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DIVINE GIFTS I: Exploring The Gift of Writing
by Leah Kotkes

Part One of a two part series as it appeared in Hamodia Torah Magazine Section (December 6, 2002)

Yehoshua ben Perachya teaches us "Accept a teacher for yourself, acquire a friend and judge everyone favorably." (Pirkei Avos 1.6) Hakodesh Baruch Hu hands us our lessons for life on a gold platter when we make a commitment to His divine Torah. Within His instructions and teachings are opportunities that contain the potential to guide us towards achieving our true task. Each of us is born with unique divine gifts, and in His great kindness Hashem also entrusts us with the unique tools that can help us to be more focused, zealous and successful in our avodas Hashem. To our great joy, when we discover our gifts and become a craftsman in using these tools, life can take on new meaning, and we can rise to new levels our avoda.

The homiletic interruption of the phrase acquire a friend can include the meaning "acquire a reed as a friend" because from a reed you can fashion a quill, a tool for written communication. Through the divine gift of writing we can achieve a depth of expression that flows from our neshama. Through writing we can connect with our inner selves and with others and, ultimately, create a more meaningful and intimate relationship with Hakodesh Baruch Hu. This is something we all yearn for and something He ultimately desires from us. There are many ways one can utilize the divine gift of writing, let us explore them together.

The Urge to Write

Sheina Medwed is a writer and clinical therapist with advanced degrees in both creative writing and clinical sociology. The author of A Mother's Favorite Stories (Mesorah/Artscroll) and originator of "Write From Your Heart", creative and expressive writing workshops for women, she is currently writing with Leah Kaufman, Live, Remember, Tell the World, The Story of Leah Kaufman, Hidden Child Survivor from Transnistria.

Sheina admits that if there is one epigram that epitomizes her feeling about her work, it is "I'd rather write than do anything else." For her, writing is a part of her being, an extension of the way she relates to the world. Her life would be entirely different without her divine gift, she says.

I believe she has much to share with us as we begin our discussion of this gift. Not only does she speak from her writer's heart, she has also acquired invaluable practical experience along the way from the creative and therapeutic writing workshops, she has conducted for women of all ages. Her training and experience as a therapist, using writing as a therapeutic tool, adds to the sum total of what we can learn from her.

"Creativity is a divine gift," Sheina says "but the way we develop it can be an exercise in free will. A woman who likes to write might wish to use it as a form of personal self-expression, by keeping a journal, writing poems and stories for her family and friends, bringing joy to loved ones through beautiful letters.

"A person who wants to write professionally must take the practice of her craft seriously and to develop the habit of 'stealing time' to write. I find that a common misconception about being a writer is that you have to feel inspired. Inspiration is lovely, but waiting for it to strike will not get your work done. What is wonderful about writing is that it is a portable profession. You don`t need to have fancy computer equipment, ideal office space or sufficient peace and quiet. If you really want to write, write!"

Sheina encourages women to write for the following reasons:

1. For relaxation and stress-reduction: In the course of a typically busy day, a woman generally copes with many responsibilities. At the end of the day she may easily feel like a juggler riding a unicycle across a tightrope. Writing can be a way to simply detach yourself from the stress of daily life. You can release whatever is pressing on your mind merely by writing it down in a safe, non-judgmental way. This can bring inner clarity and can place events and feelings in perspective.

At some time later you may wish to share your insights, thoughts or ideas with someone who cares or who may be in a position to give you guidance. You may also choose not to share your writing with anyone else.

2. For clarification of values.
Writing can help you reveal to yourself your deepest priorities and get to the core of your real values and needs.

3. For character development and personal growth.
Writing can help you work on and develop character traits that you are striving for.

4. For dealing with anger.
Writing can be a tool to clear out negative thoughts and emotions. Everyone wants to have the right feelings and the right thoughts and ultimately achieve the right actions. What happens when we think, feel or act contrary to how we want to feel or what the Torah expects of us? How can we cope with anger in a way that respects our inner privacy and yet allows us to integrate Torah values? Writing is one way.

Letting off Steam

In the book Woman to Woman (Artscroll/Mesorah), Rebbetzin Ester Greenberg a"h, cites a writing exercise mentioned in the book The Chovos HaTalmidim. Instead of letting off steam by getting back at someone and giving him what you think he deserves, and thereby ruining the relationship, sit down with pen and paper. Paper is very patient; you can write down whatever you like. Write a letter to the person who made you angry and give him the biggest telling off you can possibly think of. Let it out; write it all down. Then, when you have finished, don't send it.

If you feel a little relieved of some of your anger but still haven`t removed it entirely, read it aloud to yourself. Then put it in a drawer where nobody will see it. You will find that, by having written it all down, you have rid yourself of your resentment.

