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]
Creative work that asks us to extend ourselves beyond our normal limits is harder than scrolling through Facebook or shopping for mustard. Here’s why it matters which we choose to focus on: If we are given the impulse to write, whether to better understand ourselves or to communicate from a place of depth with others, this is an impulse toward contributing to the soul of the world, and it matters far more than the things most of us do instead. “My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely,” Mary Oliver wrote in Upstream. “It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”
“Words are tricky. Sometimes you need them to bring out the hurt festering inside. If you don’t, it turns gangrenous and kills you,” wrote Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in the novel, Queen of Dreams. She goes on: “Sometimes words can break a feeling into pieces.” Some feelings need to be broken to pieces — shattered and swept away to the compost. You can write the hurt in a way that makes this possible, rather than writing it in a way that will add concrete to the mud and make that negative feeling a permanent part of your identity. The key: write the story of the hurt a few ways, and see how it leaves you feeling. Once you get it out raw, can you find a meaning for it that wasn’t evident at first? Can you find the strength and resilience hidden in your response to it? Can you find the springboard to compassion and insight that it creates? All of these possibilities — and more — are in every hurt you carry, however negative it feels. To be the author of your own life story is to be the authority on what you become. You are the one who determines what things mean, and in doing so, create yourself anew.
“I am learning to see,” said poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “I don’t know why it is, but everything enters me more deeply and doesn’t stop where it once used to. I have an interior that I never knew of. Everything passes into it now. I don’t know what happens there.” Everything in our culture tells us to look outside, into the daylight and the screen light. Do that all the time, and you are missing out on the juicy realms of the soul. This world is a little dim and mysterious, and it takes a conscious effort to move our attention there, against the tide. Meditation — and meditative writing — is the key to relationship with these inner landscapes, out of which comes the work and insights we find most satisfying and real. A dim room, a candle and a notebook, the sound of rain on the window or soft music, will help you access it. Why not make that a priority?
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?