Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Once you’ve established or re-established some momentum with your writing practice, it’s best to do everything you can to stay on track and keep building on your forward motion. In a sense, you’re working to develop a writing habit so that writing naturally becomes an integral part of your daily life. You may reach a point of sensitivity where you actually don’t feel quite complete unless you’ve honored that inner call to create and write.

I still remember a phone conversation many years ago with a close writing friend. She asked how I was doing and I bitched and moaned about this nagging sense of dissatisfaction and vacuity that was plaguing me.

After I finished my diatribe, she asked me, “Have you written today?” and I had to admit I had not.

She said, “Sounds to me like you’re simply a writer who isn’t writing.”

I had to sheepishly admit that perhaps this was indeed the crux of my somewhat melodramatic angst.  We hung up after agreeing that we would each sit down then and there and write for a set period of time, gaining solace and support in the fact that across the miles a fellow friend and writer was engaging in the same process and the knowledge that, each in our own way, we were honoring our urge to write.

Find What Works For You

There are no hard and fast rules for the craft and process of writing—for practically every single rule about writing, there are examples of established writers who have successfully broken them—but there are certain guidelines that seem to work for most writers.  I will summarily list a few here and discuss them in more detail in future posts.  The point is to start discovering what works for you and gather around yourself a sense of a structure and methodology that supports your writing. Some of these guidelines may sound simplistic and none of them are original but, as in the phone call with my friend, sometimes it’s refreshing just to be humble and open to commonsense and practical advice, to awaken anew to what in Zen is called Beginner’s Mind.

Write on a regular basis. Nothing will build an inner sense of trust and confidence in your identity as a writer than a track record of continuity in your writing practice.  Become an habitual writer.

Suspend the editorial, judgmental mind.  You can critique or edit your work later. For now, just write. As Natalie Goldberg advises:  Allow yourself to write the worst junk in America.

Develop a team of writing allies.  These can be actual mentors, friends or writing group members or “virtual allies” in the form of authors and books that inspire your creative writing endeavors.  A few creative writing books to look at include:

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.  Now considered a classic for “freeing the writer within.”

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A guided 12-week program for recovering and enhancing one’s artistic creativity.

Writing Brave & Free by Ted Kooser & Steve Cox. Plenty of practical advice and “encouraging words for people who want to start writing” that apply as well for those of us who have been at it for a while.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.  Another timeless classic on writing and the creative process.

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Anyone who’s been around powerboats knows that if you really want to get anywhere, you have to get your boat “up on a plane” and that to do so takes an initial expenditure of extra power and acceleration.  When a boat begins forward motion through water, the hull is essentially plowing the water aside, making for rather slow and sluggish headway. But when you gun the engine and power the boat through the water, you begin gaining momentum. First the bow and then the rest of the hull kind of lift up and on top the water, so that the boat hull is now planing across the water’s surface, quickly gaining speed with diminishing effort. Then you can back off on the throttle and just enjoy the exhilaration of cruising.

Starting and maintaining a writing practice is not a dissimilar process. Initially, it may take quite a bit of effort to carve out the time and set aside your fears and procrastinations, to actually sit down and begin writing on a regular basis.  At first, it may feel like you’re slogging against water but the more momentum you gain, the more habitual you become with your writing, the easier the process unfolds. And once you have a writing practice established, the easier it becomes to maintain.

However, for most of us, if you let your writing practice slip—just like a powerboat that slows down below a certain speed settles back deeper into water—you’ll have to start over again and expend that initial extra effort to get yourself back up on a plane. I don’t mean to sound discouraging, but the truth of the matter is that writing is hard work, even for many prolific and established authors. There are very few writers for whom words just come streaming out onto the page like water from an open faucet. Most writers have to learn how to live with the fits and starts that come with slipping in and out of their writing groove.

A successful writer—from the context of considering writing as a practice and process—is someone who has found the ways and means of entering into and maintaining the flow of their writing. A major determining factor between successful and would-be writers comes down to the tenacity and perseverance that one brings to the practice of writing.  And a measure of our determination is the ability to come back to the writing table, time and time again, even when it means that we have to go through the sometimes tedious process of getting ourselves back up on the plane.

