Wise Words – E.L. Doctorow’s Advice on Writing, Life and Spiritual Practice

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

E.L. Doctorow


Sometimes I feel lost.

Like a driver in the fog.  During these times, I can remember back to when I could see a clear, bright image of my destination; my footsteps were sure and the path ahead was sunny.  But in the fog, the image fades, my old practices feel dry and my feet are tired.  Motivation is gone, replaced by doubt.

I’m a writer, and in one way, Doctorow’s quote is for writers.  For me, writing is a spiritual practice that I do every day (well, almost every day).  When I sit down to write, I have an idea of what I want to say.  And I start.

Writing rarely travels directly.  As it meanders, homing towards its beacon, new ideas emerge like artifacts exposed by erosion.  I follow or abandon different threads as the writing shows me what wants to be written.  It is a practice of discovery more than exposition, using whatever appears in the shine of the headlights.  Rusty gems are revealed in a spiritual archeology that is always ready to surprise. 

Of course, Doctorow is also talking about more than writing.  His logic applies to life and to spiritual practice as well. I find his observation reassuring because of two things.  First, we can make it all the way if we use whatever shows up in front of us.  The potholes we encounter are meant to be used.  If we feel frustrated, blocked, tired, lonely, etc., then our spiritual practice can’t avoid these, it has to embrace them.  Second, small steps make all the difference.  In fact, it is in the small moments that change takes place, the moments we fall awake and open to what is there.  We can’t see the whole landscape in the fog, just what’s in the dim light ahead.  We have to work with that.

I recently went through a time where meditation felt dry for a couple of years.  This was disorienting because meditation had been a fruitful practice for me for a long time. But during this period, my inner landscape was thin, brittle, with no vibrancy. It’s true that the normal instruction is to make no judgments about good or bad meditations, since they are all windows into observing the mind.  All good, I agree. But two years of dry, lifeless practice is a long time. 

I don’t know what changed exactly, but about a year ago I started using active imagery and visualizations and attending to more subtle energies.  Things opened up and even my standard awareness meditations felt re-energized.  I am cautious to attribute this directly to the change in practice. Sometimes things shift just from the passage of time or some other unknown factor.  But either way, I don’t feel lost and I like it.

Spiritual practice involves a regular activity joined with an intention to connect with the sacred. Almost any activity can be a practice if you approach it with this intention. If you are finding yourself in a fog, hitting potholes, consider these ideas for rejuvenating your own practice:

  • Embrace the pothole. How would you describe the pothole in the road you are experiencing?  Give it a name and welcome it into your awareness with tenderness.  Talk to it and see what it wants to say.
  • Try something new.  Taking a new approach can give your body-mind a different experience and shift your perspective. In my free practice guide, you can check out dozens of ideas for renewing your practice.
  • Take a break for a week.  Stop your normal practice for a week.  You could replace it with something else.  If your regular journal writing seems stale, take walks instead.  If you usually meditate in the morning, try sitting at your kitchen window with tea or coffee and contemplate the scene outside.  (I wrote a whole post on this one, Conscious Coffee.)
  • Change the mode of your practice.  How would you describe the style of your regular practice:  intellectual, introspective, relational, individual, communal, witnessing, energetic, body-based, service-oriented, healing-centered, artistic, shamanic, or something else?  Try a completely different way of engaging, maybe something outside your comfort zone.

I find that these dry periods clarify my sense of who I am, this ever-moving slice of consciousness, at large in the world, existing beyond practice or method or desire or expectation.  And I also try to keep in mind that when I enter these dry plateaus, I am welcomed into the large history of others who have gone through this before.  A communion of saints, if you will.  We’re in good company, connected in time to a long stream of conscious seekers all trying to figure out how to drive through the night in a fog.

Photo by Hamid Khaleghi on Unsplash

4 Replies to “Wise Words – E.L. Doctorow’s Advice on Writing, Life and Spiritual Practice”

  1. Steve, your post was exactly what I needed to read today. The part that set off my internal resonance bells was “The potholes we encounter are meant to be used. If we feel frustrated, blocked, tired, lonely, etc., then our spiritual practice can’t avoid these, it has to embrace them,” and then your tips at the end, golden! Thank you,

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