The Art of Writing | 1

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Not long ago I watched a writing workshop on DVD presented by writer and cultural historian Richard Tarnas at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Tarnas is the author of The Passion of the Western Mind, a best-selling narrative history of Western thought, and Cosmos and Psyche. Since writing (and writing well) have been on my mind lately, I thought I’d share some of what he taught.

Tarnas presented after writer and actor John Cleese, opening his workshop with a reading of slam poet Taylor Mali’s Totally like whatever, you know?” Mali is a wonderful poet, and it’s especially fun to watch him perform his own work. However, Tarnas did a masterful job reading this poem—his delivery was perfect.

this writer’s awakening

Tarnas spent his 20s as a musician and believed that he would use his creative voice through music. Though he had completed a degree at Harvard, he had no intention of being a writer. But at age 29, his Saturn return occurred, and he realized his path would be different than what he had supposed. He didn’t start writing until his mid-30s, he said, “but when it came, it came with a lot of force.” It’s not worth it to be a writer, he says, if it is fueled by egoic ambition. Many people want to be great writers rather than writing as servants who bring something into the world. “Ego is not a good enough reason to be a writer,” he said.

He continued, “If you have something to say that’s important, then the meaning is what is important. You must forge yourself into an instrument that can deliver that message. If you do, it can be ecstatic. But it can also be very dark.”

When Tarnas received the vision for his first book, he felt weak in the knees at the very idea of it, yet he also Vue Ensoleille pres d'Auvers by you.felt he was being given the obligation to do it. He became so overwhelmed and tired by this creative compulsion that he lay down on his bed and slept for about two hours. When he woke up, he felt spiritually renewed and was able to connect to the invisibles; but the muses only gave him as much information and vision as he needed to get started. “They don’t tell you everything,” he explained, “it’s all on a need-to-know basis.” As everyone laughed, Tarnas commented that when he started writing, he had no idea that there would be 25 years of work ahead of him, nor that he would publish only two books in 28 years of almost daily writing!

a writer’s habits

The first day of the two-day workshop was spent on tips for the writing life, and the second on the philosophy of writing. The habits he recommended were:

Cultivate the habit and discipline of writing down your thoughts. Whenever your thoughts have a certain force or originality, write them down as soon as you can. You may think you’ll remember them later, but always write them down anyway. You will need these notes later. Anne Lamott has said, “If you don’t carry a notebook and pen with you as a writer, then God will find somebody else who does. Keep notes.

Choose the time of day to write and stick to it without distractions. Choose a time of day supported by your own biorhythms, your own way of writing. Write whenever you are most alert, most creative, and have the most ability to channel the muses. This tends to be morning for most people.

vincent07 by you.It’s very important to avoid being sidetracked; don’t let your energy be appropriated by the telephone, the television, email, your cell phone, or anything else. James Hillman says it can be very hard to seize the day as a writer. Modern life has many distractions that will pull you away from the sanctum of your own interior.

Be particularly aware of your creative self during the first while after waking up, which can be a pregnant time because you’re just coming out of the unconscious. You can go to bed at night, work on a problem, sleep on it after holding it before your mind, and then wake up with the answer. Newton and Einstein each had the capacity and practice of holding before their minds particularly difficult problems and keeping them there, like cultivating the soil until it opened up. When you come back to it, something has unfolded. Thus, it may be helpful to go straight from bed to writing-straight to the desk.

Think and act like an athlete, because being a writer is in some sense a physical discipline as well as a vincent05 by you.mental one. Be aware of how stimulants such as caffeine affect your creativity for better or for worse, or whether eating too much or too often will slow you down. Tarnas finds that if he goes out for a large lunch with friends, he is often unable to write for some hours afterward; he believes that writers have to be aware of anything that compromises the creative intention.

Although some writers like to listen to music while they’re writing, Tarnas says it can interfere with your writing if you are not fully differentiated because you will pick up the rhythm of the music. This will in turn interfere with your rhythm as a writer. Some find that listening to music such as Bach before sitting down to write helps, though.

Set aside a sacred space for writing. Your sacred place can be a studio, your library, even part of your bedroom, but wherever it is, that part of the room for that part of the day is a sanctum sanctorum that is wheatfield under a cloudy sky by you.used just for writing. There should be no phone calls, no interruptions. Doris Kearns Goodwin and Richard Goodwin both talked about the importance of not taking phone calls during the time you’re writing. It’s very tempting to interrupt your writing for the buzz or addictive pull of the immediacy of connection to others, and this is especially true if the interruption is right there on the same machine you use for writing. We can’t do that if we want to preserve this inner space for creating. The tortoise mind takes time, time to nurture the creative thoughts. You cannot just set aside a few minutes a day to do that.

