On Aging and Creativity

Recently, longtime friend and colleague Priscilla Long gave a talk on Aging and Creativity at Elliott Bay Bookstore, which got me to thinking about the subject as it relates to my own life. Following are some miscellaneous thoughts that came to me rather briskly after I watched the video of her talk. The video can be viewed at:

http://www.priscillalong.net/talk-on-aging-and-creativity/

To begin with, I’m so impassioned and engrossed as an artist that I’ve hardly ever given thought to my creativity in relation to my aging. I give more and more time and energy to my writing projects and pursuits along with ever-greater effort toward playing the violin more beautifully (the physical activity of the latter seems to sustain the mental activity of the former). I feel full of potential, imbued with purpose and meaning, and rewarded by ever-stronger messages of confidence and satisfaction. I’ve noticed no lapse in my personal successes, my voice, my innovation, or my overall productivity. I never have doubts, tremulousness, or even hesitation in taking up my pen or bow. Although occasionally I feel a little dry, particularly with my haiku writing, I never have writer’s block. The only question I have is this: How much more time can I squeeze out of the time I have left on Earth to do what I love, the work that, in turn, seems so much to sustain me, to enrich me, and perhaps even to extend my life? So-called “retirement,” for me, has turned out to be my greatest opportunity to have a full-time writing career.

Cooper’s (chicken) hawk, Green Lake, Seattle

I can remember thinking, once I’d set out on the path of writing poetry at age 39, that I’d better get as much down on paper as I can now, before I grow old and “dry up.” That way I’ll have built an archive of material to work up with my “drier,” more editorial mind later. The operative stereotype, then, was that with aging comes creative desiccation. This stereotype is supported by the common expression “creative juices,” the idea that, as we age, our creative juices dry up. Many people have this idea that aging, in general, means “drying up.”

First autumn leaf, Ocean Shores, WA

Another idea, a more positive one, is that if along the way I somehow concluded I wasn’t very creative, that is, not very imaginative or innovative, then it was only by facing that question with sincerity and openness that I set out on a path to become more successfully imaginative and innovative. In other words, I had to ask myself, what does it mean to be creative in the first place, and what makes a work imaginative or innovative? I’ve encountered many significant questions along this line since I set out on this path: I wondered if by being more concerned with clarity and reality in my writing that I was being less creative. I wondered if by being more vernacular in my style I was being less creative. I wondered if by not relying on figures of speech and prosodic devices I was being less creative. Worst of all, I wondered if by not imbibing in drugs and alcohol or other sense-deranging approaches to the creative process I was being less creative.

Great blue heron, Green Lake

The irony is that, as I’ve come to understand what it is to be creative, to understand what makes a work more imaginative or innovative, the more imaginative and innovative I’ve become. Considering that I didn’t get serious about playing violin until I was 28 and didn’t get serious about writing poetry until I was 39, most of the creative enlightenment that has occurred in my life has occurred in my forties, fifties, and sixties. I have to say that at sixty-six I’m only now in the throes of producing my richest, most structurally creative, most humanistically purposeful work of writing: In Search of Morris: The Ancestry Research Writing How-to Memoir. And my sentence writing at this “late date,” is, indeed, like greased lightning—sinuous, leaping, soaring, delving, poetic, multi-textured, and musical. Of course it helps that I’m spry, if not still athletic and agile, in body. Keeping the body young, I believe, helps keep the mind young.

Leaf in spider web, Ocean Shores

The book, in 1992, that helped me address what being more creative in my poetry writing entailed is Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly. I read this book when I was 40. The idea that I took from that book that was so helpful is that there is a sideways leaping of imagination, rather than a linear one, involved in bringing together surprising words and images. Another book that helped was Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town, the idea that we need to expose our selves to word-stirring places, people, and stories to excite poetic responses and deeply human stories in ourselves. In other words, rather than lying down and dying by thinking I’m not naturally creative, I dove deeply into the question of what creativity is and how it works and, in turn, opened the way to being more imaginative and innovative. And I did a lot of this work starting when I was 45, when I got interested in Zen poetry in translation. Zen has played a huge role in my life in seeing how my thoughts were in my way.

