Step One To Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

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Here is step one in the six-step, developmental process I’ve created to help you think of yourself as writer. Subsequent steps can be found at The Collaborative Writer’s Online Course website (you’ll need a password for access to the self-directed online courses, so let me know if you’re interested in going forward). 

In the first step, we focus on the idea of ‘inspiration’ and begin with a poem intended to get you thinking about what what we mean by ‘inspiration’—where does it come from? How can we best use our ‘ah-ha!’ moments? How can we harness the energy of inspiration? These are all fundamental questions every writer navigates over time, and it’s where we’ll begin our journey. 

 
Inspiration
As to the flash of inspiration
and traffic laws on writing’s path—
what comes can’t be stopped, 
what leaves will not be restrained.
It hides like fire in a coal
then flares into a shout.
When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back; 
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush
that colors brim out of your ears 
and music echoes in your eyes.
—from The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters
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Inspiration: What it is, what it isn’t

WHAT IT IS

Out of nowhere, a thought, feeling, or response to something you’ve read or heard enters your consciousness. What was unformed energy is suddenly a perception. You have something to say! Quick, write it down, because if you don’t, this idea is so unformed, it will be lost in an instant, and another brilliant thought will be lost to posterity.

WHAT IT ISN’T

This is not a subject, theme, or three-volume novel—yet. You have not yet discovered your subject, what it’s about or the why of it. All you have right now is an idea. This is not the time to call an agent to arrange a contract with a publisher. You are not in pre-writing yet. Nothing concrete might come of this idea. It is a start, a place to begin.

THINKING ABOUT IT

Invention is a stage in the writing process we don’t understand very well and therefore tend to mythologize, largely because it seems so entirely out of our conscious control, yet it’s where creation seems to begin. It often seems like the most magical moment in the writing process. Because of this, I believe we often invest too much in the notion that we must always sound utterly original and unique; otherwise, why bother?

Many developing writers don’t think of writing as a way of discovering what it is they want to say. Instead, they sometimes believe that they need to know precisely what it is they want to say before they begin to write, that writing should reflect a thinking process that is more or less complete. After all, we read only the finished works of Hemingway or Shakespeare. Society praises these works as brilliant, ignoring the writer’s process, with all its complications and confusions.

Something to keep in mind is that we often discover what we think, feel, or believe during the writing process itself. The physical act of writing (whether it’s by hand on paper or by hand as we type) forces us to make connections in our mind that we wouldn’t have otherwise perceived. Likewise, brainstorming, allowing yourself to write freely, without expectation of grammatical or editorial correctness, is an excellent way to allow your deepest, most authentic thoughts to surface.

Focus, at this stage, on exploring ideas, rather than imposing structure on your work.

WRITING EXERCISE #1

There are traditional methods of invention; the Ancient Greeks were using them over two thousand years ago. Coming up with ideas might seem the hardest stage of all in the writing process, but the easiest way to think of something to write is to have an emotional response to something you’ve experienced.

Strong emotion is a useful gauge of what’s important to us. There’s no faster way to know what you value; what’s important to you is an excellent place to begin your writing. You come to know yourself better when you allow yourself to explore your emotional responses.

Find a piece of writing (a newspaper article, a blog entry, an editorial of some kind) that spurs your response. Without editing yourself (especially without predetermining which emotional responses are appropriate) write as much as you can in response to the article. If it helps, imagine you’re speaking directly to the person who wrote the article. Disagree with him or her; tell the writer exactly what you think. 

If you’re angry, let yourself be angry; if you’re excited, let yourself be excited. Write by hand in your writer’s notebook, or write online and save your document. When you feel ready, share your response with me, and we can discuss what you’ve learned about yourself. The next step will be determining whether or not you’d like to develop an idea you discovered during this writing exercise.

Write to me when you’re done; let me know how your process goes. Or, if you’d rather work on your own, go to The Collaborative Writer Online Courses for more information.

