On Saturday, I presented the first of a two-part writing workshop, Writer to Author. Last Saturday we discussed all the parts that must be incorporated to get an idea onto paper and then that manuscript into print. I shared with the participants the options available and the pros and cons of each. Despite my description in the advertising of going from manuscript to published book, one attendee asked if we were going to discuss craft and how people go about the act of writing. We did a little. Then I referred to Page After Page, by Heather Sellers, the book I’ve been sharing with you on this blog. For someone just starting out, I could give her lots of places to begin, what I’ve read other writers and creative people do to prepare themselves to make their art, but really, it comes down to her and each individual.
“If we take the time to really look at productive, interesting artists and how they work, we can observe qualities that are common to all of us. . . 1. There seems to be an intellectual and spiritual place common to all of us where the stuff of art and the interpretation of human experience is nourished and realized. 2. Getting to that place requires a kind of contradictory habit of mind: complete focus and total abandon. Both of those, at once!” I didn’t share this with the woman who was needing a place to begin, but I completely agree with what Sellers says here. There is a mix of the Muse and the mind in ordering words and paragraphs, colors and textures, notes and rhythms and if one or the other is used exclusively then often the piece lacks what is referred to as ‘soul’. It might make sense. Everyone can see it, read it, hear it, but it’s bland. It’s surface stuff. It doesn’t make us think or feel, and it’s both that we have to do not only in the creative process but in the appreciation of art, too.
I asked them why they write (a topic I’ve discussed in previous posts). Then we briefly touched on ways to share safely and how to ignore the critic in our mind (at least during the creating process). What I didn’t share with the woman who had little experience with writing, but what the couple who had written and published a book did say, was that it’s a great, big, difficult, wonderful thing to write a book. “Writing is basically climbing up a giant mountain-it’s a ton of work, stuff falls on you, you have to go to the bathroom, you have to carry a lot of baggage, in addition to self-doubt, and you probably didn’t prepare enough. . . You have to dream deep, and dreaming deep means: You hike up the mountain. But when you get to the top, you have to fall backward off that mountain. You have no net, no assurance that your fall won’t kill you, that this work will be good/published/read/finished/successful in any way whatsoever. You might land on very painful shards of evil pointed things. Equally as scary: You fear you might never land.” There are parts of creating that are like climbing up the mountain, and then there are parts that feel like the free fall. What we land on, or if we land, depends on a great many variables. So far, in my experience, none of them have been fatal. Why does it seem so serious, this fear of creating, the fear of being ‘found out’ that you can write or paint or draw or dance? “It’s this kind fear-driven manic aplomb that makes some cultures (oppressive regimes) execute artists before anyone else. Art is dangerous. And you can make art. You have to tell the truth.”
“Writing is this kind of hard work. You will need to be rested to do it well. I have a number of colleagues who think poets are self-indulgent. I even have friends who think poets and writers laze around, musing, penning their poems, indulging in their emotions, having a great old time. Well, no. It’s really hard to write-most people I know who do it well can only work with the complete creative focus that art-making requires for about two hours. Two hours at a stretch, maybe two hours all day. The rest of the day, they revise, read, do other kinds of work, but pure writing, the actual writing two hours, max.” I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule about how long someone can concentrate on their craft. For some, perhaps two hours at a time, or all day. For others, those who have more time, perhaps able to completely immerse themselves in creative play for very long periods of time. Often when I write, and I’m in a public place, I can tune out the noises and people around me and write furiously, but then I can also sit back, take a break, check in with what’s on TV or who is sitting at the table across from me. After a moment, I can again plunge into what I’m doing. I’ve done this for hours and hours. Sometimes I’ve been at home writing at the dining room table from early evening to the early hours of the morning, just writing, turning a page, writing some more, getting frustrated when my body tells me it’s thirsty or hungry or has to pause to use the bathroom. In Sellers’s comment about ‘being rested’, there’s a part that’s true. In yoga, there are some days when we don’t feel like getting on the mat. We do it anyway. Even for ten minutes. Almost always, after that ten minutes, we’re in the flow and we finish the asana sequence. There are days that as creatives we’ve burned ourselves out. Life has encroached and we’ve held our own feet to the fire as long as we could. When that happens, it depends on what fuels us and how we need to ‘be’ to create. Some artists love the drive of finishing a piece, regardless of how tired they are. Others need to refuel frequently. How do you know which one you are? Pay attention to what makes the creating hard or easy and how your state mind affects what you create. Everyone is an individual. There is no ‘one size fits all’. For Sellers, “. . . doing good writing is as hard as preparing a presentation for work. Every day. I have to be that focused, that collected, that on top of a bunch of details, that nervous and that excited, that pumped, and working that hard.”
But none of this matters if we don’t show up. In yoga, we step onto the mat. “In writing, the hardest step is getting to your chair. Then, once you do, you have to stay put. For hours. It’s physical and it’s intellectual, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Enough said.
“It’s easy to write when everything is going great. The true way to improve as a writer is to go to your practice when you are in the midst of a terrible crisis.” This is true for everything. We can go to our ‘job’, go to the gym, get on the mat, create, cook, have coffee with a friend as long as the individual pieces of life are clicking along just the way we want them to. In my life, this rarely happens. So the practice becomes, can I create when things aren’t perfect? How do we know if we can? Begin to notice what keeps us from our chair (or what drives us to it). Yes, art is cathartic. It may not be what we publish or sell or share. Are the raindrops in life an excuse for us not to create, a reason to create, or do we do our art despite, not because of? “Change your focus. Talk about life less. Write your stuff. Keep the drama in your art. Keep your mind calm for creating.” That’s why it’s practice. The more we practice, the more we know ourselves, the more we play with creativity, the more we know ourselves . . . and around we go. “Ultimately it’s in your writing that you’re going to feed others.”
Are there ways that you have discovered that help you to create in the midst of a storm? Share them! I’ve placed some pieces on my website that offer an insight to human drama. Visit www.myjoyenterprises.com