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Writing on the Edge–at the Center

By Kent Ira Groff

“See my writing on the edge?”

I showed a friend how I use a sharpie

to write on the spine of journals

of my published articles

so I can quickly find them on my shelf:

writing in the dark

companioning spiritual orphans

soldiers & lovers


“Writing on the edge—

there’s a poem,” I said.


All good writing’s on the edge

of something new, or unexplored:

a nearly extinct snail ignored

by scientists, a rival artist

as Salieri was to Mozart.


Writing on the edge

takes me to far countries—

Denison’s Out of Africa,

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

into my psyche’s own dark holes

where I must feast on darkness till

I find bits and pieces of flickering light.


Writing on the edge is the only way

to let your character see the light of day.

Sometimes I get so near the edge I do fall into the dark hole and have to keep writing in the dark to find little pieces of light. I see a pattern in my life story: I take an initial risk, but part way into the project I feel overwhelmed. (This can happen to me while rehabbing my deteriorated front door.) I get easily seduced into thinking an “expert” should do it. Then my resilient self rises again.

As I worked on Writing Tides, a voice accused: Who are you to write about resiliency of spirit when you sit at the keypad for hours, hands frozen, brain on ice? Yet another voice affirmed: Who but you should write a book on the spirituality of writing? How could you tell how to restore confidence if you didn’t struggle to regain it?

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. When I think I’m about to drown, I remind myself of nine tested components for my spiritual scuba equipment (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus).

Storying. Stories transmit the oxygen of hope. I use story as a verb because stories replenish the storehouse. Fiction is stories. But non-fiction needs stories too: when I find myself riding high on an idea, I say: Pause to let the words become flesh. I talk about “storying an essay or presentation,” oxygenating my ideas. Aim for newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s phrase: “You are there.”

Mentoring. You can cultivate resiliency by carrying on an imaginary conversation with mentors, living or dead. Choose an obstacle; then converse about it in your voice and the mentor’s voice.

Researching. Dive into your subject matter for love—whether psychology or geography. While writing From a Buick Eight, Stephen King took over a week to delve into the on-the-beat habitat of Pennsylvania State Police troopers in off-the-beat counties outside Pittsburgh. King didn’t do it to tell us Pennsylvania facts but to create a surreal environment where we see a driverless car and it seems real.

Delaying. In 1933 George Gershwin finally got a contract to adapt Edwin DeBose Heyward’s 1926 novel Porgy as an opera, collaborating with his brother Ira and Heyward. Yet George took the summer of 1934 to go down with Heyward to the Carolina barrier islands and Charleston’s catfish row to experience the rhythms and blues of people on the edges of survival. Out of that delay came a new form of American opera.

Conceptualizing. Ideas and concepts like John Keat’s “Negative Capability” anchor my swaying bipolar ship till I’m ready to leave port again. I absolutely trust the concept of writer’s block as spiritual conception—though some pregnancies are frightfully unpredictable. I never speak of a deadline, only a due date.

Retreating. I resonate with the frequent writing getaways Annie Dillard describes in The Writing Life. Periodic retreats get me diving into my soul and self and let the script in my own heart unfold.

Computing. Click “Save As…” often and give the document a slightly new title, then ruthlessly prune, prune, prune (it’s still there if I need it)In spiritual language, it’s shedding the ego.

Editing. Move text around. To avoid adding new text to Writing Tides, I began scanning with my mouse. Suddenly, a big chunk I had written for an earlier chapter appeared tailor-made to jumpstart the chapter on depression. I proclaimed aloud, “I didn’t know I wrote that for this!”

Outlining. Like scuba diving gear, a well-developed outline saves me from self-destructing with a dearth or overkill of ideas. But, I tell myself, if in the writing process your character changes (you or your fictional creation), scrap the plan.

Outline Friend

Make an outline,

Give up the outline.

If the outline returns,

Let it be your friend

and not your master.

Like visiting a museum, writing keeps me on the edge to notice what Jane Kenyon called “the luminous particular” in the silly and the serious stuff. Then I’m at the center.

Kent Ira Groff, CAL member living in Stapleton, Denver, is a writer, retreat leader and spiritual guide for other journeyers. This essay is adapted from Writing Tides: Finding Grace and Growth Through Writing. Dr. Groff’s other books include What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything?: A Handbook for Spiritual Orphans and Facing East, Praying West (2010), a poetry journal from his sabbatical in India.  

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