EVERY WEEK, I send out a writing tip and three soul-inviting prompts as inspiration for you to freewrite, either alone with your timer or in a gathering of writer friends. The resulting deep play opens up whole new landscapes of creative possibility for our writing and our lives. If you are new to this kind of writing practice, have a look at the freewriting principles. And to take your writing to the next level, check out the mentoring sessions I offer, which are helpful whether you are working on a book or just beginning to find your voice. more >
Whenever we set out to do creative work, we inevitably encounter resistance. Sometimes it’s disguised as “research,” sometimes as outer demands, sometimes as a mind that turns flat and disinterested in our own inner lives. But most dangerous of all is contingency — the tendency to say, “once I do _____, then I’ll nurture my creative life.” The antidote? Do the creative work first, even if just for 10 minutes. Says author Steve Pressfield: “Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around ‘getting ready,’ the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare. The answer: plunge in.”
“Naked truth is unbearable to most,” says author Anais Nin, “and art is our most effective means of overcoming human resistance to truth.” Through art, we can look sideways at something — use it as a buffer that gives us an experience without the feeling of great danger that can make us shut down with trauma when something happens to us in “real” life. It is the difference between watching a movie about dying or living ourselves through the dying process: the first can be a practice run, where we can access feeling without being carried away by hope and fear. In this way, we can face our fears and our nightmares from the safety of our livingroom chair — and heal ourselves in the process. As writers, it is good to keep in mind the power of this vicarious experience and provide buffers of meaning to the reader. Says Nin: “The writer has the same role as the surgeon, and his handling of anaesthesia is as important as his skill with the knife.”
Often what spurs us to write is pain — something needs to be understood and integrated in a way that moves us forward. To simply express the pain may give us temporary relief, but it is not ultimately helpful, as it can make the story that surrounds it feel even more solid and real to us. Better to take it a step further and find meaning and use for the pain — even if embodying this new shape of things is currently beyond your power. In a 1969 interview, EB White put it beautifully: “A writer should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
Our new religion is science. If something has a study attached to it with numbers and statistics to back it up, it has an air of truth, no matter how poorly conceived the study. This collective bias tells us that those things not measurable by science — the subtle, the nonmaterial, the mystery that we are here at all — can be dismissed as unimportant. When we fall for this bias, we lose touch with the realm of the soul, where images and intuitions, dreams and impressions hold sway. Says author Wallace Stegner: “What anyone who speaks for art must be prepared to assert is the validity of nonscientific experience and the seriousness of unverifiable insight.”
Writers often talk about “finding their voice,” as though there were only one. But we are made of multitudes, with many perspectives and ways of expressing them. Author Pico Iyer says that “at its core, writing is about cutting beneath every social expectation to get to the voice you have when no one is listening. It’s about finding something true, the voice that lies beneath all words. But the paradox of writing is that everyone at her desk finds that the stunning passage written in the morning seems flat three hours later, and by the time it’s rewritten, the original version will look dazzling again. Our moods, our beings are as changeable as the sky (long hours at any writing project teach us), so we can no longer trust any one voice as definitive or lasting.”
Whether you are writing a novel or a scene from your own life that you are trying to understand, engaging honestly with a story does not happen in a linear way. To access its movement and truth, it’s best not to get stuck in the notion of being chronological. Rather, allow yourself to follow your attraction. In his book Inner Wisdom, Michael Meade put it beautifully: “Sit by the river of the story and see what strikes you the most. Stories are not about right and wrong. They’re about right and left. Just finding the detail. I call it mythological acupuncture. The story is trying to stick you and just like an acupuncture treatment it’s trying to move the energy in your life. So don’t mistrust yourself. They say it’s the hardest thing to do, to trust one’s self.”
Don’t have time to write? Laura Vanderkam has a trick to be sure you’re telling the truth: “Instead of saying I don’t have time try saying it’s not a priority, and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority. I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority. If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.”
Here’s how to up your creativity by 50 percent: Get out in nature and walk! In recent study, those who spent four days hiking without electronic devices scored nearly 50 percent higher on creativity tests than the control group. Hint: In lieu of electronics, bring along a high-touch notebook and a pen that feels good in your hand. Stop along the way, smell the smells and write from that. Stop a little further, notice what you hear and write from that. Sit with a tree in silence and then write what the tree tells you. There are wild and juicy worlds beyond all the pixels and vibrating phones.
In a world mesmerized by pragmatism, its easy to forget that new insights cannot emerge from well-worn paths of thinking. But to forge new paths, we have to be willing to fail — something our success-hungry culture abhors. To take the safe and common road in our writing or our lives will bring only common results, when what the world really needs is a fresh take on tired arguments and daring new perspectives that reveal hidden truths. Said Oscar Wilde: “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” You might use his words as inspiration to loosen the grip of your usual thinking and write freely to discover something new, instead of using the written word to explain what you think you already know.
Author Anne Rice gives this advice for those who want to be writers: “If you want to be a writer, write. Write and write and write. If you stop, start again. Save everything that you write. If you feel blocked, write through it until you feel your creative juices flowing again. Write. Writing is what makes a writer, nothing more and nothing less. — Ignore critics. Critics are a dime a dozen. Anybody can be a critic. Writers are priceless. —- Go where the pleasure is in your writing. Go where the pain is. Write the book you would like to read. Write the book you have been trying to find but have not found. But write. And remember, there are no rules for our profession. Ignore rules. Ignore what I say here if it doesn’t help you. Do it your own way. — Every writer knows fear and discouragement. Just write. — The world is crying for new writing. It is crying for fresh and original voices and new characters and new stories. If you won’t write the classics of tomorrow, well, we will not have any.”
Author Thomas Kenneally has this advice for those who want to write: “My aphorism is ‘only begin.’ It’s hard to do if you have a job, but if you can find the time to write a number of days or nights a week, even if it’s just five hundred words – that process will help free up your subconscious…. You’ve got to use your conscious mind to refine it all, but a lot of good material comes from the unconscious, and to engage the unconscious you have to write a number of times a week to get the sub-conscious stirred up. I’ve got this idea that all the great stories are in our subconscious somewhere and they’ll come out if only we give them a chance. Getting it published in the present climate is the heartbreak, but there’s always Amazon.”