Exploring in writing “what could be” can be a potent way to open our minds to fresh possibilities for our own lives as well as for the life of the collective. In his book The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman, who writes speculative fiction, suggests three doorways into exploring possible futures: “There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet, and they are simple phrases. “What if . . . ?” gives us change, a departure from our lives. (What if aliens landed tomorrow and gave us everything we wanted, but at a price?) “If only . . .” lets us explore the glories and dangers of tomorrow. (If only dogs could talk. If only I was invisible.) “If this goes on . . .” is the most predictive of the three, although it doesn’t try to predict an actual future with all its messy confusion. Instead, “If this goes on . . .” fiction takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became bigger, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved.”
When your writing doesn’t go so well, do you get grim and throw in the towel? Do that and you’re guaranteed to get nowhere. Those who make stories, poems, books — and yes, even a pile of freewrites — need to pick up the pen again and again, however it went yesterday. This is true for all kinds of artists. “I remember being in an artists’ colony with an Irish painter who cheerfully announced at dinner that it had been a bad day,” says award-winning musician Meredith Monk. “Nothing had come easily for her. ‘But,’ she said, ‘I’ll try me hardest again tomorrow.’ I remember her statement as I work through my own resistance to sitting down and trying again. That attitude has inherent spaciousness: there is enough time and space for another effort. One could relate it to the willingness in meditation practice to come back again and again to the breath.”
Reading social media at this time of heightened collective tensions can be highly instructive for writers interested in going deeper than the surface of things. Bringing awareness to our preferred stories, our emotional reactions, our impulse to share what supports our story and ignore what does not, gives us a great opportunity to learn about human nature, and thus, deepen our insight in our writing and our lives. A study of social media makes clear that the main affliction of human life is the stories we swallow unexamined. We end up mesmerized by them, unable to see the whole truth. We are encased by clusters of stories: those others have told about us, those we’ve told about ourselves, those others tell about the world. Language is a form of magic, casting spells. It’s important to notice what spells we are under — and take charge of the stories we tell and believe about ourselves and others. With our stories, we make the world.
“The most regretful people on earth,” said poet Mary Oliver, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” You can start with 10 minutes. One paragraph. Even one sentence. No matter how overwhelmed, stressed, or busy, these incremental movements will keep you connected to your vision and build a habit of taking seriously your impulse to write. As the novelist Doris Lessing put it, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
“There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it,” says Gustave Flaubert, and yet we can walk by leaves and faces and the webs of spiders without so much as a nod. It’s so easy to go numb as a stone, forget to notice all the small miracles around us. So what’s the antidote? How do we begin to access this poetic layer of life and bring it to our writing? We need only step for a moment out of the life ruled by the clock. This takes little more than the intention to slow down enough to feel the ground beneath our feet, the flow of our breath, the tension in our shoulders or the looseness in our limbs — until the colors get a little brighter, the noise in our head a little softer, the sound of traffic more like music. “Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table,” says Diane Ackerman. “Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.”
When the world is in danger of fearful lockdown and the system no longer serves the majority, isn’t it frivolous to be writing stories and poems, to be dreaming up fantasies and novels? Just the opposite, according to author Ursula LeGuin. “To me, the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned. …Fantasy and science fiction in their very conception offer alternatives to the reader’s present, actual world. Young people in general welcome this kind of story because in their vigor and eagerness for experience they welcome alternatives, possibilities, change. Having come to fear even the imagination of true change, many adults refuse all imaginative literature, priding themselves on seeing nothing beyond what they already know, or think they know.”
Just as we allow food to marinate, writing often needs to marinate as well. “There is much to be said in favour of laying a work aside to mature,” says Rosamund EM Harding in An Anatomy of Inspiration. “For one thing it gives the judgment time to operate; the mind is able to return to the work from time to time with a fresh outlook and check it from many different angles. It follows also that if new ideas are to be set aside to develop and newly finished works left to ‘mature,’ there must be several things on hand at the same time in various stages of development. The continuity of attention is purposely shorted and interrupted partly on account of the rest this gives.” While we rest, the unconscious continues to work, weaving unexpected threads together in ways we’d never dream of with our conscious mind, so when we go back to our work, we know just what to do to bring it to the next level.
With practice, doing freewrites that utilize the principles of writing from the soul helps us learn to bypass our usual thoughts and source the work from somewhere deeper — not from the constructed “me” made of our thoughts and feelings, but the broader, truer “self” that exists more as process than a person. Writing from this space is a meditation in itself. Zen poet Chase Twichell puts it this way: “The work of Zen is to reach the ground of being, to perceive the true nature of the self, which, as it turns out, is a phantom. This is also the work of poetry, at least for me: to erode the membrane between self and the world, so that a newly innocent consciousness can emerge, one that sees what it sees without commentary, analysis, or judgment.”
Why use prompts and turn on a timer to write without stopping? Because otherwise we’ll be trying — trying to do something good or wise or insightful. Trying to be clever or artful or smart. By writing on a prompt where all we have to do is finish the sentence, that part of us doing all the trying has a hard time taking over, and this gives our exploration a chance to reach below the surface to the realm of soul. Aldous Huxley put it brilliantly: “What has to be relaxed is the personal self, the self that tries too hard, that thinks it knows what is what, that uses language. This has to be relaxed in order that the multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self may come through and function as they should. In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing.”
When people find out I’m a writer, they often ask where I get my ideas. The way I see it, ideas come from everywhere, but only become “mine” once they have entered the soup of my psyche and marinated with all of the images, sensations and feelings I’ve stored in body and mind. When I pay attention, tune into my senses and listen closely both inside and out, fresh things come. Rod Serling, the creator of “The Twilight Zone,” puts it this way: “Ideas come from the Earth. They come from every human experience that you’ve either witnessed or have heard about, translated into your brain in your own sense of dialogue, in your own language form. Ideas are born from what is smelled, heard, seen, experienced, felt, emotionalized. Ideas are probably in the air, like little tiny items of ozone.”
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