The Art of Writing | 4

Today concludes a four-part series on a two-day writing workshop given by Richard Tarnas at Pacifica Graduate Institute last year.

The Hardest Part of the Day

The hardest part of the day for the writer is that point near the beginning where you know you need to say something. The page is blank. The screen is blank. There is tremendous resistance to putting anything down; you are like Sisyphus only you can’t see the boulder or the mountain. This is where it takes a brave, self-reliant, determined act of will, or gumption, to write. It takes a choice to not do one more procrastinating thing that you must do. Just push into it; just make the mistake, get into and write the first sentence that you may not even use in the long run. Just go ahead and write it. Write the awkward sentence, the convoluted paragraph. As you’re writing, something happens after a certain amount of time has passed, and the argument begins to unfold; boldness has a certain type of grace to it. The angels come to help; clarity and creative energy start to flow.

Begin it Now

In a quote often misattributed to Goethe, William Hutchinson Murray wrote:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Faith only grows in darkness; it is the seed that requires the coldness and darkness of being underground that grows.

ico41 by you.

If You are Young, Do Not Rush Into Print

Get a lot of criticism from leaders in your field, if you think your first work is going to be really great. Let enough help and wisdom from others come to you before you publish. You want what you publish to be something you can be proud of ten years from now, without too much immaturity or inflation. We need a combination of rigor and imagination. If you can walk that tightrope, great creative work will come through.

ico43 by you.

Tarnas mentioned Taylor Mali’s, “The Impotence of Proofreading,” to illustrate (what else?) the importance of proofreading–and a good editor!

Note to conservative parents: Mali uses a variety of sexual puns to hilarious effect in this poem, but you may not want your kids around while you’re listening to it.

 ico40 by you.

Is It Good?

How do you know something is really good? Because it is elevating. You know it’s good because you have read so much other work that is great.  You are elevated by being with great works over and over again; this helps form your aesthetic judgment. You forge your judgment through wise reading in your field and in the larger cultural tradition; also you find those among your colleagues, friends, and community whom you trust to be discerning and to tell you the truth about your writing. Often it is not the best thing to give your work immediately to someone who deeply loves you, who is close to you and who can’t tell you the worth of your work.

ico43 by you.

A lot of writing comes as a result of someone else’s writing; the other person’s writing is a catalyst for you. Hillman reads widely and responds through writing to that. He writes impassioned and even irritated responses to what he reads. He once went a few years without writing and told a friend, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to write again, because I’m not angry about anything.” Derivative means when you ape or copy another writer, not when you write originally as the result of what you read that serves as your springboard.

ico23 by you.

What Role Does Structure Play?

James Hillman wrote one of his books on scraps of paper, little notes, etc. Tarnas gets his books in bits and pieces, too, and many other writers do. Bertrand Russell wrote 3000 words and didn’t edit it; but there is some superficiality and maybe a bit of arrogance to that.

Follow your nose, your sixth sense, your playful spirit, your personal interests; go to the point of least resistance; that’s where the creative spring will push through. Often you will end with a structure that is radically different from what you imagined.

Don’t try to solve all the problems of the overall structure of your book or essay at the beginning; don’t think you’ve got to figure it all out at the beginning. It will unfold in ways that you can’t anticipate. Just pay attention to what wants to come through now, at the given moment.

Hold your structure flexibly, loosely. It will likely change with the unfolding of your book. The beauty of creativity is that on some level, the book is already completed and you’re finding your way to it. It will have solved problems that you cannot anticipate at the beginning or in the middle of it. Just go with it and trust that it will unfold. Often this means writing a sentence, a paragraph, even a whole chapter, and later you will say, “Oh! That’s where that goes!” It will be like a missing puzzle piece fitting in. There is a trust in the creative unconscious.

ico41 by you.

Writing the Mundane

When you’re writing in the later part of the day, you will do different kinds of writing such as email or other correspondence. Make every bit of writing you do count. Email is a more challenging medium because it is so flat, and so difficult to convey what you mean to say. People regularly think that their email sounds friendlier than it is; there is a great deal of research showing that email is not effective in terms of communication. You have to work even more to contextualize your words and make them explicitly clear in terms of feeling tone. Pay attention to making sure that it says what you want to say as well as you can, as clearly and as precisely as possible. That discipline will make your daily writing easier, because you have been sharpening the sword.

ico43 by you.