Grass shadows on fallen leaf, Green Lake

A lot of the stereotypes and blocks that prevent or slow us from being creative, from continuing to be creative, or from becoming all the more creative as we age, involve the tiny, confining boxes and bubbles with which we close ourselves up: I’m too old. I’m too stuck in my ways. I’m not creative. My creativity will dry up. I have no imagination. It’s all been said before. I’ll never write as well as so and so. I’ll never write as well as I wrote when I was 25. I get frustrated too easily. I’m lazy…. And one doesn’t have to be old to close oneself up in these little boxes and bubbles. As a college writing instructor of many years, I’ve heard the same kinds of excuses and justifications expressed by people in their teens, twenties, and thirties. I wonder how many of us defeat ourselves even before we’ve stepped into the game or the battle.

Autumn lily pads, Green Lake

This brings up that greatest of all psycho-spiritual issues: How can we come to believe in ourselves? Maybe it takes the better part of one’s life to come to believe in one’s self. Young people who appear to believe in themselves may only be ebullient—putting on the dog, so to speak. Not that feigned confidence doesn’t work. Feigned confidence may, indeed, result in authentic confidence. In any case, as we age it’s possible we can begin to see that we’re still hugely full of potential that we never even began to fulfill and that it’s just a matter of setting our minds to doing so. We are not predetermined by the stars, our genes, our parents, or even by a certain past lifestyle or life mistake. We can erase the chalkboard if we choose to do so and pick a new color of chalk—a lot of new colors, if we like.

Autumn hummingbird, Green Lake

In fact, “artists of age” may have the edge over youthful artists simply by dint of the fact that they’ve had more time to get to know themselves—as people and as artists. They may also be imbued with that beautiful energy known as “having nothing left to lose.” Young artists, ironically, may actually be more conservative and less willing to take chances. They may also be too concerned about the reception of their work by the public since they tend to be new to the game of peer pressure and the Jones effect.

Coffee shop crow, Green Lake

Finally, having lived more years, more decades, the older creator or artist has the abundance of his or her entire long life from which to draw stories, images, memories, landscapes, characters, wisdom, and insights. And the memories that stick and continue to recur are those that have floated to the surface as the most poignant or meaningful. There are not that many young artists who have seen through to the heart of life and can write that life deeply and beautifully. However, there are some who seem to be born with gifts of human understanding and linguistic sensibility. Yet there’s no evidence that they lose that ability as they enter their forties, fifties, or sixties.

Helming the green sea home, Ocean Shores

As for continuing to strive to improve at playing violin: I was stuck at intermediate level from age 28 to about age 55. Not only had I quit playing for 14 years prior to that, from age 14 to age 28, but I had a foolish self-inflicted accident at age 23 in which I severely yanked both my shoulder joints out of their sockets so my arms dangled numbly and uselessly at my sides. So at age 55 I began working harder at increasing the range, fullness, speed, and facility of my bowing arm until I developed tendonitis and bursitis in the shoulder. I saw a therapist who had me take Ibuprofen routinely and work out with elastic bands in order to strengthen my shoulder. Meanwhile, I continued to practice violin while trying all the more carefully to play in a gentler and lighter way. At the end of nine months, at the age of 56, the tendonitis and bursitis had subsided, my shoulder had strengthened, and my bowing range, power, and speed had increased considerably.

Sibling retreat barred owl, Ocean Shores

Then, at age 56, I set out to strengthen my left shoulder in the same manner. I began by trying harder to support the instrument in such a way that I could finger and vibrate with greater facility and power until, again, I developed tendonitis and bursitis in the shoulder. And again I began with the Ibuprofen and the elastic band therapy while continuing to play in a more gentle and light way. In a year my left shoulder had strengthened such that I could finger more freely, speedily, and powerfully and without any pain whatsoever.

Heron silhouette, Green Lake

I am a 100% believer in the idea that “if you don’t use it you’ll lose it.” At age 23 I injured myself and didn’t do any healing therapy but then underwent the needed therapy in my mid-fifties and was still able to heal the injuries. The body, like the mind, is infinitely more resilient as we age than we tend to think. And as my body has grown more facile with the instrument so my mind has grown more facile with the music making. The body was no longer an impediment to the mind, the artistic sensibilities. I’m also a believer in the idea that the body supports the mind at least as much as the mind supports the body.

Heron and dock fisherman, Green Lake

More broadly speaking, creativity is a big part of my spirituality (in the secular sense to the word spirituality). Art and spirituality for me are synonymous. Throw in Nature and Mind and you have the basic outline of my personal spirituality. It wasn’t until I was well into my forties before I had a stable working philosophy. Only with age, I believe, can a person evolve a truly authentic, experientially derived spirituality or working philosophy, and it’s my belief that a truly mature art must be informed by a mature, worldly philosophy.