The creative life is an unfolding life. James Hillman once told Tarnas, “If you’re serious about writing, you have to set aside three hours a day for it; ideally even more than that amount of time.” Tarnas said that even the sower, 1888 by you.if you write three hours a day, every day, you may find that you’ll need a few days a week during which you can dedicate yourself to five or eight hours of writing (or more).

The unconscious needs more time to go deep, to keep the wellsprings open. You have to keep clearing out the wellspring of the daily clutter if you want to write well. If you haven’t been working for a day or two, or even a week or more, it will take days of writing before you can get back to the flow where you left off. The well has to be kept clear by continual creativity and consistency.

Once you’ve started writing, it can take several hours each time to allow the space to emerge where the creative intelligence begins to move fast-to run, to sprint, to fly and leap and flow. At the beginning of the day it does that when it knows that you’ll be hanging around long enough for the creativity to come through, time for it to stretch out and be born.

If you have a sense of commitment and mission, you have something to say because you are a bearer of a message. Then no matter what else is happening in your life, you must set aside several hours a day to become a vessel, a communicator of that message. Remember, a mission has been given to you; a commitment occurs when you give yourself to it. You must have both.

This can be done. Even the frustrating interruptions, the things that come from your other duties, obligations, and loves-all those are forging you as a writer. How you respond to those things speaks to how you develop patience. Nothing is wasted.

Make quality choices. Whenever you are in the great flow of your work, you will need to make quality choices vincent01 by you.about what you do. You may need to pull back from trivial pursuits, particularly television. It’s not so much what television brings in through the wall, it’s what it sucks out. Television imposed too early in life is unhealthy for young children. The way to nurture creative people is not through television; we want to sustain the womb of soul and the spiritual aesthetic sensitivity that the child is born with. It stays with them longer if they haven’t been prematurely pushed out into the madness, as Rudolph Steiner taught, as Waldorf education teaches.

You do need culture and art and all the things that feed your deep spirit, but you will have to make decisions about quality. Get the trash out of your life if you want a healthy creative spirit.

Do your writing ritual to invoke your creative self. You have your sacred writing place; now you need Starry Night by you.to do your ritual. Tarnas believes that writing, as an art, has a vertical dimension that reflects the writer’s higher purpose. The true writer, he says, is one who is the vessel of a higher purpose, a purpose the writer is often unaware of initially. Without this dimension that comes from God, the Muses, angels, the spirit, the divine, we are missing something. “This brings us back,”he explained, “to the ritual we use when we first begin writing in the morning or during our writing day. We must open ourselves, feeling a certain opening in the top of the head, at the crown chakra.” He explains:

You will need a source of inspiration and faith when you’re working on a big project such as a book or dissertation. There will be times when you feel you won’t make it, when you just want to put your head down on your arms on the desk and just weep. When you say, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” Every mother knows that point she comes to during labor when she feels a truly inexpressible level of painful labor in the service of something that doesn’t seem to have any possibility of success. When the writer has a similar experience, he needs a source of trust that will keep him able to stick with it and push through. This is where the vertical relationship to the Divine comes in. You pray to open yourself to larger, divine resources.

“You have to trust something larger than yourself to help you, to carry you through,” he explained.

16 responses

  1. The most comprehensive and quite nicely thought out write up I have discovered on this topic on the net. Maintain on writing, I will maintain on coming by to read your new content material. This is my fourth time coming by your blog.

  2. *returns the obeisance, skirts swishing*

    (My mom always claims the title of Queen, but that’s her cosmology.)

    I like that distinction between art and craft, though in the craft (as in handcrafts) world these days that’s something of an issue! But perhaps in the writing realm I am on the side of craft, of chipping away at splintery phrases and sanding down inconsistencies to a smooth finish 🙂

  3. Librarian, oh thank you. Yes, writing is magic. I loved how you used the words “conjuring” and “swill.” SWILL.

    Good thoughts.

  4. Newlawmom, thank you! Your comments put it in perspective, once again. Each person’s story really is his or her own. It reminds me of that movie called “Vantage Point,” showed over and over from the perspectives of people at an attempted assassination of the president.

  5. Writing is magic. As such, it helps to have ritual to go with/augment the act/conjuration; whether it be writing in the same kind of books, a place, or using the same kind of pen. It may seem a little non-sensical but writing is a physical act. Three fingers hold the pen but you write with the whole body.

    Writing is a discipline and an art. You can certainly derive gratification with either, but as in warfare, the master is able to use both interchangeably or together at will.

    Most of my day-to-day writing is crap. But if you’re not willing to write swill, you won’t find the stuff that, with words, seems to go beyond the words (magic).

    Save everything and go through from time to time. Sometimes what seems like garbage at the time turns out later to be far better than you thought.

