Writing as a Vocation: Lessons from Thomas Merton

Writing as a Vocation: Lessons from Thomas Merton

Following the footsteps of a mystic and poet

Photo by Paul Matheson on Unsplash

Write. Day job. Write. Day job. Repeat.

When you are a writer and you have an unrelated “day job,” it can feel like you have a split personality.

This could have been the case with Thomas Merton(1915–1968). At many points before, and then living out his vocation as a Catholic Trappist monk, Merton thought that he would have to give up his other calling as a writer.

Instead, Merton “continued to write poetry in the monastery as a morning meditation, and he was given writing assignments by the abbot” (Merton, 2007, p. VIII).

Trappist Monks, at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Public Domain image from the Library of Congress Pictures Archives from Bains News Service from a glass negative.


One of Merton’s autobiographical essays became the international bestseller, The Seven Storey Mountain published in 1948. It was also listed on the National Review’s 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. In total, Merton wrote 50 books and numerous essays. Besides writing from a Christian viewpoint, Merton was a proponent of interfaith dialogue with figures such as the Dalai Lama, D. T. Suzuki, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton himself wrote about Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism.

Yet, in spite of his success as a writer, Merton continued to be troubled by his double life as a writer and his vocation as a monk. He wrote:

“The artist enters into himself in order to work, but to pass through the center of his soul and lose himself in the mystery and secrecy and infinite, transcendent reality of God living and working within him” (Merton, 1981, p. 350).

Merton, however, became more comfortable with writing as a dual vocation after reading the literature of mystics such as Saint John of the Cross.

With the work of his forebearers in mind, Merton continued to write devotions (see Seeds of Contemplation), essays, and poetry in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, Merton began to write social criticism, signaling his transformation from Catholic apologist to a cultural critic “whose essays built a bridge from the sacred to the secular and from the modern to the millennial mind” (Merton, 2007, p. IX).

Writing as vocation

And yet it seems to me that writing, far from being an obstacle to spiritual perfection in my own life, has become one of the conditions on which my perfection will depend. If I am to be a saint — and there is nothing else that I can think of desiring to be — it seems that I must get there by writing books in a Trappist monastery. If I am to be a saint, I have not only to be a monk, which is what all monks must do to become saints, but I must also put down on paper what I have become. It may sound simple, but it is not an easy vocation. (p. 14)

Lectio Divina as Poetry & PrayerThomas Merton and writing as a vocationmedium.com

In describing his writing experience, Merton (2007) explains it best, in his own words, why his writing serves as both his spiritual expression and vocation:

I am finding myself forced to admit that my lamentations about my writing job have been foolish. At the moment the writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude. Also I find that it helps me to pray because, when I pause at my work, I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing and I had not observed His coming. And this I think should be the cause of great joy, and to me it is. (pp. 13–4)

As with most writers, Merton’s writings changed as he matured. For example, in commenting on his most popular work, The Seven Storey Mountain, 20 years after its publication, Merton felt it was written by someone he no longer recognized. Also, in looking at his work as a whole, he felt there were “two Mertons: one ascetic, conservative, traditional, monastic. The other radical, independent and somewhat akin to beats and hippies and to poets in general” (Merton, 2007, pp. 195–196).


For Merton, writing was a vocation that would not let him go. He had determined to give it up for monastic life if required, but he discovered that his writing gift was just as much of a calling and was one that touched many outside the walls of his monastic cell and forest. If embracing writing as a vocation can be true for Merton, so much so for the rest of us.

I, W.marsh / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)


Merton, T., & Hart, P. (1981). Literary essays: The literary essays of Thomas Merton. New York, NY: New Directions.

Merton, T. (2007). Echoing silence: Thomas Merton on the vocation of writing. (R. Inchausti, Ed.) Boston: New Seeds.

Merton, T. (2015). The seven storey mountain. London: SPCK.

“Close Reading” — Your New Writing Best Friend

“Close Reading” — Your New Writing Best Friend

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

This year you pledged to write more, write every day, yes?

And yet, the blankety, blank page is the same as it was last year. Sad, empty, forlorn, uncaring, unfulfilled, bare, blank, hollow, vacant, void, laughing at you in scorn. Okay, so maybe I’m projecting a little here…

Still, at times we all need help finding ideas or reaching a deeper level with our writing. If you were not an English major, you may not be familiar with the technique of close reading. And even if you were an English major, you may not have associated close reading with its use as a writing technique.

(Hint: if you are in a hurry or don’t care about the background, skip down to Tools and Example).

