The Taste for Writing

The following words by Ira Glass were recently quoted on Good Reads. One of my writing-coaching clients shared it with me, saying how much it spoke to her. I couldn’t agree more with Ira’s message. But I got to thinking about why so many aspiring writers give up, so I wrote an email response that splits hairs between two kinds of taste. My response follows Ira’s quote. Here’s his quote:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Certainly Ira’s words are true. But there’s another kind of taste. Some of us have this kind of taste, and some don’t, and that is a taste for, a love of, the process. The act of creation itself. Much of the joy I’ve experienced in writing is in the journey through the unknown, the discoveries in nature, the discoveries about human nature, myself, language, story, and poetry. I have an insatiable taste for all of this.

The taste that Ira is talking about I call “high taste,” and I have this taste too, of course. That is, the recognition of beauty, meaning, truth, interest, drama, suspense, and identification in others’ writing that we want to produce ourselves. When we read something tantalizing, we want to be able to create writing that tantalizes others the way we’ve been tantalized. This is the taste for something rather than the taste of something. The former is a desire to have something, to “get,” while the other is the actual consuming of it in the process, to be had by something, the “being gotten,” being consumed by verbal creativity. Writing as adventure.

Delicious meal, by Fran

Delicious meal, by Fran

Thus, I’m addicted to the act of producing a beautiful, authentic poem more than I’m driven to produce something I think others will find beautiful and authentic, although this becomes important too, but usually after the fact. Even as I write these words, even as I travel the unknown journey of what I might write next, I’m mesmerized by how I might be surprised by what I never knew I might write. I feel like the magician and the completely baffled and awed onlooker, both, at the same time.

The taste I speak of is a romance with possibility that makes me feel in love, jittery, as if I were about to meet my true soul mate, while she remains just slightly out of reach, perhaps around the next corner, behind that tree.

And being too addicted to the love of, and joy in, the process can get in the way of following through, of becoming a writer in the professional sense of the word. Yet a lot of little things add up to a big thing, and my addiction, my obsession, has resulted in a number of plumped up manuscripts and others plumping up. I can’t not write. Writing tastes too good.

Icelandic Ethiopian meal

Icelandic Ethiopian meal

I wasn’t exactly born this way; I groomed this madness. It’s as if I got a wheel, a few wheels, spinning inside me, and now they’re shooting off sparks that I only need see, hear, and write down. But these fireworks, too, take time. I’m not saying that writing beautifully or professionally doesn’t take time. It does. But if you eat what you cook as you cook it, you’ll sustain yourself until others pay you to consume the delicious dish of the writing you’ve cooked up.

In other words, it’s not only having a taste for a delicious dish of good literature or exciting writing; it’s also the tasting of it while cooking it. It’s delectability. It’s the sight, the smell, the sound, the taste, the physical sensation of words tumbling from the tips of the fingers.

Always trust, always have faith, that if you mean well and work hard (cook with love), you will produce your dream.

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Writing a Personal Narrative (essay)

Many of us are anxious to tell our own story in writing. Many of us are required to write a personal essay as part of a college application process. Some of us are simply interested in how to write a compelling story in a coherent and engaging way. Writing a personal essay is an act of deep self-expression.

There are three distinct steps to writing a great personal essay: Write the first draft from the heart. Write the second draft with the brain. Write the third draft for your readers. Each step may involve a little of the other steps, since it’s the whole of you who is writing the essay.

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

The first step involves remembering—re-imagining and reconstructing—the past. Most aspiring writers have a story they’ve always wanted to tell. Or there are memories that won’t leave them alone. Or there’s a character in their lives, or in the past, who beckons to be heard—or heard about. Listen to the busy mind and you’ll always find your story—many stories, in fact. The story that you have to write is your real story.

But where should you start the story? Most fiction readers and film viewers these days have little time for lengthy exposition or background, so it’s best to start as close to the climax as possible. You can flashback from there. Keep your reader hanging. Stretch the intense moments out (but don’t become tedious).

This goes for writing too....

This goes for writing too….

During this first draft, remember two items: One, be sure to convey the meaning or feeling you hope to get across to your readers, and, two, write descriptively in order to place your reader in the story. Sit down at your desk and free-write the story without stopping, without fixing words or sentences, till you’ve written all you can remember. Get it down with all the passion you can muster.

Belief in Self

Belief in Self

Once you’ve written all you can, step away from your draft, sleep on it, or go for a walk or a drive, so you can return to your story with fresh eyes and heart. Then read it through once, without making any marks or changes. Now make a list of general items you’d like to improve. Then, reading again from the top, make marks or changes reflecting your goals for your story or ways you’d like to improve it. Producing a second draft involves making drastic changes. Drastic changes that writers make include deleting opening sentences and even whole paragraphs or moving chunks of material around. But this is also a good time to enhance the pictures and sharpen and add words.

