whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Category: Writing

The Invitation of Suffering

This post was featured on www.mindfulnessmeditationforrichmond.net

Many of us come to mindfulness meditation to feel better. The suffering that drives us may come in different forms–for some it is the acute grief or strife brought on by catastrophic loss, for others the experience of a persistent dissatisfaction with life. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two.

But we all come to the cushion out of desperation. Our attempts to deny our pain or escape it haven’t worked. So we agree to stop trying to run and sit down–with our teeming, swirling brains, with our aching bodies, with our heavy hearts. Maybe we get a honeymoon with meditation practice. For a while, we do feel better: more peaceful, clearer, happier, more present with our loved ones, more grateful for our lives. And secretly we think we have found the escape after all. Meditation is going to deliver us from our pain.

But, this upward trajectory does not last. One day the spell is broken and the pain of life catches up with us. And we doubt the practice, or ourselves.

Behind our doubt and the disappointment that we are in pain again is the fear that we will not find a solution to our problem. We will never experience freedom. And behind that fear there is deep sadness, hopelessness, and a kind of grief for the promises broken by our meditation practice.

This is where I find myself recently. It was these same negative emotions of anxiety and depression that led me to meditation in the first place, a few years ago. But when they showed up this time–amidst my carefully cultivated life full of loving relationships, meaningful work, good health and spiritual practice–I reacted with a storm of self-doubt, fear, despair and industrial strength aversion. “Go away!” I said to my pain and fear. “You are not welcome here.”

In response they grew louder. My insecurities wailed and my body ached–I dropped into tunnels of anxiety and lakes of pain. The color started draining from my life. My gratitude evaporated, and took my sense of joy and wonder with it.

I had mistakenly hoped that my meditation practice was a kind of inoculation against these negative emotions. But it was never meant to be that. I needed only to remember to begin again, that nothing falls outside the scope of mindfulness. And suffering is the place where we most often enter into spiritual life. It is the on-ramp to the path of liberation. Fighting these negative emotions wasn’t working, so I tried inquiring, “Why are you here? What do you need from me? What am I meant to learn from you?”

I sensed immediately that these negative emotions are actually exiled parts of myself. I can no more amputate grief and fear than I can my heart or lungs. They are part of the human experience. And at a very young age I received the message that they aren’t acceptable. That I am not acceptable when I am gripped by them. Most of us got that message. And we continue to give it to ourselves. It is thanks to my meditation practice that I recognize the message and have the possibility to change it. So I said gently to my fear:

“You are allowed to be here.” & “I love you.”

And the fear sat down like a soothed child at my feet. So I said it again, in turn, to doubt, insecurity, anxiety, shame, sadness, tension, pain and heaviness. And they all quieted down. They did not disappear. But I was not in them anymore. I was holding them gently in mindfulness, the way one holds a small child who is afraid or hurt.

This is the miracle of mindfulness. That with it suffering can be transmuted to compassion.

According to the Buddha, the pain at the core of human incarnation is a Heavenly Messenger. It was his wild grief over the inescapability of aging, sickness, and death that brought him to the bodhi tree. It is no different for us. We all began this journey in response to suffering.
May we remember that our suffering is just an invitation to begin again.

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Leaving Space for the Reader

We entered into a productive discussion last week at Agile Writers, my local novel writer’s group. It centered on the problems inherent in writing (or acting, performing, producing) for an audience of peers rather than an audience of. . . people.

The topic arose because we are making our way through Lawrence Block’s classic on writerly craft, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block’s chapter, which served as the launchpad for our discussion last week, was entitled “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” In it, he states bluntly that the sort of temperament that draws a writer to writing–the amount of “ego” and “self-condfidence” (Block’s words)needed to write– often brings with it a desire for control. This includes a desire to control the reader’s experience.

