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.
Post State of the Union, the speech that is still sounding in my mind is one that was given back in November: Ursula Le Guin’s address at the National Book Award ceremony. Yes, she chided us for selling books “like deodorant,” but these are the words that are resonating in me:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”
We will need writers who can remember freedom.
Chilling thought, especially in a country that purports to be founded on freedom. Our America was to be a new world where human rights were declared and held inalienable. And if that world, sadly, has never yet existed; if the gap between what we want to believe we are and how we actually act is huge and filled with death, torture, slavery, incarceration, brutality, poverty, inequity and fear…it is worth remembering that it was a pamphlet that helped spark the American Revolution: words on a page that conveyed a vision of freedom and individual worth so compelling that people gave their lives for it.
Le Guin reminded us that, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” Art, after all, is the manifestation of our radical imagination; our means of sharing our vision of a better world.
Writers: If you remember freedom and do not see it around you, start writing. Write about whatever feels urgent to you. It might be family or fantasy; it might be poetry or a post-apocalyptic dystopian TV show. Your truths will resonate, and you will go on record: contributing your vision, no matter how shrouded in metaphor, how personal, to the formation of our collective future. You are change: good or bad, loud or silent. Your choice matters. And if you write because you care and not to be the next best brand of deodorant; if you are fearless in your truths; you can change the world.
Speech excerpts: © 2014 Ursula K. Le Guin
As I sit in my new office working with my advisees at Goddard, revision is on everyone’s mind. My colleague, Elena Georgiou, says revision is what separates the women from the girls, and years into my third and fourth books, I can claim my full womanhood. Revision is writing, and at its best, it should be fun. After all, our pages are not a clay pot or an oil painting. We can revise to our heart’s content, throw out, get messy, and return to the original if we have proven to ourselves that we really did have it right the first time. There is no harm in revision for writers, only the chance for surprise.
Recently, Ruth Ozeki shared with me her story of the revision, and re-envisioning (not to mention the massive throwing out of pieces), of her new novel A Tale for the Time Being. Her words, which follow, are part of a larger interview I did with Ruth that is published on SheWrites. You can find the full “Five Questions” here.
“I can date Nao’s voice back to the fall of 2006. That’s when I first heard her, and that’s when I wrote down those first lines. But I can also trace a lot of what wound up in the book to earlier times. I’d been haunted by the diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots ever since I first started reading them in 2001. And, too, my interest in human-computer interface design started back in 2005, when I was the Katzenstein Artist-in-Residence at MIT.
“This novel emerged very slowly. I knew from the first that one of the protagonists was a young girl, Nao, who is writing a diary. I knew that Nao was speaking across time and that she needed a reader. My first impulse was to put myself in the novel, but then I rejected this idea because it felt too self-conscious, metafictional and annoyingly PoMo, so I set about auditioning other readers for Nao. I went through four or five Readers, each one worse than the next. Some were female, most were male, one was some kind of amorphous, ageless, unformed smear of a character, neither male nor female, who lived in a library.
“By end of 2010, I finished a draft I was reasonably happy with, or if not happy, at least I felt I’d gone as far as I could go by myself. I submitted it to my agent and we were getting ready to submit it to my editor when, in March of 2011, the earthquake hit Japan, followed by the tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima. Day after day I watched this disaster unfold. It was absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. Over night, everything had changed. Japan had changed. The world was no longer the same, and a byproduct of this seismic upheaval was that the novel I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I withdrew it.
“That May, I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue, with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. What had felt gratuitous and self-conscious five years earlier, now felt necessary. Stepping into the role myself and responding to it seemed to be the only way of acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very very quickly. I started in May and finished in November.”
In truth, I skim uplifting forwards in my email, and only if I have time. But today, one of the messages resonated and I want to share a piece of advice:
Give up the past. I know, I know. It’s hard. Especially when the past looks so much better than the present and the future looks so frightening, but you have to take into consideration the fact that the present moment is all you have and all you will ever have. The past you are now longing for – the past that you are now dreaming about – was ignored by you when it was present. Stop deluding yourself. Be present in everything you do and enjoy life. After all life is a journey not a destination. Have a clear vision for the future, prepare yourself, but always be present in the now.
I so love the idea that the past we are longing for was ignored when it was the present!
I am finishing up my semester with my Goddard students. As we look back on what we have written, and face a future of ripping that apart and rewriting, it can be exhausting and scary to think of the work ahead; how much easier it would be to be able to rest on what is already done! This takes the form of what I call page conservation, and editing (moving those blocks of text you like around with your handy computer!) instead of re-envisioning. I have a book now that needs re-envisioning, even though I have re-envisioned it several times. Yes, it would be lovely if my readers could just see it the way I would like it to be seen now. But since they cannot read my mind, only my pages, the reality is this: If I don’t rewrite, if I am not writing, then what am I? Not a writer. Just a woman who is putting her books in a box and taking them out again.