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 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.
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 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 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 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 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 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.