Richard Foster on Silence and Writing

silence and writing

I’ve been a Richard Foster fan for years. I’ve got the first editions of Celebration of Discipline (named by Christianity Today as one of the top 10 most influential books of the 20th century) and Freedom of Simplicity. Way back when, I led a Sunday School group through FOS—which probably amounted to simply reading aloud every line I underlined.

Which amounted to practically the whole book.

So I was excited to see he was speaking at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing.

I’ve craved simplicity and stillness and the ability to operate from the Center for a long time–to flee from much doing to more being. To silence the noise so I can hear God’s whispers. To escape the external clutter that clots my creativity and zip my lip to too many yeses.

(Foster’s son, Nathan (author of Wisdom Chaser), interviewed him during one of the sessions. I forget what Nathan said or asked, but everyone in the auditorium jumped when Foster suddenly shouted, “It is legitimate to say NO! You don’t have to say yes.”)

In FOS, Foster describes a moment in an airport while waiting for a flight, a moment that changed his life:

For the first time in my life I opened Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion. Immediately he caught my attention by describing perfectly my condition and the condition of so many I knew. ” We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow.” Yes, I had to confess I was in those words. To all who saw me I was confident and in command, but inwardly I was tired and scattered . . . I was so serious, so concerned to do what was right, that I felt compelled to respond to every call to service . . .

Then came the sentence that was to prompt an inner revolution: “We have seen and known some people who seem to have found this deep Center of living, where the fretful calls of life are integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence.” . . . I could say Yes easily, but I did not have the ability to say No. What would people think of me if I refused?

Alone, I sat in the airport watching the rain splatter against the window. Tears fell on my coat. It was a holy place, an altar, the chair where I sat. I was never to be the same . . .

Later in the book, Foster talks about how he learned he functions best when he alternates periods of intense activity with periods comparative solitude. That he burns out inwardly long before he does outwardly. And that he’s learned to order his days to he doesn’t “become a frantic bundle of hollow energy, busy among people but devoid of life.”

And I thought, “Oh, that’s me! And it’s okay!” I can be Martha. And then I can be Mary and not feel guilty about it. Because I can’t do Martha things well without operating from a Mary center.

Foster does not advocate external simplicity unless it flows from the inner core. But I’ve found that external clutter is noisy and clots my creative flow. No matter how hard I squeeze, it’s harder to bleed.

Nathan asked his dad about his writing process. Foster didn’t want to answer at first because everyone’s path is different. But then he shared this basic routine when he’s in the middle of a project.

He tries to write when he first wakes up.

He spends about 20 minutes stretching.

He lies flat on his back, cross-like, and repeats Galations 2:20. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

He thinks about what faces him that day, thinks about his writing tasks. And then just lies there still for several moments.

About 11 a.m., he hikes into the canyon near where he lives.

He stops at a Mexican restaurant and rewrites there.

In the afternoon, he handles emails and other tasks.

And in the evening, he relaxes. Maybe he’ll watch a MASH rerun.

And I think, “Yeah, you have a wife.” Which might be one of the reasons he hesitated to share. But it encourages me to order my days and develop a disciplined process that works for me. One that incorporates a good amount of silence. Because as Foster says…

“The first thing we should consider [as writers] is not to write or to read. It is to listen. To be still and observe God’s voice in His wondrous, terrible silence . . . not just listening for information or words . . . but to get into rhythm with . . . God. What needs to be said will come in its time. And then you draw a vein.

And he reminds us, “you only help people when you write in blood.

A question for you: How do you order your days to include silence? Or do you?

rose-breasted grosbeak


In the stillness,


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  1. says

    I love this, Sandy. It took me almost sixty years to discover two important truths: that I can’t function indefinitely without stopping to refuel, and that it’s not only okay to say “no” occasionally, but it’s necessary. During all those years I took Philippians 4:13 to the extreme, erroneously believing “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” meant I was supposed to do all things by pushing myself to be someone I wasn’t and doing everything that I perceived needed doing. Eventually “Be still and know that I am God” got through to me!
    Carol J. Garvin recently posted..Poetry or Not (preferably not!)