Rather than seeing this as a discouraging reality, I find that it helps to understand that these are simply some of the mechanics for establishing a writing practice.  Just as naval architects study the parameters for designing planing hulls, we writers can devise our individual methods for getting—and keeping—our writing up on a plane. And whenever we find that we have settled back into the waters of inertia, we know that we simply have to apply that extra burst of energy and determination to get up and cruising again.

I’ll be discussing some ways and means for enhancing writing practice in future posts.

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To become a writer, to be a writer, is deceptively simple:  All you have to do is write.  As soon as you begin writing, you are a writer.  Plain and simple.

Whenever I facilitate writing retreats and workshops, we always start with a short free-writing period.  The purpose of this exercise is to wade into the stream of writing, to get ourselves wet. By doing so, we establish right from the beginning that every participant is indeed a writer.  Then I encourage everyone to let go of, or at least suspend, any nagging internal debates like: “Am I or am I not really a writer? . . . Do I have what it takes to be a writer? . . .  Am I fooling myself in wanting to write? . . .” etc. Such conjectures are not helpful or conducive for establishing a writing practice. So for now, as best you can allow yourself, just drop them.

Writing is a process and one enters the process as soon as one engages in the act of writing.  This commonsense notion is so obvious that we often overlook it, but sometimes it’s refreshing to remind ourselves how easy it is to just begin writing.

Gail Sher, a writer and longtime Buddhist practitioner, outlines four axioms in her book One Continuous Mistake, Four Noble Truths for Writers that are somewhat analogous to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These are:


1. Writers write.

2. Writing is a process.

3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.

4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write.

        I love these “truths” for their simplicity and directness and their implicit encouragement to enter the stream of writing. So wade on in. And if you occasionally find yourself cast up on some shore, high and dry, just recognize that you’re simply a writer who hasn’t been writing.  The stream of writing is always there, ready and waiting for your return.

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        Finally, back from our vacation trip, meandering the California coast from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. So wonderful to discover that some places, especially Big Sur, seem impervious to change and still resonate with the wild beauty I first found when hitchhiking along the coast in 1970 and during subsequent visits over the years.

        We stopped off at a few choice pilgrimage spots, including the Henry Miller Memorial Library, and found his ghost still lingering amongst the redwoods and within the funky bookstore cum library cum shrine that is housed in the former home of Emil White, Henry’s dear old friend.

        I felt re-infused and re-enthused by Miller’s exuberant energy, which I first experienced as a pre-adolescent boy, looking for “the dirty parts” in my parents’ copy of Tropic of Cancer, and later, when I inhaled several of his novels in my twenties.  I’ve always admired his vitality and enthusiasm; the way he seemed to live life as a bold experiment—merging the art of writing with the art of life itself.

        Here’s a quote that appears in the book, Henry Miller on Writing:

           “Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself.

            “I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences.  Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.  I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on.  Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself.  It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centers or integrates it to the whole cosmic process.  It is this about art which is ‘therapeutic': significance, purposefulness, infinitude.

            “From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware that there is no goal.  I never hope to embrace the whole, but merely to give in each separate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future.  With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief.  I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as a man.”    — Henry Miller

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        Let’s get this straight: the world will go on just fine without your writing.  And writing is not going to save your life.  In fact, in many cases, for many writers, the  pursuit of the writing life is just about enough to drive you nuts.  But if you’ve gotta do it, then do it.  If you hear the calling, than heed the calling. But don’t feel like you have to.  Take the gun away from your head.  Throw away the should’s, the ought to’s, the wannabe’s.  Do it because you love it.  Do it because it feeds or amuses you. Do it because the process itself answers some deep, heartfelt yearning. Do it because you come back to it, again and again and again.

        Someone once asked Flannery O’Connor if she thought that MFA in Writing programs actually dissuaded writers, and she answered, “Yes, but not enough of them.”  Lorrie Moore once said in an interview that “you should become a writer only if you have no choice.  Writing has to be an obsession.”

        Now, I don’t think that either of these writers actually intended to discourage people from writing but, in a sense, they do set a litmus test that each aspiring writer must interpret for themselves, and the color shades can be very subtle.

        The simple rhetorical question here is, “Do I really want to write?”  The answer may not be black or white but the more unambiguous one can be, the better.  If the calling subsides, then go off and do something else. But if the itch persists, well, there’s only one way to relieve it. All obstacles to writing have the same resolution. It’s like standing at the side of a swimming pool, staring at the reflections on the surface of the water, waiting. You are the only one who can take that plunge. What better time than now . . .