Another way writers improve first drafts is by adding more concrete and descriptive language. They also add transitions that move the story from place to place, time to time, and point of view to point of view; they break long sentences, join short ones, and strive to create sentence variety. Let your brain have sway over the ego here. Don’t be too precious about what you’ve already written.

The third draft is about sharpening vocabulary, deleting unnecessary words or adding missing ones, and attending to mechanics—spelling, punctuation and grammar. Since, in this step, you’re drafting for your audience, read your personal story aloud, in front of a mirror, or ideally to a friend or partner. How does it sound to the ear? Natural? Fluid? Engaging? Clear? Does it make a point? Is it vivid? Make notes during or as soon as possible after reading aloud. Always be open to the possibility of improving a personal essay. Many writers continue to revise their work all their lives.

Standard Punctuation

Standard Punctuation

Writing a personal essay is an important act of self-revelation and meaning-making. It involves a great heave of effort and finesse that should end with the flourish of a song. Writing from the heart, with the mind, then for an audience, makes sure the act is true, whole, and sound.

Meditation and the Arts

Writing poetry and playing violin teach concentration, mindfulness, and non-attachment.

The violinist experiences a kind of samadhi “in action” when she achieves the full expression of her playing. She must be wholly mindful to the act. She concentrates her whole life energy on moving the bow hairs across the strings to make her instrument sing. Put another way, she inflects the body so as to project, with full power and nuance, the melody or musical figuration. In so doing, she eliminates all bothersome distractions beyond her focus on making beautiful music and detaches herself from all thoughts outside of playing violin, including irksome self-recrimination and unnecessary self-criticism. She transcends being too concerned with audience response, especially the feeling that she’s failing them in some way or is inadequate to the task of entertaining and moving others.

Every fiber present in this playing....

Every fiber present in this playing….

Writing descriptive poetry involves a similar approach and makes for another good example of how yogic or meditative approaches can be applied to other activities. Sitting by the lake, I watch a female bluebill duck hesitate at water’s edge, then clamber up on to the bank beyond my legs. I see that her beak has a metallic blue tint with a few subtle orange spots and that her fine white and brown markings are quite symmetrical from side to side. I see that her feet are of an unlikely, almost “man-made” orange color. She jabs with her beak at a blue-and-black-striped dragonfly perched on a blade of grass. Misses. She waddles by, disappearing behind the bench where I sit.

Female mallard

Female mallard

As I watch, however, observing the duck in detail, feeling perhaps what it might be like to be a duck, to desire to eat a plump, “wingy” dragonfly, to rip up and choke back green grass with a toothless beak, I do not produce these words in my mind; I do not distract myself with language and “being” descriptive. I save all that for later, for that moment when I shift into “writing mode.” I simply watch, absorbed, even mesmerized, by the image, by the presence of “duck,” in me as much as outside of me. I’m taken by the “natural world” in action (the premise here being that all life, the whole world, is real and valuable and worth attending to). I abandon myself to the world; I do not resist. I do not keep myself separate, distinct, or even “detached.” Rather, the world absorbs, encompasses, and “possesses” me.

Taste the wings

Taste the wings

So to the world, as both “object” and “subject,” I give myself, wandering along the path of meditation on the journey toward “wholly being.” Such reversals of view are a way of practicing non-attachment to self and to other than here and now.

Finally, if I’ve been struck deeply by an image, if I want to explore the image further with words, I pick up my pen and write. This shift of focus to language and writing can be its own form of meditation. Some poems, in fact, like some musical pieces, are actually called “meditations.”

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

Thus all actions one undertakes in life in which quality is the concern— achieving some sort of ideal experience or expression, including doing everyday chores, running errands, carrying on personal interactions, and performing tasks at work—ideally involve the same approach of mindfulness, concentration, and non-attachment. Meditation is a state of mind that we can carry throughout our day.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

the duck snaps at
the dragonfly—we get it
when she misses

Meditation on Meditation: A Rhapsody

Always I long for something other than here and now, yet such a longing according to traditional and contemporary spiritual trends is a kind of illness. Be here now and all that spume. Lovely but impossible ideal, I’m afraid. Even prepping a class, I cannot help but picture those student faces, swallowing my program, my ideas even, lifting their eyes to lines of prose or pen to paper…

Drake Snoozing (Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, Portland, Oregon, March 2014)

Drake Snoozing (Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, Portland, Oregon, March 2014)

Now is as empty as a pocket I futilely strain to fill with the coins of my eyes and ears, with my whole being…

There is meditation formalized and meditation that serves the purpose at hand—one way or the other an altered, relaxed state of mind that allows the other, the here and now, to intercede on the past-and-future-occupied mind….