Go Where the Energy Is

In the moment of writing, go with where the energy is. Your delight in saying something, what unfolds most readily in you is a good place to begin. It primes the pump, it gets the waters flowing. If you leave what you actually feel like doing as a writer, but then some super-ego inside you says no, you should be doing this other thing or a harder part of the task, then that could leave you stymied for hours. You may lose the magic moment of when something wanted to be said to you. This is a writer’s version of Joseph Campbell’s following your bliss. It is a kind of delight or pleasurable energy, even quite subtle. Inspiration can’t be called up on demand; the muses are extremely unpredictable. When they are present and available, don’t say, “I’d love to, but I want to do this first,” or “I’d love to, but I want to go  do this instead, watch this program or go to this party.” Pay attention to that inner calling, your inner bliss. That’s why it’s also important to have your notebook at hand. The original force of creativity is at hand, so that’s when you need to write it down. You will also lose what you could have gotten had you actually written your thought down and attended to it. Something about writing it down draws forth more from that place. It’s quite a process, something like making love, like a caress. Caress the detail, the divine detail (Navokoff).

ico40 by you.

Elevate your own sense of taste by reading deeply.

The most local can convey the most universal truths; remember Faulkner.

ico24 by you.

The Art of Writing
Richard Tarnas
Workshop Presented 17 November 2007
Pacifica Graduate Institute
Depth Video DVD

11 responses to “The Art of Writing | 4”

  1. helenl Avatar

    Eve, You have so many good points here, it’s hard to know what to comment on.

    I do think the advice not to publish too young makes sense. My thesis adviser said, no one should publish a book before age fifty. He said this before his own life’s work (from his dissertation study) was published. Right after he turned fifty, his book came out after ten years of trying to find the right publisher. Now if we could just convince the publishers not to publish kids, there would be places for us as we get older. 🙂

    I also like the point from Faulkner – well, I like Faulkner – that the universal will be expressed most clearly in the specific. That’s gives us assurance that we don’t have to be spectacular people to have value to others.

    And the hardness of facing the blank page. Nuff said.

  2. renaissanceguy Avatar

    Eve, you asked, “Is your skin thicker?”

    Yes, for the most part. I still feel scared to show any of my creative projects to people, but I do pretty well with the criticism.

    I think the best cure was actually the attacks of my music instructors. I had private piano lessons and was a music major for three years. Some of them were really brutal. I had to either accept it and improve or quit. I came to see that everything they said and did, no matter how “mean,” was meant for my good. I came to appreciate their torture. (Maybe they turned me into a masochsist!)

    “The last big work I did, which was a thesis that I have yet to publish otherwise, had me on my hands and knees on the floor, pages flung all over the place as I tried to organize them in a concrete way.”

    Been there, done that, and I think I know why. I tend to see so many connections between one idea and another (in a Kantian sort of way), that I cannot easily separate them out. That is why I always have trouble with straightforward approaches to reading comprehension and vocabulary tests.

    Thanks for spelling out more what you were feeling about the series you wrote on the Eucharist. I am pretty sure that I understand now–at least better than I did before. Sometimes I think I am the most obtuse person in the world.

    I think you are too hard on yourself, by the way. Have you heard that before? (It’s always funny to tell a perfectionist, “You’re being too hard on yourself.” It usually just makes them feel worse, because they see it as one more flaw to overcome.)


    Thanks for your comments about my frustration. You made me feel better. I think I was getting a little too caught up in the blogging thing anyway. I need to keep it fun or stop doing it. At least that’s my thought at the moment.

    You wrote, “You did or wrote nothing that could elicit such a deeply grieved response from me–we both knew that at the time, eh?”

    Well, I thought that, but I wasn’t completely sure. I thought that perhaps I had really let you down, which I wouldn’t want to do.

    You wrote, “I think you are a very clear writer; I rarely see you get all fuzzy.”

    I try hard. Clarity is one of the things that a professor tried to pound into us in graduate school. Sometime I might write about some of the writing exercises we did to improve our clarity. I know that I fail sometimes. I actually cringe at how awkwardly and ambiguously I write things when I’m not paying attention.

    You wrote, “. . .and I’m actually grateful that you were yourself in that situation, just writing your thoughts. If I didn’t thank you for that at the time, I thank you now.”

    How humbling! It is I who should thank you, because the whole interchange caused me to do some soul-searching, too. And it prompted me to re-read your posts, which was both a treat and an enlightening experience. I’m not trying to flatter you; I’m writing truth.

