I’ve been thinking a lot about being a writer in this world. Not about the need to raise our diverse voices, or to break down the barriers that keep too many of us silent; not about the role of writers to expand our collective understanding of what it means to be human. I’ve been thinking about the opposite: about how our current culture is strangling art, and how we are letting it.
You’ve been reading, surely, about authors’ declining income, about our paltry sales figures (even for prize winners). You’ve quite likely read suggestions on the Internet for “making a living” as a writer. But when money “makes” our very lives; when money is the measure of our worth, we are living in Opposite Land. And in Opposite Land, where art equals product, equals sales, equals giving some ill-defined readership what “they” are presumed to want, it can sometimes feel impossible to begin to get words onto a page.
How do we write in this climate of efficiency, productivity and bestseller lists? One way is to embrace opposition, and contradiction, in our writing spaces. If you are looking for a new approach, or some inspiration to energize your writing in a corporate world, here are a few suggestions:
Don’t write: At least, don’t start with the blank page on your computer screen. You’ll find yourself counting pages, or words, and disparaging the quality of your delicate first draft. Instead, grab a journal, and start writing by hand. Try out voices, descriptions; rough out a scene. Cross out, draw arrows, and keep going; messiness can be very freeing. Jot down notes and ideas for later. Record your questions without stopping for the answers. If you brainstorm your way into a dead end, let it be. Your brain is pondering the problem in the background; the answer might sneak up on you in time! You are building pressure in that journal, and when it is bursting with ideas, your blank computer screen will be irresistible. Don’t forget: your journal is waiting for you whenever you want to come back to play.
Don’t edit: Once you are writing, let it flow. If one path peters out, jump to something that feels urgent. Be prepared to be surprised, and to follow those surprises, but try to resist the urge to go back to fix what you have. If the writing is going well, it will keep shifting and changing. You won’t know what each element of the story is supposed to do until you get to the end of the first draft. Revising, and especially polishing, parts of your manuscript too early can be detrimental because you run the risk of making something read so well that it’s hard to see that you are supposed to cut it, or move it, or reassign it to a different character. If that urge to revise is coming from the need to have a product and pages to show for your time: resist!
Don’t isolate yourself: You know the atmosphere you write best in; maybe it’s a wild, quiet garden, or a room with no windows, or a crowded café. But regardless of what you need to do to empty yourself out onto the page, don’t forget to fill yourself back up. Populate your life with books, movies, music, other people; get outside. Exercise your ability to recognize patterns and see how your concerns echo other people’s stories, and the world around you. Plugging yourself into your community will give you energy, and remind you that your writing is meaningful to others.
Don’t focus on success: Which is, of course, what I have been saying all along. With each book I have written (and I am playing with my fourth), I have had to teach myself how to write all over again. The judgment and expectation that come from having or wanting success are the best ingredients for writer’s block. Creativity requires a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to fail, combined with the courage – stubbornness even – to keep learning and playing and trying something new. In our product-driven world, writing, and living, are both processes. Trust the process, and the product will come.
Want more? I am excited to announce a new week-long writing retreat called Pele’s Fire: Write to the Core on the Big Island of Hawaii next April. Pele’s Fire is a perfect place to embrace your contradiction, get your creativity flowing, find community, and get some targeted feedback on your manuscript. There will also be plenty of opportunities for movement, including yoga and a special series of integrated Nia classes, and a trip to the nearby (currently active) volcano. Take a look at pelesfire.com, but hurry! Admission is rolling, and closes December 31st, or when full.
We’ve all been there: stuck. The pages seem flat; we don’t know what comes next. And what’s worse, writing is a lonely business, so there’s no team, or department, not even any customers to get ideas from. Before a lack of inspiration becomes full-blown writers block, and even after it does, how can we get out of our own way and back to writing? Here are three tips that work for me:
Try on a new voice: If you are a writer, you have books on your shelves. Probably a full library’s worth, but definitely at least a few that you love. These will be books that have transported you to new worlds again and again. Authors you trust. Pick up your favorite. Ask yourself, “If fill-in-the-blank-author was writing my book, how would she go about it?” And then – on a blank sheet of paper, with your favorite pen – try rewriting your story, chapter, poem, opening scene, in the same way as the book that you have in your hands does.
Don’t worry. I’m not telling you to steal someone else’s ideas, nor am I saying your voice and ideas aren’t good enough. But in mimicking someone else’s opening incident, or point of view, or attention to description, or pacing, you will see your own choices and habits more clearly. And something new might – no, it will – occur to you. Even if you don’t “use” those pages (and you probably won’t), a new point of view will give you a glimpse of something in your story that you hadn’t noticed before, much like walking into a different room in your house will.