What it is

In literary criticism, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of a text. A close reading emphasizes the single and the particular over the general, effected by close attention to individual words, the syntax, the order in which the sentences unfold ideas, as well as formal structures. A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_reading).

It is not feasible here to delve into all of the history and controversies of literary criticism and close reading. For those interested, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory is a good starting point.

Close reading as active imagination and amplification

Dr. Susan Rowland first introduced me to using close reading as a writing practice. She described it in terms of C. G. Jung’s practice of active imagination.

Active imagination…means that the images have a life of their own and that the symbolic events develop according to their own logic (Jung, 1968, CW7: para. 397).

According to Rowland (2018), “active imagination was devised by Jung as a therapeutic method of working with powerful images, by his definition, symbols. Perhaps a dream has been particularly troubling to a patient. Take the most symptomatic image from the dream and try to stay with it. Allow the image to exist within the psyche no matter how alien it feels. In effect, treat the image as the text of another, a missive from the unknown, unconscious psyche. Eventually, the image with its overwhelming affect will truly show itself to be alive. Acting true to its autonomous archetypal nature, it will move, expand, breathe, develop, and may even speak” (p. 38).

Jung also used a method of working with symbols and images called, amplification. According to Jung, as cited in Rowland (2018), “a symbol is amplified by finding sources and analogies for it in the collective culture, in history and in mythology” (Jung, 1944, CW12: para 34).

Rowland’s (2018) thesis is that all of the different forms of literary close reading (e.g., New Criticism, reader-response, and Formalism) closely resemble Jung’s methods of active imagination and amplification. She argues that this is so because close reading “opens words to operate as Jungian symbols. Words become mysterious because they are freed from the fantasy that either author or reader can know everything” (p. 40).

Yes, this can all be quite esoteric, so for those still reading, I will provide some tools and an example.


If you have stuck with me thus far, or have smartly jumped to this section, I will simply say that to be a writer who uses close reading as your method, your main tools will be:

Etymology (explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago).

Thesaurus (for different takes on your word under examination)

Symbol Dictionaries (of which there are many)

Mythology References (Wikipedia is also a good starting point)


The text used for a close reading:

“I see a large black scarab floating past on the dark stream. In the deepest reach of the stream shines a red sun, radiating through the dark water” (Jung, The Red Book, pg. 237).

My amplification and partial active imagination with the text:

The scarab or dung beetle can fly, burrow underground or move along the surface with its six legs (a shaman of upper and lower.) However, floating in water is not something it would normally do. Dung beetles, true to their name, love dung. They roll it into tidy balls for consumption, they tunnel and lay their eggs within the dung ball for their larvae to hatch and eat their way out. Or they may simply burrow their way into excrement to live and eat at their leisure. The more enterprising species hitch a ride on an animal host, and wait for the perfect pooping opportunity and then joyfully hop off when the goods have arrived.

Driving home from work, enclosed in my small car (a hard black shell or a dung ball?), I imagined myself as that scarab, floating along the water of unnatural asphalt roads, my two legs not touching the ground, not flying or borrowing. It is upside-down not to follow the true course of one’s legs. The sun is underwater, not overhead. Traveling thus, the Egyptian Sun god, Re is on his night journey through the underworld. As the scarab rolls his dung ball, Re moves the sun from its death in the west, to its rebirth in the east. Like Re’s mystical union with the mummified body of Osiris, the god of the dead, in the deepest depths of the netherworld, the male and female dung beetle lay and fertilize their eggs within the dung ball together, underground. This likewise is the renewal of life with the freely moving sun and soul, and the decomposing earth matter; a rolling, floating ball, a shining through; light emerging from dark waters.




Close reading is a way of seeing images and text in new and unexpected ways to spark or enhance your writing. If you’re not sure where to begin, start with an image that moves you then focus on delving deep into one word that first comes to mind. And then the next, and the next…free write your findings, thoughts, and feelings as you go.

Fire up your Fiction! 9 Powerful Online Fiction Writing Courses

Fire up your Fiction! 9 Powerful Online Fiction Writing Courses

Online Fiction Writing Courses

There are now many great creative writing and online fiction writing courses. You could probably write a short story or outline a novel in the time it will take you to research and compare what’s out there. So, without any more time wasting, we’ve put together a few top courses that will get you back to writing…

Writing Tools

Scrivener Full Course on How to Write a Book in Scrivener

This course taught by Karen Prince will help you to master all the major features of your Scrivener writing software to write ebooks and paperback books. The course consists of 44 video lessons that will teach you all of Scrivener’s basics from setting things up, writing, sorting and editing to compiling your book for export.