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        Writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. Sure, there are exceptions, like when one works collaboratively on a screenplay, say, or does writing exercises in a group setting.  But basically, we write alone, whether we’re secluded in a room or sitting elbow-to-elbow in a crowded Starbuck’s.

        We write alone, but not necessarily in isolation.  I find it helpful, especially when I’m feeling stuck, dull or uninspired, to recall my many writing benefactors.

        By benefactors, I mean the long list of people and influences that have directly or indirectly benefited or supported my writing over the years.  And the more I consider these figures, the longer the list becomes: from the grade school teachers who patiently taught me to read and write, the hundreds of authors whose work has fed and inspired me, the accomplished writers I’ve had the good fortune to meet and befriend, the writing mentors who helped to hone my craft, the writing group companions who uphold the value in my writing, to my wife and close editor who continually urges me onwards.

        I’m sure you could easily come up with your own personal list of writing benefactors.  Maybe just reading this calls some to mind.

        As a child, I was enthralled with the touch, feel, and smell of books, and the transformative power and magic of story.  But there seemed a disconnect between the published page and the flesh-and-blood writers who had set those words to paper. It was hard for me to imagine that actual people had somehow constructed these literary worlds. Authors held for me the status of mythic, larger than life, beings. It was a transmission of sorts when I first started attending readings and literary events, meeting face-to-face, person-to-person, some of the authors who so profoundly affected me.  And then so helpful to work with teachers, who encouraged my own nascent writing efforts, and fellow writers, who empathized with the trials and tribulations of the writing path.

        I still find it important to call upon these benefactors, to maintain a connection with their presence, either physically or psychically. I always keep a few favorite books close at hand and snippets of quotes pinned to a bulletin board. I feel blessed to have worked with various writing groups over the years, and especially our current group that has met weekly, for over eleven years now, on a continuous basis.

        So yes, we write alone, but we are never truly alone. Don’t forget your benefactors—we can use all the allies we can muster. If you’re willing to make the effort, I’m sure you can easily invoke your own array of benefactors—seen and unseen, ready and reliable—to support and encourage your writing.

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I’m pleased to announce that I will be facilitating a weekend writing retreat near Columbus, Ohio this coming June.  You can see details about the retreat here on my blog at the page for:


June 6 – 7, 2009   –   9:00a.m – 5:00p.m

        This weekend will be a great opportunity to enhance your creative writing practice in a comfortable, beautiful setting. This will be a process-oriented retreat so we will emphasize generating fresh, new material in a supportive, nonjudgmental environment. I’ll be providing lots of prompts and techniques for invoking the creative voice. We’ll be doing some group exercises but there will be plenty of time and space for working on your own individual projects as well.

        The Cedar Hill Massage facility is located about 20 minutes from downtown Columbus, Ohio on 80 acres of rolling farmland and woods.  Registration includes lunch, snacks & beverages.  So if you’ll be around Columbus during early June, we’ll have the perfect time, place, and space for you to indulge in your creative writing.  Hope you’ll be able to join us!  Please check the page and contact me if you’d like more information.

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        This morning, on his daily radio show “The Writer’s Almanac,” Garrison Keillor quoted Gloria Steinem, who once said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”  This is a sentiment I’ve heard echoed over the years by many other writers and one that I resonate with in my heart and guts. Difficult as writing at times may be, there arises this deep sense of satisfaction that, for some of us, is uniquely reached through writing.  This type of resonance, this type of yearning satisfaction, seems to be one of the defining qualities that indicates whether your true calling is to be found in writing.

        I’m not trying to make “writing” out to be some sort of precious, lofty grail or some type of either/or, on/off, life-defining declaration of commitment.  In other words, don’t undertake writing in order to be saved; don’t look to writing to give “meaning” to your life. Actually, I find it more helpful to approach writing as a simple, common process.  Just write.  Keep it simple. You wanna write, then just write.  “Writers write.”  Very simple and clean.  And to become a writer, all you have to do is write. As soon as you enter into the process, voilà, you are a writer.  And if you get called away—to answer the phone or get lost in some years-long tangential sidetrack—that’s okay; the river of writing is always waiting for you to wade in again, always ready to sweep you away.