Obviously, this is fraught. Any time we attempt to control or manipulate another’s experience, I would argue, we have overstepped our bounds–we have done both too much and too little in the creation of our art. Too much in the sense of condescending to the reader, telling him or her how to feel and think about what we have made. And too little, in that it takes far more skill to master the art of leaving space for the reader’s own experience.

I am egregiously guilty of this. I find myself over-writing, particularly in a first draft, as I am explaining the work to myself as well as eventual readers. I think this is a necessary phase of mastering any craft. I’ve never written a novel before. This process is a long exercise in on-the-job-training. So I have to begin with both an absence of skill and a distrust of what abilities I do possess.

The real delight and craft comes in the subsequent cullings–the adventures in trimming the fat from my work, leaving only what is essential, true and beautiful (not merely aesthetically pleasing). This is a sort of tuning process. We strike each scene, sentence, each word with a kind of internal tuning fork. We ask it “are you essential?” and wait for the answer. If not, we break it off and let it go. The more we listen, the better we get at divining the difference between the essential and the discardable. I am reminded of the famous Faulkner quote:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

The second place I have encountered this idea in recent weeks was while listening to an interview with the author Junot Diaz on the New York Public Library Podcast. Diaz’s assessment of the essential mistake of contemporary novice writers is that they don’t leave adequate room for the reader.

Diaz himself takes this “leaving room” principle all the way to the level of genre. In the interview, he discussed his work The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which could be categorized as a loose collection of interrelated short stories, or a novel. It mixes languages, moves nimbly through time and space, switches from first to third person points of view, employs ample footnotes, all in an inevitable attempt to disorient the reader in precisely the way one might be disoriented as a part of the immigrant experience.

The result is lots of room for a reader to interpret and glean from the book different understandings. It isn’t anarchy though; Diaz is clear that Oscar Wao is about how it feels to be an immigrant, to live under a dictator and in a democracy, to grapple with masculinity as it is represented in two different cultures. These themes are undeniable and so vital that they could not be left to chance, even while elements as basic as genre and narrative voice are fluid and loosely defined.

What is most interesting to me about Diaz’s statements in the interview, is his diagnosis of the origin of this lack of ability to leave space for the reader. According to Diaz, who is a creative writing professor himself at MIT, the root of the problem is that writers are emerging more and more in a context of other writers. They go to conferences to talk to writers, they enter MFA programs to spend years in the company of other writers–both their peers and their mentors. Inevitably, the echo chamber this produces runs the risk of promoting the mastery of craft over originality, vitality and popular appeal. The writers of today, Diaz notes, are simply out of touch with readers.

Block outlined the crux of this more than twenty years ago: “A short story or novel constitutes a subtly different experience for every person who reads it, simply because each reader brings a different perspective and background to bear upon what he reads[. . .]The best we can do is write as carefully and as honestly as we can and let the reader make of our work what he will. If we write well, enough people will get enough of the message.”

So, who are readers, and how do we write for them? This issue strikes me as an elitist, ivory tower problem. Looking around the room at my fellow writers collected on a Wednesday evening, I see less danger of squeezing out the reader. We are not locked in higher education environments. We are chemists, teachers, parents, partners, and writers. One foot in the ordinary world, and one foot in the writing world.

Perhaps we are just putting our finger on the widening fault line between literary and genre novels. Those of us who seek to straddle the two (I would include myself here) face an increasingly difficult task. And those of us who unabashedly aim for salability and readability in our works need feel less ashamed. By shirking the masses, maybe the highest literary MFA-driven, conference-attending, adjunct-teaching, upper echelon of writers who write for other writers will go the way of the dinosaurs?

Lest I come off as too harshly critical of MFA programs, writing absolutely is a set of skills that can be taught. At their best, MFA programs are designed to do just this. To foster confidence in the execution of craft that can lead to wildness and vulnerability in the subject matter. But the ability to see and convey truth, to speak to a reader and move him or her without over-explaining and condescending, is an art. And art is stifled by closed environments and over-valued rule books. A writer, through trial and error, could perhaps land on the best crafting of stories. But given only the lessons of craft, and sealed off from the larger world, a writer risks going deaf to the murmurations of truth, the concerns and motivations of her readers.