Scrivener Simplified: How To Compile Your eBook for Export

This course taught by James Burchill is perfect for self-published authors. Includes BONUS a “BestSeller” Mindmap. The course contains 31 video lessons to cut right to the chase of exporting your ebook in MOBI, EPUB, PDF & more.


Fiction Writing: A Complete Novel Outline Chapter by Chapter

In this course taught by Mike Dickson, learn the Hollywood secret to completing a comprehensive novel outline in as little as 2 weeks. After 42 video lessons, you will understand what a comprehensive novel outline should look like to give you the best chance at writing a complete first draft.


Write Your Best Fiction and Get It Published

This course is taught by Jeff Gerke, a five-time Writer’s Digest author. It has 45 video lessons from getting your best story idea to constructing your fiction proposal. Some of Jeff’s Writer Digest’s books include The Irresistible Novel, Plot Versus Character, The First 50 Pages, Write Your Novel in a Month, and The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction.

Novel Writing Workshop

This course taught by Steve Alcorn will help you turn your idea into a published novel, step by step. with 27 video lessons. Whether you’re a first-time novelist still planning your story or an experienced author looking for ways to bring your fiction to life Novel Writing Workshop will help you from your story structure all the way to getting published.

The Disobedient Writer: Break the Rules and Free Your Story

This course taught by Anya Achtenberg is a guide to taking your fiction writing and memoir writing beyond the same old formula and telling unforgettable stories. It consists of 39 video lessons that aim to free you from the tyranny of the rules and offer a solid foundation of techniques, or roads into writing, that expand your understanding of the workings of creativity, language, and story, and help you discover and bring forward your own best work.

Writing for Online Engagement: Fiction in a Digital World

This course taught by Rebecca Sky will introduce you to online fiction writing and you will learn the frameworks, techniques, and strategies for establishing, engaging, and growing a community around your work. 11 video lessons cover today’s writing landscape, tips for serialized fiction, merchandising individual stories, and marketing your work to build your personal brand — all to help you find success.


Revise and Edit Your Own Novel

This course taught by Ellen Brock will help you learn how to edit your own novel for traditional or self-publication with the help of a professional editor. In 29 video lessons, she walks you through examining your story structure and pacing, point of view, chapters and scenes, dialogue, and punctuation.


Sell Your Novel to a Major Publisher (Writing Mastery)

This course taught by Jessica Brody is a comprehensive, step-by-step insider’s guide to selling your book and becoming a paid, published author. With 61 video lesson, she takes you from understanding the types of publishing, the entire publishing process, working with agents, creating your pitch and query letter, selling your novel, and navigating your book contract.


Please let us know if you’ve tried any of these online fiction writing courses and what you think, or if you have others to recommend.

Please share your current fiction writing project!

Letter to a young creative writer — How do I start?

Letter to a young creative writer — How do I start?

Letter to a young creative writer

Read and write as much as possible

This is to discover what kind of creative writing you would like to do. Most people will tell you to write the kind of things you like to read.

Some of the choices would be:

  • Fiction: short stories, novels, short-shorts
  • Nonfiction: Personal essays, magazine features, memoir, journaling, blogging, travel essays, nature writing
  • Poetry: Prose poems, haiku, sonnets, verse, and many more types

It might take many years and lots of writing before you know what you enjoy writing the most. You don’t have to pick one kind or genre…many people write fiction, articles, and poetry, or some combination, but you might discover that your writing “voice” is best suited to one genre or type.

Don’t worry too much about finding your writing “voice” at this point. You will discover that over the course of your being a creative writer.

Spark your Imagination

Creative writer

Unsplash.com — Riley Mccullough

No matter what kind of creative writing you decide you enjoy, finding ways to connect to your imagination is key.

Some writers use their dreams as a starting point, like Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein.

Other writers may start with photographs like Ranson Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Many writers like Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and Edward Abbey use nature to spark their imagination.

Still, others have started writing from artwork. This practice is called, exphrasis. Homer, Keats, and Ruskin are known for this type of writing.

Take some time to explore each of these sources of creativity. Also, don’t be afraid to start with a line of existing poetry or other writing and use this as your jumping off point. Sometimes we need to have some words on the page to get the creative writing juices flowing.

Learning from the Masters

creative writer

Unsplash.com — Lia Leslie

And speaking of the blank page, some writers suggest that you write out poems and fiction to learn how each sentence or phrase is constructed. Not too many people have patience for this, but if you want to understand how great writers write, there is no substitute for learning how to write a masterful sentence.

