On Becoming a Writer — Step One: Entering the Stream

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.


Henry Miller on Writing

        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

On Being an Ambivalent Writer

         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.