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The writer, if she is going to be a lightening rod for truth, and not merely a wordsmith, must trace the inevitable cycle of seers and sages of every stripe. Time alone on the mountaintop for the act of creation must be balanced by trips to the proverbial village, where the work is gifted to the world and the writer can drink in the cultural garb necessary to make her work relevant in contemporary society.                                                
The acquisition of technical prowess is a slow and steady climb balanced by the grounding of our shared human experience. When you spend time in the world, and come to know your reader intimately, you will no longer underestimate their abilities or your own. You will leave space for their experience, and they will reward you with their readership.

Inviting the Reader’s Gaze

“In the particular is contained the universal.” – James Joyce

Sometimes I have to forget about you–the reader.

Your gaze invokes my self-consciousness. And my self-consciousness strangles the work. Or stops it all together. (Fear is a powerful dam.)

But, I knew the risks when I decided to start this blog. When I decided to invite your gaze.

The posts I publish here languish for weeks. I construct and deconstruct and reconstruct them. I push them through a dozen drafts.

Which is like working out really hard before you walk onto a stage completely naked. Sure, you have abs. But you’re still naked.

Those dozen drafts are not about perfection, though. (Most of the time.)

They’re about honesty.

Each pass of the cursor is a chance to peel back another layer of the lies I’m so effectively and elusively telling us both. I don’t mean to lie. Really. It’s just stubborn self-consciousness.

But there’s the problem again. The self.

The self that mistakenly identifies with the writing. That thinks if you like the writing, you like me. And that, as a social animal, my actual, bodily survival depends on your liking me.

But there’s no room at my desk for that self that is so worried about what you think. To do the work I have to be emptied. Hollow. I have to make space for that wild, powerful, mysterious energy. I have to surrender. Because the work is not primarily constructed out of our differences, or my specialness, but out of our sameness. The quieter I get, the deeper I bore into my own particular life, the more I find myself in a well of shared consciousness.

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It is clear on the surface that you (the reader) and I (the writer) are distinct. But two distinct beings are not all that is needed for communication. Communication requires the tension between differentiation and sameness–the particular and the universal, as Joyce wrote–which, it turns out, are found in the same exact place.

I write because it is a vehicle for entering that place. It is a means of dismantling the self that limits my humanity and my vitality.

The act of writing calls forth all of my fears. It shows me where I am bound, where I am still trying to hide. It gives me the opportunity again and again to loosen the knots of self, to know my experience more deeply and therefore to know the breadth and depth of our shared humanity.

But it only works if there is an audience in front of the stage– if the writing goes out to you, the reader. Because it is you I am most afraid of. And it is you I am so indebted to, because it is your gaze which reminds me that I am naked.

That I have more work to do.

An Open Letter to the Children Who Aren’t Mine

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For all of the nannies,  who devote their time and their hearts to caring for children who aren’t their own.

______

 

“They” say I have to draw a line through my heart. I can love you, but only so much. Only the appropriate amount. Because you are not mine.

What “they” (the ambiguous, omnipresent, “they”) don’’t know–—could’’t know—–is that the call to love you was the call to begin my life in earnest. They can’’t know that you changed everything. You woke me up.

I didn’t’ enter into this job lightly. I thought of it as a job, sure, but I’’ve never been good at “professional distance.” I knew I would love you. I knew I had to love you to do my job well. And I was committed to being in your life for as long as you needed me.

But how could I have known what it would mean to love you? Especially to love you while also knowing that you are not mine?

I could never pretend that you would belong to me forever, the way that parents sometimes do. It was right there in the contract. Our last day was embedded in our very first day, and every day since.

It is always there in the room with us–while I pour warm water over your soapy hair, while I slice apples for your lunch, and kiss your cheeks and zip your coat. Our last day is in every goodnight hug, every gaze, each ‘I love you’ and click of the closing door.

