Writing: The Begging Bowl Into Which The Gift Is Drawn


“An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that “begging bowl” to which the gift is drawn.”   –Lewis Hyde


I frequently revisit these lines from Lewis Hyde’s, The Gift, a book that, if you haven’t read, is a welcome companion on your creative journey.  The quote reminds me that the work of the writer/artist is that of creator in communion with Creation.  We are both an actor and the acted upon, or through.  A work of art is never entirely ours; it also belongs to the universe, the mysterious beyond from which we receive.  To curate such work requires us to court the work– its form, images, language–by drawing it to us.  It requires that we trust what is coming, and trust ourselves to contain it.

The Hyde quote recalls for me an experience I had some years ago in Thailand.  I often tell this story when I teach to illustrate the idea of supplication, or asking humbly for what we need.  Here is the story.

My first morning in Bangkok, I watched a line of young monks exit a monastery. Draped in saffron robes, and carrying in front of them small, metal bowls, the novice monks made their way down the wide, stone steps and dispersed among the crowd of shoppers.  The sun rose, soft and orange, through the trees around the market.

As if drawn to the emptiness of the bowls, people approached, and bowed.  The monks bowed in return. Then the person placed in the bowl a bag of steamed rice, a piece of fruit, some vegetables.  This exchange was repeated–wandering, greeting, receiving–until the bowls were filled with food.  The monks then returned to the monastery, sat on the stairs, smiling, and ate their meal for the day.

This supplication and almsgiving in the quiet market is an instructive metaphor for what we, as writers, go through during the creative process.

Writing is humbling.  We show up everyday with the empty page and we never know what is going to come. We are never able to create with language exactly what we see and feel.  Compared to the intensity of experience, words are approximations, inadequate place holders for emotions.  Sometimes words abandon us altogether.  Still, we must try.  Our work is to show up to be the vessel to which “the gift is drawn.”

The monks carry their empty bowls into the crowd so that they can be filled.  They trust that they will be.  They also provide the opportunity to others to provide for them.  If they didn’t go out on their daily rounds, it is certain they wouldn’t get the food they depend on for life.  If we don’t come to write, present our empty page, it is certain we won’t receive anything either.  We must be willing to present the empty page and trust that it will be filled.

The bowl is small.  This is an important detail of the story.  The small bowl holds just what the monks need to sustain themselves for the day.  Also, being small it is easy to overflow.  In writing, sometimes we want to make something great.  We want to publish.  We want the entire idea to be realized at once.  We can easily become frustrated if we don’t immediately achieve what we set out to do.  But when the vessel of our need is small, we will find it is easy to make it overflow.  We aren’t asking to become rich, just to be sustained.  I’m not saying  we can’t have goals for our work, but we need to acknowledge the bounty of a word, a sentence, a poem, a page of words.   It is enough that we wrote, that we gave an opportunity to something that didn’t exist before to come into existence through us.  This is a pretty powerful exchange.

Finally, the monks don’t refuse any food that is offered. No one says, “turnips, I don’t like turnips.”  Each item is received with the same thankfulness. What if we felt grateful for everything we wrote? What if we honored the magical, mysterious exchange that has taken place between us and the universe when we write?

Images, words, stories come because we show up, because we ask and are willing to receive. We can be open to whatever is offered.  We can humbly recieve the mysterious, magical work.   And for whatever lands on the page, we can give thanks. It is a gift.


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Justen Ahren

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