I have watched—I have become—waves crashing, one upon the other, spilling up the beach toward my feet, felt the disorienting grate of upward rush and backward wash, been nearly thrown to the sand at the height of this conflictive coming and going merely abandoning my eyes to this other world, this other possibility (for all possibilities exist in reality, if only for a moment in the mind)….

Vast Sea and Rocks (Cannon Beach, Oregon, March 2014)

Vast Sea and Rocks (Cannon Beach, Oregon, March 2014)

One might say total abandonment to reality may bring the caesura of reality, certainly caesura of consciousness of reality. Total abandonment to sight and sound bring the unknown, the frightening, as for the cat for the first time thrown into an alien world, for the first time set down on the beach beside the thundering waves, all bent-eared and wide-eyed, tensed to avoid a sensed end of his life.

Red Sea Contemplation (Cannon Beach)

Red Sea Contemplation (Cannon Beach)

And I have lost myself in the flight of a seagull in my reverie, lost myself in casting off my own contrived reality that I superimpose on the true underlying reality that exists independent of me, independent of all “conscious” creatures. Lost myself in the seagull’s wings, in wind-veer and gust-loft, become those yellow eyes scanning the broken carapace of a crab, the starfish rotting on the beach below. Been to the center, the beginning, of the universe, a cerebral cosmologist, to the Big Bang on the verge of Banging Big, the Big Bang Banged and blasting outward, been to cell and molecule, to atom and electron, to quark and back. Infinity is no stranger to the childlike mind.

Raindrop Circles (Seattle, May 2104)

Raindrop Circles (Seattle, May 2104)

And I have held your heart beating in my hand. But unintentionally, for how can I sort through what occurs intentionally, and what unintentionally, in or to my mind? Who can say I thought this or that thought on purpose and know for sure it didn’t merely happen of its own accord, that my every thought is not merely the cresting of the wave of all thoughts that have risen and rushed forward in and with and all around me and the whole of thinking, of mutating humanity. Or finally to finally conclude and forever as long as I can hold the conclusion that I know I will a thought independent and exclusive of all other thoughts—a unique thought! That reality is not merely my greatest, most complex meditation on nothingness, that all I sense and feel and think, I only think I sense and feel and think! I only think I think!

Waves of Clouds (Washington Coast,  April, 2014)

Waves of Clouds (Washington Coast,
April, 2014)

Still, how can I question all I am and do and know and have? Ah, the QUESTION is all! Knowing, as big, as small, as sure, as flimsy, as up for amendment or as momentarily stable as it is, is vanity. To know, to think one knows, is to lack humility while to question is to lie steadfast beneath the exploding stars and widen the eyes. And to name is a feeble attempt to get on top of, to get under our feet, that which crushes us beautifully. No matter how critical I become of the world, of others, of myself, I must make way for the blossom to bloom, the colors to mix and re-emerge, to reinvent themselves, wherever they are, within or without.

Twig Entangled Night City (Seattle, February, 2014)

Twig Entangled Night City (Seattle, February, 2014)

A marquee to the south ripples light in a window to the north. What need have I of a first order of reality? The speakers have lips, the lips another’s song, the song itself a tiny echo of yet another reality. What a surprising luxury, flesh! Still, the sun becomes a thought, the moon a peaceful dream.

Moonlit House (Washington Coast, March 2104)

Moonlit House (Washington Coast, March 2104)

More Dangerous Thoughts

I’ve heard from a number of readers about my first post, “Dangerous Thoughts.” Those who commented seemed to have read my purpose in that piece. Others, however, who called or met with me to discuss “Dangerous Thoughts” directly, had issues or suggestions.

First, I’d like to say that, while I do occasionally have the dangerous thoughts I describe in that first post, such thoughts do not dominate my mental activity, nor do they altogether limit my actions, although I have to admit that, because my world view is not the most popular on the planet, I’m sometimes reluctant to share it (yet here I am, exposing my antithetical thoughts in public via Wrenzai Insight Journal).

Fear (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2102

Fear (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2012)

I’d decided that while I feel certain that most people, particularly aspiring writers, have such potentially limiting dangerous thoughts, I couldn’t assume that they do. Nor did I feel I could exploit others’ dangerous thoughts in order to offer helpful tips on the subject. Thus, I chose to use my own creeping doubts and slippery ivory-tower views as my example. I really didn’t feel I was exposing my deepest, darkest secrets in doing so. I didn’t reveal any murders or breaches of national security. Still, I’ve found such insecurities to be universal. I can say this because I’ve taught writing for over twenty years and seen these creeping doubts in many of the struggling writers who have attended my classes or participated in my writing retreats.

I can live with my dangerous thought confessions, as I believe them to be as common as dreams.