Of course, there will be a last day in all of my relationships–and yours. People try very hard to run from that truth. We’re afraid the knowledge of it will destroy us.

I sometimes lose sight of it amid the morass of our daily life. Caring for you is more challenging and humbling than anything I’ve ever done. Every day, your innocence holds a mirror to the state of my own heart and mind. It shows me just how much armor I’ve built around myself since I was your age. Every time you copy my behavior, I am reminded anew of my role in either teaching you to imprison your own heart, or showing you how to live and love without fear.

For a while, in the beginning, I was teaching you fear, because it was all I knew. I was afraid to make a mistake. I was sure I was doing everything wrong, that I was failing you. I tried to take care of you the only way I knew how—–setting limits, making rules, raising expectations. But we both failed to live up to those benchmarks. Our days became a struggle.

I realized then that if I was going to love you, I would have to learn to love myself. If I was going to attend to your pain with kindness and compassion, I would have to practice on my own pain. If I was going to listen to you, I would have to hear myself.

I can’’t give you what I don’t have.

I sometimes wish there was an easier way. Cleaning up my own mind, healing my own heart, meeting my own needs, is hard work. But I know you are worth it so I must be worth it too.

If all I leave you with on that last day is the memory of being loved, I have done my job. And love is boundless. There are no categories, no limits, no labels for love.

The work of love is ongoing. I still have my moments of forgetfulness and fear. When tears sprang to my eyes on your first day of school, I worried that “they” would think that I didn’t have a right to them. Maybe “they” think I haven’t earned my joy either–the joy of bearing witness to the miracle of your lengthening legs, your multiplying teeth, your new friends and interests. Maybe “they” think that when I look at you I shouldn’t feel a love so powerful it cracks my heart open again and again.

But I do feel that love for you.

And because of it, I will never be the same. I know now that the limit of my love is really the limit of my life.

And I know that it is possible to love the stranger–the child who isn’t mine–with total abandon. Such strangers are everywhere I look. And they are each as worthy of love as you are.

All 7 billion of them.

 

The Peril of The Pause

The wind barreled down the concrete breezeway and slapped my bare cheek as I walked through the library doors. I held a tottering stack of books flush against my chest, their corners digging into my ribs through my sweater.

Inside the library, I had felt calm, as I usually do. The dank, dusty smell and crowded embrace of so many crackling laminate spines always infuses me with comfort and possibility in equal measure. The library, for me, is a sacred space. A temple of learning. A humane gesture toward the infinite.

Standing in the aisle, I had scanned the strings of Dewey Decimal numbers for matches to my scrawled index card. I pulled my choices quickly. One of the children I nanny—the almost four year-old—raced around me in dizzying circles, karate chopping the air while I half-heartedly begged him to be quiet.

The day’s haul was topical. How to be a Freelance Writer, The Freelancer’s Bible, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and the last, a petite red hardback entitled The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life—chosen because even I’m not foolish enough to go stomping around new territory without an ally.

But by the time we crossed the street and reached the car, my ears were ringing. A familiar, invisible vise tightened its grip on my head. Unconsciously, I was holding my breath.

I slung the books into the trunk and slammed it. I tried to focus on the way the steering wheel felt like a cool curve of skin-covered bone beneath my palms. But I could still hear the books, flinging anxious thoughts like miniature Zeusian bolts at the back of my head as I shifted the car into gear and drove away.

“Who do you think you are that you can be a writer?”

“Are you kidding—you don’t have a head for this. You’re no good at networking or promoting yourself.”

“You’ll never make enough money to survive. You’ll have to give it up and get a real job in a couple of years anyway so why bother?”

“There’s too much to learn. It’s too late. You should have decided to pursue this ten years ago. There are so many working writers out there already…how will you compete with them?”

In psychological parlance, these are known as Self-Limiting Beliefs. I label them my Inner Critic, a term I picked up from Julia Cameron’s canonical book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. There are many names for this phenomena—Steven Pressfield’s Resistance, Jung’s Animus, Freud’s Superego, the Dragon, the Demon, the Tempter.

