The process of writing is endlessly fascinating. It is also urgent and takes us into mindspaces that witnesses to the human condition. Moreover, the writing life and its most profound creative processes provide perfect metaphors for life in general.
In a previous post I talked about Margaret Atwood’s metaphor of ‘negotiating with the dead’, how writers take on a whole line of past writers, dare to travel to the underworld and bring back treasure for our own times. As Atwood says:
The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — …the realm of the readers, the realm of change.
Previously, I considered sources of inspiration — from the air we breath, to the past, to everyday experiences. But once we have that whiff of inspiration, how do we proceed?
The technical answers to that question are legion. Are you a writer who does chapter summaries, book outlines, and flow charts of plot? Do you write detailed character studies and then begin to se how your characters react to particular situations? do you know where your book will end or is it as much a surprise to you as it will be to your readers?
There are excellent books on developing craft, such as Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, but what about the more elusive questions of process?
1. Where are you?
No matter how certain you are that your writing is the farthest it is possible to be from autobiographical, you are in your writing. This is Walt Whitman in his journal:
Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself.
This is not the simplistic adage ‘write what you know’. It is not saying that all writing is confessional, but it is a call to do work that is authentic. What you write reflects your passions, your values, the way you perceive and relate to the world.
In On Poetry, Glyn Maxwell takes this further, claiming, with evolutionary psychologists, that what we find aesthetically pleasing are
what makes life possible.
…Art, drawing, writing, poetry — are marks made in time by that gazing creature.
When you face the white space and begin to make marks on it as a writer, these are vital and enormous decisions. This is a physical act of creation and you are bound up in it.
This is where white goes black, where person becomes poem, where the ears of time prick up — It knows battle’s been rejoined.
When you write you are breaking the silence, filling the void. You are embodying idea in language and in doing so you make yourself visible and vulnerable. As soon as you make a mark, you are signalling a human presence, no matter how disguised.
2. Who are you listening to?
John Berger tells us:
…unlike what most people think, storytelling does not begin with inventing, it begins with listening.
Writing is about paying attention. When we write, we don’t just show up at the desk, we focus on the work that is present, on the person or place we are writing. We listen.
3. What are your myths?
The psychologist, D Stephenson Bond has warned that society is currently ‘falling out of myth’. Rapid changes in environment and culture demand that we find new myths that sustain us as individuals, giving us internal experiences that are beyond culture. But if the forms are new, the archetypes tend to reappear across time and each of us is likely to reflect particular myths in our writing process.
Myth, Tolkien argues, is not invented, but is true. He describes it as
a sudden glimpse of underlying reality
Myth gives form to symbols. In the words of Russell Lockhart,
rendering the numinous visible.
Myths bring narrative cohesion to life. As Daniel Goleman points out:
personal myth … explains the meaning and goals of … lives.
4. How deep is your trust?
In ‘A Matter of Trust’ Ursula K Le Guin notes how there is a preliminary stage in writing when the mind is like a hunting cat not yet sure what it’s looking for.
Then comes the trance-like, selfless, rather terrifying, devouring work or play of composition.
We wait on the imagination. Bond puts it even more strongly, arguing that when we trample the imagination, strip-mining it to serve the ego so that we can deliver the next the next hook, the next bland workshop, the next plan for success, then it is akin to an act of intellectual assault. What we need is dive deeper; revering our life and vitality rather than ‘mining’ it for its usefulness.
In creative work we have to respect the rhythms of the creative process. We have to trust the story, let it find itself rather than conceiving it for a purpose (whether to teach, preach or make money). To do otherwise is both a lack of reverence and a failure of trust.
Of course, writing witnesses and convinces but it can do this without manipulation if we trust it. When we start to think of a story in utilitarian terms we limit and deaden it.
5. How do you connect?
Story enlarges our understanding of other individuals and of community. Le Guin tells us:
Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion.
Readers make the story happen so at some stage of the process we need to think about them. There are so many ways in which writing does this. Sometimes it grabs readers by the throat, convulses them as though they are its victims. But is that necessary?
There’s a wide margin between forgeting and ignoring your readers at one of the spectrum and having designs on them or projecting onto them at the other end. Readers can be active, intelligent collaborators. Limpid prose and precise poetry can seduce a reader into participating in imagination. It’s a dance in which writers and readers are partners, not a mugging. It’s the simplicity of E M Forster’s
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.
We need to think about our audience as people. They are real human beings with particular lives, ages, concerns. They are not ‘types’ or ‘markets’. They are not waiting to buy your ‘brand’, but to make a connection, to be what they want to become.
6. What do you need?
Le Guin’s answer to that question is:
All you need is enough to live on and space to write.
It’s reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
But I like Le Guin’s qualification of ‘enough’ and ‘space’. It might mot be much money, as long as it’s enough to get by. It might be only a corner of a room, as long as it’s a space in which you can both lose and find yourself, a space from where you can listen and visit with the dead.
You need an environment sufficient to give you permission to write in flow and in white heat and in the trance.
- You need an eagle eye to stand back and see where the beauty is and where the ugly, clunking bits are pulling at your work.
- You need the humility to be willing to take apart, to start again, to revise with your sharpest faculties tuned in.
- And you need a student’s mind when you hand it over to a trusted editor, not to accept changes to your voice, but to see your work from another perspective and dig deep in response.
In writing and in life we need:
- Enough beauty to make life possible
- To know who we are and act authentically
- The ability to listen, not just to show up but to focus, attend: LISTEN
- A sensibility to the numinous and the stories that make it visible
- A great deal of imagination
- Trust in the process rather than trying to control every outcome
- Empathy and community, a willingness to connect
- Enough to live on, enough space to create and be
- An environment that gives you permission
- A mind willing to reflect deeply and make changes
- The humility to always be students
- The patience to start again and again
When we have these qualities, in writing and in life, then we can negotiate with the dead. We dare to enter the depths of the underworld and return with treasure. As Atwood puts it:
Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.
Becoming a Different Story
Thank you for reading becoming a different story — if you want to learn more about working on creativity and the writing life, sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. You can also find out about my forthcoming writing courses at https://janfortune.com/ or email me @ email@example.com. Or just feel free to continue the conversation here on Medium.