Book Review: How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

While I believe we should all be able to worship whatever and however we like, I don’t exercise that right in any traditional sense. When I left my parents’ home and went off to college, I stopped going to church, and haven’t really looked back. I don’t feel a void where once was the incessant standing-up-and-sitting-down that is synonymous with an Episcopalian service; I don’t miss the hour spent in church once a week listening to a robed man proselytizing before his congregation. When asked whether or not I consider myself to be a spiritual person, my reflexive answer is usually “I haven’t really made time for spirituality.” In some silly way, I think of cultivating my own spirituality as an item on some distant to-do list. But Pat Schneider’s new book, How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice, suggests I may have been cultivating my spiritual side without even realizing it – by writing.

For Schneider, writing is an inherently spiritual act; a kind of prayer:

“Both prayer and writing invite us to explore the full range of human awareness, out to the edges of what we have experienced and beyond, out to the edges of what we can intuit, and beyond. Both invite us to imagine, to be brave in what we imagine, and to keep the doors of our imaginings open.”

As a reluctantly spiritual person, this comparison made by Schneider initially made me uncomfortable. I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to prayer, to thinking about a higher power, or to worshipping some larger, unknown force. Perhaps this is because on my own bumpy path through our often crazy world, I have come to take comfort in the fact that at the end of the day, I must rely on myself. When things feel impossible I tend to turn inward to the reservoir of strength I’ve come to realize I possess, rather than reaching outward to a mystical presence. But this, in some sense, is Schneider’s point.

Writing is about what Schneider calls “mystery,” as is prayer. Schneider explains that this mystery need not necessarily take the form of a conversation with a deity, but could be found in our relationships with nature, with loved ones, or with the larger universe. When we sit down to write, we reach as much internally as we do to something much larger than ourselves. This practice takes both courage and honesty – as does the act of prayer. How the Light Gets In successfully bridges the gap between the two, ultimately leaving its reader with both an intimate knowledge of the author’s spiritual path, as well as a deeper understanding of their own inherently spiritual writing practice. Part memoir, part manual, How the Light Gets In offers signposts along the sometimes scary path we attempt to carve for ourselves as writers and as humans.

Because I lead writing workshops for the New York Writers Coalition, I knew when I opened Schneider’s book that what she offered would resonate with our work. Reading this book left me with the distinct impression that writing is, at its core, a very brave endeavor. This is the same impression I try to cultivate for participants in workshops for NYWC. Every workshop we lead throughout New York City is modeled after Schneider’s inclusive and supportive method, as detailed in her excellent book, Writing Alone and With Others. This method is founded on the principle that everyone is a writer, and that these writing workshops should be safe spaces that emphasize creative expression over criticism. Schneider has devoted her life to this practice, and in doing so has invited writers all over the country to share in the quest for mystery she describes so ardently in this latest book.

Each time a New York Writers Coalition workshop leader sits with a group of writers – in prisons, in libraries, in shelters, in hospitals, and in many other settings – they are practicing what Schneider preaches. The contours of our workshops are formed by guidelines that aim to respect the vulnerability all writers feel when they put pen to paper, which is why workshop leaders write along with participants. In How the Light Gets In, we feel that Schneider is writing alongside us. She speaks to the experiences of writing—and of living—that are frightening, painful, and also beautiful, and reminds us that writing is its own kind of light through that darkness.

Join us at Greenlight Bookstore tomorrow night, Friday, May 17th, to see Pat Schneider read from How the Light Gets In, followed by a reception. You can purchase How The Light Gets In here.




  1. What a generous, perceptive, beautiful review, Rebecca! I am deeply grateful. I wonder if you would be willing to use a portion of it (just a few sentences, even) on reviews? My editors have said that it helps a lot, and just a single sentence there allows you to “rate” the book one to five stars. Either way, this review is so generous, I will send it out on Facebook and email. Thanks again!