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 >
Werner Herzog reports that the screenplays for his artful films come to him “very much alive, like dreams, without explanation. I never think about what it all means. I think only about telling a story, and however illogical the images, I let them invade me. An idea comes to me, and then, over a period of time – perhaps while driving or walking – this blurred vision becomes clearer in my mind, pulling itself into focus…. When I write, I sit in front of the computer and pound the keys. I start at the beginning and write fast, leaving out anything that isn’t necessary, aiming at all times for the hard core of the narrative. I can’t write without that urgency. Something is wrong if it takes more than five days to finish a screenplay. A story created this way will always be full of life.”
There are parts of us — and of the human collective — that have been voiceless. We have to listen deeply to encourage those voiceless parts to speak. Only our open receptivity, our patience and generosity will call these gems out of hiding. To hear what hasn’t been heard before — the quiet intuitions and impressions, so hard to put into words and such a relief to find articulated — this is where real hope lies, both personally and collectively. In his book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde put it this way: “The intellect can speak — it can describe the known world, it can draw logical conclusions. But it can’t create speech for the mute. It is a gesture of the awakened soul to offer articulation to the speechless content of the self.”
Admit it: you make up stories. All the time. Humans have storytelling built in to our wiring. Even our important, informed opinions are based on stories we made up or that someone else made up, created out of a jumble of facts, events, impressions and values to which we give meaning. Whether we call it logic and analysis and present it with complete seriousness or we admit that we are playing make-believe, our world views are sourced from the incessant use of story that we all do automatically from the time we are small. In his book, The Storytelling Animal: How stories make us human, Jonathan Gottschall wrote: “The average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies.” As writers, we become conscious participants in this story construction, instead of letting our unconscious minds and social conditioning make unexamined narratives for us.
“When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” —Anne Lamott
Writing fashions are constantly changing. What was considered lyrical in the last century is considered corny in this one. What was hip mid-century now feels thin and cold. Whether consciously or unconsciously, every writer decides how much influence current trends will have on their subject matter and approach to writing: Lean too much toward fitting in, and something important will be lost. As Jane Austin put it: “I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”
Feeling blocked? It may seem counterintituitive, but this is the time to place some constraints on yourself. Limitations can free up creative energy: the process of freewriting to a timer is a great example of that. You can also try writing about your topic with an emphasis on the sense of smell, or using metaphors from cooking, or from the point of view of a future generation. Any limit at all can get you going if you allow yourself the space to explore without the need to get it right the first time.
We can’t “will” satisfying, soulful writing to come through our fingers. This happens by grace in it its own time. However, we can use our will to make us available to that grace by getting us to take our seat and summon our imagination when we’d rather do something else. “The will does not create the germinating image of a work, nor does it give the work its form,” wrote Lewis Hyde in The Gift, “but it does provide the energy and the directed attention called for by a dialogue with the imagination.”
Fear is the enemy of starting things. It loves to-do lists and partial attention. It loves scanning and skimming and doing three things at once. We can pretend we are busy people getting somewhere, when actually we are avoiding the blank or chaotic space that births creativity. Maybe this is why Gertrude Stein sat in a parked car to do most of her writing: With nothing to do except that one avoided thing and all attention available for that one thing only, we suddenly get more brave. [prompted by seth godin]
Whether writing or cooking dinner, half-hearted moments are half-lived moments. We can waste weeks and years in this reluctant state — with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, starting and stopping at the same time. That feeling of resistance is a mindfulness bell telling us to stop, get quiet, listen inside and get clear about what is true for us. Am I truly behind what I said I wanted to do? Or not? As Frank Lloyd Wright put it, ”You have to go wholeheartedly into anything in order to achieve anything worth having.”
When we’re surrounded by conflict, division and difficulty, where we write from matters because it seems like we are in a place that is the opposite of peace. If we begin to write from that contracted place, we won’t be able to see beyond the immediate conflict to the truth of what holds it. So how to have peace in the midst of conflict and let our words have a chance at wisdom? Try tapping into this vision of peace, from Black Elk: “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
Does your life — and thereby, your writing — feel too small and tight? To write your way out of it, try leaving your little reality: In a remote village headed up the Mahakan river in Borneo, there lives a family embedded in an ancient culture, embedded in a forest. They don’t want packaged snack foods, or a new laptop. Instead of shopping, they sing. Instead of watching movies, they tend seedlings of endangered trees to replant their ancestral forest, which is being bulldozed for palm oil, but their connection to a reality larger than this day, year, or lifetime allows for a quiet joy and resilience in these hard times. There are more ways to live than our eyes made narrow by conditioning can see. Opening to other realities opens our writing — and our lives — to new forms that might suit us far better than the ones we’ve been groomed for.
Try listening to this beautiful chant of the poem “Trees Please” by Rachel Bagby while you do this freewrite.