creativewriting

Where the Art of Writing Comes From

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Please get out of the habit of saying that you've got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you. - Robert Olen Butler

About twenty years ago while attending the poetry workshop at the writers conference at Port Townsend, Washington, I had a chance to talk to Robert Olen Butler who was teaching the fiction workshop. While sitting on the grassy knoll above the Puget Sound, he spoke of his time in Vietnam, when he served as military attache in Saigon, where he became fluent in the language. He loved the Vietnamese and would sit on a stoop in the middle of the night engaged in conversation.

At the time of the conference, though he had a reputation as a fine writer and a dedicated teacher, all his books were out of print. A few months later, his new collection of short stories, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain won the Pulitzer Prize. The stories, which all involve characters that are Vietnamese, reflect the importance the people and the culture played in Butler's life and imagination.

Recently I came upon a book of his, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, in which he really emphasizes the importance of writing from the unconscious, the dream mind. He does a beautiful job of describing the difficulties involved as well as the importance of letting go of your linear mind and engaging your sensory and sensual experiences in order to fully tap the creative process.

In my own writing classes I start with a short meditation designed to quiet the mind and drop us all down into the heart mind, making it easier to access the imagination and creative flow. We then work with exercises to help in letting go, trusting the process and allowing what wants to be born out of the well of the subconscious to flow out on to the page.

Another key element I learned from Butler in a talk he gave at the conference, is that good writing was full of moment by moment sensual detail. Focusing on the felt sense of an experience, learning to let go and then writing about things that are really important to you are key ingredients in developing the art of writing.

Creativity and the Grace of Gratitude

If the only prayer you say in your whole life is “thank you”, that would suffice. - Meister Eckhart

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At its heart I see creativity as a celebration of ourselves, our lives and our world in all the myriad experiences and possibilities that come from being alive including the difficult. Creativity allows us to marvel at the gift of our lives. Lately I’ve started to see it as a way to express gratitude. And gratitude it turns out can bring all sorts of benefits to our lives.

Recently I read a research article on the proven benefits of focusing on what we are grateful for. Physically it strengthens our immune system, lowers blood pressure, increases energy and vitality and improves the quality of our sleep. Psychologically it improves overall mental health, increases our ability to handle stress and brings us more joy, optimism and life satisfaction. Socially it allows for stronger interpersonal relationships and increases our feeling of interconnectedness as well as making us more forgiving, generous and compassionate.

Gratitude also works in a mysterious spiritual sense opening the doors to support from the universe. The English word gratitude comes from the Latin root grata or gratis meaning a given gift. The word grace, meaning a gift freely given that is unearned, comes from the same root. The ideas and inspirations that flow through creative acts always feel to me like grace.

There are lots of ways to focus on gratitude. Keeping a journal where each day we make a list of a least a few things we are grateful for is a popular one. Letting the people we care about know that we appreciate them is another. We can say thank you when someone holds the door open for us. I always wave a thank you when a car stops for me when I am crossing the street. When I’m out for a walk I often say thank you to the trees or birds and feel more connected to the earth.

Then there is being creative. What in your life would you like to celebrate with gratefulness. You could dance it around the living room, draw it in chalk on the sidewalk, sing it in the shower, write a poem, plant a flower or bake a cake all with the intention of expressing gratitude. 

Being grateful opens our heart and spirit so we can actually be more receptive to the creative impulses that are swirling around us. Take a minute right now. Focus on something or someone you are grateful for. Feel yourself open and expand as you do. What do you want to create from this place.

Playing with the Imagination

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Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Albert Einstein

You must give birth to your images.
They are the future waiting to be born . . .
Fear not the strangeness you feel.
The future must enter you
long before it happens.
Just wait for the birth,
for the hour of new clarity

- Rainer Maria Rilke

I often say to my writing and creativity coaching clients that your imagination is smarter than you are; like intuition it gives you a deeper, faster, more expanded means of gaining critical insights and making important connections than the more limited workings of your linear, rational mind. Whether you want to write, engage your creativity more fully or develop an ability for creative problem solving, your imagination is an essential tool. To exercise your imagination try the age old favorite of looking for shapes in the clouds; or go sit outside on a bench to watch people go by and make up stories about their lives; or go to a park and lean against a tree and imagine what it would say to you if it could talk; or lay down on the earth and ask her what simple thing you could do to help the planet. Then be open to the ideas, images or thought that arise in your mind.

One exercise I like to work with is asking advice of an imaginary mentor. You think of a question and then write the answer yourself as if you are getting a response from someone you admire. You can ask Einstein, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson or your grandmother. A woman I worked with did this exercise and received what was clearly really good advice. Unaccustomed to using her imagination in this way she asked, "how do I know if I am actually channeling this person or if I'm making it up". It's a great question because when we use our imagination it will feel and seem like we are making it up. And that's exactly how the imagination works.

We have a hard time trusting the information and ideas we get because we live in a culture that dismisses the power of the imagination but saying, "oh, you're just making that up" or we tell our children "it's just your imagination". Imagination is a tool of human consciousness that is underdeveloped in the modern world. Yet the more you engage it and play with it the stronger the connection becomes and you will begin to feel the quiet excitement and joy that comes from expanding this ability, that will give you new ways to looking at problems and solving them.

You can even ask your imagination for suggestions on how best to cultivate it. Sit quietly for five minutes following the flow of your breath and calming your mind. Then be open to what your imagination has to say to you. Try writing without thinking for ten minutes as if you were taking dictation from your imagination. Or you could ask your imagination what it wants from you and then answer the question by writing or drawing or even spontaneous movement where you let the thoughts and feelings flow.

Imagination is one way we access our deeper mind. It is a place where you shed your everyday self, where sparks fly and time stands still. It requires a bit of solitude and idleness. It asks that you slow down and sit still with your mind clear and expectant. It asks that you be willing to play.

Making Mistakes

Life is "trying things to see if they work. - Ray Bradbury

Mistakes are the portals of discovery. -James Joyce

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Recently I worked with a client who was really blocked in her writing and painting. Through our coaching we were able to discover that the root of the block was a fear of making mistakes. Once she identified that bugaboo her writing and painting started to flow again.

Our culture and educational systems teach us that mistakes aren't okay; that there are real negative consequences to making mistakes. Yet the only way we learn is by our willingness to make mistakes and see what works and what doesn't.

From my own years of writing I have had countless pages that were practice that never really took off and I had many scraps of poems that were never finished. I always knew that this was part of the learning process of being a writer. Yet I also found that the stories and poems that really wanted to be completed would stay with me through the process of growing in my craft.

This really helped me to show up and just play with the process and allow what wanted to born come through me. This and just being able to play with the process is really an important part of being creative in any form you work with.

A friend once told me about a book on creating art that was called, One Continuous Mistakes. I never bothered to read it because just hearing the title was all I needed. My creative self immediately intuited the truth of it. I felt could feel that the secret to really being in the creative process is indeed a willingness to make mistakes and see where they lead.