And there’s new evidence that the engine of imagination sometimes manifests as this overthinking and worrying. In other words, the very force of imagination used to create art can be inverted to destroy the artist, as I wrote about here.

But the Inner Critic has an evolutionary purpose. Human beings are dependent on their tribe for survival and magnetized for criticism as a result. I lifted and laminated my Inner Critic’s favorite phrases in childhood. I postered my mind with them in adolescence. They helped me navigate the world, fit in enough to survive. But, over time, the phrases lost their original contexts and became so subtle I barely registered them in my conscious mind at all. They were my toxic elevator music.

And as long as my Inner Critic remained unconscious, I remained her victim. But I have made a study of my own fear over the past couple of years. I am learning the Inner Critic’s patterns. So it took less time to both recognize her presence and realize its cause.

Why was my Inner Critic waiting outside the library? I had finished the second draft of my novel about a week prior. Though I was still working on other projects, I had lived seven straight days without writing a word of my manuscript for the first time in six months. (Since the last time I experienced, and promptly forgot, this same agonizing pause after my first draft was complete.)

Every hunter knows that you shoot when the animal is still.

And the most effective way to ward off the Inner Critic is to keep working, to show up every day to my desk.

But, the pause is integral to the process. The work has to breathe. And I have to give my unconscious mind space in which to devise solutions to the lingering problems of plot and structure. I have to leave my desk and feast on the world.

What I have learned is that it is important to stay vigilant during such a pause, to protect the space you have deliberately created. Otherwise, the Inner Critic may populate it. A colony of fear may grow where you had intended only perspective, comprehension, and fresh ideas.

The temptation with that much space, with an inkling of the scope of the work, is to pass judgement on it. But, my job is not to decide if what I write is valuable. My job is to do the work as well and honestly and rigorously and thoroughly as I can and let go of the desire to control how it is received.

That is my job in the midst of writing. And that is my job in the moments of pausing.

The Myth and My Truth about Mental Illness and Creativity

 

I was eight when I first decided I wanted to be a writer. I had wanted to be a veterinarian before that. Dr. Harris, our neighbor and one of the most interesting adults I knew, was a veterinarian. He wore a thoughtful expression and a white coat, and he fielded all my questions with great seriousness while he examined our mutt atop his metal table. The Harris house was teeming with life–dogs, cats, houseplants, even a koi pond in the backyard. His wife had long glossy hair that shook down her back like a curtain when she laughed, which was often.

Around the age of eight, though, I abandoned my dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Miss Boyette, our elementary school’s librarian—a woman who was entirely round, round face, round glasses, sooty round curls on top of her head—introduced me to chapter books. And I realized for the first time that it was possible to spend hours or even days lost in someone else’s mind. I was in a new world.

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The author as a little girl, painting.

And then, it dawned on me that there were people whose whole job it was to sit in a room and make up these characters and their lives, to wield the rolodex of their own emotions (of which I had plenty, as a sensitive child) for the purpose of reaching others. It seemed like the most important thing in the world. And I wanted to try it. I wanted to explain people to themselves. I wanted to explain myself to myself. And I wanted to do it in language so beautiful that made me close my eyes and smack my lips, the same way that candy did.

The good news was that I seemed to have a knack for writing. By the time I was eleven, my fifth grade teacher, whom I trusted because she was decidedly not a gusher, gushed about my proficiency in journaling. It seemed I was one of the destined, anointed—those lucky few who just know very early on what it is they are supposed to do with their lives.

But there was one problem. I didn’t know any writers, personally. Not one. I didn’t have any proof that writing was a real job for real people. So I was exposed, helpless to shore up my dream in the face of the eroding power of our cultural myths about creativity. The ones that well-meaning adults routinely rain down on children in the name of protecting them from disappointment.

