How St. Ignatius is Changing my Writing
or at least his prayer practices are…
I studied and worked in Jesuit Higher Education for almost a decade. Throughout all that time, I never thought about the importance of the Examen as a resource for my writing. The Examen is a five-step daily prayer that the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius, developed and passed on to his fellow priests. The five-steps guide you through a reflection of your day to look for patterns in your behavior to that lead you to God or away. While I valued the prayer form, and used it daily, I never applied it to my writing until recently.
Here is a basic translation of St. Ignatius’s five-steps:
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
As I edited a new writing project, I found myself adapting the five-steps of the Examen to help guide my process. Let me explain that there have been many variations and applications of the examen to different walks of life. There is one framework for parents and for teenagers. There are also frameworks for the ecology and other social justice issues, too. So, as I looked to see if someone had created a version for writers and Google told me no. So my five-steps took this shape:
Step 1. I calmed myself and prayed for the ability to view my writing impartially. Sometimes this took a few times and a few days of distance. Sometimes this meant seeking guidance from God.
Step 2. I reviewed my work. As I did, I looked at the theme, basic grammar and sentence structure, and continuity. I allowed myself to live into my story and walk with my characters, listen to my characters, and stand in the scenes where they loved and fought, succeeded and failed.
Steps 3 (and 4). I paid attention to my emotions. As I read through my story, I looked for moments of inspiration and excitement as well as moments of doubt and frustration. Conflict and tension are essential for good storytelling. But conflict that is forced and unnatural is just as detrimental as a character acting against their values. Thus, the goal of these steps is to find where the authenticity of my characters shines through the narrative. Moments of inspiration bring out the truth in a character and advance their growth and the plot’s development while moments of frustration pull the narrative away, down an alley and into a dumpster without a means of escape.
Step 5. I made notes for tomorrow. I’m not sure if other writers feel this way, but editing takes a lot more out of me than first drafts. Thus, I jotted notes on what worked and didn’t. I sketched out a couple ideas of how to correct the frustrating sections (if they are salvageable), and I ended my evening with a note of thanks. My thanks went to God, my characters (especially if I ended their story arc), and to my family for the hours I steal away in my office imagining and crafting worlds.
I may change the structure down the road, I am a Pantser after all, but I’ve found these steps to help clarify my thoughts and provide direction to my short stories. Hopefully the areas of frustration will diminish compared to the moments of inspiration. Time will tell!