Repeat the last step (reading out loud), until you no longer feel angry. Then destroy the letter. The next time you meet the person you'll be able to say, "Hello, how are you!" with no anger at all. You have disposed of the anger in the best possible way without doing any harm or damage to anyone." (ibid., 63)

Chazal tell us that the best art a person can learn in this world is how to become mute (Chullim 89a; Chofetz Chaim, A Lesson a Day). When you think about the importance and function of language, this is an awesome statement. An art is something that takes time to learn, usually with a period of apprenticeship and years until you become a master. Chazal are telling us to master the art of silence, and to learn to restrain our natural desire to communicate.

Writing can be extremely effective in helping us practice this art. If we can first work things out quietly on paper, place them in proper perspective, and give ourselves time to reflect and think, then we have a much better chance of allowing "the nobility of our souls to surface and preserving our relationships with others and with Hashem." Rebbetzin Greenberg's practical exercise fits in perfectly here.

"We are living in a time of tremendous challenges," Sheina says. "A person may be feeling lonely, desperate, scared, depressed and in despair. The simple act of bringing these feelings to light on paper, in and of itself, has therapeutic and healing value."

"A study conducted by a professor of psychology from Dallas, Texas, revealed the positive benefits of therapeutic writing on the immune system. A group of adults were instructed to write down disturbing details of their lives, while the control group was instructed to write about superficial topics. At the end of the study, blood tests showed improved immune function in the first group who put their negative experiences down on paper. The tests were repeated six months later and indicated that their immune systems were still functioning better.

"A practical and effective cleaning-out exercise is to sit down with a pen and paper or at your computer. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Put your pen on the paper and write, saying to yourself, 'In this moment, I am……' and then write whatever comes to your mind. It is a good idea to do this at various levels of being, for example, with the following phrases: `In this moment, I am thinking…..`, `At this moment, I am feeling in my heart…`, `Right now my body feels…`

"When we are able to use writing to help us clear out negative emotions, we will be in a much better position to see Hashem in our lives and conduct ourselves in ways which reflect our divine image."

After she completes the manuscript of "Live, Remember, Tell the World", Sheina Medwed will conduct creative writing workshops in Yerushalayim.

Personal Writing Style:

Writing offers a variety of possibilities for personal growth. Rebbetzin Ruchama Shain, who began writing her first book only twenty years ago, believes that "writing is an uplifting experience; it allows us to share our feelings". Rebbetzin Shain writes about her personal experiences and insights she gained from teaching. Each of her books focuses on a different aspect of, or stage in, her life. Her intimate writing style makes the reader feel, for the moment, that the Rebbetzin is speaking directly to her and that she is reliving the experience with the author. Rebbetzin Shain has a divine gift of eloquence in both oral communication and the written word. In her latest book All for the Boss (Feldheim) she brings us up to date on her family chronicle.

There are different ways to develop a personal writing style and form of expression. We may choose to keep our writing private, yet still enjoy seeing it mature in the course of time and achieve a higher literary level. We might want to prepare our writing for publication, which has different requirements. There are several Orthodox women writing today who have traveled along both roads and met with great success.
Sarah Shapiro is the author of Growing With My Children: A Jewish Mother's Diary; Don't You Know It's a Perfect World, and other essays; and A Gift Passed Along: A Woman Looks at the World Around Her (Artscroll). She is the editor of the Artscroll Judaiscope Anthology: Of Home and Heart, and of the two-volume anthology of Jewish women's writing, Our Lives (Targum.)

As a teacher of writing workshops in Yerushalayim for the past ten years, Sarah says "It has always struck me as mysterious that so many of us feel an intense and insistent longing to write. The life of each one of us is a unique, ongoing story of a personal exodus from Mitzrayim, and many of us have a strong compulsion to write down some aspect of what we have seen, experienced and learned along the way. The need to convey it to others is an inexplicable impulse planted in many a Jewish soul."

Sarah says it has become apparent to her that "whenever a person is nagged relentlessly by the desire to write, this in itself is a reliable sign that he or she has been equipped with a corresponding ability to fulfill the desire. The ability may not have been given a chance to flower for some reason, but someone who wants to write need not fear that it's too late. It is never too late to develop this inborn gift for words."

Nonetheless, her encouragement comes with a warning. "Sometimes an inner conflict arises when the longing to write cannot be immediately fulfilled. There are all sorts of reasons, internal and external, that prevent a person who likes to write from doing so, and this can cause frustration.

"My own experience includes long years of frustration. But when I started giving workshops, that's when I found out that this is a very common phenomenon. We get this illusory idea in our minds that if we're not writing, we're not expressing ourselves in a meaningful way. It's an illusion that can make us view our own daily lives as mere impediments, G-d forbid, to doing what we really want to do.'

