Hoping Against Hope
For many of us, writing can feel like a hopeless activity. You're working on what you hope will be a good piece, and suddenly it falls apart and can't be salvaged. You write a piece you hope is good, but you send it out continually for months—maybe even years—and no one accepts it for publication. You get something accepted for publication and hope people will read it, but you never really know if anyone does.
If you're working with the traditional sense of what hope means, experiences such as these can be debilitating. Enough of them can even drive you to stop writing altogether—I know; I gave up writing for such reasons several times in my life. But, many years ago, I came across a definition of hope by Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel that changed my perspective. Here is how Havel (who, by the way, faced difficulties in life far beyond what most of us have ever faced, including imprisonment) came to understand hope:
"Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good… Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
That definition of hope gives me goose bumps every time I read it, because it turns on its head the meaning I carried with me for so much of my life, that so often left me feeling hopeless. As I'd seen it, one always had to hope for something, a tangible result, so every time that something didn't materialize, hope faded a bit more—until, finally, it was extinguished entirely, at least for a time. With writing, I always managed somehow to relight it, but that doesn't happen with everyone. Some people just give up writing for good because it's not "obviously heading for success."
But what if we operate according to Havel's definition of hope? Then it's a matter of attitude, not results. Can we believe that writing itself is a "good" thing? Can we enjoy it for its own sake? Can we believe it's worth doing, in and of itself, even if our only audience is ourselves and a handful of family members, friends, and fellow writers? If we can do these things, then there is hope, then we can write because it is something that "makes sense" to do, something we can "work for…because it is good."
I can also tell you from personal experience that doubts about one's self as a writer almost never go away, even with successful writers. I worked with a few of them when I was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and they were inevitably disappointed by how brief the experience of success was, even when they'd been published successfully. Most writers short of the bestseller list get a few months of attention, at best, and then they are forgotten again. My point being that even when writers achieve the success that Havel refers to, they are soon back in the same position as any writer, working on something they hope will be successful and wondering if it will be published and read.
So, I'll tell you what I told those Houghton Mifflin authors: Write because you love writing, the process of delving into your own conscious and subconscious mind to create something with words; the trying, the failing, the trying again, the satisfaction of getting it right, once in a while. Write because, as Havel says, "it is good" and it "makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." That is where the deep, lasting satisfaction lies, that is where true hope lives.
Follow Your Curiosity
I just had the pleasure of listening to the podcast of a recent interview with author Elizabeth Gilbert on the radio program On Being. Krista Tippet, the interviewer, has entitled the program "Choosing Curiosity Over Fear," which is a concept that Gilbert discusses during the interview. But that concept grows out of a more basic epiphany that Gilbert had, which was realizing that the commonly used advice, "Follow your passion" (sometimes stated as "Follow your bliss") could be crippling to creativity.
Why might this be so? Because words such as "passion" and "bliss" are loaded. How often do we experience those states of mind? They are tremendously heightened states, and I don't think it's even possible to maintain them for any length of time. I love writing, but, much as I enjoy it, I don't often feel passionate or blissful about it.
Curiosity is a much gentler word. It is a state of mind that can be held lightly—and can be maintained over the long run. I'm always curious about writing. One of my favorite epigrams about the writing process is, "How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say?" (This could be rephrased for fiction as, "How do I know what the story is going to be until I see what I write?") Writing is a process of discovery, not of building something preconceived.
Being curious is also childlike. It gets us back to that simpler state of mind when we used to do things just because we were interested in them—not because we were trying to achieve anything in particular or thought we had to prove something. It was exploration unfettered by expectations—or, at least, by significant expectations. The main expectation was that it would be interesting, and that was enough.
And it ought to be enough. Too often, we stop ourselves before we really get started because our expectations are too high. Either we expect the experience of writing to be more exciting than it usually is (Gilbert believes that 90% of any creative process is boring) or we expect to be more excited about what we produce each time we sit down (which is a good time to remember the epigram, "Mediocrity is a starting place"). But if we're motivated by curiosity, we'll always be interested in what we might come up with, or what might come through us, next, or in what we might do with a mediocre piece to make it better.
On a larger scale, expecting to experience passion/bliss during creativity, or expecting the writing life to be passionate/blissful, sometimes leads a writer to believe that he's "not really" a writer. I certainly felt this many times during my life. It took me a long time to get to the point where, essentially, the whole experience of writing and being a writer became a process of following my curiosity. Now, if an idea arouses my curiosity, I go with it, as far as that curiosity takes me—which could be a few lines of a poem, a few paragraphs of a short story, half-a-chapter of a novel. If my curiosity continues, the piece continues; if not, I put it aside.
And if I don't have any ideas that arouse my curiosity, I don't write. I no longer believe, as I used to, that I have to write almost daily in order to be a writer. I am a writer. I will always be a writer. And when something arouses my curiosity, I will write about it.
Follow your curiosity. It will take you where you need to go.
A "Critical" Exercise
In my last blog, I talked about the Critic in myself, the one who used to keep me from getting much writing done by convincing me that I was no good. I mentioned doing an exercise in a Psychosynthesis class that helped me put the Critic in his proper place. While I don't have that particular exercise, here is another that was helpful to me in the process of making peace with my Critic. If your Critic gives you trouble, try engaging with him or her using this exercise:
Confronting the Critic
Sit quietly, close your eyes, let your mind empty out, as much as possible.
Imagine entering a forest, which grows deeper and darker, until you come to the base of a mountain. In the brush, find a hidden door. When you've found it, open it and enter the dimly lit passage on the other side. The passage slants downward, gradually taking you deeper and deeper into the earth below the mountain.
At the bottom of the passageway, you come upon another door. Open the door and enter a long, book-lined hallway. At the end of this hallway is another door. When you open the door, you find on the other side your dream study. (Even if your dream study has high windows, lots of sunlight, a view of the ocean, or whatever, that is what you experience here—this is a magical place.)
On your dream desk sits smooth, creamy paper and a beautiful, perfectly balanced pen. Sit down at the desk and pick up the pen, feeling comfortable and purposeful—like you truly belong there.
Then you hear someone clear his throat and turn to see…the Critic—the one who always makes you feel unconfident and prevents you from writing as much as you'd like. Take him in. Notice his physical characteristics, his posture, his gestures, the look in his eye.
Does he say anything? If he does, take it in.
Do you want to say anything to him? If so, say it.
When you're done with him, look back at your beautiful piece of paper and, in spite of the Critic, write slowly and smoothly and gracefully the words: "I love to write." Look at those words and enjoy them.
Set the pen down, put your hands in your lap, close your eyes, and savor all of the ways you've loved words in your life: in stories you read or had read to you as a child, in a diary, in letters to people you love, in novels, poems, essays. Just sit and enjoy your memories of what words have meant to you.
When you've finished doing this, notice a large, black cloth, the size of a blanket, lying on the floor. Stand up, pick it up, take it to the Critic, and throw it over him, covering him completely. Now, walk out of the study, down the book-lined hall, through the door, up the long, slanted passageway, and out into the forest (which is no longer dim, but green and bright). Walk through the forest and emerge in the bright white light of the sun. Savor the warmth and brightness of the sun for a moment.
When you're ready, bring yourself slowly back from this place and into the present moment. When it feels right, take out your journal or a piece of paper or sit down at your computer, and record what happened on this journey.
I think you'll find that this exercise—which you can certainly do more than once—will help you keep the Critic under control.
Lawrence Kessenich has written in virtually every genre, was a professional editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston for 10 years, and