Let’s start at the very beginning: Why Write At All?

Every now and then, I like to go back to my original thought, the one that leads into the maze, and follow Ariadne’s thread to rediscover my purpose.

Your story will be as unique as the snowflake you are...

Your story will be as unique as a snowflake.

When I got started working with writers (as opposed to working on my own writing) it was as an offshoot of being an editor, typesetter, and collaborator/co-writer. In addition to these jobs, I  had been an English major, and I loved history and literature. 

The question of “why I write” never occurred to me in those years, but subsequently, having dealt with many students whose response to a writing prompt was some version of “why bother,” it dawned on me that not everyone had a lust for self-expression; that not everyone was raised to value or desire the need to respond, to have an opinion, to say something.

That was only one problem during the years it took me to get here; another problem was that the writers I worked with, including published writers who I’d assumed had loads of self-confidence, too often told me some version of “I don’t believe in myself enough to do this.” 

Eventually I reached my own crisis of confidence, because I faced the yawning abyss of wanting to write fiction (after having had early work consistently rejected), yet having no credible reason to do so. “Why another piece of fiction,” I muttered to myself on bad days. Why now?  The world is swimming in fiction; surely, another mystery does not have to be written by me.

In fact, this is how I stop myself a lot of the time from writing many things I would otherwise feel compelled to write: someone else has said it already. You might think this is an excuse not to write, and on one level, I’m sure you’re right. It probably is an excuse. But another way of looking at it is that I don’t have to write everything; I do not have to have my thumb in every pie.

I have an opinion about too many things, and many people’s responses through the years have taught me that I really can shut up and let others talk. 

Your voice is distinct and unique.

Your voice is distinct and unique.

The day I decided I wanted and needed to write my mystery story was the day I also decided that the world needs entertainment, and that entertainment, on its own, is not a bad thing. In other words, I gave myself permission to write something that I did not have to write, but nonetheless wanted to write.

Largely, I wanted to write it because no one else has written it yet, or if they have, they haven’t written it the way I want to, from my perspective and research, in my voice.

I had had enough of wandering up and down the aisles of mysteries in Barnes & Noble, never seeing my book already written by someone else, never seeing my own name stuck somewhere, even haphazardly, in the “G’s”. I wasn’t there because I hadn’t written the book that belongs there, and it seemed like no one else was writing it either.

And this is why you should write what you want to write.

It is a truism that “everything’s been said,” but what is more true is that you haven’t had your shot to say it yet. No one has heard you say it, whatever it is, in your voice, from your perspective, in quite the way you would tell the tale.

This is where I could break into lyric song and tell you that you are a unique snowflake, and I will tell you a version of that. You are unique. No one knows the story you want to tell the way you do, and no one will ever tell the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it, which is why you should give yourself permission to write it, whatever it is. 

The world thrives on stories—we need more stories. Human beings absolutely crave stories; it’s how we make order out of what happens to us. Our brains do it each night when we dream—we create narratives, themes, metaphors, and plots to make sense of what happened to us in our lives.

blue and pink snowflake cookiesWe never tire of hearing, reading, or writing stories, narratives of some kind. It is part of who we are, it’s part of how we order our brains. We’ll create a story around a blade of grass if you let us.

Somewhere during my crisis of confidence I was also reading neuroscience about how the brain works, and the power and importance of stories, so it was then that I realised that it wasn’t infantile or useless or unnecessary to write one more story.

One more story, I realised, is exactly what people want and need, and if other people can write the stories they feel compelled to tell, so can I. 

Ultimately, I stopped judging myself for not writing what I should have been writing (which was scholarly and tedious) and began writing what I wanted to write, which requires a lot of historical research, but is fun and is important to me. Eventually, if I ever get it to an agent and/or a publisher, it might see the light of day and mean something to someone else, but that cannot be the reason I write, since “someday” cannot sustain you; it’s too amorphous, too built on fantasy. I have to write because it matters to me, but also because I believe in the story itself, in the need for this story. Without that belief, I was not writing—I was holding myself back because, at the time, I did not believe in the story. 

What story do you need permission to write? Are you giving yourself that permission?

Let me know!

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook schools

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook Elementary

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Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Ever

One of the rules we learn early on as writers is to use our ‘authentic’ voice when we write, but learning how to access that authentic voice is usually an elusive skill, not easily taught. It seems authenticity is like art: we know it when we see it.

