People ask me about writing all the time. How does it work? How can they get their message out to the world? On the recent Hay House I Can Do It cruise, I spoke to the Writer’s Workshop which was one of the programs given on the ship. What a great group of eager, empowered, and energetic people! I told them that it all hinges on what Abraham Maslow taught me many years ago when I was a young doctoral student. He told me to put forth what I wanted, my work, my message, and then detach from the outcome. This is true for any life work because the work itself must be what is satisfying and fulfilling for you. Writing is challenging work because it’s so easy to get consumed with how it’s going, what’s going to happen to it, who’s going to like or not like it. You want to get all of that stuff out of your head and just let the work flow. If you incarnated to be a writer, if that is your passionate calling, then you’ll be getting messages from Source, from Spirit, leading you in that direction.
If you are thinking these thoughts and being guided to write, remember that you incarnated to be a writer, not necessarily an editor. Your first job is to write and not to apply a critical eye to your work without first letting it pour forth. Writing is like anything else—the more you do it, the better you get at it, the easier it comes and the less concerned you’ll be about what’s going to happen to it, where it’s going, what it sounds like, whether it’s right. After my four decades of writing, I have a practice that works beautifully for me. I just let the ideas flow through my heart. I don’t write with a machine. I write with a pen and a paper which is what is most comfortable for me. I just let it flow, and I have a wonderful editor who’s been with me for 32 years. I let her take care of all the details.
To get started, forget the details and let your ideas come out on paper. Get your passion on the paper. Let the passion that you feel come through. You won’t be able to stop and it will be the best writing you ever did. Detach from the outcome. Forget about whether it’s going to get published, whether it’s good or not good, whether it’s the right thing. There is no right in this. Let it come; be an instrument of flow. It’s the practice that makes it work out. If you told me you had a lousy backhand in tennis, wouldn’t I tell you to go out and hit 1000 backhand shots this week? Keep doing what you love to the best of your ability. Stop judging and get out of your own way. I always tell audiences when I talk about writing: Writing isn’t something I do, writing is something that I am. I am writing—it’s just an expression of me. Is that how it is for you?
How I Wrote What I Was Terrified To Write Diana Spechler’s second novel, SKINNY, released on April 26th. It’s the story of a compulsive eater who takes a job at a weight-loss camp, and is forced to come to grips with herself, her father’s lies, and the half-sister she never knew existed. Diana has written for a variety of esteemed publications including the New York Times, GQ, and Esquire, and teaches writing in New York City. I’m thrilled she’s with us today to talk about writing what you know–and why it’s important. Enjoy!
How I Finally Wrote What I Was Terrified To Write I used to deny that my writing was cathartic. Instead, I talked about it as if I spent my days coating plastics on an assembly line. “It’s work,” I always said. “It’s like any job.” But when I decided to write SKINNY, a novel exploring body image issues, I ran into trouble: How was I supposed to write about one of my worst pains without feeling it? I had struggled with body image issues since before I could remember. I have a vivid memory of being ten years old, sitting on a beach in a bathing suit, feeling a roll in my stomach, and wanting to cry. This was not assembly-line material. An emotion was bound to slip out. Of course, I tried not to let that happen. I stopped and started the novel a million times because I was holding back, afraid to climb inside my protagonist’s head and experience her eating disorder. I didn’t want to watch her fantasize about ice cream sundaes, binge at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and use men as a stand-in for food. But if I didn’t do that, I didn’t have much of a character. And without that character, I didn’t have much of a story. One day when I was complaining about how difficult the work was, my best friend, also a novelist, said something that freed me: “I think you should remember that this is your story.” Perhaps it sounds like a strange thing for one fiction writer to say to another, but fiction is, in a sense, nonfiction. That is, our characters can scale mountains, sprout wings, win baseball games, live on boats, live in dumpsters, live on Jupiter, or live three hundred years ago, but the emotions we make them experience are the ones we experience ourselves. I’d been divorcing myself from my protagonist to shield myself from two things: the pain of real writing and the exposure that would accompany publication. But I wanted this book to be good, so I knew I had to lose the shield. And so, as I continued working on SKINNY, I began asking myself the same questions over and over:
1. Are you being honest? 2. Is your protagonist being honest? 3. Are you protecting your protagonist/yourself? (Stop it.) 4. If you didn’t have to protect yourself, what would you make her do/say? 5. Are you writing as if no one you know will read this? (You should be.)
Those questions got me through the first draft, the second draft, all the subsequent drafts, and everything I’ve written since. I have ended my job on the assembly line and begun my work as a writer. When you’re writing fiction, the best gift you can give yourself and the work is honesty. Yes, writing SKINNY often caused me pain. But in the end, it turned out to be the good kind of pain, like the physical therapy I once did for a shoulder injury: It was pain that made everything better. Thanks so much, Diana, for a great post! Readers, you can learn more about Diana’s compelling novel, SKINNY, by visiting Diana’s website and author page at Harper Collins, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook. Write on!
Guest column by Juliet Marillier, who was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and now lives in Western Australia. Her historical fantasy novels, including the best-selling Sevenwaters series, have been translated into many languages and have won a number of awards including the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Prix Imaginales (see all books here). Juliet is a member of OBOD (the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids). She lives in a 100-year-old cottage, which she shares with a pack of waifs and strays. Learn more at her website.