"During the years when my children were small and I had neither the time nor the mental space to write anything at all, it would have benefited me to understand that writing is just one of the countless ways to use the creativity Hashem gives us. Opportunities for self-expression abound in everyday life. Even in developing one's writing ability, what we need to be develop first and foremost is our own self.

"It's precisely our daily pursuits, our working in our jobs, relating to friends, family and neighbors, our mothering or housekeeping, or all the myriad activities we perform - all these ground us and can ultimately make us better writers. It would have benefited me at the beginning to understand why the root of the word for art, omanut, is the same as that of the word emuna.

"It might have increased my patience and diminished my frustration had I defined human creativity not merely in terms of tangible art, but in terms of our divinely given ability to do small, daily, mundane acts of chessed in a thousand different ways.

"About twenty years ago, I heard Rav Noach Weinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, declare that the highest human artistry is not necessarily manifested in that which can be achieved with a pen, a paintbrush, or a musical instrument. 'Give someone a compliment,` he said, `and see him smile. That's power. That's creativity`".

Having expressed these words of caution in hope that the desire to write should not become the source of frustration that it once did for her, Sarah offers the following jump-starting your writing:

1. Get an attractive writing notebook, the kind that makes you want to spend money on a new pen. But it should not be so exquisite or expensive that you'll worry about messing it up.

2. Carry it with you so that random moments turn into writing moments. You don't have to restrict yourself to any particular objectives; the notebook can have multiple uses, all of which will invariably heighten your awareness and bring out different aspects of your life. It can be used for jottings that only you will ever read or notes that will evolve and end up being published.

The chief advantage to having something published is that it will encourage you to keep writing. But many people keep journals for years and writing becomes an indispensable part of their lives without publishing a thing.

The art of writing is said to be the art sitting down with a pencil in hand. In other words, you are your own best teacher; it's the process of writing itself that will strengthens your unique voice, develop the mental habit of turning perceptions into words, hone your literary judgment, and refine your ability to edit your own work.

Do not be deterred by the critical voice within that says you're silly and presumptuous to even imagine you have anything to say. Be tolerant of this voice but ignore it. It will never completely quiet down.

Someone once said that when he wrote what he thought other people were interested in, nobody paid any attention. So he wrote about what he himself was interested in, and everyone was fascinated.

Your notebook's most obvious use is as a record of daily experiences. One woman who has kept journals for years says that to her surprise, it is often the least profound, least exciting entries that she finds of interest. Do not be afraid of considering earthshaking topics, such as, "I'm on the o 4 bus, going to pay my telephone bill." Such is the stuff of our existence. Preserve these seemingly insignificant events and years from now you will recognize that all of it is a treasure.

* Writing your own truth between the covers of a private notebook will liberate you, to some extent, from the need to be understood by others. It can provide you with virtually unlimited opportunities to wallow in self-pity, dwell obsessively on the past, and worry neurotically about the future. It thus gives you the opportunity to rejoice in the present. Your notebook is your own little corner of the cosmos, a place where you needn't be shy of the word "I".

* You can`t help but benefit from the discipline of daily writing routines, but there is no need to intimidated by this regulation. You can write whenever your remember to or whenever the spirit moves you. On any given day in any individual's life, there is some material from which great literature is made. Anything can trigger you. Look around the room: the half-open window, the broken chair, the things inside my purse, my hands, everything in the world carries associations utterly unique to you, as does every single word in the language.

* The more you write about what you experience, the more aspects of the world you will find yourself noticing and remembering.

* It is vitally important to develop sensitivity to correct grammar, word usage and sentence structure, and to be well versed in such things as the formal rules that govern poetry. The more you read well-written literature, the more you will be naturally attuned to these things without having to think about them.

* Please remember that when it comes to writing, the rules exist to serve you, not the other way round. Grammar is not halacha.

* Your notebook can be a catch-all for stray and fleeting insights, thoughts, fragments, commentary, memories, hopes. It can be the home for poems, that don't get finished, ideas you will never follow up, kernels of essays you will never get around to working on. It can also become that which most writers dearly welcome, the source of a dialogue not only with yourself but something that may speak to others. As the poet, Emily Dickinson said: "This is my letter to the world."

*"But when all is said and done," Sarah Shapiro concludes, "let's bear in mind that it is the strenuous struggle of living our daily lives in as G-dly a manner as possible that is the central art. We may strive to immortalize the moment with words, but we know even then that every one of those moments is already being recorded in the `mind` of G-d."

End of first part. CONTINUE TO PART TWO

Leah Kotkes is a published author and teacher at The Jewish Writing Institute.


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