I am in the midst of reading a marvelous novel—more of a thinly disguised memoir, I suspect—called Dreams of My Russian Summer by Andrei Makine. In it, the protagonist tells of summer-long visits with his French grandmother, who lives at the edge of the Russian steppes, where she relates stories about growing up in France. For him, France becomes a magical, far-away land, with strange places, grand people, and mysterious foods, such as the "bartavels and ortolans" served at a state dinner for the Russian tsar in Cherbourg.
This magical perception of France continues throughout his childhood, and, then, as an adolescent, he is moved to learn more about this mysterious country. So, he embarks on an independent study of French history and culture, the end result of which is not deeper enchantment, but simply an accumulation of knowledge. This, he finds when he visits his grandmother afterward, has destroyed the magic of her stories.
But then he finds a way to reclaim the sense of magic, wonder, and, I contend, love that had previously characterized his perception of France. After contemplating a yellowed newspaper image of three women in Victorian dress photographed on the street in Paris, he is bitterly disappointed that their image seems flat and unreal. But he continues to think about them for the remainder of the day, and, finally, standing on the balcony of his grandmother's little house, he finds a way to enter their world and experience it in his mind and heart:
"It was then that, returning to the memory of the elegant trio, I had this simple thought, this last echo of the sad reflections in which I had just been sunk. 'What they had in their lives was an autumn morning, cool and clear, an avenue in the sun, strewn with dead leaves, where they paused for a moment, motionless before the lens. Bringing the moment to a standstill…Yes, there was in their lives a clear autumn morning…'"
"I was suddenly transported with all my senses into the moment that the smile of the elegant trio had captured. I found myself amid the ambience of its autumnal smells; so penetrating was the acrid scent of dead leaves that my nostrils palpitated. I blinked at the sun that shone through the branches. I heard the distant sound of a phaeton bowling over cobblestones. And still the confused murmuring of a few laughing remarks that the three women exchanged before freezing before the photographer…Yes, intensely, fully, I was living their time!"
I don't think I've ever read a passage that captures so accurately the complete immersion in an imagined scene that good writing requires. The author has clearly fallen in love with these characters, with this moment on a Paris street. He is as enthralled with it as he would be with a woman he was falling in love with. In fact, he enters into it so fully that, for a moment, he says, "I was suddenly afraid of being trapped there forever." Anyone who has fallen in love knows that feeling of being totally enthralled with the loved one.
It is this immersion in, this willingness to give one's self over completely to, an imagined scene that makes those scenes come alive for the reader. As Robert Frost succinctly put it: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." If we want our readers to inhabit the worlds we create, we must first inhabit them ourselves—love them so much that we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel their reality. No love for the writer, no love for the reader.
There are two situations where, when I answer the phone, people inevitably ask if I've been sleeping. The first is when I've just been meditating. The second is when I've just been writing. I'm convinced that it's no coincidence.
One of the things I enjoy about writing is that it takes me out of myself. Many people imagine creative writing as being a highly conscious process, where the writer is sitting there trying to think things up. And, sure, there are moments when I'm trying to think of what a place would look like, what words would best describe something, or what a character would do next. But most of the time I'm just in the flow, the words coming out from wherever they come without conscious effort.
(And, often, when I get stuck trying to figure what a place would look like, the words to best describe something, or what a character should do next, they suddenly arise out of my unconscious when I'm not even thinking about writing—which is why it's always good have a notebook at hand).
When I am engaged in writing, there is no ego involved. (The moment I start worrying about what someone else might think of what I'm writing, I can't do anything.) And that is also the purpose of meditation, to free oneself from the ego. Where the mind goes when we meditate or write is anybody's guess, but it goes somewhere—hence the confusion of folks on the phone, who guess that I've just gotten back from dreamland. But neither meditating nor writing leads to dreamland; it takes me to a calmer place, a place that feels blank, but is, in fact, the threshold of something bigger than myself, a place from which I get intangible but important things: peace, insight, images, creative ideas.
Call it the unconscious, called it God, call it Nirvana—or don't call it anything; but it's real. When I meditate successfully and when I write successfully, I, too, feel as if I've been somewhere else. And it's a wonderful place, and I want to visit it more often.
Someone once said that writing successfully is about getting out of your own way. I couldn't agree more. To be a better writer, I have to learn to ignore the inner critic, to let go of trying too hard, to practice getting myself to the threshold of that place where good ideas, powerful images, and insight into characters comes from.
One of the best ways to practice getting there is to just start writing—quickly, almost automatically, just putting down whatever flows out of your pen. Much if it will be muck, of course, but often, sticking out of that muck, will be thoughts, images, and ideas worthy of further investigation. I've worked this way when writing background bios for characters in novels, and it's amazing what can emerge that helps me understand the character better. If you want to learn more about this approach to writing, check out the classic Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.
I believe that the more often you can manage to get outside of yourself while you write, the more often you'll enjoy it and the more often something will emerge that you, and others, will enjoy.
In contrast to the popular image of the creative writer as an egotist eager for praise, I'd like to hold up the image of the writer as a monk in a cell praying for inspiration, begging God or the Muses or his own subconscious for the words that will express what he passionately feels about the world. And if he sometimes comes across as an egotist eager for praise, it's because he is so insecure about whether or not he is capable of producing something inspired, something that will move people to tears or laughter or make them think more deeply about something.
Even the most talented writer can find herself blocked by the lack of inspiration, which creates a lack of confidence, which creates a lack of will. And writing is, at least in part, an act of will. Someone (Rilke?) once wrote that no one should be a writer if she isn't compelled to write. But even if one is compelled to write, it is still difficult to find the courage and patience to start from scratch, to face a blank page and attempt to put something meaningful on it.
The purpose of this blog is to help writers explore and understand their relationship to writing, to put that relationship in the context of a whole life, to find a way to make the act of writing a spiritual practice that nurtures as well as challenges. This blog is intended to help writers begin to free themselves from the inner critic, reconnect with essential sources of inspiration, and recognize the psycho-spiritual blocks to creativity. Occasionally, it I will provide exercises for achieving those ends.
Over time, "Writing as a Habit of Being" will explore creative writing as:
If this approach to the writing life speaks to you, this blog will speak to you. You may not be religious—nor am I—but I believe that most writers are deeply spiritual, and that nurturing the spirit makes writing a bit easier and a lot more satisfying. Follow "Writing as a Habit of Being" and nurture your own spirit .