Indeed, many poetry creative writing classes still require that students memorize whole poems and then recite them. It is standard practice for students learning to paint to try to duplicate a masterpiece. Why should it be different for the creative writer?

The Disobedient Writer: Break the Rules and Free Your Story
An unconventional guide to taking your fiction writing beyond the same old formula and telling unforgettable stories

Seize the day!

When you get older, you will discover that a large part of being a creative writer is finding the time for it. Now is the best time for you to build in good writing habits — write every day! — because before you know it, you will have a job, school, kids, and all kinds of other distractions that will compete for your energy and focus.


“And then there is inspiration. Where does it come from? Mostly from the excitement of living. I get it from the diversity of a tree or the ripple of the sea, a bit of poetry, the sighting of a dolphin breaking the still water and moving toward me, anything that quickens you to the instant. And whether one would call this inspiration or necessity, I really do not know.” –Martha Graham, Blood Memories

What has inspired you to write? Brainstorm and write down as many of these things as you can. Pick one of these and write from the emotion it invokes in you. It is okay to write from anger or sadness. Any strong emotion is a great starting point for your creative writing. And don’t forget that you have a body! Write how it feels in your body and what your senses are experiencing in that moment.

The best writing is in the details.

Dare to be yourself.

What is a memoir  —  the ultimate memoir writer’s toolkit

What is a memoir  —  the ultimate memoir writer’s toolkit

What is a memoir?

How to be a memoir Rockstar — the ultimate memoir writer’s toolkit

what is a memoir?


“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
— Dr. Seuss

“Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.”
— Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Perhaps you thought it would be easy…writing your life’s story, or just one small part…

After all, you know all the characters so well. Hey, you even get to be the protagonist!

You don’t even need to dream up a plot; you have already lived the vivid details. You just need to write it all down, right?

But when you start writing your memoir, you find it is, well, hard. REALLY hard.

You wrestle with:

What is a memoir, exactly?

Which point of view to use?

Do I start in the past or present?

Why does my narrator sound: snarky | whiny | apathetic?

How do I keep from hurting the ones I love?

How do I remember what was really said?

So many unanswered questions!

Sorry, I don’t have all the answers but I have rounded up this ultimate list* of those who do.

For the most part, this list consists of what is a memoir and “how to” write a memoir, not actual memoirs.

Please comment below if you see one that I have missed! And, please comment on your favorite memoir writing book on the list!

*Thanks to Maureen Murdock and Jennifer Selig for their list contributions.

“Harry Bernstein was a total failure when he wrote his bestselling memoir, The Invisible Wall. His prior forty (forty!) novels had been rejected by publishers. When his memoir came out, he was ninety-three years old. A quote from him: “If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book, God knows what other potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive well into their 90s.”
— James Altucher (Choose Yourself)

what is a memoir?


The ultimate what is a memoir “how to” list:

If reading a few from this list doesn’t help you learn what is a memoir, or how to start, well, I’m guessing you need to turn to fiction!

Speaking of fiction, don’t miss out on our Signed Outlander Easton Press giveaway!

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How to write & train your brain to be a kick-ass writer every day – Tip #498

How to write & train your brain to be a kick-ass writer every day – Tip #498

How to write by training your brain

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
― Neil Gaiman

Are you wondering how to write? I mean, you know how to write, but maybe you are wondering how to write consistently and more, much more.

Are you staring at the screen or page with no clue, or are you jumping out of bed because you urgently need to get your ideas written?

Which writer do you want to be?

There are those writers who wait for inspiration to come and those that write every day no matter the circumstances or their mood.

There are those writers who wait for inspiration to come and those that write every day no matter the circumstances or their mood. Click To Tweet

It no accident or happy quirk of birth that allows some writers to pour forth a steady stream of words at a decent pace and to do so almost every day.

If you are reading this post, I’m guessing that you too would like the secret to the magic writing formula. And yes, there is one.

The “how to write” more formula is to train your brain.

Warning. The training is some work. It takes discipline. If you are not serious about becoming a writing machine leave now and go watch some cat videos.


Okay, now that it is just us serious people, here are the basics (details follow the list):

  1. Before you go to bed, think about what you might write the next day
  2. Set your alarm for at least 30 minutes early
  3. Sit down to write every day at the same time
  4. Rinse and repeat

Yup, that’s it. But wait; let’s break these points down a bit. (I can hear some of you thinking, this is stupid common sense, why waste my time reading on. Read that Stephen King quote again. It works for him – ’nuff said?)