Autumn dew spider web, Green Lake

Then there’s the matter of distractions. I find that as I grow older I manage my time better and can concentrate for longer periods of time. I’m not as attracted to everything that’s going on around me, as I was when I was a younger, wilder person. I didn’t want to miss anything when I was younger. By now I’ve seen and done so many things that I’m not drawn to them anymore. Also, I’ve learned to make better use of my thinking mind. I used to think more in abstractions, sensations, and images. Now, not only can I think in these earlier ways, I can think in solid sentences or dialogue when appropriate. I can write in my mind and remember what I wrote, although I always keep my voice recorder near to hand for when I need to remember longer chunks of material or when I want to capture my authentic voice. I’ve written many a good haiku in my mind.

Misty night full cold moon, Ocean Shores

There is nothing I’ve described or explained here that I experienced or thought of in my early twenties. Most of these thoughts, developments, and approaches I’ve come to realize or have evolved in my forties or later. If life can be an adventure, then I’ve certainly had an interesting and exciting one since I set out to write beautifully and to redeem my violin body and sound. Maintaining a day job as an educator has been fulfilling, but I’ve kept the day job to support the night job, in order to more deeply educate myself in the ways of art making and to enrich the spirit. If I’ve been a successful educator at the college, then it’s because I’ve persisted in educating myself in these challenging and deeply fulfilling ways and sharing the adventure, the spirit of the adventure, with my students.

Copyright 2018 by Rick Clark

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Eleven Unthunk Thoughts on Approaching Writing

This morning a friend and I met for breakfast with the intention of talking about writing. She’d like to dump the day job and take up a vocation she’s always loved but never fully pursued: yes, writing. Her father was a Hollywood writer and a novelist, so writing is in her blood. She has no illusions about writing; she’s simply reached that place in her life when the day job is growing old and she has the time and money to make a much-needed change. So I shared some of my approaches with her that have evolved out of years of writing, teaching writing, and publishing and thought I’d shape them up into paragraphs (adding a few thoughts unthunk till after breakfast) and share them here:

Every second is an opportunity to write: If you’re obsessed with your writing, your project, you’ll carry a field notebook or a voice recorder (smart phone works well). Ideas, memories, lines, and dialogue don’t wait to occur till you sit down officially to write, during the sanctioned period you’ve set aside for doing so. The best ideas and words often come when you least expect them. Be ready. I’ve “made note” in almost every setting or situation imaginable: the woods, at a concert, in the midst of an interesting or important conversation, while brushing my teeth, and upon waking. I’ll add that very often there’s more space for ideas to occur when you’re not in the mode of expecting something to happen, when you’re not sitting at the one and only writing desk between, say, ten and noon, when you’re not all boxed in spatially and temporally. I keep my voice recorder near to hand as I drive. My thumb knows where the record button is. I’ve produced hundreds of useful notes while driving.

Write every possible minute: I write every minute I can. People tend to think writing isn’t really a job. I’m always available to meet, to visit family, to help with a project when it’s convenient for them to do so, not necessarily when it’s convenient for me. But, ironically, this works for me. I’m not a time-structured person. I’m really quite flexible about when I write—and where I write, for that matter. I meet for coffee in the early morning, mid-morning, and even early afternoon on occasion. So how do I produce so much material, books, manuscripts, essays, blog entries, emails, etc.? Well, I write every chance I get, any time of the day, any day of the week. I can sit down for ten minutes and complete or start a writing or writing-related task. The beauty of starting such a task is that I’m anxious to get back to it when I have more time.

Write everything: I write everything of interest, applicability, and/or authenticity, not just material for the book or project at hand. I find I have time to do this. But this implies two things: one that I’m energized and flexible; and two that I know what my genres, subjects, and themes are. There’s a kind of obsessiveness connected with the former, that I don’t want to miss anything; and the latter has required that I’ve written so much and grouped and regrouped my writing so many times that I’ve come to know who I am, what I have to say, and how and in what form I need to say it. I’ve come to know that my strongest genres are poetry, memoir, and creative nonfiction, my subject matter travel (the journey), nature, mind, music, birds, ideas, and writing itself, and my forms are haiku, long-form poetry, journal-based memoir, and in general highly structured books. More recently I’ve found I love the detective work involved in doing ancestry research writing. I could never have come to know this much about my own writing tendencies if I hadn’t made the space for those tendencies to express themselves.