There’s no future in becoming a writer. Writers are poor. So few actually make it. And, besides writers are loners. They’re selfish, irresponsible, maladjusted. Crazy.

I didn’t really care that becoming a writer was hard. What bothered me, as my vision of what made a writer got fleshed out with the opinions of others, was my sense that I was somehow missing part of the formula for becoming a writer which, to my childish mind, went something like this:

Passion + Talent + Torture = Writer

My life was not tortured. At that time, nothing bad had really happened to me. I was charmed, except to me it felt more like I was cursed. How could I be a writer if I was a normal person living a normal life?

I didn’t have to wait long for my cosmic answer. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And my childhood wasn’t over.

At the age of thirteen, I started getting the doses of human drama and suffering I’d been strangely pining for. The details aren’t important (nor are they mine to share), but what is important is that my quiet, ordered life was upended totally. Now I was living life.

It’s hard to suss out when exactly Anxiety and Depression walked through the open door left by that early adolescent shake up. I had always been a worried kid. The type that lay in bed at night and fretted that the ice caps were melting, my family didn’t have a fire escape plan posted to our refrigerator, and also everyone I’d ever known was going to die–me included. You get the picture.

For nearly half of my life now I have lived in the warped realities created by my personal Venn Diagram of Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder. Somewhere along the way, I stopped telling people that I wanted to be a writer. Eventually, I stopped telling even myself.

The science shows that writers have more than twice the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder compared to the general population. And writers have a greater risk of depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse. The rate of mental illness in writers is higher than in other creative professions, including visual artists and musicians, and writers have the broadest spectrum of disorders represented.

I’m not capable of explaining with broad strokes why this relationship between writing and mental illness exists. Nor am I able to rattle off a long list of those writers who have been affected by mental illness, or those philosophers who have opined about this connection throughout history. What I can do is talk about the way in which my understanding of this relationship between creative expression and mental illness has changed through my own experience.

I thought, as a girl, that mental illness was a necessary ingredient for creativity. But, I could never square that fact with the happy, well-adjusted creatives of the world. (And there are some.)

I no longer think of mental illness as an ingredient. Having experienced both the permeability and elasticity of mind that is needed to take on creative work and the instability of mind that is the hallmark of mental illness, I now think of them as existing on a continuum with one another. They are a suprapersonal energy and power. A spiritual power. The power to destroy the human organism or to transcend it.

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<————————————->

mental illness                                                                                   creativity

 

Anxiety and depression are creativity killers. In the midst of a depressive period or anxious episode, I am unable even to leave my bed or my house, to cook or eat, to shower or dress, to concentrate long enough to read more than one sentence of a book. To say I can’t write when in the grip of these illnesses is woefully insufficient to explain their power over me. I can barely keep myself alive when they are at their worst.

But I have discovered something. The road to healing my mind is the same as the road to creative recovery. When I began to recognize the dividing line between myself and my illnesses, when I saw them as constructs of my own mind (I do not intend in any way to belittle the reality of these illnesses here; I am remarking instead on the incredible power of the human mind.), I found the power to write again. In fact, I felt more compelled to write than ever.

Writing keeps my anxiety and depression at bay.

Let me be clear. I don’t mean that writing well keeps them at bay. I don’t mean that liking what I have written keeps them at bay. I don’t mean that publishing, winning contests, receiving praise or recognition keeps them at bay.

I mean the daily practice of writing connects me to myself. And the most dangerous part of mental illness is the lie it tells you about yourself. That you are it. You are your depression. You are your anxiety. And therefore it is inescapable and unbearable.

For me, writing is a spiritual practice. It is an outward manifestation of a connection with my own essential being. The part of me that answered, inside that eight year old girl, the first time I fell into a book alone.

Writing is an exercise in touching the deepest mystery of life.

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Perhaps mental illness is more than just the crosshairs of chemical imbalances in the brain, genetic markers, and childhood traumas. Perhaps mental illness is the force of life turned in on itself. The strength of creativity harnessed for destruction.