    You wrote, “Just keep being true to yourself.” I’m actually still looking for myself. Let’s say that I’ll be as true to myself as I can. I know I’m there somewhere, and I think I’ll find me someday.

  3. Irene Avatar

    I hope its not too late to carry on here, because I’d like to try and answer your questions, Eve. Now, I’m definitely not a writer. Paint is my language. Also, I know I tend to make sweeping generalisations about which I’m happy to be picked up on. So bear with me? Here goes.

    “..what do you mean by describing it to yourself and making it conscious?”

    Okay. The process starts with me feeling unhappy with the way my work is developing overall. Somehow I want it to ‘do’ more (the materiality of paint) and say more (depth of feeling usually). So I try to write about it:

    “Recently I have been feeling a need to move away from being so realistic in my work. I’m far more interested in the broken surface of paint, the space in-between. I’m more interested now in reduced pictorial information; contrasts in texture (washes, drips, and thick paint); open layers! Also a less logical or rational depiction of space.”

    ” I want poetry, more than ever. I want to be totally connected to what I make, and be proud of it, that it is beautiful, timeless and not ‘fashionable’. ”

    “To paint: – not so much to try and depict an image as reality, but to depict one that sits between what is seen and what I feel about it. To translate.”

    I don’t know if I’m communicating this so well. When I usually do this, I am sitting in my space and deeply yearning. If I were religious, I might call it a prayer. I see what I desire in my mind’s eye, and feel painfully inadequate at the same time – but I want to change, I say, I want to grow. So its more about ‘growing’ my work over time, rather than about a specific painting.

    Then, somehow, after a cycle of feeling awful, something happens where I break the meniscus and I move forward – I may simply have an idea to try, or whilst painting, I make a mistake that turns into something else, and I gain courage to try again. This may sound schmaltzy and vague (feeling sheepish now), but I figure it to be the unconscious at work. I note dreams, and I have to try really hard not to get in my own way, by resisting.

    Individual paintings are different again. Soon I will be looking for a new image to make, and I have been looking at some old family photos. I think you read about that part of things on my website? So I won’t repeat it here.

    Its true what you say about holding the idea, gestating it, writing it down (or making a little drawing). It can be so all-consuming but worthwhile.

    I hope I have answered you here, Eve, and thanks for your interest. Oh, and the white canvas as master? I think after the first tentative marks, if the flow begins, then the dance begins. If I could only get out of the way!;)

  4. litlove Avatar

    Just to say thank you, Eve, for so generously sharing your wisdom from the writing workshop. I’ve enjoyed it very much indeed and had a lot of nebulous feelings and ideas brought into much sharper and more useful focus. Extremely helpful!

  5. Eve Avatar

    RG, I happily find your comments today! Wow, I feel that this is such a treat, having you share your creative side here.

    You wrote that it was hard for you to be critiqued in college; but how about now? Is your skin thicker? I find that sometimes I’m still like the young, protective mother over my work, not wanting anyone to even breathe a suggestion that my darling baby may be homely or somehow inadequate! Ha ha! But I do find I take it better now than I did when I was younger. And I agree that we really do need readers who can be honest with us about what needs critiquing.

    Interesting about Paul McCartney. He’s remained one of the best former Beatles, and maybe his approach to receiving feedback has been part of the reason why. That takes some kind of guts.

    What you wrote about outlines struck a chord in me, because I’m a planner and like outlines, especially as a non-fiction writer. Even so, I find that longer work always gets out of hand. The last big work I did, which was a thesis that I have yet to publish otherwise, had me on my hands and knees on the floor, pages flung all over the place as I tried to organize them in a concrete way. The whole thing had gotten away from me somehow, and I actually had to call in a good friend and my literary daughter to come help me see if any of it made sense at all. And I had a complete outline that had been faculty approved. So much for that! But, like you, I’d like to allow for more room for the muse to do what she will–do it consciously.

    You asked, “Were you disappointed that people didn’t comment on what you actually wrote but seemed to ignore it?” No, not so much that, because people did comment on what I actually wrote. I do think I managed to convey a lot of what I feel when serving communion in that series. Where I felt I had failed is to let the reader know what I was doing. I forget to gently lead the reader along, as a parent does a child.