        Let other people worry about whether or not you’re a dilettante or professional, serious or casual, consistent or sporadic writer.  In the end, the only person who has the right to take that measure is you.  And I recommend that you be easy on your self.  But in the meantime, it’s reassuring to be reminded—writer speaking to writer—about the deep satisfaction to be found in writing.  And how it’s always so accessible, so close at hand.

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Listening is one of the qualities that lies at the confluence of writing and meditation. In the practice of open awareness and mindfulness—the type of meditation where you’re not relying on a specific technique—part of the process is allowing the mind to quietly settle and be with whatever arises; to simply listen.  Not just with the ears, but with eyes, nose, body—all the sense-doors awake and open to whatever spontaneously manifests.

        Likewise, one can access the creative in writing through simply listening—by quieting the chatter of discursive thought, of cutting through the surface of what you already know or think you know, and dropping down a few notches deeper, into the unknown.  Resting in silence invokes the freedom to be fresh, receptive, newly attentive to subtle images, to the quiet voice that may have been hovering and waiting for some spaciousness in order to appear.

        Sure, this can be scary.  The mind likes to be busy with people to see, things to do, places to go. And in writing as well, we tend to be more comfortable when we know where the story is heading, what’s the next step on the outline, who’s on first.  And isn’t it great when we’re immersed in a project and it’s almost like dictation—the words flowing, images popping, characters talking, ideas taking shape and form.

        But don’t forget to occasionally leave room for the space to just stop and listen to the silence.  And let me ask you this:  “Is there ever really silence?”  Or do you find that there’s always at least a background hum to the universe. That there may be a word, a voice, an image, a fragment from a long-forgotten dream, just waiting to emerge from silence.  So don’t forget to listen to the silence . . . then write.

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         Okay, I’ll admit it:  I’m an ambivalent writer.  And the chances are—if you are reading this, if you aspire to write, if you want to “be” a writer, if you are attracted to “the writer’s life” but feel that, for whatever reason, you haven’t fulfilled your potential and agonize over mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about your writing—you also are an ambivalent writer.

            “Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? . . . Do you begin sentences in your head . . . so crisp and suggestive that they make perfect story or novel openers, only you never manage to write them down? . . . Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? . . . Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? . . . Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went?

            “If you can relate to the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities—along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness—that are part of the writer’s basic makeup.  However, you also have so many conflicting thoughts and feelings about writing and about yourself as a writer you are unable to choose one idea and see it through. . . Just as you settle on one idea, another voice pops into your head.  Or just as you sit down to write, you suddenly and inexplicably fall asleep.  You are what I call the ambivalent writer.”  Betsy Lerner

         Cheer up!  One of the first steps out of this morass is to recognize and acknowledge the state of your ambivalence and draw comfort from realizing that you are not alone.  Many, if not most writers suffer from a similar predicament. And the fact of the matter is that writing is just damn hard work!   No wonder we avoid it.

         Thankfully, we have a great ally in Betsy Lerner, who has written a wonderful and insightful book: “The Forest for the Trees; An Editor’s Advice to Writers.”  Betsy is educated as a writer, has worked many years for a major publishing house and is now a literary agent and author.  She really understands the writer’s state of mind and offers practical and encouraging advice for those of us who—despite the push-pull of ambivalence—recurrently feel compelled to follow the path of writing.

         Betsy’s advice is encouraging and empathetic:

         “. . . the only real difference that I have been able to quantify between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.”

            “Chances are you want to write because you are a haunted individual, or a bothered individual, because the world does not sit right with you, or you with it. . . The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers who are unafraid to present stories that speak emotional truth . . . I suggest you stalk your demons.  Embrace them.  If you are a writer, especially one who has been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab your demons by the neck and face them down.  And whatever you do, don’t censor yourself.  There’s always time and editors for that.”

         Yet also blunt and coolly realistic:

         “Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are idiotic or that your command of the language is insufficient . . . this is my advice to you: stop altogether and see how long you can go without writing . . . Writing is a calling, and if the call subsides, so be it. . . I assure you, you will never make yourself write.”

 Forest for the Trees        I’ll be doing more posts inspired by ideas from Betsy’s book but I strongly urge investing in “The Forest for the Trees.”  We need all the allies we can gather!  Best wishes for your writing.

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