In Hinduism there exists the concept of Trimurti—the threefold understanding of God as simultaneously the creator (Brahma), the preserver (Vishnu) and the destroyer (Shiva).

We think of creation and destruction as separate. But what if they’re not?

We think of illness and wellness as separate. But what if they’re not?

We think of the mind, body and soul as separate. But what if they’re not?

So, even though it is so scary to say out loud, I have started telling people again that I want to be a writer. Because it’s true. It’s always been true.

I’m not in charge of what that looks like. I know that now. And on a vital, holy level, it doesn’t matter.

 

 

Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life

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In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of maturing my writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “[You] contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.

Authorpreneur

quotescover-JPG-77Confession time. Half of this word scares me. Also it makes me a little angry, a little frustrated, and a little unsure about my ability to succeed as a writer.

Here’s why: I’m not sure that the skills needed to be a successful writer can cohabitate with the skills necessary to be a great entrepreneur, brander, marketer, social media mogul and sales executive.

I’m afraid I only have the former set of skills. I like to be alone, I like psychoanalysis, probing deep questions, imagining alternative realities, crafting language, and communicating my most dearly held truths.

The following things, on the other hand, make me feel icky: self-promotion, money, too much time on the internet (especially social media), strategizing, marketing, thinking about the salability of my most dearly held truths.

Am I doomed in the new arena of writing and publishing?

I hope not.

But I worry that developing the skills to hold up the entrepreneurial end of this equation will take place at the expense of the author end. Time spent in strategizing, marketing and social media blasting is time not spent writing, after all. And I only get the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, unfortunately.

The alternative, of course, is to hire others to do the parts of the business that I don’t have an affinity for. This upsets me for an entirely different reason. Are we kidding ourselves about the great egalitarian wild west of self-publishing on the web? If time and money must be invested now by the author, instead of by the traditional publisher, aren’t we empowering some kinds of authors (those with an abundance of time and/or money) over others even more than we were before?

This troubles me. And I don’t have an answer.

But, if I may be permitted to play devil’s advocate against my own argument for a moment, I can see some of the proclaimed advantages of this new author-centric system of publishing. For one, authors have greater creative control over the final form of their work than ever before. If you don’t want to listen to a bossy editor or publisher, you don’t have to. You want to write an 800 page debut novel? Knock yourself out. “We don’t see a market for that” is no longer a full-stop for writers seeking publication.

Authors stand to take home a greater slice of their profits than ever before, too. People are not writing novels in the hope of becoming millionaires by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice that the time and energy vested in such a long project can be rewarded by a higher percentage (if not all) of the profits of the book’s sales.

And I do think that for some, the skills used in the writing process are transferrable to the realm of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurs must also be highly creative to be successful. Blogging is just more writing (a good place to put all the ideas in your brain that don’t fit into your novel!). And many writers also have a knack for the visual arts, making designing their own covers a fun challenge, rather than an overwhelming chore.

I’m still hoping to be picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. But, in the meantime, I’m learning how to build a platform, generate blog posts, and talk about my project to any willing listeners. Dogged determination, after all, has always been a part of the writer’s toolkit.

 

What Does it Mean to Be a Storyteller?

Brand-Storyteller“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” -Joseph Campbell

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” -Plato

We have been reading Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit as our group selection for the craft of writing portion of our weekly meeting. What has struck me most profoundly in the book so far, is the small section in Chapter 5 when Block makes the case that the most important skill a novelist can possess is to be a good “storyteller.”

Being a good storyteller, according to Block, is far more important than being a good stylist. The largeness of the plot structure will buoy up a novel with lackluster style. On one level, this seems utterly true to me. On another, I am shocked by it. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms.

I came to Agile Writers above all to get help with crafting a plot. I was familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell, and recognized that in his study of the “Hero’s Journey” he had distilled the human story. I wanted to somehow use this template to write a novel. Enter, Greg Smith, who—to my total astonishment—had made the leap from Campbell to novel already.

