Judith Handelsman Smith is the author of three books including GROWING MYSELF: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY THROUGH GARDENING. After creating a mountain sanctuary for meditators, and teaching Vipassana meditation for a decade, she has refocused on writing. Her fourth book is a memoir of her lifelong spiritual awakening. Her blog is the most current outpouring of her writer’s voice, one that is personal, meaningful and real. Judith’s memoir is one of my favorites of all time, and so it’s no surprise I love her blog, too. Please visit www.deepscribejudith.com.
Self-Doubt/ Self-Knowledge/ Changing my Relationship to Writing/ Doing the Work of Writing/ Being a Professional Creative/ Glamour Isn’t Real
As a writer and an artist, the only time I am truly happy is when I am creating. Creativity is intoxicating and not separate from my life. The creative process, in whatever medium, is my vehicle for satisfaction and empowerment. Everything I do is art.
I realized the truth of this when I first appeared on a TV talk show to promote my first book. Writing the book gave me satisfaction. Talking about the book, after the fact, tasted like sand in my mouth. When I realized the discrepancy between process and PR, I knew where my joy came from.
Writing always came naturally to me, even as a little girl. I was born with an ease and fluidity in writing, I unwittingly took for granted. I started writing professionally forty years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I had immediate success getting my first book published with a top-tier publisher in New York. I sold pieces to well-known magazines, and wrote and read a daily radio column for a major news network. I was doing well.
I believed being a successful writer should make me feel good about myself, but it only masked the wound I carried inside. In truth, I felt less-than, not enough, unable to take in my success, and afraid to fail. The glamour part was seductive, but it wasn’t real. It seemed real when I had books published, won awards, made appearances, signed autographs, gave speeches, and taught classes. But, it didn’t solve my problems.
At some point, I became inundated with unconscious material, as Jung would put it. I became depressed, fatigued, and overwhelmingly sad. I developed severe back problems and crippling pain. I had an abortion, got divorced, and lived in physical, emotional and spiritual crisis for years.
I knew I needed to heal myself in order to save my own life. Meditation and psychotherapy became my two strongest modes of inner work. It was obvious to me that being a writer and author did not make me feel like somebody. It couldn’t. I didn’t respect myself as a writer, or as a human being.
I began to address the hole in my being. Among other issues, I admitted I wasn’t living up to my potential as a writer. A big part of me felt like a hack. I had been writing in a certain mode for many years and got stuck in a good place. Inside me was a book calling out to be written that would be a huge departure from the kind of writing I was doing. I vowed to do everything in my power to birth that book into form.
Writing became my spiritual practice. I dove deep within myself to enrich my writing skills so I couldn’t blame myself if I failed. I stopped being afraid of my ambition and harnessed it to generate productive action. “Just do it,” became my answer to every fear that arose.
During the eighties, I gobbled up the new books about writing on both sides of the brain to access my creativity. At the time, these techniques were cutting edge. They taught me how to mine the personal gold of my feelings and put them into words.
With these methods and my enthusiasm, I changed my relationship to writing. I made myself vulnerable and stopped playing it safe. In this way, I recharged my creativity and found a boldness and iconoclastic bravery I never had before. I discovered I could be myself and write.
During this time, I developed my own curriculum and taught writing and poetry workshops from an inner point of view. I called my workshop, The Inner Game of Writing, and my college class, Writing as an Artistic Experience. When I decided to host a writing salon at my home, writers and poets from throughout the area came out of isolation.
In the salon, we’d each write a word or phrase on a piece of paper, and put it into a hat. Someone would pick out a topic, and we’d write for ten minutes, then read out loud what we wrote, round-robin style. Each writer had a vastly different take on the same topic. For a couple of hours, we’d do marathon writing and generate a lot of material.
We gained confidence writing together and had fun loosening up. We were all students, and we were all teachers. The only rule was no criticism. Some writers had been paralyzed for years after being picked apart by other writers in more traditional settings.
Navigating Within/Tracking/Trusting Myself/ Why do I Write?/Making a Contribution
I am still wary of buying into any mystique or fantasy about what it means to be a writer. I made that mistake in the past. The glamour part minimizes the struggle we all go through in our efforts to get the words right. When Meredith asked me to do The 5-Question Interview, I almost said no. I didn’t want to set myself up as “being a writer.” I keep that self-aggrandizing posture in check, even if I am being self-deprecating and unpretentious.
In order to do this, I monitor my daydreams, plans and fantasies so they don’t get out of hand. I use meditation techniques to maintain a witness relationship to my thoughts (inner talk and inner images), and my body sensations that correspond to feelings such as fear, anger and sadness. I call these categories the components of my inner movie. In this way, I know whether I am getting carried away with desire for outer recognition and inflated financial success. I stop, breathe deeply, and come back to writing.
