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]
“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.”
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, but for those too far away to come, I offer individual retreats at a very reasonable cost so that you can be supported via phone or skype to do this on your own or with friends in the location of your choice. Contact me for details.
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.”
When your writing doesn’t go so well, do you get grim and throw in the towel? Do that and you’re guaranteed to get nowhere. Those who make stories, poems, books — and yes, even a pile of freewrites — need to pick up the pen again and again, however it went yesterday. This is true for all kinds of artists. “I remember being in an artists’ colony with an Irish painter who cheerfully announced at dinner that it had been a bad day,” says award-winning musician Meredith Monk. “Nothing had come easily for her. ‘But,’ she said, ‘I’ll try me hardest again tomorrow.’ I remember her statement as I work through my own resistance to sitting down and trying again. That attitude has inherent spaciousness: there is enough time and space for another effort. One could relate it to the willingness in meditation practice to come back again and again to the breath.”
Reading social media at this time of heightened collective tensions can be highly instructive for writers interested in going deeper than the surface of things. Bringing awareness to our preferred stories, our emotional reactions, our impulse to share what supports our story and ignore what does not, gives us a great opportunity to learn about human nature, and thus, deepen our insight in our writing and our lives. A study of social media makes clear that the main affliction of human life is the stories we swallow unexamined. We end up mesmerized by them, unable to see the whole truth. We are encased by clusters of stories: those others have told about us, those we’ve told about ourselves, those others tell about the world. Language is a form of magic, casting spells. It’s important to notice what spells we are under — and take charge of the stories we tell and believe about ourselves and others. With our stories, we make the world.
“The most regretful people on earth,” said poet Mary Oliver, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” You can start with 10 minutes. One paragraph. Even one sentence. No matter how overwhelmed, stressed, or busy, these incremental movements will keep you connected to your vision and build a habit of taking seriously your impulse to write. As the novelist Doris Lessing put it, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
“There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it,” says Gustave Flaubert, and yet we can walk by leaves and faces and the webs of spiders without so much as a nod. It’s so easy to go numb as a stone, forget to notice all the small miracles around us. So what’s the antidote? How do we begin to access this poetic layer of life and bring it to our writing? We need only step for a moment out of the life ruled by the clock. This takes little more than the intention to slow down enough to feel the ground beneath our feet, the flow of our breath, the tension in our shoulders or the looseness in our limbs — until the colors get a little brighter, the noise in our head a little softer, the sound of traffic more like music. “Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table,” says Diane Ackerman. “Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.”