I love guest posts, and this one particularly resonated with me. I like to think I'm not alone in beating myself up when my writing routine falls apart or in worrying when I struggle to write. I'm thrilled to have Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah visit gilagreenwrites and offer some deep and meaningful reflections on the practice and art of writing. Welcome Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah!
Amy Grossblatt Pessah is a rabbi, author, and mom. She received her MAJE from HUC-JIR and has been a Jewish educator for over thirty years, with a specialization in Jewish Family Education. Amy was trained as a certified spiritual director and received her ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. For over three decades, Amy has been a student of mindfulness and Jewish mysticism. She has written articles that have been published in various books and is proud that her first book, Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) is now available.
"For years I berated my lack of routine as lazy and irresponsible--until I finally realized that I am more of a "kavannah" writer than a "keva" writer."by Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah
Keva (routine) or Kavannah (inspirational) Writing?
I've always admired those individuals who have a dedicated morning writing practice. While I have kept a diary since I was eight years old and have amassed numerous journals spanning nearly four decades, I, nonetheless, have never been able to set aside a daily writing time. For years, I berated myself, my inner voice belting out, "If you had discipline or were a "real" writer, you would have created a daily writing session."
Thankfully, over the years, my inner voice has become kinder and gentler. In addition to being a rabbi, I am also a writer. With my rabbinate requiring a great deal of writing: sermons and divrei Torah (short teachings about Torah), eulogies and other lifecycle events, more recently, I have started writing blogs, articles, and a newly published book. Writing has become an integral part of who I am—professionally and personally. And yet…that inner voice sometimes rears her ugly head.
In thinking through this personal challenge, an unlikely parallel from the world of Jewish prayer provided me with a helpful paradigm. Jewish tradition teaches that there are two distinct categories of prayer: keva and kavannah, roughly translated as routine/fixed and spontaneous/inspirational. The words found in the prayer book are considered keva- fixed, the non-prescriptive words, those that emerge from our hearts, kavannah. For years I berated my lack of routine as lazy and irresponsible--until I finally realized that I am more of a "kavannah" writer than a "keva" writer.
It is not as if I am incapable of keva writing. I write regularly in my rabbinate and often times my writing requires the use of a hermeneutic template. When working on my book, Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children, I wrote almost daily, and when it came time to complete the manuscript, I was writing between six and eight hours at a time. I know that I am able to do the heavy-lifting of maintaining a fixed writing schedule; nevertheless, I feel more at home in the realm of kavannah writing.
For me, kavannah writing has a spiritual component, a knowing that is hard to elucidate. It might sound strange to say that I feel an internal stirring and then a knowing that follows instructing me that I must sit down and write. This guidance may be in response to a walk taken in nature or an exchange that I have with a friend or family member. Mid-experience, I feel a "tapping," and I know that I've been guided to write. What I have come to understand is that while I may not be sitting down at a keyboard typing, this time and space for thinking and processing is also an essential part of my writing.
Although it does not look like writing per se, this imagining, dreaming, and listening ultimately find its way into my writing. I liken this process to a recipe; if I am going to prepare a delicious pot of soup, I must gather the ingredients needed. I can stand over the stove and stir an empty pot but if I have no vegetables, spices, broth, or grains, I can't produce anything tasty. So, too, with my writing. The more time I spend alone, walking, harvesting, and collecting ideas, the more flavorful and interesting my writing will be.
For decades, this has been my experience. I imagine, for some, what I have described will completely resonate with you and for others, it may not. For me, this spiritual writing comes from the place of Mystery, the Beyond, Beyond the Beyond. It is a place of inspiration that flows from the shefa, the Divine Flow of Abundance. Jewish mystics teach that it is from this shefa, flow, that God created the world and continues to create the world a new, daily. When I am connected to this shefa, I, too, feel creative and generative. This term is not just found in the mystical realm, we also use it in our everyday parlance when we talk about "being in the flow," and the ability to receive inspiration, as we create anew.
The upside of knowing what it feels like to be in flow and connected, means that I also know what it feels like to not feel that way. Days, even weeks might pass, when I don't feel the "call." I become fearful that I am unable to tap into the shefa and that I will be left without a way to express myself, a way to connect with others. During these times, I've learned to look inward, work on my faith and trust, and know that when the timing is right, the ideas and words will return.
Over the years, I have come to create a spiritual practice to help keep me open to the inspiration. Here are a few ways that I try to stay open to kavannah writing:
1) Meditate: Before I get out of bed, I have a morning practice and before I go to sleep at night, I meditate again. Each practice includes reciting a few prayers, and either setting my intentions for the day or reviewing how the day unfolded at night. There are even some days when I feel that I need an afternoon "plug-in" to Source energy and I will add that to my day. Each of these meditation times last around 5-20 minutes. While, I strive to meditate twice daily, of course, there are days that does not happen. I find that by connecting to Something Greater than myself, I receive insight and inspiration that will strengthen my writing.
2) Spend time in nature: I try to get outside daily, even if it is for a brief amount of time. I am incredibly grateful to live close to the beach and love the time I spend there, sinking my toes into the sand and allowing the warm waters to rush over my feet. In addition to connecting with the energy of the beach, I appreciate connecting to the energy of the trees. In each neighborhood that I have lived, I find one favorite tree and often times find myself visiting and hugging her. Admiring the beauty and vastness inherent in the natural world allows me to clear my head and heart. When I am immersed in nature, I feel more relaxed and find that the words flow more freely when I, myself, am in a state of relaxation and flow.
3) Create spaciousness in my life: Despite a hectic schedule, I strive to create balance in both my professional and personal schedules by providing myself with a bit of cushioning. Instead of planning back-to-back meetings all day long, I create breaks. Again, this might not always be possible, so, on the days that are super hectic, I remind myself to pause and practice a couple of minutes of mindful breathwork, a brief moment of rest. I have learned (unfortunately, the hard way) that the more space I can create in my life, the more openings I will have created for shefa to flow in.
4) Live in the world of imagination: As a young child, one of my favorite things to do was look up at the clouds and watch them change shapes. Within them, I saw dragons, dancers, and dolphins. Even as a grown adult, I regularly find myself looking up, following the clouds moving and shifting. A friend recently sent a photo of a tree and shared that if you look closely, the bark appears giraffe-like. How many of us take time to take part in this kind of play? Some might even refer to it as "child's play." Albert Einstein is quoted with saying, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I could not agree more. By allowing our imagination to soar, by finding unlikely connections, our lives become enriched, as we see things from different vantage points. It is from this place of imagination that my writing deepens.
So now, I ask you to take a few moments to reflect on what kind of writer you are. With which kind of writing do you feel most comfortable? Do you inhabit the keva world? The kavannah world? Or do you have a balance between the two?
While I clearly resonate with kavannah writing, I have not given up on myself. Even after all of my years of unsuccessful keva writing, I continue to strive to include this kind of writing into my life. My goal is to have a daily writing practice. Jewish tradition teaches the need for both keva and kavannah in prayer and I believe this importance is true in the world of writing as well. How can I generate a balance between the two—a fixed practice and an inspirational practice?I do not yet have the answer but I pray that one day I will find this balance in my own life and I pray that the Source of All will continue to flow into me as I continue to write and create.