Mix it up: I write till I reach a point of fatigue, scatter-mindedness, and/or accomplishment, then get up and do some dishes, neaten the house a little, take care of a chore or an errand, walk, or sit in the woods. Within 15 minutes or an hour, I find when I sit back down in front of the computer I’m completely refreshed, with new material or a new course of action at the ready. I do some mental work, then some physical work, and then return to the mental work. I can sustain this mixed activity longer than if I concentrate on only one kind of activity. I also go back and forth between producing material and organizing material, between researching material and producing material, and between researching and organizing material. I use my fiddle to clear my mind and to find the rhythm and music in my writing; after all, making music and writing poetry are attached at the hips, according to the Greeks. After writing long paragraphs, I work on a haiku. The short informs the long, the long the short. Keep the interest fresh, the body alive for the mind.

Use email to generate material: I often use email and, to a lesser degree, texting and messaging to produce material—and, by expressing them, I explore my ideas. The strength in this is that I have an audience for my writing. I’m engaging a correspondent or correspondents at the other end of my email, which makes the writing real, authentic (and of course I’m staying on topic—because I’m obsessed!). I have a manuscript consisting of about 90% material from emails—the great American email! Also, more people know about my project and may want to buy my book. And often my email recipients have ideas, affirmations, and helpful questions. I have to keep in touch and email folks anyway, so why not tell them all about what matters to me, my writing project.

The present informs the past: I also assume that what’s going on around me might somehow be related to what I’m writing. I’m presently writing a book in which I have the opportunity to explore the parallels between my life and my once-unknown-grandfather’s life, at both the personal and historical levels. I needn’t just stay focused on my grandfather’s experiences and historical context, but suddenly what’s going on with me now and what’s coming over the radio may have some relevance to the book.

Writing like breathing: Writing is like breathing for me, as it should be, ideally. I have to admit it wasn’t always like this for me. But since I got comfortable with it, writing resembles breathing in many ways. Inhalations are like questions while exhalations are like answers. I have to do it to stay alive, or at least to keep the writer alive—the linguist, the storyteller, the explorer. But how does one get comfortable with writing? Well, mostly by doing it, and by getting to know oneself as a writer, as I mentioned above. But not just by doing it, but by doing it with few enough expectations as to leave an opening for authenticity of expression to occur. Read a lot. Emulate. Try new modes and styles of writing. Throw your sentences up in the air and see what they look like when they hit the ground. Don’t be precious about your writing. If you do, you’re probably stuck and just don’t know it.

Trust your mind: Trust the mind to work on your writing even when you’re engaged in other activities or while you’re sleeping. Sure, struggle with an idea or a sentence for a while, but then forget it. You will have left a hole or a question for the mind to fill or answer if you just give it a chance. Pressure can often shut down processes.

In us hide many stories: It’s been said that everyone has a story, and as a sailor, a bartender, a teacher in Japan, and a college professor, I’ve found this to be true. In fact, I think that we have within us more stories than we can write, if we can only realize this, hear the stories within us, hear the stories inside the stories or the stories growing out of stories (as in fan fiction). Around us are an infinity of subjects. Haiku poets know this and can write a successful haiku on a leaf falling unlike any other haiku on a leaf falling ever written. The problem is that we become inured to the world around us. The world is so present that eventually we shut it out; we don’t notice what’s going on. Virginia Woolf wrote a short piece called “The Mark on the Wall.” It’s about just that, a mark on the wall, and it’s quite well known.

Do not compare: Trouble begins when we compare ourselves with other writers, dead or alive. How many give up writing, saying, “ I’ll never write as well as so-and-so”? In the University of Washington Master of Fine Arts program, Rick Kenney instructed a poetry writing class called Imitations in which we imitated other styles, poets, and cultural forms. In my introductory letter to him I stated that I’ll never lose myself in another poet because I’m too anxious to express myself, to become the poet I must become. It’s very important to imitate and emulate in order to learn, but then move on. One of the most destructive forces on creativity and self-expression is the ego. Best to just grope along in the search for one’s authentic self.