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The Intrinsic Writer

Deep River Dream, Robin Urton

Intrinsic writing

is about writing for your own, self-motivated reasons, such as the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal you’ve set for yourself, or discovering something about yourself.

Intrinsic meaning occurs during an autotelic activity, one we direct and have a sense of control over. You become an intrinsic writer when you write because you feel like it; or more importantly, because you feel happier and more engaged with life when you’re writing.

Alternatively, extrinsic writing is about writing for an externally-motivated reason (a deadline, a publisher, need for approval, to win against an opponent as part of a competition). This creates an exotelic situation, which comes with a potential problem: since we are all raised within an agonistic worldview, one’s exotelic reason for writing too often involves some form of competition.

This might never be a literal competition. Instead, this could be the sense that anonymous others are achieving when you’re not. To the extent that you are motivated and feel good about yourself, responding to an externally-motivated stimulus has little or no negative connotation.

Blooming Meditation, Robin Urton

Ideally, of course, competitive situations are supposed to be pleasurable and bring out our best.  However, when it comes to writing, an activity complicated by individual psychology, emotional states, and perceptions of reality, there can be a negative component to being raised in a strongly competitive culture.

Because competition is not necessarily a positive energy, there’s a potential chasm lying between autotelic and exotelic writing. There are specific times when writing goes badly or feels forced. I believe at least some of these moments are caused by external, socially-reinforced stressors on the writer.

There are certain expectations imposed on those who come to the writing situation. For the writer to succeed, she must overcome hurdles that do not necessarily exist for those who fulfill the ‘social contract‘ of what a writer is expected to be, based on what we’ve been told to believe—our legacy of writing myths.

A Dreamer’s Odyssey, Robin Urton

‘Successful’ writers, I think we can agree, have all, to a great extent, accepted the unspoken social contract that says that writing is, like any other commercially-viable activity, competitive in nature. In addition to money, fame and glory, there is something for the successful writer to “win,” and it’s called cultural capital—not an insignificant possession, since it grants you access to power in ways that should be discussed more often than they are.

Cultural capital is a form of social cachet or status granted to the person who attains intellectually significant achievements. That these achievements are defined by a group in power with cultural values that shift and change over time is a detail that goes largely undiscussed, since instead we focus on the writer’s attainment, rather than the elitism of the cultural milieu in which she attains whatever status is granted to her.

Meditation Dream, Robin Urton

But what happens for the writer whose self-motivation is provisional, who depends largely upon someone else’s approval if she is to continue writing without feeling discouraged? To continue being interested in the challenge of writing, she’s going to have to add to the complexity of her own writing experience by adding new skills. Ideally, complexity should be balanced by a difficulty factor that includes attainable goals.

By using the word ‘attainable,’ of course, I have complicated the situation, since many goals you might want to achieve seem utterly unrealistic if you believe the myths about writing and writers we have inherited through the centuries, so let’s look at some of those myths.

Writing is an activity unlike any other for one specific reason: writers are imbued with magical ability because society puts high value on the ability to communicate in ways that affect our emotions. This is true, I believe, because we don’t understand ourselves very well, and we’d like to think that writers and other artists have a mystical understanding of humanity’s inner dimensions, combined with an ability to explain ourselves to ourselves.

Then society decides that ‘good’ writers (usually writers who can explain the human condition via poetry or lyrical prose) are so special, so magical, so inspirational, that the writer is placed on a pedestal of heroic proportion. During this process of ‘deification’, the writer becomes A Great Author, and society loses any sense of proportion in terms of valuing the person as an average human being.

Brave New World, Robin Urton

The danger of being externally-motivated in an environment where writers are pitted against one another, and are encouraged to live up to a mythic status available only to an anointed few, seems clear. Only the intrinsic writer will succeed in having a meaningful reason to write when up against such strong beliefs about what makes writing and the writer important and valued.

As long as we continue to perpetuate the elitism that surrounds the act of writing, we risk alienating potential writers who lose faith in themselves when they come up against hurdles that have nothing to do with ability, talent, or skill, and everything to do with perception, belief, and mythology about writing and writers.