How Deep Are You Willing to Go?

“Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean.” — Christopher Reeve

Saturday I taught my semi-annual class, Writing From the Inside Out. Teaching reminds me of all the things I forget between classes. I have to review the materials, especially the rules of writing practice I learned from Natalie Goldberg, and be awake enough to explain them to other people.

We had an splendid mix of novelists, poets, lyricists, memoirists, and children’s book authors. They asked interesting questions and each contributed to the conversation. One woman lamented that the in-class writing practice was taking her places she didn’t want to go. This gave me the opportunity to talk about Natalie’s suggestion to “go for the jugular” meaning to dive into the dark scary places that come up.

The reason for this “rule” is simple. Those unwanted memories lie below the surface whether we write about them or not. You wind up writing around them. Either they crowd out the more important things you want to say or, more often, they are the important things you need to say. That’s where the heat is, the juice of the writing. If we don’t at least acknowledge these dark places, they fester and interrupt the writing flow. Better to get them out in the open and shred or burn the writing practice later if you must, than let these unspoken truths suppress our writing dreams.

My writing is no different. In my current book project, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I had to face some dark places in my mental health journey in order to show how much running has done for me. There was no hiding. To do so would have cheated both the reader and myself.

Are you willing to go out in the ocean with your writing? How deep are you willing to dive to pursue your dreams?

Daydreaming

“Every exceptional writer holds a Master of Arts in Daydreaming.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich

Daydreaming gets a bad rap. In our culture, if your mind wanders, you are labeled lazy and unproductive, two of the worst things you can be called.

In her Tedx Talk Rosanne Bane, author of Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, explains the importance of daydreaming.

Bane confirms that writers and other creative types need to daydream. Daydreaming is a different mind process from focusing on tasks. Daydreaming allows parts of the brain to connect that don’t normally talk to each other during a task-oriented focus.

Bane suggests allowing yourself to daydream while you’re standing in line at a store or other times when you might normally stare at your smartphone. I’d add meditation and writing practice to the mix.

In meditation, while sitting quietly attempting to focus on your breath, the mind is bound to wander because that’s what minds do. They generate thoughts. Meditation is inherently creative. Ideas pop into the mind and solutions arise that can’t be force by trying to focus on the problem.

Writing practice produces similar results. If you keep the hand moving and write down whatever thoughts arise, that too feels like daydreaming except the hand is recording it as it flows. Many conclusions come during writing practice.

Do you allow yourself to daydream? As writers, we owe ourselves what some might call this “guilty pleasure.” If someone says you’re dawdling, direct him to Rosanne Bane’s Tedx Talk. Explain how deep daydreaming leads to realizations. Daydreaming is part of the writer’s job!

Writing Practice: One Way to Write

“The calm mind allows one to connect with the inner self . . . the very source of our being. That’s where the music lives. That’s where my music comes from.” – Clarence Clemons

Writing practice is one way to write. It is so much more than mere “practice.” Even when I am working on a project, part of me is doing writing practice. I write much of my work in short spurts of timed writing. I am in the pressure cooker. It is a way to keep going for the short run and also for the long haul. It is a way to not think too much about what is next. It is a way to move on.

Writing practice calms the mind. Similar to meditation, it’s a way to observe the mind. In writing practice, thoughts download and the mind flashes on the way it first captures something. You make connections using writing practice that you might not make with the rational mind.

In writing practice, you don’t question. You don’t judge. You don’t ask what is next. You pick the topic and go. And so it’s a way to get unstuck. You just go. But you keep the place you want to land in the corner of your mind. You head away from it, but since you have it in the corner of your mind, you will wind up there. It’s the same reason they tell you in driver’s education not to look at the headlights of oncoming cars. If you do, you’ll wind up driving right into someone else. Your hands will follow your eyes turning the wheel ever so slightly and you’ll risk a head on collision.

But in writing practice, you use that reflex to your advantage. Say I want to write about Morgan, our yellow Labrador, but I don’t just want to write, “Morgan is a dog. He is yellow, gold and copper.” Instead, I’ll start writing about the weather, about how dry it is and how the trees are wilting and how it makes me sad. Eventually, I will begin to write about how Morgan is responding to the weather. His coat is dry and he drinks so much more water than in a regular year and how I have to take care not to run with him when it is too hot and that I must carry extra water for him so he doesn’t get dehydrated on our runs.