    The biggest thing though is to know when your muse is calling and write whatever the thought/idea is down then! There have been too many times when I was certain that I would remember some incredible idea or line of verse only to draw an absolute blank minutes later. You have to write it down, whatever it is, as soon as possible if not immediately. Sometimes you may remember later, but more often than not you won’t.

    Muse

    Whatever spirit moved me
    to put these words to paper
    has moved on
    like a breath escaping a body…
    and I will write of it
    no longer.

  6. Hmmm, hmmmm … this is all most interesting. And you know, I think you are quite right that many artists are more disconnected from their source than I tend to be; just thinking about how many writers I’ve edited with the advice “You’re getting in your own way, you’re not taking risks, you’re staying on the surface, you’re not looking beneath the story to see the real story,” etc.

    But what I think is … wow, this is difficult to put into words. I think that a writing discipline won’t bring a person closer to source. I think to me, it’s more like … you learn to live, and if writing is how you channel that, then great. And then the craft of writing is the discipline channel through which you direct the force of your real life, once you learn where to find it. I think it’s sometimes easy for some people to mistake the discipline for the reality … I’ve seen more than one writer who is highly disciplined, and still misses the source every time. Hence my feeling, I think, that they’re two different things … learning authenticity and learning to write.

    Someone who has not learned to live deeply will not be a particularly good writer, though he may learn to be a fine craftsman as a writer, and he may learn a great deal of technique.

    The really ironic thing about all this is that I don’t consider myself to be a writer, and I have never self-identified in that way. So … no, I don’t have a particular system. I have written fiction, and I continue to write it, but its sole purpose is the revelation of my own mythology to me; it’s not meant to be shared. And so I write it down as it presents itself to me.

    However, I do know that I enter an altered state of mind almost instantaneously when I do sit down to write something, and perhaps that’s the thing that is more difficult for other people to achieve. I’ve actually had a similar discussion with a blogging/writing professional therapist, regarding the phenomenon of dissociation, and how it makes daily life and human relationships so much harder for those of us who have a complex level of it, but it makes creativity much easier.

    But anyway — not a writer here, but rather, someone with a knack for coaxing other people’s sources out of them. I don’t have a system for that, either … I just turn off my brain, and tune my inner radio to a different and more truthful frequency. Maybe I take that capacity too much for granted.

  7. This is one of those posts where I’m going to venture a comment and feel very uncomfortable because really I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about and can only relate it to my own experience.

    A certain young lady who lives with me (a.k.a my daughter) has quit college because all she really wants to do is write. Good and well…except writing doesn’t pay the bills until you get published. So what’s your plan? I get a blank stare and an “I dunno.”

    I guess the difference as I see it is, do you want to write or do you want to be an author? I think anyone with a passion for writing will write no matter what the circumstances. Even is they don’t have a sacred place, even if it’s on a napkin instead of a notebook.

  8. I liked your piece on writing. I am new to blogging but have been writing for about five years.

    All I know is the more I do it, the better I get. Sustained effort seems to result in improved output not in terms of quantity but quality.

    Peace
    UM

  9. Helen, thanks for hitting the nail on the head. You (once again) put into one paragraph what we’re discussing in tomes.

    Talk about being a poet to your core…!

    Thanks, and to answer, yes, this is what I think he’s saying. Writing is an art and a craft.

  10. David, here’s a P.S. When I stand over where you are, I can see how you would call the flow bit “nonsense.” Because we are fed by the unconscious and the divine (which Tarnas gets to in his mandala later), we can’t control it or cause it to work; we can only till the soil. That’s all he is suggesting, really.

    But looked at from another way, I agree with Tarnas as a Jungian. Our tendency as humans is to have the drive to become fully conscious, but the fault of being lazy and unconscious. When doing analytic or depth work, it’s absolutely true that if the person does not honor the hidden life, he will suffer more and more unconsciousness. “Use it or lose it” is true. Or, put as Jesus put it, if you have it and you don’t use it, what you do have will be taken away and given to someone else. Anne Lamott said so too, and I agree with her.

    Perhaps you’re a person who stays in touch with that river all the time; you probably live there. I’m going to guess that’s got to be at least partly true, because it seems so to me when I read your blog. You seem to be a very aware person. If you live by the river, you don’t have to walk a mile to get there.

    Some people don’t live by the river. Maybe they have to work in town. Maybe their minds or souls work a little differently than yours; they have to approach things differently. At least, this is what I suppose. It’s all just theory. :o)

  11. David and Caroline, you seem to be of similar mind on this. Since the workshop lasted two days, I’ve only posted the first bit because I felt I ought to break it up. Maybe after you’ve read the part about the Writer’s Mandala, you’ll see Tarnas differently. But, perhaps not.

