Abbey and church buildings painted white with red trim against a blue sky

4 Things Trappist Monks know about Safe Spaces for Creativity

Abbey and church buildings painted white with red trim against a blue sky
Abbey Mariawald, the only existing Trappist monastery in Germany. Founded 1470 A.D. Heimbach, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about safe spaces to create art. On the weekend, we visited Abbey Mariawald, famous for its split-pea soup. Judging from the number of motorcyclists, families, and hikers, they’ve hit on something with universal appeal. They also have a private life that soup-eating tourists don’t see.

  1. While tourists are welcome in the shop, the cafeteria, and the patio, the rest of the Abbey was closed up tight. The Abbey, the Abbey church and the long wall around them were painted a dazzling white. If you want to go in, you have to ring the bell for the Porter and tell him your business.

Physical defenses. We went into the church at 2:00, the time for the None service. We didn’t have to speak to the Porter, but there were 4 physical barriers:

–A glass double-door entry to get into the church,

A metal grille with a gate labelled “Nur für Beter” [only for those who want to pray]

–A fence-like rood screen between the congregation and the monks.

The hoods of the monks. Trappists wear white robes with hoods, so each monk had yet another way to make an individual safe space while singing or praying.

The monks chanted the short service in Latin and the ethereal sound swirled around us. It felt magical.

It would have been impossible to sing that way with a constant stream of doors opening and closing.

Monks know how to structure their space and their time so they can make their art in community.

2. A writing community can be a safe space. Two other writers and I held a one-day writing workshop at the local YMCA. We created a “writers’ buffet” with a variety of writerly tools to choose from, ranging from writing prompts to character and plot development and an exercise on the dreaded inner editor. Everyone liked the tools. But the most empowering thing we did was create a supportive atmosphere for writing.

3. Writers stop writing because they don’t feel “defended.” Jennifer Louden’s and Jennie Nash’s  (Author Accelerator ) recent webinar about getting scary work done advertises a course, but also truly inspiring and insightful tips. According to Jennifer and Jennie, writers don’t stop writing because of fear of failure or even fear of success. Writers stop writing when they don’t have a protected area to create their work.

What’s even worse: When we don’t have a safe space and we stop writing, this can devastate our creativity because then we’re not keeping promises* to ourselves.

*Keeping promises: For a sort of evolutionary narrative what taking out the trash has to do with creativity, check out Chris Fox’s short video.

Cows resting and grazing in a beautiful green meadow with the hills behind changing colors for fall.
These cows at the Abbey Mariawald apparently feel well-defended. Cows might be a useful addition to your next writing group. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

4. How to create defenses for your creative space. In his excellent book, Motivation for Creative People, Mark McGuiness writes about separating internal and external outcomes to create a safe space for ourselves to write.

Focusing on the outcome: publishing, prize, earnings etc. takes us out of our safe space.

Focusing on the goal of making the-scene-we’re-working-on more exciting, funnier, or more vivid takes us deeper into our safe creative space. This is what we mean by “flow.”

The monks at Abbey Mariawald have been singing and praying since the year 1470.  We could take a page from their book** and

–Separate the business and creative sides of our work.

–Choose physical spaces that let us fall into the work

–Seek out other creative people to get the writing juices flowing

–Practice keeping small promises to ourselves.

**I love this tactful request to tourists to return “borrowed” notebooks. What might you request to make your creative space safer?

Note from the monks of the Abbey Mariawald asking that you return the notebook if you accidentally take it with you

“Dear visitors of the Abbey Mariawald, We would like to offer you the chance to follow along in the Divine Office and in this way to lift your heart up to God. If you happen to take this notebook with you when you leave, please make your confession to your priest and let the notebook wander back to us. The monks of Abbey Mariawald.”

 

 

 

 

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Laurel Decher

LAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include "Stretchy the Leech" and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She's famous for a nonexistent sense of direction, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. When she's not lost, she can be found on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She's still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! :) Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in _Windhover_. Photo: © Jane Joo Park, 2017.

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