    When you go on a trip, or go to a new place to live, you probably prepare your children, right? And yourselves! You learn about where you’re going, look at photos, maybe eat some food etc. And then when you get there, you probably tell them how you’re going to get to your final destination, what your home will look like, etc. This is what a person in charge does if they are shepherding their flock; and a writer is like a shepherd. Even if I blog only 500 words or 200 of them, what am I trying to convey? I think I must have that in my mind and heart before I can write well.

    But sometimes I have so much in my mind and heart, as in the Webster Cook series, that it just comes out like someone oozing something. It’s not planned and disciplined, as Irene suggests (the responsibility part, I mean). I felt I had not hit the 100% mark or made an “A” in my ability to convey my intention in writing.

    So when I read your numbered list, I realized that you (and some others) were responding doctrinally or cerebrally to something that I didn’t intend as a debate or even a discussion; my intention was to write what one person, me, experiences during a Catholic mass and Eucharist. I didn’t lead by writing well, and I must have communicated that I am sure or certain of this doctrine of transubstantiation, when in fact even if I write “the body of Christ,” I am never 100% sure that I perceive anything that is about God or Christ fully. How can I? I’m still in a human, mortal body that houses a mortal mind (as well as a spiritual one). I hope this makes sense. Maybe a poem or piece of art or even photograph would have been better to convey all that I was trying to convey, but then (as Helen knows) I am no poet!

    And you also commented, “For me it feels like it was futile and that all they want to do is present their own agenda rather than taking in what I was trying to express.” That’s a different kettle of fish. I see when people do that on your blog, and it’s bound to happen when one blogs politically (or religiously, often). In a normal conversation, if someone broaches a topic and the responder ignores what was said and goes off onto his own tangent, it’s considered rude. It’s not the best sort of human relations to refuse to listen and comment; one of those 7 Habits is “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Or, as St. James wrote, “let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” This applies to blogging too, I think. I would hope that we try in our comments to convey that we understood what was said, and we take care with our responses (in terms of thoughtfulness). I think this can convey love, even if we use only a few words.

    I don’t know that you did miss what I wrote, so there’s no need for you to feel guilty. I felt grateful to have had a button pushed, even though it was a sad one. You did or wrote nothing that could elicit such a deeply grieved response from me–we both knew that at the time, eh?

    I knew it was my own reaction that had little to do with you, friend, because at other times when I’ve written meditations or other religious pieces, you have ‘gotten it’ completely.

    No, in that situation, I needed some training and some discipline as a writer. Had you not responded with your numbered list, I wouldn’t have seen just how much more care I need to take when I write derivatively, speaking of that, as I did about the Webster Cook incident, which you first wrote about on your blog.

    If we begin to write because of an incident in the news or on another blog, but we finish on our own agenda, then we need to make our own agendas very clear. I think you are a very clear writer; I rarely see you get all fuzzy. I have that weakness, though, and so through interacting with you and others in the blog world, I’m learning a lot. So no need to feel guilty at all. It was I who needed improvement, and I’m actually grateful that you were yourself in that situation, just writing your thoughts. If I didn’t thank you for that at the time, I thank you now.

    Just keep being true to yourself. You’re all you have and we need you. Just as we need me, and her and him and her and her and him….

  6. Eve Avatar

    Irene, creating something off a blank piece of paper (or canvas, in your case) is scary, isn’t it? At least, it is for me. “Trust that it will unfold.” It interests me that you called the white canvas a “daunting master.” Wow! This makes me consider the relationship between artist and canvas, writer or poet and paper. I actually never thought about it in concrete terms–as in a Buddhist sense, where I might look deeply into the blank page and then go into it. Or it may, as you suggest, “master” me. Yes, I can see that, Irene… I submit to it in some sense. What a fascinating and potentially tangenital thought. Thanks for that!

    You write that you found that if you could “define in some way” what you wanted to express, describe it to yourself consciously, a creative process would start. I’m going to be nosy here and ask for an example. Just make one up if you don’t want to give an actual one; but what do you mean by describing it to yourself and making it conscious?

    I’ve been thinking about photography, which I’ve picked back up recently, and something Ansel Adams said. He said that when he took a photograph, he tried and tried to capture inside the frame what he felt when he was looking at the view, or simply what he was feeling at the time. As if to ask himself, “how can I communicate what I’m feeling right now to the person viewing this photograph?” This was astounding. I hadn’t considered how one can communicate emotion or even ideas via one photograph. Of course, I can see that it’s done by good photographers… but to actually think about it from the outset was surprising to me. I think that way as a writer, but I hadn’t gone so far as to consider the artist or photographer, or musician even, who begins by asking, “How can I say this through this medium?”

