Eugene Peterson Writing About Writing

This is from Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor.  He’s talking about heuristic writing, writing as a conversation with scripture, with his conversation.  He’s talked about writing as conversation and as exploring, not explaining, not directing.  In this quote he refers to the “badlands” which was his name for a period of particularly challenging times in his pastoral work.

It was a way of writing that involved a good deal of listening, looking around, getting acquainted with the neighborhood.  Not writing what I knew but writing into what I didn’t know, edging into a mystery…

Heuristic writing–writing to explore and discover what I didn’t know.  Writing as a way of entering into language and letting language enter me, words connecting with words and creating what had previously been inarticulate or unnoticed or hidden.  Writing as a way of paying attention.  Writing as an act of prayer.  In the badlands the act of writing was assimilated into my pastoral vocation, revealing relationships, drawing into mysteries, training me imaginatively to enter the language world of scripture in which God “spoke and it came to be,” in which “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  And it became a way of writing in which I was entering into the language world of my congregation, their crises and small talk, their questions and doubts, listening for and discerning the lived quality of the gospel in their lives.  Not just saying things.  Not just writing words.

I came across something that Truman Capote wrote, with a sneer, on the work of a popular novelist: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”  About the same time, I read Emily Dickinson’s pronouncement, “Publication is no business of the poet.”  Capote exposed much of what I had been doing as “typing”–using words to manipulate or inform or amuse.  Dickinson rescued me from a lust to be published.

I began to understand the sacred qualities of language.  My work as a pastor was immersed in language… And I began to understand that the way I used language involved not just speaking it and writing it, but listening to it–listening to the words in scripture, but also listening to the words spoken to me by the people in my congregation.


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