Writing From the Center
The Noble Truths About Writing
At the end of January, ten writers attended our annual “Just Write” retreat. This weekend event provides time to sit in a quiet space and write – or think about writing. We gathered around the “Four Noble Truths of Writing” created by writer and Buddhist priest, Gail Sher:
- Writers write.
- Writing is a process.
- You don't know what you're writing will be until the end of the practice.
- If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write.
After discussions of technique, topic, form, and genre, a writer needs to just get at the doing of writing. Approaching it as a process sets one free from agonizing over a product. Of course, the writer wants to move inspired ideas into text, but the process is fundamentally one of discovery. An idea rambling around your mind looks different once you start to give it expression. Not everything you write will be golden. For instance, I have with pages of poems that will never see the light of day. Each one, however, was an invitation to pay attention, to look out of the corner of my eye, or to stop and be dazzled. My only real failure is when I am too busy, too distracted, too lazy to explore what I am thinking and find words for it.
The writers attending the recent retreat generated their own convictions about the writing process. I call them “Other Noble Truths” and build on them to offer some insights into the writing process.
The hardest part is getting started.
Sometimes we spend more time fretting about not writing than actually doing it. For this reason, even five minutes of nonstop writing about whatever is on your mind can breakdown internal resistance. It is like to thinking about exercise versus walking around the block three times.
I don’t know what I am thinking until I write it down (Joan Didion).
Finding words to give shape and depth to an idea as you write is exhilarating, if you are alert and open to discovering what it is you are trying to say.
Be open to experiment.
We are schooled in certain forms, work with certain rules, influenced by others. Sometimes, though, we need to try a fresh approach to a topic. Poets, for example, might write an essay or short story. Or writers who have never composed a poem transform a story line into short lines with rich captivating metaphors.
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
This truth is from Mary Oliver, a poet who witnessed its power in her own work. Her poems can be seemingly simple yet what she show us often leaves us breathless. As you cultivate a spirit of wonder, you begin to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Finding words captures the experience.
There is nothing to writing. Just sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
This quote from Ernest Hemmingway reminds us that, as with any disciplined practice, results comes at a cost. We get stuck, discouraged, even lost. We doubt ourselves and grapple with our insecurities and distractibility. Still, the only way to fail as Gail Sher has said, is not to write.
If you write, the emotions will come.
Conviction and passion are driving forces in all forms of writing. Emotion is not the same as excessive emoting. Writing creates human connections with readers by naming what unites us across our differences. The emotional element in our writing invites a reader to feel with us an experience that left us amazed, confused, humbled, encouraged, or baffled.
Start with particular details.
Details around an idea define the context in which that idea dwells. Details create a lush palette from which to “tell our story.” At the same time, while details are essential for sharing with readers what it is you experienced, too many details can overwhelm the reader - and your point.
Buy a timer.
Should a committed writer spend an hour a day writing? Will a half-hour do? How about writing every day? Setting a false standard can impede your developing a practice tailored to your circumstances. Sometimes it helps to set a timer for five or ten minutes and write as fast as you can. When the bell rings, stop. Go get coffee or take a walk or get on with your day. The objective is to work your writing muscles and release the words stacking up in your brain. You can return later to what you wrote to see if there are any nuggets. Hint: You often will.
If you get stuck, change your pen, paper, instrument, or the place you are writing.
Writers often comment that some of their best first draft are on napkins, the blank side of a flier, or in the margins of a book they are reading. Creating rituals of practice around writing give it a reverenced place in your life. At the same time, if you get stuck, change things up.
Know when it is time to end.
I worked on a poem for fifteen years that recounted a memorable experience. Every time it surfaced, it underwent revision. In its last outing, a writing friend gave me some hard-to-hear feedback, wondering what my point was. His comments and suggestions, while they stung a bit, took the poem where it needed to be. This was a happy outcome. My other choice would have been to let the poem go. When something doesn’t work, recognize it. Move on. Be grateful for the time you spent with it, but don’t count it a failure that you cannot make it golden. You have other ideas to pursue, other insights to develop. Your writing horizon is always before you.
I am grateful to my retreat colleagues for their noble truths and take full responsibility for how I developed each one. The point of offering them in this essay is to underscore that writing is not a mysterious process limited to those with nearly divine gifts. Everyone has something to say. Everyone can benefit from writing out how they are thinking. In the process we discover something for ourselves. And every so often, we are able to say - as only we can - something someone else needs to read.