But even after the rigorous process of Storyboarding and planning my novel, a first draft and half of a second draft, I find that what I think of as good writing still leans heavily on good style. My fiction is pretty stylized and I admire writers and books that have a definitive voice.

The other element, the element of plot—storytelling, theater—still seems foreign to me. I am so grateful for the help I have received at Agile Writers to structure my plot. But, I find myself often scratching my head, not knowing if what I am writing is compelling on that larger level. Is it exciting enough? Dramatic enough? Compelling enough? Not just my usual question: is it beautiful enough?

But, is it going somewhere?

This may just be the middle/muddle talking (I am 150 pages into the rewrite. . . ), but that is the hardest question for me to answer. Am I telling an important and interesting story? If not, all of the style points in the world don’t rack up to anything. They are hollow.

The only way I can feel confident in my plot, in my story, is that it is written in the spirit of the Hero’s Journey—the oldest and most compelling human story. I can trust that, with the help of the Agile Writing Method, I am reaching toward telling a true hero’s tale. My readers will recognize the story deeply, in their bones. And they will feel drawn along by it. At least, I hope so.

Agile Writers, what does it mean to you to be a storyteller?

Learning to Read like a Writer

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Reading and writing are akin to inhalation and exhalation. Technique can be taught, but the essence—the art—of writing is not a one-to-one transferrable skill. It takes so much of who we are, what we have experienced, to make writing that resonates. It is deeply personal. An internal probing of our own experiences and sensations.

So, how do we learn to get better at the essential art of writing?

The first way, which cannot be understated, is to write. Write often, in every mood, in any circumstance—badly or beautifully, slowly or quickly, painfully or joyfully. Write.

The second is to read. Read widely and voraciously. Most of us do that. Otherwise, we would not have come to writing. Children learn to read before they learn to write. It is the love of books as a reader that first ignites in us the desire, the need, to write.

So what does a novelist need to read?

Allow me to trace my own evolution on the subject. I wrote my first draft while reading only nonfiction. Truth be told, I have read mostly nonfiction for the last couple years. I have always read in cycles—nonfiction or fiction predominating for periods of time throughout my life.

The alternation depends on what I need. Sometimes I need hard facts, new ideas, theories and postulations, mega structures to fit the individual pattern of my life inside. Sometimes I need to witness specific human experiences, to cultivate empathy and connection, to make deep soul-sense of my life and recognize my own humanity. These needs are served for me by nonfiction, and fiction, respectively, with very little overlap.

When I began my first draft, it was with the fear that I might unintentionally steal from another work of fiction. Therefore, I thought, I needed to restrict myself to reading nonfiction. (With the occasional poetry thrown in to maintain contact with beautiful language.)

I was wrong.

When I finally started picking up novels again—still interspersing them with works of nonfiction—I realized that what they gave me was not temptation, but inspiration. What they revealed to me was the depth of my own creative impulse, the strength of my desire to write. A reminder of the importance of the novel in the literary landscape.

Fiction touches a place in me that nonfiction simply cannot reach.

And I discovered something else—my ear had been attuned by the process of writing, and so I was no longer reading in the same way. Rather than ruining fiction, which I was afraid could be an outcome of trying to write it (no one wants to eat sausage after they see how it’s made), what I gained instead was a new appreciation, a deeper recognition of the elements at work in good fiction.

Reading fiction gave me back the music, the playfulness of words, their transcendental power. The nonfiction I read had helped me be precise and more comprehensible in my writing. (This was especially true, of course, of books explicitly about the craft of writing.) But, the fiction was rewilding me, giving me license to play, to experiment, to explore unknown corners of my mind and my work. To more easily access my intuition—the birthplace of creativity.

Reading fiction reminded me of the purpose of creative work, the purpose of art, the way in which, as Picasso said, “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Isn’t that, after all, what we’re trying to do?

Agile Writers, let me know, do you read mostly fiction or nonfiction while you are writing?