Benevolence (Italy, 2011)

Benevolence (India, 2011)

But I found that several who responded took what I wrote literally, as a reflection of my dominant way of thought. And while I knew I was taking that risk, taking that risk has been worth it. One reader commented humorously, thanking me for revealing her own thoughts, which suggests I succeeded in my effort to show that such writing insecurities are universal.

All-seeing Eye (San Francisco, December 2012

All-seeing Eye (San Francisco, February 2012)

But all this self-reflexivity falls short of my intent here. One close respondent was concerned that I was just as sadly limited by my state of mind as he has always suspected I am. Of course, because his insight into my inner state and into the extent of my experience in these matters is limited, I had to reassure him that, as I say above, the dangerous thoughts I describe in my earlier post do not represent my dominant mode of thinking as I approach the various problems, challenges, and desires of my life. Once I’d clarified this point for him, he reminded me of his own personal approach: Visualizing what you want to do paves the way to doing it.

Picture the Mind (Tivoli, Italy, 2011)

Picture the Mind (Tivoli, Italy 2009)

I have always been one to visualize an outcome, then move in the direction of that outcome in order to make it real. Visualization is as common as leaves, and the idea has been developed in books (see Shakti Gawain’s book Creative Visualization, for one). But the art is not so much in making visualizations real, but in taming the monkeys so they don’t get in the way of the visualization—or in the way of the realization of that visualization. Many people feel troubled by self-doubt, worthlessness, cultural marginalization, and historical oppression, or they lack support, belief, or material resources.

If a we think that a black man, fresh off death row, found innocent after twenty years of a crime for which he was wrongly convicted, can wake up on the first morning of his release and visualize all he wants to do that day and actually make it all real and that that man can do that as readily as someone who has had years of practice and success in building competence and self-confidence along the way—then we are out of touch with reality. There’s no comparison. The “ex-con” is going to have one hell of a time making it in the world, even if he never committed a crime in his life (in Texas, one out of seven on death row has been found to have been wrongly convicted). The thoughts that are likely to dominate this man’s mind might sound like this: “True, I’ve been proven innocent, I’ve been spared execution by state injection, but having spent twenty years on the Row, aren’t I still an ex-con? Aren’t I worthless for having been treated as worthless for twenty years?” It’s hard for a man to remember his self-worth, social viability, and democratic equality when for twenty years the great and powerful Wizard of the State has treated him as worthless. This man has a monkey in his mind the size of the Empire State Building to stare down and put to bed.

Compassion (Delhi, India, 2011)

Compassion (Delhi, India, February 2011)

It’s seems rather simplistic to say that all we have to do is get up in the morning and visualize what we intend to do and, voila, it’s as good as done. It’s simply not that simple for some people. They have complexes, blockages, and negative scripts running through the sound processing centers of their minds, and these complexes, blockages, and negative scripts are none other than those aforementioned monkeys playing havoc with our minds, eclipsing our best thoughts and undermining our best actions.

Bereft (Ocean Shores, Washington)

Bereft (Ocean Shores, Washington)

Another close respondent reminded me of the Four Agreements. The idea is that if we focus on, and strive to live by, these Four Agreements, the monkeys will have no space in our minds to make a ruckus. They’ll give up and go obediently to bed as the saintly Four Agreements rise to conduct catechism on the mind’s thoughts. Here are the Four Agreements:

Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.

Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret (from ToltecSpirit.com).

I find the Four Agreements to be rock solid—true, valid, and potent. They’re hard to argue with. But what both Visualization and the Four Agreements don’t take into account is the chaos, sturm und drang, and compost of creativity that must be present in the writer’s life in order for the writer to produce the new and unexpected, the universally felt or experienced. For example, how can the mystery writer describe a murder without imagining the act, in detail, in advance of writing? Many ideas for art and literature have arrived on the crest of a primal wave of passion, such as when a woman imagines murdering her husband then writes a novel about it instead. How can scriptwriters and movie-makers create such violent films without visualizing the violence before hand? There’s a wildness that must be groomed, a dangerous but realistic and productive wildness that provides fodder for depictions of the worst, as well as the best, of what it is to be human. Strict visualization of monetary outcomes and purist actualization of a few agreements may make the mind too square or narrow to allow for wild expressions of beauty and meaning. Artists—even scientists, I’d suggest—can’t afford to be too strict of thought.

Wrath (Olympia, Washington)

Wrath (Olympia, Washington, June 2011)

While Visualization and the Four Agreements are excellent thinking tools with which to become more productive, successful, or enlightened, if we occupy our minds too much of the time with strict principles, we may become rigid in our thinking, which, in turn, may leave little room for chaos, compost, creativity, and growth.

Confiding (Ocean Shores)

Confiding (Ocean Shores, June 2011)