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 >
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.
May 30, 2015 from 10am to 5pm
at Sukhasiddhi Foundation, Fairfax, California
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 goals of meditation. As we alternate writing and reading aloud, we will cultivate mindful attention to our bodies and senses to help us locate a source of expression beyond the discursive mind. Timed free writes from evocative prompts will guide the process, helping us access a range of inner and outer, personal and transpersonal aspects of reality. Listening to our words beside the raw expression of others, the preciousness of each person’s unique mind, rhythms and voice will become apparent. Guidance for how to continue this process beyond the day-long will be provided. Please bring a notebook and pen. Bag lunch recommended. Sliding scale: $80-$60-$40. Click here to register.
Writing is at its essence about creating for another being an experience that lives in the realm of memory and dream. It is helpful to remember this, and to keep in mind that in our stories, we dream our souls and in doing so, invite others to do the same. “The essence of our art lies in creating a lingering dream, good or bad, that other souls can enter,” wrote Marilyn Robinson in The World Split Open. “Dreaming one’s soul into another’s is an urgent business of the human mind: the dreaming itself, not whatever agenda can supposedly be extracted from it. As art, it plays on the nerves and the senses like a dream. It unfolds over time like a dream. It makes its own often disturbing and often inexplicable appeal to memory and emotion, creating itself again in the consciousness of the reader or hearer.”
“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.”