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.

Do You Resist Showing Up to Be Creative?

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Recently I got a note from one of my writing students saying that she was really enjoying writing when she managed to find the time. The three top reasons that people give for not being able to fully show up, move forward or change some area of their life are, "I don't have enough time, I don't have enough money or My health isn't good enough."

On the surface these excuses appear valid and hard to argue with. In truth they always cover up some deeper resistance. When we really want to do something and commit to it we can always manage to find the time, the resources and a way to work around any physical limitations.

Robert Olen Butler who won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain worked full time and had a difficult home life so he wrote everyday on the train computing into New York City. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, was a single mother struggling on state aid in Edinburgh Scotland where she sat everyday in a local cafe writing the first book in the series that would turn her into a multi-millionaire. These stories point to the reality that you don't have to have everything together or know exactly what you are doing or how you are going to make something work to begin whatever it is you want to create. Beginning opens you up to new possibilities.

With my writing coaching clients I start them out with a commitment to write a minimum of ten minutes a day. It would seem like everyone could find ten minutes, but if there are some unconscious beliefs and fears around expressing yourself or being creative then you will put it off until the end of the day and then say you are too tired. This is what resistance looks like.

If you are having trouble showing up to your writing, painting, music or exploring your creativity in some way, stop and get quiet. Take some deep breaths. Ask your deeper or higher self what's in the way. Then just see what comes to you. It may be a memory of your third grade teacher humiliating you in front of the class by criticizing a drawing you did or your father's refusal to let you take the dance class you so much wanted.

Such events really can impact the tender, vulnerable, innocent part of us that is our creative self and years later have us not wanting to risk being creative. If something comes up for you honor your feelings around it. If you feel sad or angry feel those feelings as a way of allowing them to shift and release their hold on you. Then send love to that part of you.

We also resist our creativity because it can take us into unknown territory and our mind which is committed to keeping us safe will put the brakes on when we veer from the routine. Becoming aware of what's in the way of your desire to create and being mindful and patience and kind with your self will help you cross new thresholds into being creative and finding time to show up.

Are You Adrift in a Sea of Distractions

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I started writing before the development of the personal computer, when cut and paste meant I was down on the floor with a pair of scissors and a jar of that thick white glue that smelled vaguely of peppermint. It was in many ways a simpler time with far less pulling on my attention.

Every morning upon rising I would make my single cup of French roast coffee, dripped through a Melitta, and then sit down to write. There weren't any thoughts like I’ve got to check my email or Twitter feed to interfere with putting words on the page.

If I needed to do research, I went to the library, the sacred hall of actual books. I would flip through the cards in the small wooden drawers of the card catalog to find the book I needed, check it out and carry it home.

Now I love my laptop. It make revision including cut and paste so much easier. It connects me to a larger world. I can Skype my friend in Australia and feel like I’m sitting in her living room talking. I can connect to the web to find wealth of information I need for my work.

Yet lately I’ve been thinking about the issue of distractions. The fast pace of our times pulls us in so many different directions at the same time. We can lose ourselves in the swarm of emails, the compulsion to engage social media, surf the web or check the notifications coming in on our phones.

I’m not suggesting that we need to give those things up. Rather what if we brought more awareness to what we really want to be doing with our time in each moment. What is we asked ourself the question “What would bring me the most happiness and joy right now.” If the answer is to post something on Facebook, great.

Bringing consciousness to our lives on a regular basis helps us chose the activity that feeds us and helps us create more of what we really want in our lives. Asking “what would bring me the most happiness at this time, can help us overcome procrastination and the distractions that can get in the way of our creating.

When I asked myself that question this morning I got that I wanted to write a blog about distractions. Writing is one of the things that always brings me a satisfaction as I tend to be more present and lose myself in flow.

What does this for you. Start being more mindful of what really brings you happiness. Maybe set an alarm on your phone to go off every hour to remind yourself to stop and ask the question and be more conscious of your choices. Play with it. See what shifts for you.

Poetry: The Unsayable Said

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I was accomplished at writing essays before I started to write poems. As I ventured into writing in a new form it took me a while to figure out that poems were more than very short essays. I had to learn the rules of punctuation and line breaks and the music the words could make. It wasn't until I read poet Donald Hall's essay on writing poetry titled Poetry: The Unsayable Said that I really got the power of poetry. His advice was "if you can say it any other way, don't write poetry."

As my own experience of writing poetry deepened I began to grasp that poetry was the numinous expressing itself through words. More than in any other written form the poet has to surrender to what wants wants to come through. Poetry gives voice to the ineffable, that which is difficult to describe. Poems capture the feeling or soul of the experience. Once I really understood that my poems got a lot better.

Here's a poem of mine I wanted to share to celebrate the coming of spring. It was inspired by an awareness that kept tugging at my imagination. I then had to let myself be surprised by where the spirit of the poem wanted to take me. This is part of the magic and joy of writing poetry.


Loons drift across the bay
slowly dressing for summer, turning
winter’s drab gray into the elegant
black and white of attraction.

Oaks unfurl their green brilliance
and the melodies of warblers
crisscross the branches
coloring the forest with song.

Still, it is only when the swallows
suddenly appear, looping wildly in a clear sky,
that spring finally opens within me,
as if they have carried the season north.

Suzanne Murray

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.