Strange how life imitates art. Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve felt curiously as if I were living in one of my own books. Each of my novels features a protagonist undertaking a difficult personal journey. On the way, each of these characters—mostly female—discovers something about herself and at the same time makes an impact on other people’s lives. Each eventually finds her inner courage and proves she is able to learn from all her experiences, even the painful and frightening. Facing a similar journey, full of challenges and unknowns, I feel obliged to delve inside myself and find the same combination of wisdom and warrior spirit. What I write, I must be prepared to live.
IN ANY GENRE, CHARACTERIZATION IS KEY
As a novelist, I’m endlessly fascinated by human behavior and interactions. The most satisfying stories are those in which the protagonists change and develop along the way. In many fantasy novels, the emphasis is on world-building and/or keeping the story going at a cracking pace, and depth of characterization can fall by the wayside. The best fantasy—indeed the best fiction in any genre—contains characters so real that they draw us into the heart of their journey. We understand why they make bad choices. We share their secrets. We know their weaknesses and flaws. We applaud when they win small battles, become wiser, confront their demons. We weep when they fail.
There are technical tricks that may help you create more effective characters. My approach to characterization is not at all technical. I can’t really analyze how I do it, but I am sure of one thing. To write convincing characters, you must possess the ability to think yourself into someone else’s skin. I’m not talking about an intellectual exercise, but something more visceral. I don’t know if it can be learned. I believe I’ve acquired it through life experience. The ability to understand what makes people tick comes from within. In your mind, you must be the character in order to make his or her journey real.
TURNING POINT EXERCISE
Test yourself by imagining how you might act, feel, respond in each of the following situations:
* Someone close to you, your child, partner, or parent, is facing torture or summary execution. You can save him or her if you are prepared to betray an old and trusted friend. What physical sensations are you feeling? What is in your mind? What choice will you make? What will this do to your sense of self and your relationships with these people afterward?
* Every day you walk on eggshells to avoid provoking a family member’s abusive behavior. This is the habit of many years. One day something changes in you—you pack a suitcase and leave. That night, in the safety of a friend’s house, you sit in front of the fire alone. What are your physical sensations? What do you see, hear, smell, touch? What is going through your mind? In what ways do you feel different?
* You have always been an independent person, in control of your own life, your beloved house, animals and garden. But you’ve had a stroke, and your children have just moved you to an old people’s home. They’ve unpacked your possessions neatly, had a cup of tea with you and left. What are you doing? How are you feeling? What is the future looking like right now?
Now move on to one of your own characters. First, look at the beginning and end of this character’s journey. Then zoom in on three or four key moments along the way. When is she at her highest? Her lowest? What are the significant turning points? Apply the scenario exercise to each of those, remembering that you are the character. Take a snapshot of your physical, mental and emotional state. The snapshots can provide a blueprint for this character’s development.
Of course, each scenario leads to various possibilities, just as the woman trying on the wigs faces many possible futures. What kind of wig does she choose? The one that is most like her own hair. She needs no additional armor—her warrior spirit is inside.
(A version of this post appeared on Writer Unboxed in 2009. Juliet is currently in good health. Seer of Sevenwaters (Roc, December 2010) was written during her year of cancer treatment.)
I recently signed up for email notices for Leah McClellan's Peaceful Planet blog and got the link to download a copy of her free ebook, Everybody's Guide to Proofreading. It's also a premium for subscribing to her Eagle Eye blog that might have more specific interest to writers.
The book is terrific, full of good information. I urge you to visit both Leah's sites and sign up yourself, but right in the front of the ebook, she says it's okay to share it as we wish, so if you'd rather not sign up, here's the link: http://snurl.com/27v3bb [peacefulplanetcommunication.com]
Find me on the web: http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com http://writing4health.com email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
I remember a couple of years ago I was talking about this with a friend. I remember commenting that I knew once upon a time that I did have freedom but I must have misplaced it somewhere along the way. I just couldn't seem to find it anymore.
Have you ever felt this way before Sherrie? I'd be willing to guess that you have. It's a pretty common thing for us to feel in this busy world that we've created for ourselves.
The truth is FREEDOM had never left me at all. And I had certainly not misplaced it. I had just misplaced my attention on areas that kept me feeling distracted, tense, tight and restricted. What I had actually misplaced was not my freedom but my focus on taking time to RELAX, TRUST and to just BE in the moment.
As time goes on I realize more and more the true benefit of relaxing, not only for the sake of physical health but in the enjoyment of ALL aspects of life. Nothing desired can flow through when we're restricted, tense, worrying, doubting or engaging in any of the other 'ing words that do not include relaxing. And you know, we dont even need to be "perfect" at this relaxing thing for it to make a positive difference in our lives... Every little bit really does add up. Eventually we even begin to develop a WONDERFUL new HABIT of RELAXING. How 'bout that?! Sounds good doesn't it? Well, it gets even better....... Relaxing opens the creative channels within us wide and clear, creating an expansiveness where everything flows sooooo much smoother than ever before.
Conscious Creativity begins with truly RELAXING and simply allowing the process to be.
Can you remember what really helps you to relax Sherrie? What else do you think might work for you? How can you incorporate a little more of this relaxing time and focus into this week? How about beginning by simply remembering how good it feels when you simply........... LET GO, BREATHE and just BE.
Until next time, Wishing you only the very best in the Spirit of Creativity!