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.”
Our superficial, discursive mind has all kinds of ideas about who we are, and most of them aren’t our own: We absorbed them unthinkingly from the culture and from those around us. Without some form of contemplative practice, there is really no way for us to know what we truly think or who we truly are. Our minds are just too big a jumble of influences. Author Joan Didion used writing as her method to sort through this jumble, with brilliant results. Says Didion: “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Just as the Buddha advises that equanimity, inner peace and compassion originate with being fully present and aware in the moment, so it is with creativity and powerful writing. In fact, author William Saroyan’s advice for writers could also be an instruction from the Buddha. Says Saroyan: “The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
The heady feeling of imagined creation, of exhalted or timeless states, are necessary to those who want to pierce the veil between ordinary life and the mysterious regions of the soul. There, images, sensings, and a storyless trembling dominate. It can be tempting to stay in the inarticulate, unedited heights and depths, but if we do, the whole thing will drain of meaning. Like the bodhisattva, the artist, the mystic and the saint, the writer must return and do the work of translation so that what has occured can benefit others. As poet and musician Patti Smith put it, “It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”
Writing and life have a lot in common. You can do it by a formula, the way others say it’s supposed to be done, or you can trust the process and step into the unknown, curious about what will emerge from a place other than logic and willing to be surprised. In speaking about our lives as a story with a plot, mythologist Joseph Campbell also gives great advice for writing: “…when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another. Then, later, you see it was perfect. So I have a theory that if you are on your own path things are going to come to you. Since it’s your own path, and no one has ever been on it before, there’s no precedent, so everything that happens is a surprise and is timely.”
It’s tempting to let ourselves be dimly satisfied with the top layer of our minds — writing from what we are already conscious of and doing it artfully enough to get a little nice feedback. That might be just fine for a hobbyist or a breezy blog, but if you aspire to use writing to meet and grow your connection to soul, you have to do something more thrilling and dangerous than that. Rather than write what you already figured out, you need to lean into the discomfort of the unknown, murky and sometimes painful, where your growing edge can be found. To begin to access this, you might want to write on these questions from Audre Lorde:”What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
Stories are not mere entertainment. They have power. Engage your intuition and deepest intent when writing your story, and you make medicine for yourself and for the healing of the world. Author Clarissa Pinkola Estés explains it well: “Stories instantaneously bypass the ego. The ego cannot absorb the entire pith of story. The ego hears the story as a form of entertainment. While the ego is kept happy, thinking it is being entertained, the soul and the spirit are listening deeply. The flow of images in stories is medicine — similar medicine to listening to the ocean or gazing at sunrises. No direct interaction has occurred — the ocean did not jump into your body and fill you. But there is something about seeing, hearing and smelling the ocean that has bypassed the ego, and straightened out many things that were in disarray within the psyche. Some people are remedied by thunderstorms, some by music, some by the voice of a person they love. Story has the same kind of influence. It flows where it is needed, and applies itself there — like an antibiotic that finds the source of the infection and concentrates there. The story helps to make that part of the psyche clear and strong again.”
Focussing on trying to write something “good” or even coherent can be a big stumbling block when we are trying to access what is hidden under our discursive minds. In fact, any objective to create something artful can backfire, and make it harder to source what is original in us. Georgia O’Keefe knew this well. As an artist, she ignored fashion and followed the callings of her own intuition, however quirky its attractions. In doing so, this obscure art teacher became one of the most loved painters of the 20th century. In a letter to Sherwood Anderson, it’s no surprise she gave him this advice, which will serve most anyone engaged in creative work: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.”
In my work with writers, the thing that most distinguishes those who are experienced from those who are new is understanding the need to write drafts. New writers often expect a piece of writing to come out whole and complete — ready to publish on the first try. When freewriting, this is actually true: We write together and share the immediacy of our thought process by reading aloud. The preciousness and the beauty of that exchange is a great pleasure. And yet, I wouldn’t publish a book of freewrites. Why? Because they don’t often translate to work that makes sense out of the context of the writing process itself. They may be filled with seed thoughts, beautiful passages — even whole drafts — but they are not “finished.” Any first attempt at expression needs reflection and subsequent shaping to be ready for the random reader. “The first draft of anything is shit,” said Ernest Hemingway. And while that might sound harsh, it can also be freeing. Why not take Hemingway’s word for it and go in with the goal of writing garbage, thereby freeing yourself of the desire to have something come out whole in one swoop? Why not embrace this freedom, knowing there is no need to worry about perfection because drafts can come from it, and what is missing can be filled in, what is unfinished can be made whole?
Often when we write, we leap directly from busy life to keyboard without pause, and start with things we already think we know — about ourselves, about others, about the world. These familiar articulations have their place, but when we write to discover and reveal what it is obscured in us and in the world, we have to see and feel something fresh. So how do we do this? According to poet Mark Strand, the secret to saying something new and meaningful is to keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut — for as long as possible. If we follow this advice at various points throughout the day — especially before we write — we make ourselves available to life as it is now, in all its variety, texture and specificity, with no hardened ideas to block new insights. Cultivating this pure receptivity is how to access meaning and live a fresh, creative life.