    So, is that what you mean? You may have a feeling or an idea or a statement to make, and you consider how you’re going to do that? Or do you begin with an image or part of one? How has it worked for you?

    You also wrote about being committed enough to oneself and one’s process to nurture the idea or the seed of it, rather like a pregnancy. During this writing series I think Tarnas mentions Einstein acting similarly; and that we need to write down our ideas or ‘seeds’ or record them somehow so as not to lose them. I have to agree with you about the seminal idea or image; one really does have to hold it in the womb of the mind and gestate it, or else it will miscarry, or find another, more fertile place to grow. This is how it occurs that people will have similar ideas for new books or art or music around the same time. I think the collective unconscious runs it along through its deep river, and as Anne Lamott says, if you don’t write it down, God will find somebody who will.

    Thanks for your comments, I’m happy to have you here, Irene.

  7. Eve Avatar

    Alida, thank you for the Murray quote. What he said seems to be a much more eloquent way of saying what we were discussing on an earlier post, namely the effect we have on others when we make choices. I like that he’s optimistic, stating that events occur “in one’s favor.” My grandmother used to remind me of Romans 8:28, about how not all things that occur are good, but that all things do work together for our good if we love God. That’s confidence.

  8. renaissanceguy Avatar

    “If you are young, do not rush into print.”

    I remember how hard it was to be critiqued when I was in college. It is downright painful, but it is necessary. A person simply cannot read his or her own work objectively, especially until one has been through the crucible of letting others do so.

    “Is it good?”

    Paul McCartney said that he always plays a tune he is composing for friends and family without telling them it is a work in progress. If they say, “Oh, that sounds like such-and-such,” he knows that it is too derivative and not orignal.

    I once had a story rejected by an editor because she had read a story with a very similar plotline–a story that I was almost certain I had never read myself.

    “What role does structure play?”

    This is so difficult for me. Having once been told that one must have a complete, detailed outline to write anything, I have a hard time being spontaneous and letting the inner voice or the muse lead in different directions.

    I like the balanced approach of flexibility within a framework.

    Although I haven’t commented on all these posts, I have read them and enjoyed them. They are both useful and inspirational. Thanks.

    By the way, I think I am starting to understand the frustration you felt recently about people not really “getting” what you wrote. When I read the comments that people have made to some of my recent posts, it annoys me that they don’t address even one point that I made.

    Is that what you were feeling? Were you disappointed that people didn’t comment on what you actually wrote but seemed to ignore it? For me it feels like it was futile and that all they want to do is present their own agenda rather than taking in what I was trying to express.

    Of course, I was the “they” (or one of the theys) who missed what you wrote, so now I feel guilty.

  9. henitsirk Avatar

    Thank you for that bit about derivative vs. springboard. I feel that a lot, that I write on my blog only based on what others say. But really it’s inspiration, not mimicry!

    I’ve found myself using more and more punctuation and even smileys to make email and blogging more evocative. Half the time I feel like an overactive proofreader (have an em dash with a side of semicolons!) and the other half I feel like I’m in junior high 🙂

    (PS: I didn’t watch the video, but read the Mali poem online. My favorite part? The ivory legal collegue in Prison, New Jersey.)

  10. Irene Avatar

    “Just go with it and trust that it will unfold.”
    It took me half a life time to get to that point with my work. The white canvas, like the white page, used to be a daunting master for me – especially when it was really big!
    I discovered about eight years ago that if I could define in some way what I wanted to express – bring it out consciously and describe it to myself – it seemed to start a process deep within. It happened first in 1999, when I read something I’d written for myself three months previously, describing how much I wanted to bring forward a particular aspect in my work. I got a real shock, because I’d forgotten that I’d done this. And there in my work was the beginning of what I’d desired – somehow it happened.
    Since then, its happened a lot, and I’ve tried to be more conscious about it. I hesitate to say that its a bit like a pregnancy (!), but it is in a way. I think holding deep desire in the heart, along with a trust in your capabilities, does something really important for the process when combined with research and commitment.

  11. Alida Avatar

    I watched all the youtube videos with Taylor Mali. I love him. I also love Murray’s quote. I quoted hom a while back on a post. It was a little different:

    “…That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never have otherwise occurred. A wide stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.” W.H. Murray

    I love the thought of Providence working in my life.

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