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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Elevate your own sense of taste by reading deeply.
The most local can convey the most universal truths; remember Faulkner.
The Art of Writing Richard Tarnas Workshop Presented 17 November 2007 Pacifica Graduate Institute Depth Video DVD