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 >
Like life, freewriting can seem chaotic and overabundant, but go through a pile of them, underline the gems, and you will find recurring themes, notions and obsessions. These are the subject areas that have energy for you. You don’t have to justify them — just follow them without thinking too much about it. Get the intellect involved and you’ll soon be overwhelmed by all the worthy possibilities, both in your freewrites and in your life. In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon said it well: “In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them. Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.”
“I realized how far I was from believing in God, in human beings, or in anything at all. I doubted art. What was it for? If it was to entertain people who were afraid of waking up, I was not interested in it. If it was a means of succeeding economically, I was not interested. If it was an activity taken on by my ego to exalt itself, I was not interested. If I had to be the jester for those in power, those who poison the planet and leave millions of people starving, I was not interested. What then was the purpose of art? After a crisis so profound that it led me to think of suicide, I arrived at the conclusion that the purpose of art was to heal.” –Alejandro Jodorowsky, film director, in Parabola Magazine
Many of us feel powerless to recreate the world in alignment with what we most value, but our ability to dream up this new world is the first step in its creation. “By means of a story we’re able to imagine quite vividly a world unlike the one we live in now,” says writer Haruki Murakami. “In the face of the dark, violent and cynical reality in which we live, this might seem at times like a powerless and fleeting hope. But the power that each individual has to imagine is found precisely in this: in the quiet yet sustained effort to keep on singing, to keep on telling stories, without losing heart.” By doing as Murakami advises, we are seeding a new world in the hearts not just of ourselves, but of all who read our work.
What truly moves us will likely move others, if we are willing to take the trouble to articulate it clearly — to tell the story in a way that evokes a felt sense. This means digging under our impulse toward anger or bitterness or judgment or argument to our core vulnerabilities and values, then finding where they reside in our heart. Writing from this place is far more likely to be insightful and healing for ourselves and others than staying with surface story, emotion or opinion.“What cannot be said will be wept,” wrote Sappho, so we might as well write it thoroughly and save ourselves the excess grief that comes from bearing an unexamined story.
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.”