If you don't feel quite this enthusiastic, don't worry.

If you no longer feel quite this enthusiastic, don’t worry.

When writing relies on tricks, gimmicks, gratuitous experimentation, or cleverness for its own sake, we feel manipulated, especially when it comes to replicating the voice of a child, I’ve noticed.

As a reader, I am particularly critical of reading books written from a child’s perspective, since children don’t have the vocabulary writers like to imbue them with. Also, children live very complicated lives, and can’t always make sense of what happens to them. I rarely feel as though I am reading a story authentically written from a child’s perspective. Children don’t seem to write a lot of stories for adult audiences, and the reason for that is key to what I’m trying to convey about finding one’s authentic voice.

Most advice about accessing your authentic voice tells you to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder. What happens, though, when guileless innocence is gone, and you are left feeling rather used up by life? Should you simply stop writing? Does this mean that you will never find your authentic voice? Maybe it means you are not meant to be a writer, because you can’t remember what it feels like to be a child, and, at least for the moment, the sense of wonder we associate with childhood floats away, a dimly-remembered colorful kite growing smaller and smaller on the breeze of all your yesterdays.

If, like me, locating your authentic self through a ‘childlike’ sense of wonder does not come easily, consider this: each day of your life, there has been at least one moment when you discovered something for the first time. It doesn’t matter how small—in retrospect—the moment might seem to you now. What matters is that you write about it from your own current, in-the-moment perspective. The ‘voice’ you write in has never seemed as important to me as the simple fact of the writing itself.

Most people stop themselves from writing, and then regret it later, because they trip over things like ‘voice’ and ‘authenticity,’ instead of saying to themselves some version of “I just need to write this down for myself.” That need is more authentic, in the moment, than worrying about what someone else thinks, and at least you’d be writing!

We are held to an impossible standard when we’re told we must somehow recreate our childhood sense of wonder, in my opinion. I remember feeling more confuddled by childhood than in a perpetual state of joyful wonder, and maybe you did too. 

The underlying emotional reality of authenticity is the feeling you get when you discover something new.  In essence, an authentic awareness of your own personal reality requires two things: being conscious, awake and aware of how you feel, and acknowledging your feelings instead of ignoring them or pushing them down, or denying you feel what you feel. If you want to deaden your authentic self, denying you feel what you feel is the fastest way to do it.

Authenticity is not about forcing yourself to do something you can’t. And if you can’t notice the world around you in a constant state of wondrous glee, I don’t blame you. Days of being in a bad mood are just as real as days of letting your thoughts wander into your inner rose garden; they may not feel as pleasant, but they’re just as real. Okay, maybe the sun isn’t shining on your inner landscape; maybe you don’t feel terribly imaginative. But consider that stories are written every single day about the most mundane things: washing dishes, cleaning up after children, changing flat tires.

Accessing authenticity when you’re no spring chicken becomes the question of one’s middle years

A great deal of writing is motivated by authentic curiosity. That means that most writing begins with curiosity about some subject or other; your curiosity leads you to do some form of research (either formal, through books and libraries, or informally, by observing your own or others’ behavior). We’ve all been told that this curiosity is fundamentally child-like, and of course children are curious, but so are adults.

You are, authentically, an adult. I have grown very tired of hearing, over and over, ad infinitum, how every single emotional state reverts back to our childhood. I disagree. Most of the emotions I experience now, I did not have the maturity or depth to experience when I was a child, if I could ever even remember them. If I were to write from my authentic childhood memories, I’d have to try to recreate that lack of sophisticated vocabulary, and that would mean my writing was highly inauthentic.

I say, start now, today, from where you are. If you want to begin with a state of wonder, let it be okay that your wonder might lack the same kind of wide-eyed innocence so valued by all the how-to books I read. I lack wide-eyed innocence; that fact does not make me inauthentic, nor should your maturity or age in years make you feel as though you cannot write ‘authentically.’ Seems to me that it’s more authentic to write about what you’re looking at through your kitchen window than it is replicating the experiences of yesteryear.