And then I will write about how sad I am that he ages so much more quickly than we humans and how I am afraid for the day he will die because, since I love him so in the present, I will miss him so desperately when he is gone.

And I might notice how easily my mind spins into the future and into fear and how the only solution is meditation or, with writing, writing practice, because it brings us back to the present moment where Morgan is right here, next to my feet, breathing steadily in a dream-filled sleep, his paws vibrating ever so slightly.

That is how it works. You move seamlessly from one thing to another. Or sometimes, not so seamlessly. But you move anyway following the mind’s natural rhythm. It’s the way the mind moves and even if the segues seem awkward in writing practice, when we go back to edit, they make sense.

The mind always takes some time to settle. That’s what writing practice lets us do as well. It gives the mind a chance to settle naturally. The mind is like a jar filed with rocks, water and sand. You shake it up and it becomes murky and you can’t see the rocks. All you see is brown sludge in the jar. And when you set the jar down on the table, you can’t make it settle. You can’t pound the jar on the table or move it around to make it settle. It won’t settle that way. You have to wait. You have to let gravity do its thing.

Eventually, the water will begin to clear. The sand will sink to the bottom and, in time, the rocks will drop and the sand will drop around them and the water will turn clear again and you will be able to see it all. But it has to have its own process. It has to have its own time. That’s what you do in writing practice. You keep your hand moving as things settle. You let the mind settle and the water will rise to the top as the sand and rocks drop away. The things that obstruct your view will fall, sifting to the bottom of the jar and you will be left with the clear water. Your view will be universal.

Those are a few ways I use writing practice. If you use writing practice, I’d love to hear how you use it. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Back to Basics

“Do not be afraid of going slowly, only of standing still.” – Chinese proverb

One foot in front of the other. That’s what I can do right now. Depression has been my companion for many years. It sat nearby, often in the chair beside me. Recently, it slid over and climbed onto my body like a dark cloak. Not the magic kind. I walk through the world with it hanging from my shoulders. I walk slowly, but I will not stand still.

In the meantime, I’ve gone back to the basics of pure writing practice with a touch of technology. My friend Wendy and I skype write. Wendy is at the core of my writing. She is one of two women I discovered writing and reading aloud to each other in Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in August of 1996 when I returned from my first workshop with Natalie Goldberg. They let me join their little group and she and I have written together at different times since. She and writing practice bring me back to the ground of my being.

At an appointed time one of us initiates the video call. I pick a topic. She sets a timer. We write. The timer goes off with a sound like the barking of a dog. I smile. As she reads, I close all the other windows on my computer so I can listen and watch her face. Her words fill me. I thank her, but do not comment. Then I open the document and read only the words on the page, mistakes and all, without explanations or disclaimers. She says, “Thank you.” Then I pick another topic and we do it again. Over and over and over. It is simple and healing and perfect for this slow time in my life.

What does your writing look like when life takes you down a notch or seven? I’d love to hear about it.

Screaming on the Page

“[T]he one thing I want for you is to recognize when you are really singing in writing practice and honor that. Trust that. When you were screaming on the page. Maybe that doesn’t make a whole book but that is the true seed.” – Natalie Goldberg

Sometimes I see what Natalie’s talking about in a student in my class. A writer entranced in her work leans forward, pen scribbling, face intent. Strong nouns and active verbs spew from her pen. And when she reads, it’s the same thing. The look on her face shows she is surprised at how good it is, how apt the phrasing, how appropriate the descriptions are to the situation. She looks up, amazed at what came from her heart and onto the page.

She’s not thinking when she writes from that place. It’s beyond thought. It’s just fingers and images. There’s nothing in between, no separation between what she sees in her mind and how the words flow onto the page.

Sometimes it feels clunky as she writes it. Sometimes it is fluid. She never knows which it will be until she reads. The brain is a great trickster. It wants her to be confused. The brain knows, but is afraid for her. It wants her to stay far from the fire inside. It wants to protect her, but in doing so, it shields her from her own great power.

The brain will try to nullify the words before they can be spoken. It will reprimand even as the hand keeps moving across the page and the words wind out in long sinewy rows looping and lilting without regard to the lines. The heart remembers how. It knows what it’s like to be free on the page. It knows how to open a throat and let it howl until the sound reaches the paper.

And so the key, still, decades after Natalie first said it, is the same. Keep your hand moving. Keep your hand moving. Keep your hand moving.

Do you remember what it feels like to scream on the page? Have you ever sung in writing practice? I’d love to hear about it.

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