Try on a new move: And speaking of walking, when you are stuck in your head, don’t forget you have a body. Take a walk, do some yoga, dance…whatever your favorite activity is, take the time to quiet that editing, worrying voice in your head, relax, and let your subconscious rise to the surface. Although it seems counterintuitive, our best ideas and realizations often come when we are not busy thinking.
More than that, using your body can remind you that all of your characters, and your readers, have five senses. Giving yourself a chance to focus on sensation can help more than just your descriptions. You might tap into your characters’ motivations, and get some insight into where their dangerous impulses or unexpected kindnesses come from.
Try on a new space: If the dishes in the kitchen sink are beckoning you out of your office, or the couple at the next table is disrupting the vibe in the café, try a new space. This could be as simple as an hour of writing in the park under a tree. Being in nature can remind you of the many layers of experience (those senses again) you have to call on. Blocking out time to go on retreat is another way to call your muse.
I am a latecomer to writing retreats. My first one, several years ago, was at Hedgebrook, an amazing space for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington. What I have found is that a good retreat will give you quiet space to write and community; inspiration and new vantage points from which to enter your work. Permission is key: making the choice to set aside time and a place to write (especially if you take several days and have to travel to do so) can shift the energy around your project and help you enter it. This is how it works for me: when I am on retreat and unplugged from my usual world, I find that I can do so much more because I have nothing else to do, which liberates me to try anything. To play. And the friendships that began at writing retreats have often followed me home.
Something Else New: Pele’s Fire: Write to the Core, everything you ever wanted in a writing retreat set in a Hawaiian jungle oasis. Find out more at pelesfire.com.
Thank you, Hedgebrook, for the hollyhocks in my garden, and the Hedgebrook sisters in my email box, and the space to write and rewrite and have a manuscript to send out into the world today. These flowers are for you.
I am blessed with more than one in my life. This one, Hedgebrook, I am privileged to share with so many amazing women writers, including some of the ones you see here: Holly Morris, Hannah Tinti, Monique Truong, Suheir Hammad, Gloria Steinem. I am so grateful to Lisa Halpern’s magic in creating this documentary, which was aired on PBS on the Seattle Channel in May. Thanks and love to Amy Wheeler, Vito Zingarelli and every single person on the amazing staff who make Hedgebrook happen every day. And to Nancy Nordoff, who dreamed it and gifted her vision to us.
Take a look:
(ArtZone Hedgebrook Special, Women Authoring Change)
The Salon: Literary Women
Guest Curated by She Writes & Hedgebrook Writers Retreat
163 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Tel: (718) 875-3677
Tue Dec 4, 7:00PM
Talking women writers with some wonderful women writers with Hedgebrook, She Writes and Goddard connections. Come join us!
Moderated by Holly Morris
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
Lisa Dierbeck is the author of the novels The Autobiography of Jenny X and One Pill Makes You Smaller, a New York Times Notable Book. In 2010, she co-founded Mischief+Mayhem, an independent publisher run by established authors in association with OR Books. The New York Observer has dubbed it “the book industry’s new danger brigade.” Frequently anthologized and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and in such publications as The Boston Globe, O, the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Book Review and Time Out New York.
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, is a National Book Critics Circle Finalist, among other honors. She is the author of Why She Left Us, an American Book Award Winner, a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellow, Hedgebrook alumna, and a faculty member at Goddard College. Rizzuto has appeared widely in the media, including The Today Show, The View, 20/20, The Joy Behar Show, MSNBC-TV and PBS-TV. Her articles have been published internationally.
Martha Southgate is the author of four novels. Her newest, The Taste of Salt, was published in September 2011 and was named one of the best novels of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her essay “Writers Like Me,” published in the New York Times Book Review, appears in the anthology Best African-American Essays 2009. Previous non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, Entertainment Weekly, and Essence.
Amy Wheeler is a playwright and the Executive Director of Hedgebrook, a retreat and residency for women writers on Whidbey Island that supports women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. Amy holds an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and her work has been seen in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Atlanta.
Holly Morris, co-founder of PowderKeg, is a writer and editor, and a television documentary producer and correspondent. The former Editorial Director of the book publishing company Seal Press, Morris edited an eclectic list of titles on topics ranging from domestic violence and geo-politics, to award-winning poetry and international fiction and nonfiction. She also edited the Adventura imprint, which features outdoor, travel, and environmental literature. She is a longtime board member of Hedgebrook, a writer’s residency in Washington State. Her essays are widely anthologized, and she writes for numerous publications including The New York Times. Her book, Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine, based on her experiences as an international correspondent, was named an “Editors’ Choice” and a ‘Notable Book of the Year’ about exploration by the New York Times. Morris is the executive producer/writer/director of the award-winning prime-time PBS documentary series, “Adventure Divas”