As an adult, if you want to jog the part of you that is far too jaded and experienced, all you have to do is take yourself out of your comfort zone. Go without electricity for 24 hours (a not uncommon experience here in the ‘great’ Northwest in the winter, it turns out). Stop eating meat. Don’t use your car unless you absolutely have to. Read a book you would never have read under any circumstances. Wear a color you usually avoid. Drink something electric blue. The key is to write about your response to anything you do, taking note of your feelings and what comes up for you as you try each new thing.

The primary difference between being an adult and seeing the world and being a child and seeing the world lies in how many things you have already done. As an adult, you have gotten used to doing many things a certain way, but it is disingenuous for us to pretend that as children, every single thing was new to us and we experienced each new thing that happened consciously and with total awareness. Childhood was not idyllic or even all that interesting for a lot of people, and is not necessarily representative of an emotional state we all want to hark back to. Maybe you felt idiotic and dumb as a kid; that’s okay. Just as many things are, or can be, new to you now. 

Therefore, never think you can’t write with new eyes, or authentically from a place of surprise and wonder—even if your sense of wonder is tempered by age and experience and is no longer dripping with the dew of your own personal spring morning.

All you have to do is step off the place where you currently stand, and do something even just a little bit different. You will have a new experience, and for most readers these days, reading about how you handled that new, yet very real, experience, is fascinating. This fact will always be true: humans want to know the real, true, authentic stories about other humans, fictionalized or not, and will always find those stories interesting. You might not believe that, but the next time you’re stuck in a long line at the grocery store and you catch your eye wandering to the bright cover of People magazine, you will be another moth drawn to the flame of the human drama.

Tell it like it is (for you), as they used to say. That’s as authentic as it gets—or needs to be, for that matter. 

Setting your writing compass

Begin with where you are now, in the present

When you set out on a journey of any length, it’s reassuring to have a general notion of where you’re going.

The same can be said of writing, but since there are few absolute parameters set for most writing situations, knowing your ultimate destination, as though you were a train heading for a particular station, can be daunting.

There is much about writing that feels intimidating, and the idea of having complete control over one’s writing experience is illusory if you’re not sure why you’re writing, what your goals are, or what your intention is.

Your response, if you’re overwhelmed, is not to write at all, so as to avoid something that feels confusing and difficult. Think about the issues that then become barriers to writing:

  • Not knowing what to say; precision eludes you; you’re confused
  • Feeling unfocused and irritable, barely perceptible thoughts poke at you, demanding shape and form that you can’t give them
  • Now knowing why you should write, or what your motivation is
  • Negative self-talk: the chattering inner voice of self-criticism, self-doubt, fears, anxiety, ego, anger, obsession
  • Attachment to outcome
  • Wasting time, or using the time you do have available for writing to complain that if only you had more time, you’d get more writing done

There are useful steps to take when you want to write, but you’re feeling overwhelmed and directionless. The antidote to not knowing one’s intention, purpose, goal or direction can be found in the concept of mindfulness. If getting started presents this much of a challenge, learning how to practice mindfulness, where you are consciously aware of each action, each thought, in any given moment, helps focus your mind on the direction you want your writing to take.

Ask yourself what truly matters to you

To be mindful, as a writer, means being consciously aware of your environment, your feelings, your visceral self.

Your visceral self exists alongside your intellectual self, the self with all the racing thoughts that lead you nowhere. If thoughts are the rats in the maze, your viscera are observing the rats, the maze, the thoughts themselves. Your visceral self is highly aware, at any given moment, of your perceptions of reality.

Awareness of one’s sensory perception is taught to creative writers. Creative writing teachers say: Pay attention to your surroundings; notice what that woman over there is wearing; describe her clothes. Notice what color the sky is, and try to describe it accurately. Don’t say ‘it’s blue.’ It’s not blue, not if you look carefully. When you really look, you’ll see it’s dove grey with light blue-tinged clouds shading into silver.

I remember this lesson very well from my creative writing classes, because without these teachers, I possibly would never have learned the word ‘obsidian,’ a wonderful word that perfectly describes some shades of grey sky, as well as being a variety of rock. Some dark clouds have obsidian underbellies in the moments prior to pouring stinging cold rain on your head.