Structure, structure, structure: Many aspiring writings have come to me with what for them is their number one problem or question: How do I structure my book? Virtually every book has “structure.” Chapters are structural devices. Beginnings, middles, and ends are aspects of structure (they may also be aspects of plot). Structure has more to do with the physical arrangement, organization, or flow of material (which may nevertheless have everything to do with content and story), while plot pertains to conflict and resolution. Plot is generally an element of fiction, although it may be present in memoir. Therefore, it’s probably best, for the moment, to think about structure in memoir, (creative) nonfiction, and poetry. Memoirs are generally delineated by chronology; nonfiction by the various elements of the subject in some logical order; and poetry by stanzas, line breaks, patterns of rhythm and rhyme, various forms of repetition, etc. I find that thinking about structure early in the process of writing a book aids both the production and consumption of the book. If I have small sections or chapters, I can knock off two or three a day, tick them off on the abacus, and sleep deeply that night. It’s comforting, measurable piecework. It’s easy to reorganize as I go, to change the order of sections and chapters. I keep my mind clear this way, as it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by so many ideas and materials. This goes for the reader, as well. Structure is major means of producing clarity. You can use bolded subheadings early in the writing game and then remove the headings later. My breakfast friend mentioned she likes to use outlines in order to structure and organize her writing. I can’t tell you how many of my students from my college teaching days thanked me for insisting they produce and hand in outlines in advance of their drafts. Many professional writers admit they sketch out a little word-map and stick to it to the end. Yet a word-map isn’t set in stone, is it? There is no stone, only words.

Mystic and Membrane: Vicissitudes of Language

Words are strange sound symbols we can’t live with and can’t live without. They are and aren’t. They bridge us over to one another and block our way. We forever hazard mistaking word for object, solidifying a word or idea into a specific form or image, making us forget that the universe is forever changing and words today don’t mean what they meant yesterday or what they’ll mean tomorrow—let alone in a thousand years. Words are life rings to which we cling; attire with which we clothe our psychic bodies; weapons, shields, and armor with which we go into daily battle.

Sicilian Water Skippers

When language falls away, like a veil or mist, we’re faced with the naked world around us, harsh and beautiful. To arrive at pure presence in pure reality, bursting through the membranes of our delusions (to suggest Zen satori here), if such an achievement is possible, is to have undertaken the longest, most difficult journey to a place that, ironically, is all around and within us.

Language may be the most troublesome membrane we grapple with in an effort to break through to reality. Thus mystics, poets, and metaphors are born. The mystic-poet who merges with or intuits the deep nature of reality then returns to tell about it, may return with words that merely allude to the experience, thus pointing more to the mind of the mystic than to ultimate reality. The mystic may still be tainted or inspired by it, but once the mystic poet begins to place words one after the other, during later moments of inspiration, new experiences occur and new realities are born.

Language is perhaps our most dangerous friend, since new collections of words may subvert our experience of reality. Still, such language, regardless of its failure to take us to the heart of an exclusive reality, may seduce us into strange, beautiful, soul-altering experience and enliven us in a potentially mind-deadening world. As long as words—tough, inspiriting, slippery words—take us to new and challenging places, our picture of reality deepens and expands. Reality depends on us to make sound symbol journeys into the intimate body of the unknown.

Copyright 2018 by Rick Clark (previously published in CORRelations: Newsletter of Center for Object Relations)

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.

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

Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety

Many aspiring writers feel insecure about what they view as their ability to write. In other words, they often let their concern with matters of style and mechanics dominate the issues that hold them back. But what wannabe writers often have, instead, is motivation issues that they interpret as an inability to write fabulous sentences, paragraphs, images, and dialogue. The fact that these aspirants to the craft want to write, say they want to write, and say they have fabulous projects to pursue makes it clear that at bottom they’re motivated to write, but they get caught in a vicious circle that cripples their taking the necessary action to overcome their anxieties.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

It’s important that novice writers come to honestly understand what their motivations for writing are. Many claim they write for themselves, as if the act were strictly private and not public. These writers often say they don’t read other writers because they don’t want to be influenced by them. They tend to think they exist in an isolated vacuum, as if they make up the language, the forms known as sentences and paragraphs—even the literary forms: story, poem, essay, reflection, etc. As if they’d never heard a story till they wrote one themselves!

Writing, sleeping.

Writing, sleeping.

Other writers seek fame. Some want to strike it rich. Others feel they have a story they just have to tell. Others, still, want to change the world. Yet others simply love the language, the possibilities of words. Some want to write to understand themselves, to use writing to explore the psyche. For them, writing is therapeutic. In other words, there are a number of reasons writers write or want to write. Beginning writers, writers setting our on their first journey undertaking a big project, a full length book, should have a clear sense of why they want to write and how important it is in the context of their lives. It can be as simple as this: “I just love to write.”

Loves taking on the bear!

Loves taking on the bear!

