Once I’d gotten up and had a couple cups of coffee, I could write effectively at that hour. The key for me was to write not long after waking up so as to have a fresh, uncluttered mind.
I read that you started your day with meditation sessions. Could you tell us about what you do to meditate? Do you think it helps you be creative?
I learned to meditate from the late Fr. Basil Pennington at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. He taught a very simple form of meditation. It consists of repeating a word that you’ve chosen for this purpose – for example, “love,” “peace,” or “God” – and repeating it to yourself each time you exhale.
The purpose isn’t to think about the meaning of the word, but to make the word a continuing focus of attention to prevent your mind from engaging in its normally ceaseless background chatter. So even just a sound – like the famous “Om” – could work as well as a word. Every time your mind starts to wander, you return to the word or sound.
You might say that the purpose of meditation is to find out what your mind can do if you give it a break from not saying things to yourself. Giving your mind a break from mental chatter on a regular basis can do amazing things over time. These include gradually making you a calmer person in day to day life and deepening your personal relationship with God or life itself, according to how you think about these things – again, my focus is experience itself and not belief systems.
I’d be surprised if these effects didn’t indirectly enhance my creativity. For sure there were two key insights that I discuss in Original Faith that came to me as a direct outcome of reflecting on a particular kind of experience that I sometimes had while meditating.
Both of these insights concern love – a spiritual experience that crosses all sectarian divisions. Love is the subject of Original Faith’s first chapter and the foundation for everything that follows.
Thanks, Paul, and good luck with the book.
And for those reading this, reflecting on your story in the way we’ve talked about on this blog is a kind of meditation, I guess, but the deep kind of meditation that Paul talks about is something people study for years. If you want to try it, I suggest you study it carefully first.