I offer myself up as a conduit because that is what I believe what I am. I ask for help in orchestrating the reader’s experience, and trust the help will come. When I find myself creating the illusion that being a writer makes me worthwhile, I switch my attention back to writing. Writing is the only answer to being a writer. The rest is hollow.
I finally trust myself and my ability as a writer. I write in service. The words come through me. It is obvious “I” am not doing it. For me, writing is a co-creation. Defining where the inspiration comes from, whether it’s from the muse, the subconscious, or from beyond this material world, remains conjecture. What is real is knowing I do not do it alone.
Yes, I am a highly skilled writer and editor. I have read the best writing my whole life, so I know what it sounds like. But, ultimately, I know that the verve, the vitality, and the voice is a mystery.
This attitude is more difficult to attain and sustain when, as a professional creative, I need to sell my work in the marketplace so people will read it. I keep reminding myself, this is not about me. However small my contribution may be, my intent is to use my gift to illuminate, uplift, inspire and heal. When I keep this intent in mind, the creative act itself becomes enough.
Darkness/Getting Real/ Inner Focus/From Suffering to Freedom/Satisfaction
For most people, the tendency is to focus outside for ways to feel better. “If only I were a writer or an author, I would be someone.”
If only never works. This projection becomes a subtle addiction that temporarily relieves disappointment, rejection, fear and shame. The big lie is that worldly success, in terms of adulation, money, power, fame, makes people happy. If I am writing and enjoying the creative process, there is no need to look outward to distract myself. Satisfaction from creativity is a prize in itself; the pearl of great price.
For me, writing well temporarily eclipses the general unsatisfactoriness of life. Nothing on the outside lasts for long. I watch what happens when I get what I want. The victory is fleeting. It is never enough. Difficulties and dissatisfactions arise. The mind always wants more.
Outside is seductive. Turning within is hard work. The unexamined poison and pain of a lifetime can wreak havoc with writing. When I face and feel what hurts inside, it shifts the balance of power. I cannot lie to myself if I am being self-aware and acknowledging what is dark inside me. Things that used to frighten me don’t scare me anymore. Deep psycho-spiritual work re-wires the subconscious.
If I am not writing, or I am unhappy with my writing, my first step is to look within to see what is going on. Instead of turning away, I face whatever it is and feel it through. I don’t try to get rid of it. If I try to push it away, I am at war with myself and that hurts.
Self-examination is an ongoing process, so resolution may not happen right away. But, I keep reading the book of my own mind and heart, and continue to make conscious, my unconscious drives and secrets. I shine the light of awareness on them. This is what Jung called Shadow Work.
At its core, a faithful and ardent meditation practice can transform suffering and stress into release and freedom. Meditation builds deep spiritual happiness independent of outer circumstances. This kind of happiness creates a baseline of clarity with which to face any and all conditions. Meditation is not a quick fix, but it is the deepest fix there is, and nothing can ever take it away.
The pull from within has to be undeniable in order to have the motivation and staying-power to commit to writing. It took me decades to be able to say, “I am a writer” and feel it was the truth. I used to say, “Hi. My name is Judith. I’m a writer but I don’t write.” I’d laugh but it was true.
Over the years, writing has been a stop and start practice. I’d be alternately blocked and overflowing. I have called forth four books that begged for a voice. To invoke my latest book, I prayed, danced, made rituals and ceremony, and maintained the discipline to do an immense amount of work. I was propelled to write. I loved every moment, no matter what challenges arose. I was happy just to be writing.
Please visit www.deepscribejudith.com
Copyright©2013-2016 Judith Handelsman Smith. All Rights Reserved.
I do like scaring myself when I write—
writing about something that I might not want to say aloud.
—Jessica Anya Blau
Jessica Anya Blau is the author of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, and THE TROUBLE WITH LEXI.
Meredith: What did you have to unlearn about yourself to find your truth as a writer? Was there anything that had to go?
JESSICA: I guess I had to unlearn the idea that I was not smart enough to write. I had to choose to ignore my ideas about myself and my own abilities and just write anyway.
Meredith: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a place of welcoming familiarity? Now answer this–which is the preferable path to creativity…for you?
JESSICA: I’ve always been a daydreamer, so I’m very comfortable spending hours in my head. When other people are going crazy because a flight is a delayed, or a bus isn’t showing up, or the line at the post office is forty-minutes long, I’m completely comfortable just waiting and spacing out. My writing mind is connected to my daydreaming mind, so the creative process is very comfortable for me. I do like scaring myself when I write—writing about something that I might not want to say aloud. And often that’s the best writing. Although the path to that scary writing is the same as any other writing—I just enter that spacey mindset and see what comes out.
