Five Things I learned about writing from the Miraculous Staircase

The last time I was in Santa Fe, the Loretto Chapel was closed for a wedding. So I didn’t get to see the Miraculous Staircase.

This time I made of point to taking a look. Described as an engineering marvel, the Miraculous Staircase of the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe truly is a wonder.

The Chapel was built in 1878, but for some reason, there was no way to get to the choir loft. The Sisters of Loretto called in carpenters, but they all said given the small size of the chapel, a ladder was the only possible solution.

The Sisters turned to prayer, holding a novena to the patron saint of carpenters, Joseph. On the ninth day, a man with a donkey and a toolbox showed up, seeking work.

Several months later, the man completed the staircase, then disappeared before the sisters could pay him for his work. He was never found, leading the sisters to believe he may have been St. Joseph himself.

The staircase itself is a miracle. It forms two full 360-degree turns and has no visible means of support. It is also held together without nails—only wooden pegs. Even today, design experts are not certain how the staircase was built.

As I looked at this miracle of design and physics, I learned a few things about writing:

1. Make it look easy

The staircase in the chapel doesn’t look like an afterthought at all, and its graceful curves that soar upward seem to fit together seamlessly. Before it was built, it was considered to be impossible; completed, it looks easy.

That’s how our writing should be. No matter what the effort went into crafting the story and choosing the words, it should all flow seamlessly. The reader shouldn’t have any clue of the work that went into the book.

2. Just because you haven’t done it before doesn’t you can’t

No one had ever built a staircase of that height in that small of a space, so they all assumed it was impossible.

Just because you haven’t written a book or short story or even a blog post doesn’t mean you can’t. It just means you haven’t tried.

Obviously the builder of the staircase was a master craftsman, and this wasn’t his first experience with wood. So if writing the book you have inside you seems like an impossible dream, take it in small pieces. Start with some stories, learn the craft, develop your skills.

3. You can sometimes fit in another element that pulls two parts of a story together

The staircase connects two parts of the chapel which were separate: the chapel itself and the choir loft. By connecting them, the chapel’s use was enhanced.

Two story lines that connect in multiple ways can bring about a richer whole.

4. You can use unexpected means to hold things together

In the 1800s, nails were the standard way to build structures of wood. Why the unknown carpenter used wooden pegs is still a mystery. But his choice of materials not only served its purpose, but it adds charm to the finished piece.

Using unexpected devices, whether a character’s verbal tic or a repeated symbol, can help build the story and add develop a theme. This can give your work a deeper layer of meaning, given the reader a more satisfying experience.

5. Pray for help

The Sisters had no other recourse but to pray. They got an answer, probably beyond what they could imagine.

Sometimes I get stuck in my writing. I’ve found that seeking divine inspiration never hurts. It’s gotten me over a few tough spots as well, giving me ideas I’d never be able to come up with on my own.

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