>One of the writing paths I follow is influenced by Zen Buddhism as interpreted by Natalie Goldberg, whose Writing Down the Bones woke me up to writing truth out of experience, without allowing the judging mind to intercede. Fueled by mindfulness practice, this type of writing requires awareness of the immediacy of lived experience. It’s free to be exactly what it is: from the minutiae to the expansive but writing it doesn’t mean only repetition of lifeless facts. Creation is involved.
Creation is, of course, a beginning, but it’s only recently that I’ve actually let that sink in after years of struggling with the act of beginning. It’s easy to not begin, to not sit down and do the work, to avoid it in favor of the vacuuming. Many who have written about writing, from Dorothea Brande to Anne Lamott, have already said this. Yet the beginning – and not just the beginning of a story or poem, but the actual beginning of the day’s creation no matter where you are in the project – is the hardest part. Rituals are helpful tools, like on-ramps to a freeway that allow no exit, that solidify your commitment to travel. They can be applied across disciplines and to suit your needs. For example, in The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp has written about her daily ritual of getting up and dressed and hailing a taxicab. The hailing of the taxicab sets her in motion to spend two hours exercising at a gym. She says:
First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up and stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, “Gee, do I feel like working out today?” But the quasi- religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.
It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but the size of patterns of behavior — at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, are going the wrong way.
There’s a reason I say on my profile page that I’m “beginning (again) with writing practice” and that’s because creativity is made up of beginnings – the most challenging thing ever. But all I have to do is start. Something always follows. Obsessing about it, ignoring it, avoiding it and postponing it are all impediments to recognizing the fact that creative activity is made up of a million beginnings.
So far this year, my ritual is to go to the library. That’s worked well for me in the past and it seems to be very helpful this time around too. Once I’m at the library I feel I’ve entered productive space, that it’s a place to be quiet and focused and since I’m not interested in checking out more books (in deference to the pile next to my bedside), I only have what I’ve brought with me to keep me occupied. Unpacking the backpack and setting up the table space clears the field and reminds me of what I’m doing, what I want to pay attention to. Then I do the same with the writing: pay attention.
Author Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes,
“I begin with what is, and I am surprised as I write to feel my way into a wholeness, finding connections that are created as I write, stumbling across insights that remind me of what matters and allow me to simply be with what is. The Danish writer, Isak Dinesen wrote, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.” Stories, songs, images help us be with what is.
I am reminded, through her words, why it is important to keep starting, to keep starting over if necessary, but just to start, each day, by paying attention:
We create as a way to be with what is hard and beautiful and unexpected without closing our hearts or pretending something else is true…And as we create we make it all – the sorrow and the joy, the failed efforts and the places of ease – count. Our stories and images and sounds create, explicate, or point to a deeper meaning that helps us receive, celebrate, and be fed by beauty and bear what is hard.
A friend in my writing groups said last week: “So much cannot be known, as Story is creating itself.” And I understood too that we are meaning, being made, as much as we are trying to find the meaning.
In the process of working on the G.O.T.S. project (which I am, though it didn’t manifest during NaNo), I’ve been aware of how the writing demands something of me, requires that I be open to the ways it can shape me, even as I try to understand the ways it wants to be shaped.
George recently shared an excerpt from Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner and this sentiment is relevant here. He’s writing about literature in this sentence, but the excerpt opens up to include all art. Buechner writes:
From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention….In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.
So in spite of some stray thoughts that would like to demand that my writing fulfill certain objectives (all related to utilitarian things), that I remember to “be productive” and try to be “successful,” I’m finding there’s a rich undercurrent that is impervious, disconnected from all that and that it’s this undercurrent that makes writing and creative work the absolutely necessary thing it is.
G.O.T.S. progresses slowly becauseof its progress. In some ways it is itself because of the inner work I’ve done in the past year. And the inner work, bolstered by readings, by exploratory writing, with feeling my way along a heart-centered path, is what will allow the project to take the form it needs in the time it needs. It is made of little beginnings and each next step and the next one after that, every whole joining others, forming a connected, beginingless whole.