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 >
Whether you are writing a novel or a scene from your own life that you are trying to understand, engaging honestly with a story does not happen in a linear way. To access its movement and truth, it’s best not to get stuck in the notion of being chronological. Rather, allow yourself to follow your attraction. In his book Inner Wisdom, Michael Meade put it beautifully: “Sit by the river of the story and see what strikes you the most. Stories are not about right and wrong. They’re about right and left. Just finding the detail. I call it mythological acupuncture. The story is trying to stick you and just like an acupuncture treatment it’s trying to move the energy in your life. So don’t mistrust yourself. They say it’s the hardest thing to do, to trust one’s self.”
Don’t have time to write? Laura Vanderkam has a trick to be sure you’re telling the truth: “Instead of saying I don’t have time try saying it’s not a priority, and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority. I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority. If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.”
Here’s how to up your creativity by 50 percent: Get out in nature and walk! In recent study, those who spent four days hiking without electronic devices scored nearly 50 percent higher on creativity tests than the control group. Hint: In lieu of electronics, bring along a high-touch notebook and a pen that feels good in your hand. Stop along the way, smell the smells and write from that. Stop a little further, notice what you hear and write from that. Sit with a tree in silence and then write what the tree tells you. There are wild and juicy worlds beyond all the pixels and vibrating phones.
In a world mesmerized by pragmatism, its easy to forget that new insights cannot emerge from well-worn paths of thinking. But to forge new paths, we have to be willing to fail — something our success-hungry culture abhors. To take the safe and common road in our writing or our lives will bring only common results, when what the world really needs is a fresh take on tired arguments and daring new perspectives that reveal hidden truths. Said Oscar Wilde: “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” You might use his words as inspiration to loosen the grip of your usual thinking and write freely to discover something new, instead of using the written word to explain what you think you already know.
Author Anne Rice gives this advice for those who want to be writers: “If you want to be a writer, write. Write and write and write. If you stop, start again. Save everything that you write. If you feel blocked, write through it until you feel your creative juices flowing again. Write. Writing is what makes a writer, nothing more and nothing less. — Ignore critics. Critics are a dime a dozen. Anybody can be a critic. Writers are priceless. —- Go where the pleasure is in your writing. Go where the pain is. Write the book you would like to read. Write the book you have been trying to find but have not found. But write. And remember, there are no rules for our profession. Ignore rules. Ignore what I say here if it doesn’t help you. Do it your own way. — Every writer knows fear and discouragement. Just write. — The world is crying for new writing. It is crying for fresh and original voices and new characters and new stories. If you won’t write the classics of tomorrow, well, we will not have any.”
Author Thomas Kenneally has this advice for those who want to write: “My aphorism is ‘only begin.’ It’s hard to do if you have a job, but if you can find the time to write a number of days or nights a week, even if it’s just five hundred words – that process will help free up your subconscious…. You’ve got to use your conscious mind to refine it all, but a lot of good material comes from the unconscious, and to engage the unconscious you have to write a number of times a week to get the sub-conscious stirred up. I’ve got this idea that all the great stories are in our subconscious somewhere and they’ll come out if only we give them a chance. Getting it published in the present climate is the heartbreak, but there’s always Amazon.”
Allowing ourselves to deeply feel what it is we’re writing about brings depth and humanity to our work and our life. Pleasurable or painful, our feelings give life richness, whether its joy at the smell of the rain, grief over the loss of the rainforest, or fear at the illness of someone we love. “We can separate artistic pain, the experience of feeling deeply, from leading a painful life,” says author Dorthe Nors. “One is not a requirement for the other. But it is the job of the artist to sit with our feelings, to be receptive to them, to examine them, turn them into narrative or paint or film.” To make contact with what you’re feeling, even if you are just doing a 10-minute freewrite, start with attention on your breath and inner sensation, where feeling resides. Then put pen to paper.
We will tap into the mind of meditation to access the natural stream of our expression. May 30 from 10-5pm at Sukhasiddhi, a Buddhist meditation center in Fairfax, California. more information
“You cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft,” says author Jane Smiley. “You want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas. But you keep going, casting about for the next sentence.” This is one of the main skills you develop by doing freewrites — suspending judgment over 10 or 30 minutes until the timer goes off. Such practice will serve you well when you are ready to work on something longer. And you just might find the ability to suspend judgment creeping over into other aspects of your life, opening up possibilities where before there was a brick wall.
In the pragmatic view, thinking first of your audience when you write will give your work focus, but unless you plan to write exclusively for pre-school children or neuroscientists, this isn’t as good an idea as it might seem at first glance. Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, has this to say about it: “Very early on in my writing life I realized that if you’re going to write, the last thing you should think about is an audience. Otherwise you’re going to give the audience what they want as opposed to what you want to do or discover. The act of writing is so difficult anyway that you don’t want to add to it the imagined sense of five hundred people in a theater listening to you.”
“Attention without feeling is only a report,” said poet Mary Oliver. Sometimes when we free write, the first thing that pours through might be just such a report, or it might be a flood of feeling. It can be interesting to go back to your writings, without judgment, and see which side you leaned toward. Is what you’ve written so matter-of-fact that on re-reading, it leaves you unmoved? Are you feeling drawn to describe and spell out the feelings associated with this piece? Does it evoke feeling without needing to be explicit? Or is it all feeling without enough context and perspective to make sense of it? Only you know whether your attention has gone too far into the facts or too far into the feeling to be deeply satisfying to your heart. This doesn’t make the writing wrong or bad — rather, it opens a doorway and points us to a deepening avenue of exploration.
It’s hard to write on a computer — at least for me, it is a distraction machine. Author David Mitchell gives this advice for how to make writing a priority in the face of constant temptations to distraction:
1: Neglect everything else.
2: Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction. The moment you think okay, it’s work time, and face down the words, you rush past all the other things asking for your attention
3: Keep the Apple homepage, because it’s rather boring. If your homepage is the website of your favorite newspaper, you’ve had it.