Before you go to bed, think about what you might write the next day

Perhaps you don’t know if you want to write fiction, articles, memoirs or some other genre. That is okay. You will figure out what you are best suited to write over time. But that will only happen if you write enough to figure that out. So, for this exercise, let’s assume you want to write a blog post every day.

To train your brain, it is helpful to have a framework or a theme. This cuts down on the work of weeding through the entire universe. If you have a narrow focus, your brain can magnify the details. Writing is about the details.

For example, my current theme is helping writers by giving them 500 writing tips and prompts. When I go to bed, I know that I only have to write one tip the next day. This small focus lets my brain get busy. It doesn’t have to think about all the other things I could be writing. It knows it just needs to find that one needle by the time I sit down to write the next morning. Easy.

Sometimes, I already know what I want to write about the next day because it came to me during the day. But many times, I let my unconscious work on it through my dreams, which leads to step 2.

Set your alarm for at least 30 minutes early

I do my best creative thinking in the hypnagogic state between sleep and wakefulness. I set my alarm for 30 minutes early so I can linger in this state before I actually need to get up.

In this state, sometimes a fragment of a dream becomes an idea. But usually, I get a full idea for my writing that appears from the mist of this hypnogogic state. By thinking about my writing before I go to sleep and allowing it to work through the dream states, my unconscious rewards this steeping with an answer when I wake.

It may not happen for you the first few times you try this, but with time, it will. Read Naomi Epel’s book, Writers Dreaming: 25 Writers Talk about Their Dreams and the Creative Process to see how this process has worked for many writers.

Write Your Best Fiction and Get It Published
Learn the 10 essentials of fiction-writing mastery from a world-class teacher and Writer’s Digest fiction expert

Sit down to write every day at the same time

This step is perhaps the most important. It doesn’t matter what time a day it is, but make sure it is free from distractions. For most writers, this usually means getting up before the rest of the household. If you are single with no needy toddlers about, then you may not need to set your alarm extra early, but chances are you still have a job to get to. If not a commute and somewhere you have to be, then you have other distractions such as email and phone calls which with to contend. For some a lunch hour works well. And for some, you must write late at night. You probably already know when you have the least distractions and the most energy. This is the sweet spot for writing consistently.

But the point is, to train your brain to be a writing warrior; you need to get it accustomed to a steady practice. This is difficult to quantify and prove, but so many writers have testified to the fact that they write more consistently if they write at the same time every day.

This consistency seems to make the brain ready. It is in a waiting and prepared state for you to begin. Perhaps a poor analogy, but think of your dog waiting for his morning treat. He knows full well that once you’ve gotten your tea and toast, it is coming. He waits patiently in his snack-getting-spot because he knows this is what happens every morning without fail. You don’t have to think about it, and neither does he. It is routine. This is how you want your writing habit to be. A routine removes the distractions, greases the wheels, and lets the writing flow.

how to write

Rinse and repeat

Of course, a routine and habit comes only with repetition. None of this is glamorous or surprising. But I will hold out that if you commit to these training steps, you will discover its magic.

  • You will have more ideas than you can write about in a lifetime.
  • You will wake excited to get to your computer or pen.
  • You won’t have to struggle for a word count.
  • You will have more pages than time to revise.

how to write

Writing prompt – No fairy dust required

Brainstorm several themes or a writing project that you’d like to write about over time. Pick one of these and break it down into ten smaller topics. If you already have a theme or project, come up with ten new topics that you can write about in one writing session, one per session. The trick is to make each topic small enough that you can cover most of it in an hour or two. If writing fiction, these topics would be one scene per session. You would not need to complete each in a session but it would get you going each day.

Now, you have a topic or scene to muse on before going to bed (Step 1). You will be surprised what happens overnight. If nothing happens the first or second time, you do have a starting point for your writing session. Start with a title or a first sentence and keep going. In this case, more is more. The more you write consistently, the more writing will come without effort.

Equipped with this idea, you don’t need to be in the mood to write or need to wait for inspiration. You now know how to write, now go.


If you dare, please share your results from the writing prompt in the comments below or something about your writing process.

Please join the #500WordsClub and let us know what you’re working on!

Carla Paton, Ph.D.-c is a writer, marketer, and Depth Psychologist. She loves helping writers with quick and easy marketing tips so they can get back to writing. Grab your free Power Words Cheat Sheet for Busy Writers, and then make those words shine!