This Is How Kierkegaard, Merton, And An Obscure Book On Spinoza Helped Me Become A Writer


Where does the writer begin and the self who was there prior to becoming a writer end?

This is a question I ask myself from time to time, especially when reading or having read a biography. When did Steve Jobs become Steve Jobs, or Mozart become Mozart, or Hemingway become Hemingway? To me, there seems to be a point at which there is a leap from T0 in which one is not, say, a writer, to T1 in which one is. My writing coach (who does not know he is my writing coach) Steven Pressfield calls it “turning pro”: that time when you go from the amateur hobbyist to the persistent unflagging professional writer.

An Obscure Book On Spinoza

My first discovery was that of reading somehow leading to writing. I was taking a class in modern philosophy in my first undergraduate year at the University of Toronto, for which I took out a book on Spinoza: an obscure work entitled, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics But in this book I found something I didn’t expect to find: a simple quote on reading and writing:

“It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading. A man learns to write well by reading well good books, by reading most carefully books which are most carefully written” Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing.

This was it! I didn’t know at the time that I would become a writer, but this quote took me into another world–this simple quote haphazardly stumbled upon while looking up something for my modern philosophy class! I hadn’t read anything like this simple passage; and it became some kind of rite of passage for me, for I knew then that I had to become a reader, and a careful one at that! I printed the passage out and stuck it on my wall and read it daily.

Why did I do this? Did I know I wanted to become a writer? I would say my heart knew, but I was not aware of this–all I knew was this opened me up to another world and gave me a sense of meaning and purpose. “Reading precedes writing. We read before we write . . . .” Unbelievable! This, and Kierkegaard’s journal entries, were the opening to my calling to be a writer. Later, I would be drawn to the little work by the Emerson scholar Robert D. Richardson, entitled First We Read, Then We Write.

Kierkegaard On The Vocation Of Writer

Another turning point for me, albeit a hazy one, was when I was first exposed to Kierkegaard. I still remember the lecture hall at University College at the University of Toronto. It was a night class on existentialism from 6-9pm. The hall was packed; and I know I wasn’t the only one who anticipated it would be all Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But the instructor surprised all of us with a roster of unusual suspects: Martin Buber, Soren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (ok ok, this one wasn’t unusual), and Gabriel Marcel. I was outraged: “What are all these religious philosophers doing in existentialism class!”

But it was Kierkegaard who really got to me. I hadn’t read him before, having just been introduced to philosophy through western theology: Barth, Tillich, Kung–those modern protestant usual suspects. We read in class Philosophical Fragments, and while at times confused, I fell deeply into Kierkegaard’s musings about his life and his vocation as a writer. I still remember when I read that one journal entry of his in which he wrote that,

“I need to get straight what I am to do; what is the life that is true for me.”

It was this vocational cry to God that really struck me; this struggle to somehow get straight who he was not only as a human being, but a human being with a calling, a purpose–to understand that life that is true for him. This is no relativistic claim, but rather a subjective one–and not in the subjectivism that is a mere smoke screen for relativism, but a subjectivism that, for Kierkegaard, is the necessary condition for the possibility of finding God, and therefore Truth itself.

I was hooked: I read more of Kierkegaard’s biography, and relished those parts of his story when he realized his calling and couldn’t turn back–he wrote endlessly and prolifically in the short time before his death at 42 years old.

But I still didn’t understand what this vocation was for me. I wasn’t a writer, and certainly didn’t even know what that meant.

We Read Before We Write

It’s 2001, and I’ve graduate from the University of Toronto and I’m preparing my grad school applications. I am inflicted with a cold flu that has me in bed for 3 full days. During that time I read like crazy: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and a couple of others. And suddenly I am struck with a story, a plot, a novel! It caught me off guard, for my writing ambitions at that time were simply academic or scholarly–but here in a hazy way was the formation of a vision for a novel. It caught me so off guard that I didn’t know what to do. I know I held it for a long time; but the more I thought about it, the more beautiful it became.

Fast-forward two years. I have just begun my Ph.D. studies at Stanford with a focus on Martin Heidegger with some Kierkegaard and Kant thrown in for good measure–a little Nietzsche too–and in a crisis: my wife wanted something different for our lives, and I wanted her, so . . . .

I remember when I made my decision to leave Stanford, I took my advisor’s bike (his wife’s actually–he was kind enough to lend it to me), and rode to my apartment. I remember just coasting in the warm dry California sunset thinking, “Maybe I’ll write that novel . . . .”

The Crisis Of Faith–Kierkegaard Style

Now fast-forward a decade: I come to another Kierkegaardian crisis–that of faith; that teetering on the edge of rationality staring out over 33,000 feet of water. I had tried to live my life in a rational way; I tried to be self-reliant; I tried to be a free thinker in that Heideggarian sense of pursuing truth without religion–but it didn’t work. I stood on the precipice of crisis and had two choices: death or Christ.

I cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me and save me a sinner!”

And that was that . . . my life was changed.

There was, and remains, a whole process to it, a process of repentance, but my life as I knew it and as I practiced it had changed. I was a new creation–the old had gone and the new had come. I was a new being. And what happened in that time of metanoia, that time of turning 180 degrees to Christ? He gave me back all that I loved: my wife, my children, my friends (some old friends from whom I had become disconnected), and my vocation, my calling.

He gave me a story, and then another one, and another.

He gave me that life that I was called to live.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t without struggle–spiritual practice is a struggle–but I am not alone. And I look back to those milestones in my life, to those places where I had inklings–true inklings!: Kierkegaard, Merton, Spinoza, Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, Emerson, and many others, and see a process of becoming.

It is said that one of the most terrifying things that can happen to us at the final judgement, when we stand before God, is that He asks us this one question:

“Why did you not become the person I had created you to be?”

Vocation As That Narrow Road Away From The Crowd

This goes right to the heart of our vocation, our calling; that calling that takes us away from the crowd, as Heidegger does such a good job at explaining; that calling that takes us down a narrow path, through a narrow gate, that leads to our true selves, but takes a lot of struggle, a lot of prayer, and the grace of God to get there.

Another inspiration just prior to my conversion. The story of another conversion that was mystical and beautiful and surprising, I’m sure, to those around him: Thomas Merton. Like many, I loved the Seven Story Mountain, but could only love it through a glass dimly, for I hadn’t yet tasted that powerful conversion that Merton wrote about. But the more I entered into conversion and tried to understand it in light of creativity and art and beauty, Merton was, and remains, a tremendous help. And thus, I’ll end with one of his most well-known prayers.

The Merton Prayer

It is a prayer for me, and I hope it is or becomes a prayer for you. We are all children of God. And we have all been created for a purpose in this life. There is a reason why you are here on this earth at this particular time in history. But you can’t realize that calling alone. You need to open your heart and receive Jesus Christ–the One Who Is, the True Being, the One who gives you breath.

“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

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