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The Stars and the Sky

Photo by nate rayfield on Unsplash

I’ve been reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind. There’s one passage in which she talks about the conscious mind vs. the wild mind and urges writers to not diddle around our whole lives in the dot (our monkey mind or conscious mind) but to take one big step out of it and sink into the big sky and write from there.

I stopped and hung out for a while at that thought.

Let go of control – surrender the reins. Once a theme or idea starts to unspool, to allow ourselves to follow the thread. Find the end and let it take you. Up into the big sky.

In most parts of my life my tendency is to be neat and organized. To tidy up as I go. When I bake or cook, I’ll often assemble the ingredients beforehand, clean up as I go. And it works. In the kitchen.

But not at my writing desk. Even a short blog post like this.

Not in the beginning of a piece.

An author I know told me how she edits as she goes. In theory, her book is good to go by the time she gets to the last page. I’m going to suggest that the book was percolating in her head for a while, growing, plots materializing and shifting, characters coming and going. The story gradually told itself and the author transcribed it. Now, this in no way minimizes this author’s role in all this. It’s still a lot, a lot of work. But it works for her. She’s good at it. I’ve read her work; it’s magical.

For me, however, this method would trip me up. It would kick my perfectionism into high gear and put me into one of those endless loop processes. You computer folks have a name for that. For the rest of us it’s a descent into a rabbit hole.

Especially in the beginning.

This blog post started with reading Goldberg’s book. Then it came on a walk with me. It got splashed messily onto the page two days later. I let it settle, went for another walk a few days later and came back to it. I tidied it up; did a little organizing. It’s just about good enough. Although I know there will be at least one more pass before you see it.

Its beginning was a leap into the big sky. And that’s how it should be. At least for me.

There’s a poem I love and frequently use as a warm up prompt in my writing circles. “In Spite of Everything, the Stars” by Edward Hirsch. It begins: Like a stunned piano, like a bucket of fresh milk flung into the air or a dozen fists of confetti thrown hard at a bride stepping down from the altar, the stars surprise the sky.

The stars surprise the sky.

How wonderful it would be to feel free enough, to trust my process enough, to loosen my grip on my pen enough and toss my words up into the sky. To startle the heavens and then listen to the sky tell my story. To let word follow word and line follow line and watch as the story unspools from my consciousness onto the page.

That is where I like to begin.

Where do you begin? In your writing, in your projects, in your life?

Schedule a coffee chat with me and let’s talk about beginnings.

The hidden treasures of the writing brain

Treasure Box
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Do you have “shoulds” about your writing? Do you fret that you’re not writing enough? Let it go. Yes, at times you have deadlines. But consider the riches accumulating as you go about your days. There’s a lot happening under the surface even when you’re not putting words on the page.

I haven’t been writing much the last few months. I had taken a brief hiatus in December but that hiatus lingered into January. And then February. Why, I wondered. What’s wrong? The answer that rose up was that my joy in writing had been muscled out by the “shoulds.” I should be working on my book. I should get a blog post out. I should get a newsletter out. I should, I should I should.

I was should-ing all over myself.

Seriously, shoulds take the joy out of everything.

At the same time, I was still journaling. I was still running writing circles. But my book and my blog, well, I felt lots of resistance there. So, this time I decided to do something a little different. I just let it be. (More on the shoulds here)

However, I’m still comfortable calling myself a writer.

I recently read an old article in The Writer where the author suggested that when she wasn’t writing – in between projects or on a break – that she could no longer call herself a writer.

I don’t agree and I’ll tell you why.

A writer is someone who writes.

I am familiar with – and subscribe to – this definition of a writer as “someone who writes.” I also believe that the writing process is not limited to placing words on the page. Writers continue to think in writerly ways. Just like an artist or a photographer whose eyes soak in their surroundings. Or a gardener who doesn’t need to have her hands in the dirt to let ideas germinate.

We constantly take in stimuli that will eventually make their way into our craft. Even when we think we’re not paying attention, ideas are wheeling around in our subconscious.

Some other things that happen off the page:

Our ideas continue to speak to us.

Literally. And sometimes at very odd times.

Characters wander in and out of our consciousness. Inspiration pops up randomly. (A little aside: how do you capture those thoughts?) The mill continues to process the grist.

Bertie, the main character in my novel, hadn’t been speaking to me for a while. Actually, it was this blog that was doing most of the talking. However, she did pop in recently with something to say.

I was on a walk and as my feet developed their own rhythm my mind began to wander. I started noticing how many dog walkers were on my path. Nodding and smiling to each other, some dogs pulling their walker; others, obediently trotting alongside. I suddenly wondered if Bertie had a dog.

No, she told me. She would never have a dog. That would require her to be out and about, possibly having to greet others on a daily walk. That’s pretty uncomfortable when you’re trying to keep a low profile. And no, she wouldn’t let a dog loose in her yard because her garden, well, that’s another story for another day.

I walked and thought about her. She is squirrely. I already knew this. I think I know her but then sometimes she surprises me. She wakes me up in the morning with start. “I did not know that!” I think. She might have a cat, but definitely not a dog. I’m always listening for her. Even when I’m not working on the book.

We get to stockpile wonderful words

Writers are collectors of words. In her book, Poemcrazy, writer Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge talks about collecting words and creating wordpools. A wordpool is a fun writing prompt and a great way to loosen up your creative muscles.

Me, I like to visualize a small wooden treasure chest into which I tuck my words.

In my writing circles we write together and read our fresh unedited work. We look for what’s working (there’s always something working) and those words, phrases, passages that stay with us. I tell the writers that even if it’s just one phrase that’s working, that’s still gold. Save it. I mention my treasure chest.

But even off the page small gems are dropped into your consciousness. Save them! Use index cards, journals, post-its, the notes app on your phone, and yes, maybe even a small wooden treasure box. Save them! You never know when you might need a perfect description of the sound of a screen door slapping closed on a summer day.

We continue to read

Writers are often voracious readers. I know I am. I find myself observing what’s happening on the page and how I’m reacting to it. Oh, look at how she did that! I wonder if that would work for me. I notice the devices the author is using; how the prose was a bit too flowery. I note what I like and also what I don’t like. I see how he makes me want to turn the page. I delight in the surprises I find.

I was in grade school when I picked up Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It was on my older sister’s summer reading list. I already loved to read. I fell in love with language with that book. I learned how words could be transformed into something of stunning beauty. I suspect that somewhere the dark recesses of my mind I am trying to emulate him.

I store all this in my mind for when I return to the page.

Because I always do.

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