    David, you wrote that his advice seems intimidating and seems to take the joy out of the writing process. I think for a writer who is more of a perceiver (likes things open ended and more free-form) rather than a judger (likes things to be finished and wants things orderly), this would be true. Your response may well be coming out of your personality as a writer and would most likely be echoed by others who are more perceptive.

    I lean more in Tarnas’s direction. I see writing as a discipline and an art, a craft and a mystery; I think that if I approach it as a person called to the religious life might–like a monk, in other words–it will benefit me as a writer. Not every writer is called that way; but I know that some are. Stephen King doesn’t write that way, but Annie Dillard does; James Hillman is in the middle somewhere. I think a writer has to develop his or her own way.

    Over all, though, in my personal opinion, if a writer wants to succeed in terms of publication and giving a gift (both), then it will take the discipline of an athlete. Athletes are self-disciplined and they also have a lot of joy. We have a family member who is a pro basketball player. He is extremely disciplined, down to what he eats, how much he sleeps, and how often he has to train. His entire life is about his career, and he makes millions and millions of dollars. But the money isn’t the point; the point is his talent and his passion. He doesn’t lose those because he trains like a soldier; his passion is enhanced because when he gets out on that floor and plays his absolute best, he gets a high and a sense of accomplishment like no other.

    I think it’s so with any discipline; once I am into my habit and I’m writing, eventually because I honor my craft, I come to that place of sheer joy. Granted, you may come to it differently; you’ll have to figure out your system and do that. But I’ll bet you have one, right? Even if it’s not like this one, you have to write to be a writer. So, what’s your system or way of doing it? (You may not have a “system,” but if not, what do you have? What is your winding path or way of following the muses along?)

  12. Heni, I wonder what it is that makes others tell us, sometimes, that we should do things just because we’re good at them? I’m good at teaching, and have had quite a few people tell me should be a teacher; I’m also a good cook, and my husband says I should open a restaurant; I’m hospitable, so he also thinks I should open a bed and breakfast; and my mother still thinks I should be a nurse (I feel faint at the sight of blood).

    Bright people are often good at several, or even many, occupations. But intuitive people know what they really need to do. And I think that courageous people do their calling or callings. So clearly, in my cosmology I crown you bright, intuitive, and courageous.

    *makes a formal curtsy*

  13. Eve, do you make a distinction between the art and the craft of writing? Some of this sounds like it belongs under craft. It seems as though craft sets the stage so that art (and the Muse) can enter. Surely a writer can set a side time and place for writing. But can he/she determine the moment of inspiration? Do the inspiration occur in writing or revision? Surely both are work. I say, art and craft are different but must walk hand in hand.

  14. Uh, maybe it’s just me, but …

    This advice bothers me enormously for two reasons.

    1) It seems to leave all the joy out of the process.

    2) It’s very intimidating.

    Now, I’m not saying that the giver of this advice is wrong in any way. I’m just saying that to a certain type of writer, a certain type of person, this advice would tend to create a sense of unworthiness … like a person cannot be a writer unless he or she is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to do so.

    Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this because I have coached so many writers who have fear-based writers’ block, which often stems from a sense of unworthiness, either self-imposed or externally-imposed.

    And of course, some of these things are common sense … write when your body is willing, set aside a good space for your creative life, etc.

    But my feeling is that while one certainly can train like an athlete to be a writer, or anything else, in some respects it is also self-defeating. Creativity is not some creature who can be chased with a blunderbuss and a burlap sack, and brought back captive to one’s office daily between 11 am and 3 PM. Creativity is also about cycles, and fallow periods, and letting things rest and grow of their own accord.

    I particularly disagree with the statement that if you get “out of practice,” it takes weeks to get back into the flow. If you will pardon my being opinionated, that’s arrant nonsense. The writer’s mind is not a muscle that loses strength when not exercised; if anything, it is more like a river that sometimes retreats underground to its source before popping up like a boiling geyser several miles down the road.

    Of course good writing requires discipline; every art does. But I am not convinced that it requires such regimented and solemn discipline as this, even if one believes very firmly, as I do, that writing is not about the self, and is a spiritual discipline … I refer to it as finding the “vanishing point,” where the self is no longer relevant to the production of the writing.

  15. Funny how a lot of writing advice sounds just like advice on meditation!

    My husband tells me every once in a while that he thinks I would be a good writer. I usually respond that I don’t feel called to that; that I’ve never felt any compulsion or drive to write. He usually then asks me why I resist it so hard. But, I say, I’m not resisting, I’m merely observing myself. Maybe he’s right; maybe I am. Or maybe it’s just all laying in wait until my next Saturn return 🙂

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