Writing from the Center: Wisdom for Putting It In Words
I am convinced that writing from the center of who we are requires time and companionship. In that spirit, we recently held a weekend retreat for writers. The invitation was to come into the embrace of the monastery with a single focus: to sit at a desk and write. Nine writers participated. Over the weekend I convened participants for a conversation and the assigned them in pairs to exchange offering feedback on their writing projects.
One of the best parts of any retreat like this for me is to meet individually with each writer and to hear about their writing practices. We discuss other questions or issues they raise, but for me my deepest learning is listening to the ways in which they create memorable ideas. At the close of the retreat, we gather a final time, and I invite participants to name something they know about the process of writing. What follows are the ideas the retreatants raised up. I have used them as a launch point for a bit of commentary, uniting their insights and my views on what writing requires.
Just write. The good, the bad, the ugly. Write it all.
Too often we back ourselves into a corner, waiting for perfection to flow from our fingertips. Sometimes perfection does flow, but most often our writing is experimental. Like all experiments, some fail. Sometimes, however, we discover something we hadn’t set out to find. What matters is our willingness and effort to experiment, taking on an idea and trying to give it imaginary form as we withhold judgment of its worth.
Be easy about writing – trust in yourself.
We create standards of what really good writing is and too often fall short of them. There is nothing wrong with having standards or aspiring to them as long as we also realize that we are continually in process as writers. We will have success and we will fail – falling down, getting up, falling down, and getting up. Embrace the process and your willingness to take on the challenge.
The blank page is all possibility.
When we sit down to write, the page/screen is blank. The emptiness can be intimidating. But what if we did some self-talk, reminding ourselves that in this moment of encounter with blankness we are opening ourselves to discovering where an idea is leading – even if it comes out in fits and starts?
Writing helps a person understand themselves more.
The written word takes all the internal mulling we do and gives it physical form. We begin to “see” our reflection a bit more objectively, certainly with greater attention to how it fits together or is an odd collection of contradictory thoughts. Writing allows us to sort and winnow, to see in a story, poem or essay a pathway we might otherwise not have seen. Once noticed, we can follow it with a greater sense of appreciation for where it might lead.
Taking classes helps; so does time spent with other writers.
Writing is a solitary act. At the same time, there is a definite place for studying technique, gathering ideas about the structures of writing and the disciplines of your chosen form. The same is true for opportunities to gather with other writers. Sharing what you know, hearing what they know, pooling your ideas, practices, insights, questions, and frustrations can energize you to return to your writing place with a greater sense of being part of a larger movement.
Respect other writers.
Almost every writer struggles in some way or another. Every writer feels frustration, experiences self-doubt, and has to stare down writer’s block. Conversations among writers should be kindled by a deep respect for the common vocation in which they all participate. This is true whether they are accomplished and published or if they are just beginning to get their legs as a writer.
Writing is like water – it finds its own way.
Some writers do a thorough outline of what they want to write. Sometimes larger projects demand that sort of forethought. Even then, there is something enchanting about giving up total control of what you write and allowing the poem, story, or essay to lead you. That is, as an idea unfolds pay attention to where it surprises you with alternate meanings or begs you to explore an aspect only skimmed over. You are always the master of what you write, but allowing the writing to flow may take you where you most need to go.
Writing takes purposefulness.
Wishing to write and actually writing are bridged by purposefulness. It finds expression in identifying a practice you can manage given everything else you need to know. It is developing the discipline to stay at the practice until it becomes a habit. It means taking an occasional workshop, joining a writing group, exploring the zillions of web resources, or scheduling a writing day at the Benedictine Center. If you want to write, make it your purpose.
Reimagine the use of time and how much it requires doing “something.”
This is a corollary of purposefulness. No one develops a writing practice without lassoing her or his time management. Even fifteen minutes a day requires time – taking time when it is the scarcest commodity you have. Most practicing writers (i.e. those with a discipline) say that when you commit to dedicating “some time” for writing, it is amazing how it fits with what else presses upon you.
There is value in self-chatter.
Writing ultimately results in words on a page. Getting there, though, may require (and benefit) from talking out aloud an idea or issue or question. Muttering to oneself has a way of hearing what it is you are thinking about. And hearing has its own level of clarifying what it is that is nipping at your creative heels.
Sometimes the way to deal with writer’s block is to write about it.
Walking about the house lamenting that you can’t find anything to write about or that an idea just won’t come is one way of dealing with writer’s block. A more proactive approach is to write what it feels like to be up against the wall. What does it smell like? What animal forms does it take? What are the crannies and crevices where writer’s block lurks? Have fun (yes fun) with describing the frustration and pay attention to what happens. Once you have purged yourself of the lament, you are often more readily open to the first line of a very promising poem or paragraph.
Let yourself be intrigued by a word, a phrase, an idea – and then mull over it.
The more you pay attention, the more you notice. And the more you notice, the more inspirations you have for your writing. You read something in a novel and are struck at how the author grabbed you and held your attention. Why was that? What did she say? Or you may be walking down your favorite path and see something you have never seen before, suddenly are struck by an idea that rises up from the passing scenery. Whatever it is that strikes your fancy, seize it. Rehearse it in your mind, write it down in your idea book. Let it gestate as you go about your days until at some point it leads you to your writing book or laptop and you begin to let it reveal what it means.
What these ideas about writing offer are ways to engage your own reflection on what it is you do and want to do when it comes to writing. Know what gives you pleasure. Understand where you resist. And be purposeful in laying claim to the call you feel as a writer to “put it in words.”