EVERY WEEK OR TWO, 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. [read more]
The view from your life is different than the view from anyone else’s. Honor that deeply, and we will all benefit from the wisdom you will impart just by being real. Writers often stay in the safer territory of dispensing “universal truths” rather than mining for insight in the chaotic rubble of their own living. Yet, one of the greatest gifts we can give each other is the intimate truth of our lives — what we struggle with, what we celebrate, what makes us utterly human. In his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, author Ray Bradbury says it straight: “What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”
Whether we’re writing or reading the news, when things go off course from what we want and value, it can be difficult to keep an open mind and heart. But that’s precisely what we need to do. “Dreadful events can lead to wonderful events, and the other way around,” writes Buddhist teacher John Tarrant. “It’s always too early to despair.” So what to do instead? Whether individually or collectively, jazz great Miles Davis has great advice for such times: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note. It’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”
All of us have access to the extraordinary, yet we seldom tap into it. Mary Oliver, writing in Upstream, has some advise for where it can be found: “No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.”
When life interrupts with pain, confusion or election coverage, this is no reason to freak out and stop writing. A better response is to listen to author Neil Gaiman’s solution to the worst of problems: “When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.”
Come immerse yourself in writing as deep play and use the mind of meditation to access the natural stream of your expression. In an atmosphere of warmth and non-judgement, free of critical evaluation, we will create a welcoming space to be daring and self-revealing, loosening the grip of our critical minds so that expression can flow freely, which is one of the ultimate fruits of meditation. This retreat will be held in Fairfax, California on November 13 from 10am-5:30pm. more info/register
“If you have learned only how to be a success,” says Thomas Merton, “your life has probably been wasted.” By success, he certainly means the word conventionally, and if you are a writer, that means you have published and sold books, or won a contest, or otherwise been praised or paid for your work. By defining success in this way, writing to find the truth inside, to find the words beneath the chatter that normally consumes us, to find what we most care about and want to say, to get us closer to a reality that makes our ego smaller wouldn’t be defined as successful writing unless it had “market” value. If you want to write in this soulful way, then it’s time to dump conventional wisdom and listen instead to Joy Williams: “The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve … something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness – those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.”
As our social discourse gets more and more polarized and disrespectful, it’s natural to want to bow out of the conversation. Why write something about a hot topic and risk being misunderstood or treated with hostility? After all, who wants to talk to people who aren’t interested in listening? And yet, if soul-connected people stop writing about important things, only the most righteous, rigid, and aggressive will take part in the discussion. So what’s the solution? Take a deep breath, contact your heart, and write the truth of what you see with as much respect for other points of view as you can. Once you put it out to the world, author William Burroughs has this wise advice: “Whenever you are threatened by a hostile presence, you emit a thick cloud of love like an octopus squirts out ink.”
We are all conditioned by our culture to adapt to its rules — even if we are conforming to a rebellious sub-culture. And most of us don’t want to say or do something that would seriously jeapordize our connection to the people and things we depend on. While this makes sense on a survival level, if we allow this attitude to infect us as writers, we can’t fully know who we are or what we think and feel — and our unique wisdom for the world will be stifled. Within the larger context of universal love, the mystic poet Rumi instructs us to “Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.” That’s a big leap to take, but we can start by freeing ourselves on paper, even if only in a password-protected file on our computer.
Architect Mies van der Rohe famously said that “God is in the details.” Writers can honor this in their loving attention to specifics: what kind of flower / office worker / doorknob are you talking about? Yet too much attention to detail, and what we create lacks insight and space. In this case, better to expand our sense of self and possibility, as Salman Rushdie did when he answered the question, Who am I? Said Rushdie: “I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been, seen, done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone/everything whose being-in-the-world affected or was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.” So here is a koan for powerful writing: How can my vision be big and small at the same time?
In a culture where people are admired for excelling, we can get caught by the false belief that only those who excel at something ought to do it. But how did they come to excel at it? They did it. As Aristotle wisely noted, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Yet we can’t be excellent at everything. Humans have limits, after all. Just don’t think this gives you an excuse not to write if you are called to it. A musician doesn’t need to be Mozart to touch your heart and you don’t need to be Shakespeare to touch the hearts of others. “Use what talents you possess,” said Henry Van Dyke. “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”
Our most truthful writing — the writing most likely to produce insights — allows all of our parts to be sourced; not only the parts of us that are noble and kind, but also the parts that are a little bit crazy or weak or traumatized. ”The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography,” wrote Hugh MacLeod. Writing for the “pearl” differs from the normal way we might write about our displeasure in a journal, where we are likely to lament and complain. Of course we can start there, but then we can’t just abandon ourselves to despair. Pearlmaking requires two steps: 1-Accept our unattractive responses to the unwanted parts of our lives and give them voice. 2-Once we have given full space to our feelings, we can then open wide, become curious about our vexations and not take them so personally by looking at how they fit into the larger whole — the life of the human family and of the cosmos. This broad seeing combined with our tender openness to what is unwanted are the ingredients needed to make our “pearl.”
Exploring in writing “what could be” can be a potent way to open our minds to fresh possibilities for our own lives as well as for the life of the collective. In his book The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman, who writes speculative fiction, suggests three doorways into exploring possible futures: “There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet, and they are simple phrases. “What if . . . ?” gives us change, a departure from our lives. (What if aliens landed tomorrow and gave us everything we wanted, but at a price?) “If only . . .” lets us explore the glories and dangers of tomorrow. (If only dogs could talk. If only I was invisible.) “If this goes on . . .” is the most predictive of the three, although it doesn’t try to predict an actual future with all its messy confusion. Instead, “If this goes on . . .” fiction takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became bigger, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved.”