Some writing aspirants are actually good writers of sentences and paragraphs, descriptions and dialogue, because they already write routinely in their work or in diaries or journals. They’ve written decent sentences and paragraphs all their lives and described places and replicated dialogue without a second thought, either aloud or in emails to friends and family. More than likely, they’ve gotten good grades on papers they’ve written in school. In other words, they’re probably readier to take on their big dream project than they know.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Probably the greatest stumbling block to pumping out material for a full-length collection of short stories, novel, or memoir is time management. Translate as “life” management. Working parents who have children, non-parents who work overtime or give their all to their careers, students who have tests to study for and papers to write—all put these important areas of their life first, of course. But they often use their life commitments as excuses not to take on a pursuit they view as not only valuable and attractive but also as difficult and time-consuming. They pit the day job against the dream work rather than find a way to do both. Kids become an excuse not to write.

Too young!

Too young!

What these writer dreamers have to do, then, is make a slot of time available every day during which they write assiduously and relentlessly—without exception. If they produce 50 words in one hour a day, they can finish a full-length book every two or three years, a good output for any writer.

Another stumbling block for neophyte novelists and memoirists is the concern with perfection. No writer spills out perfect prose on the first stab with a pencil. Shaping and smoothing sentences is an ongoing process, both within the context of a growing book but also in the context of one’s whole writing life. Prose writers, some would say even poets, should write stream of consciousness first then return to fixing and improving sentences (and lines) later. Best to get a body of material down on paper or in a document file to trifle with when the mood for tinkering strikes. Best to return to raw material when the eyes are fresh. There’s a time to create, a time to revise, and a time to proof.

And a time to pull the scalpel!

And a time to pull the scalpel!

Another major hang-up for writers is a most persistent anxiety: whether what the writer has to write is really worth reading. Is there a story here? Is this life really worth writing about? Is it interesting? Is the verbiage compelling enough to draw a reader in and keep the reader reading? What these writers don’t realize is that the average successful writer doesn’t lead any more interesting a life than anyone else. They can’t: They’re too busy writing. They simply have an eye (or ear), the drive, the follow-through, and the ultimate concern with detail to write fascinating or at least engaging books. They believe in the possibility, they discipline themselves to the act, and then they make the necessary contacts to see a project through.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

On top of setting aside an hour a day to write, to do nothing else but write, to write no matter what, inspired new writers need to establish short-range, attainable goals they can reach in a single writing session or in no longer than a week. Such daily or weekly goals might include writing an opening, a descriptive paragraph or section, or an important piece of dialogue, working up transitions, catching up on any necessary research, reworking the outline, researching and contacting agents, designers, and publishers, or doing general organization of files and folders.

But the real key to writing full-length pieces, in this fragmented rush that is our world today, is producing a carefully thought-out, frequently reworked chapter, section, scene, or paragraph outline. Once a writer has a relatively tight plan or program for working from day to day, the book begins to write itself. No more staring blankly at a white (or yellow) piece of paper or new document staring back—for not knowing what to write. Hang the to-do list from a shelf or lay it to one side on the desk. By making each task small enough, a writer can finish one task in a single day’s session—in a couple days at most. It’s also a good idea to make separate documents and files for each paragraph, section, or chapter for the sake of organization and efficiency.

Thus, it makes sense to structure a first book using short chapters or using longer chapters that break down into short, clearly delineated sections or scenes. Some non-fiction books can be broken down into categories with bold subheadings or by chronological occurrence and date. Once a writer gets going and finds a fluid voice, the book begins to spill out like milk from a carton, weighted at the pouring end by the pouring itself.

Jesting the bear.

Jesting the bear.

The best way to think about the drafting, revising, and proofing stages is to think big first and small last. Pump out too much material, if necessary, then whittle back to the best content and sentences. Revising means adding, subtracting, and rewriting whole chunks of language, making drastic changes, and making them with fearless sagacity. Proofing involves tinkering and playing with details that can enhance the reading experience. But proofing—spelling, for example—isn’t what makes a writer. Producing abundances of material first is what first makes a writer.

Once a writer faces the bear, he or she can usually wrestle it to the ground and pin it. If it takes pinning a bear to the ground to survive as a writer, then the writer must pin the bear to the ground.

Remember, the mind, the brain, isn’t all that writes. The whole being of the self writes. Write with the body. The body holds the whole story, the whole song—not just a few brain cells. The hands become the givers of the language, the verbal pictures, and the voices to the paper or screen. The hands know everything. Even the pen contains thoughts and moments of the world within. Trust to the body and the pen. Make the hand, the pen—the very ink—assiduous, relentless, effusive. Leave it to the mind to keep the hand moving, the ink flowing, the words appearing as if by magic.

The bear has much to teach.

The bear has much to teach.