    • says

      And I learned the hard way that sometimes by saying “yes,” I was stealing another’s call. And by saying “no,” the world still turns, and I give opportunity to another to serve. He gives us strength to walk in our own gifts and our individual call. How can we hear His whisper if we’re not quiet? And why does it take so long to learn this?

  2. Sheila Dailie says

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I needed the reminder to operate from a place of quiet center!

  3. says

    WOW, I too have the first edition of his book, so well worn. but his comment about his writing process is powerful Thanks for sharing. I must really get to that writing festival sometime. I don’t live that far.

  4. says

    Fortunately, I usually have periods of silence every day; right now, though, since I’m babysitting the grandgirl while Mom still in the hospital with the new baby, my days have been just a bit topsy-turvy. I’m already feeling the need for the quiet. :)
    Martha Orlando recently posted..Ha! I Trick You!

    • says

      I hear you on that, Martha. One thing Foster said in his book was he learned he operated best on longer periods of activity followed by long stretches of inactivity. That balance seems to work best for me, too.

  5. says

    My BH and I were just discussing this topic this morning.
    Then THIS, “The first thing we should consider [as writers] is not to write or to read. It is to listen.”
    I write, {too often} out of my gifting or natural abilities, and not from a place of listening to what God would have me say ~ out of a place of quietness, and not a frenetic “doing”.
    Since your blog is the 2rd thing I’ve read this morning on this, I can surmise, He is trying to get my attention! {I’m just kind of slow like that.} Thank you. I’m off for some solitude.
    caryn christensen recently posted..Part 7 In A Series On Forgiveness ~ The Mother Wound

  6. says

    Oh, Sandy,
    Yes…I felt so affirmed as I read Foster’s words and yours…and I had to laugh at your comment about how he has a wife….I noticed he didn’t mention any cooking or cleaning….anyway…what he says is so true….although it may seem like I am doing nothing…I am doing something when I just am quiet before God…it is from there my best writing always comes because I have gotten out of the way as much as I can…hugs to you…I wish I could have heard him.
    Dolly@Soulstops recently posted..Mining Memories of Mom

  7. says

    Hi Sandra, I just heard about the endeavor through Kel, which means (blush) I have not been visiting you as often as I used to…but I have not been onlline as much so, forgive? I LOVE my quiet…and solitude and I do HAVE it, work it into my days for hours when possible. I so get the Mary/Martha thing! ANd as much as many would think I am outgoing, people person- no one but God knows the solitude I seek, steal and share with Him alone! It is easier because I am not working at the moment…but harder in ways with family, obviously then say, when I was single. And the wife thing…HA! ight? SOrry men. I had to giggle.
    Dawn Paoletta (@breathoffaith) recently posted..The Hope and Promise of Motherhood (A Mother’s Journal)

  8. says

    sometimes i am hesitant to tell young moms about how i crave and create quiet time. But then I can tell them about my young cousin, a mom of 4 who carves out one morning every two weeks to be alone, away from home, specifically for extended time to think, pray, meditate. I can be done – this is what I did when i was a young mom, but it takes planning and cooperation from those who love her. my commitment is to every 4-6 weeks, give my DIL one day a month to be free do these things. (encouraging her to do this in between – my son can help!)

    i originally “met” you when Diana was doing here seires earlier this year. isn’t she the best. been wandering around choosing some folks to follow. I’ll hang out here for awhile.
    Carol Longenecker Hiestand recently posted..The view doesn’t change what is true

    • says

      I’m glad you’re here, Carol!

      Your cousin is very wise, and how wonderful that you are close enough to free your DIL some alone time. I found that very difficult when my children were young because my husband worked long hours, and we lived nearly 1000 miles from family. One has to get creative. :)