Once you start to really notice the world around you, to pick up and touch stones, and feel their soft smoothness; or notice if your body is tired, if you’re thirsty, how your skin stings when the sun gets too hot; to notice when you suddenly hold your breath, or are aware of how that glass of water tastes… how cool, sharp and hard the glass feels in your mouth, against your tongue… all of these fractions of moments are part of what it is to be mindful.

When you approach your writing from this perspective, your thoughts are already focused, conscious and aware. Sit in this open state, quietly, with no distractions, for a few minutes, noticing with acuity everything around you—the quality of the light in the room, the precise color of your chair, the way the fabric feels under your hand—and then add deep, repetitive breathing (two or three deep breaths) until some kind of answer to this question comes to you:

Why do I want to write [fill in the blank: this book; this poem; at all]?

There was a time when I had no idea why I wanted to write, because I had no idea what it was I wanted, or needed, to say. In 1991, I started teaching adults creative writing classes at night. Did I know, in 1991, what my goal was, my ultimate purpose for writing? I did not. It took me years to discover what I want and need to say, and how I want my contribution to be that I help change the paradigm we have inherited about writing. This goal is what fuels almost all my writing now, but I didn’t know it consciously when I got started. I had to listen for this knowledge along the way. I had to wade through ego, too.

Listen to yourself; you know what you need to write about

At one point, about ten years ago, when I asked myself (again) “Why am I writing?” the answer was “to get published.” At the time, I believed I needed to get published. I needed it for my ego, for one thing, and I needed it if I was going to be taken seriously as an academic. However, I also have the conflicting lack of desire to be on display, to be ‘famous,’ or even to be known. So there was an egolessness warring inside of me, alongside my egoic need for achievement.

The middle ground I found to put those conflicting needs to rest began to emerge over time. I had to sit with my desire to write many times, asking, over and over again, “Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? What is it that I need that I can’t get any other way?” before it became clear to me that no matter what happens, whether I get published or not, I really do need to get this message out: that we need to see writing differently, we need to have a different way of looking at our need to create, to express ourselves.

So that eventually, when I asked myself “Why am I writing? What is motivating me, what is my purpose?” the answer came back: I want people to be free from their limiting self-talk. I want everyone who wants and needs to write to feel free to do so. I want people to stop believing that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write.

So, that’s why I write. Because if I don’t, I won’t get this message out, and it has to be heard until it is believed, until the paradigm changes, until our beliefs change.

Now we need to find out what motivates you. Why do you write? Why do you want to write, if you’re not currently writing? Once an answer comes to the surface, or the forefront of your mind, then we can state an intention: I want to [fill in the blank]. Only then can you set a direction on your writer’s compass. Without intention, you are directionless, and you will write aimlessly, with no discipline, if you write at all.

The Vexed Subject of Voice, Part 2

Nameless, faceless monk, toiling away with no discernible earthly reward

Here’s the real problem with the concept of “voice”: it depends entirely on the notion of the individual.  Now, you’re thinking, so what? Well, I’ll tell you so what.

The problem with this point of view is that for postmodernists, there is no such thing as the ‘individual’. There are multiple perspectives, multiple points of view, and one person contains all of them, not one single unified identity that creates this mythical ‘voice’.

Think about it; if you were to express yourself in all the identities you maintain, you might feel schizophrenic. What are your separate identities? Do you use a different voice in each role you play in the world? I’ll bet you do.

You don’t use the same voice to speak to your significant other that you use when you talk to your child. Does this mean you are all these different people, or that there are various facets to your ‘personality’? (another vexed term for postmodernists).

So if we contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman presciently put it, then how can we be held to one voice? Where do we get the idea that this one individual identity exists? Well, most recently, from the Modernists and the Romantics before them. We have inherited the notion that the individual reigns supreme.

We have long forgotten the nameless, faceless, seemingly identity-less days of the Medieval period, or the Dark Ages, when an anonymous monk toiled in silence over his book of psalms. And we don’t want to go back to those days, either. We want authorial rights, and we want them now!

If you spoke in all your various voices that you use during the course of the day, would you sound crazy to yourself? Would you doubt that you have one unified identity? Try thinking this way and see what happens.

Better still, try writing down what each persona you live with would say, and all the different ways you have to say something, thinking specifically of your audience and the context in which you’re likely to say it, and realise that you contain many voices. And that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sorry I complicated this seemingly uncomplicated subject. I have a habit of doing that.