W is for… Writing

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I write quite a lot. Besides this blog, I also write academic work, poetry, fiction, and a host of more minor things like notes and tweets and emails. For a group generally in favour of silence, Quakers have not extended this to the written word, and we publish plenty (British Quakers have published enough in the last fifty odd years for it to form one of the cornerstones of my PhD, so I should know). Gil has posted often about the authors of older Quaker literature, too – there’s a grand tradition of spiritual autobiography among Friends which has formed the foundation of plenty of other research projects.

What is the significance of writing? It can be a spiritual practice, as in journalling, and to write regularly requires a self-discipline which is also demanded by other Quaker practices. It takes something which is basically public – our shared stock of words – and allows someone to record them privately, edit them, shape them, and then make them available for others to consider at leisure. It permits a long, slow conversation to develop down the ages; we see some of this in Quaker Faith and Practice, much of which is an anthology of Quaker writing. (Of course, from a historian’s point of view the things which get left out of anthologies are of equal interest, and no one anthology can represent the whole conversation… just the bits which interest us now.)

Writing can be outreach, inreach, informative, entertaining, vulnerable, abstract, inspired, or prosaic. (Sometimes all at once.) I acknowledge that writing is not for everyone, but for me it’s often the best way of sharing. Writing is also an important part of some Quaker processes, and in particular minute-writing is a skill unto itself.

Someone asked me once what the secret is to writing good minutes, and how I did it so well. I didn’t really have an answer, and I still don’t – I’ve been a Quaker a long term and heard a lot of minutes; I’ve served on committees and seen a lot of minutes, good and bad; I’ve tried to explain minutes to non-Quakers and seen their bafflement and frustration. One part of it, though, is probably that I spend so much time writing and practising writing. I’ve been writing poetry of my own since I was nine or ten; in my teens I spent a long time writing fanfic, stories set in other people’s worlds, and – this part is vital – having friends beta read it, and comment on it, and making my own edits as a result. There’s nothing quite a like an internet friend who knows you only through the written word going through your story and critiquing it in love. I’ve got more to learn and I still need readers and editors and commenters, but I learnt a lot from that process. Learning when to be detailed and when to cut to the chase is an important part of a good minute and of a good story. Being confident with the basics of writing helps. (That, and don’t worry about spelling in the handwritten draft, that’s for the typing up/dots and commas bit!) Also, a fanfic story is as much as community product as it is yours – the canon and the conversations and the commenters all feed into it, and in a similar way the Spirit and the gathered meeting own the minute, so it’s important to be open to that and accept help from all sides.

Practice makes perfect, they say. I don’t know if you can be a perfect writer – it’s conventional to say that essays are only marked up to 75 or 80 out of 100 because they could always be better – but I do know that writing a lot, in lots of different styles and contexts, makes me a better writer.

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