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 >
“When life is good—or even more than good, when life makes sense—I really don’t feel any desire to write about it,” says author Richard Bausch. “Only when life becomes painful, when I’m suffering, do I feel like I’ve got the material to work on the page. But just writing down one’s troubles isn’t enough. You have to bring new perspective and insight to your suffering. For me, there’s a sure sign I’ll be able to muster the maturity it takes to make art out of my life: When I’m finally able to laugh at a younger version of myself. The things we can’t laugh about are the things we haven’t grown out of yet. Not laughing is, in some ways, a failure to grow beyond things that are still too close, too present, too hurtful. Laughter is a release from all that. It shows we’ve moved on.”
Writing at its most transformative is a process of discovery. When we are trying to get to something deeper, to express what is ineffable and not quite in full view yet, we can’t expect the writing to always go smoothly. “The writing experience is in some ways like riding a bucking bronco,” said author Jane Smiley. “Sometimes he’s good, and sometimes he bucks you off, sometimes he follows orders, sometimes he spooks. I like that unexpected quality. You have to be able to keep riding whatever comes.”
Whether we are writing a story or living the story we tell ourselves about our lives, it is most useful to us when we hold it flexibly — subject to change. All stories are theories of how things work, and these theories need to be open to sudden revision when new insight comes in. This is what keeps both our writing and our lives fluid, dynamic, creative and close to the truth. In “The World Split Open,” Marilyn Robinson put it this way: “At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things … I believe this narrative is the essential mode of our being in the world, individually and collectively. Maintaining its integrity — maintaining a sense of the essentially provisional or hypothetical character of the story we tell ourselves — is, I will suggest, our greatest practical, as well as moral and ethical, problem.”
“The secret of the Great Stories,” says author Arundahati Roy, “is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.”
Before we’ve written something, it exists as potentiality with the whole world attached to it, giving it layers of meaning. As soon as we start to write, it begins to take form and it’s difficult — or maybe even impossible — to capture the whole gestalt that exists in us and that drives us to expression. Trying to control the work doesn’t make this any easier or more possible. In “Dancing at the Edge of the World,” Ursula LeGuin put it best: “Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”
In a culture that exhalts product and accomplishment over everything, writers naturally absorb this habit and think that “real” writing gets published and shared widely. That might be true for business books and how-to manuals, but when it comes to writing what is real and moving to us, nothing could be further than the truth. What gets written for the marketplace is often very different from what our deep selves are longing to articulate. As Ursula Leguin put it, “True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.”
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” —Ray Bradbury
“I learned not to look away at the moment when I should be paying the most attention,” said author Matthew Thomas in a New York Times interview. “The closer I got to the heart of a scene, to the really difficult material to write, the emotionally challenging stuff or the exchange in which the conflict is made most explicit, the more I’d look for a way out of writing it. This was out of fear, obviously, because you don’t want to run up against your limitations in craft, intelligence or heart. It’s much easier to duck the really vital material, but it kills what you’re writing to do so, kills it instantly.”
“If I love a book, it first strikes my heart. The mind comes in later, as I start to articulate why it is I like it,” says Azar Nafisi. “Both experiences are joyous, but you need that initial emotional link. It’s why I don’t like theories that espouse interrogation as our primary method of engaging with books. It’s as though Alice — instead of just running after the white rabbit and jumping into the hole — would first say, Why is this rabbit white? Why is it running so fast? Should I be following it? That way, she would never get to Wonderland.” Likewise, engaging the judging, questioning mind while attempting to write something that comes from a deeper place than intellect will keep you from creating the wonderland you are meant to create. Try letting go of all that and just jump into the rabbit hole.
Each of us occupies a singular place in the human story. We are the only ones in the history of the universe living at this time and place with these quirks and this personal history, body and temperament. That means we have a perspective that no one else has, and with that, a piece of the wisdom pie. What does that mean for our writing? Good to listen to author Neil Gaiman on this one: “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”
This 4-day retreat in a mountain eco-resort will jump start or deepen your writing practice. In an atmosphere of warmth and non-judgement, free of critical evaluation, we will invite each other to be daring and self-revealing, loosening the grip of our critical minds so that expression can flow freely. Whether you’re a seasoned writer working on a book or just want to use writing as a personal process of self-discovery, this immersion into writing as deep play will open up a whole new landscape of possibilities for your writing and your life. Click here for details.
Freewriting for your eyes only and keeping those writings hidden can be an important step toward developing the courage to speak dangerous things in public. It is the job of the writer to articulate what others are only vaguely thinking or feeling; to talk openly about those things others fear to say. As Anais Nin put it: “There is a great danger for the writer, perhaps the greatest one of all: his consciousness of the multiple taboos society has imposed on literature, and his inner censor.… It is surprising how well one writes if one thinks no one will read it. This honesty, this absence of posturing, is a most fecund source of material. The writer’s task is to overthrow the taboos rather than accept them.”