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 >
Virginia Woolf’s vision of the kind of diary she would like to keep could apply just as well to a freewrite practice: “Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”
“The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life,” says Zadie Smith. For some of us, articulation is essential to being fully awake and alive. The act of writing helps us discover what we most care about, formulate and clarify what we think, and articulate what we most value. Our disparate parts meet, converse and integrate. If this is sounds like you, then writing is not optional — it’s essential.
While researching the topic of storytelling, scientists discovered that some words and phrases have lost all storytelling power. “Some scientists have contended that figures of speech like ‘a rough day’ are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more,“ writes Leo Wildrich in The Science of Storytelling. According to Wildrich, the trouble with such cliches is that they don’t activate the frontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that lights up when we experience emotion. So if you want to convey emotion, make a point to eliminate cliches in favor of fresh, specific language.
Writers are often looking for reassurance that what they wrote is “right.” Did I say too much? Did I say too little? While those aren’t necessarily bad questions to consider before sharing a piece of work, it’s good to remember that leaning one way or the other is not more “right,” though individual writers and readers might have a strong preference. “Some writers whom I admire say everything,” says author Toni Morrison. “I have been more impressed with myself when I can say more with less instead of overdoing it, and making sure the reader knows every little detail. I’d like to rely more heavily on the reader’s own emotions and intelligence.”
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.”