Meredith: Do you judge your work before it’s finished? I guess a better question is how do you keep from passing too much judgment on your work in order to keep moving forward. And while we’re on the subject, what does judgment really mean?
JESSICA: I don’t have time to judge my work when I’m trying to get out an early draft! I have two kids, a dog, a husband, a house, and I teach. My writing time is very limited, no time to dilly-dally, so when I sit down I just push ahead no matter how pathetic the writing is. This way I can rather quickly get to a first draft that I’ll then revise (which is a form of judgment) over and over and over again. But I don’t really judge myself. I can see the work as separate from myself. It is something I created, but it is not me.
And, wow, ‘what does judgment mean,’ that’s a big question! Judgment feels connected to shame somehow—like it’s an overseer making sure no one shames the family, the village, the tribe, the nation. Or the self, I suppose!
Meredith: Using the six-word memoir approach, please give us your six-word description of how you write.
JESSICA: Transcribing the movie in my head.
Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing? Or a path to someplace unexpected?
JESSICA: Yes, you’re so right, it’s always the path to someplace unexpected. Last year my computer crashed and I lost about a hundred pages (I use Dropbox now). I never really rewrote those pages, I wrote something completely different using only the idea behind those pages. So even that “failure” was a path to someplace unexpected.
Visit Jessica Anya Blau at https://www.jessicaanyablau.com.
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?
Peternelle: As a young person I didn’t see myself as being a particularly creative person. I loved to read and knew that I wanted to work with the written word, but I saw my role as an editor, not as a creator. And when I attended writers conferences as a young editor, I remember being alarmed by the fervent desire of many to become bestselling authors—with all the glory and money that it was believed went with that. It seemed such an odd way to try to grab the golden ring. That is one source of the seductiveness, probably akin to the seductiveness of any sort of celebrity (which I’m pretty immune to).
The other kind of seduction—the one you describe as “being someone”—I can understand on a more personal level. Certainly when I was many drafts in on The Beast Is an Animal, I thought: If I can only get this novel published, then my life will be different. I think that for those of us who love books, the sense of accomplishment in having completed one that you’ve worked so hard on is really enormous. And of course there’s the awareness that despite how many books are written and published, it’s not something that everyone does or can do. And the permanence of having a book on the shelf with one’s name on it…well, that’s pretty seductive. It’s one guaranteed sentence in the obituary.
Meredith: Writing [or maybe, revision?] is [generally] solitary. Selling is not—selling as in marketing, promo. How do you help them make peace with one another inside you? Or do they?
Peternelle: I think of them as separate responsibilities that each need their own tending. But the writing must always comes first. I think the balance is affected by what kind of writing you do and who the audience is. In the YA world there’s a lot of networking that’s expected among other writers as well as bloggers, and there are things like cover reveals and ARC giveaways and swag and reading and reviewing of other authors’ books on Goodreads, all of which can be surprisingly time-consuming. I’m selective and unscientific about what I do on social media—basically, if I enjoy it, I do it. If I don’t enjoy it, I don’t do it. … So I think the promotion is important if you want to have a career, but by the same token you won’t have a career if you get so distracted by promotion that you have no time to write.
Meredith: The screenwriter, author and therapist, Dennis Palumbo, has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
Peternelle: Ah, well, the older I get and the more experiences I have, the more I’ve come to learn how little I truly know. Well-worn wisdom, but no less true for it. It’s remarkable how much I thought I had figured out in my twenties. I was invited to present at a writers conference when I was maybe 27, and I’ve blocked out the content of my talk, but as I recall I was genuinely afraid afterwards that the writers in attendance were going to show up at my hotel room door with torches and pitchforks. I was that awful and discouraging. And I think that speaks to your quote from Shunryu Suzuki: There’s a particular sort of narrow-mindedness that comes from thinking you know a lot. Publishers can fall victim to this—they make proclamations such as X doesn’t sell and Y does. And next thing you know X sells and so now they’re all look for X and then X stops selling and what do you know, Z comes along and no one ever thought of Z because who would have ever thought of Z? … The older I get the more I want to believe that I don’t know what’s around the corner, but I hope it’s wonderful. I don’t know how someone can be creative without maintaining a child-like curiosity. I’m excited to write my next novel because I’m so eager to see how it’s all going to turn out.
Meredith: Can some stories not be found? What happens next—to the work and…our psyche?
Peternelle: I don’t know whether it’s that the story can’t be found, or maybe that the story can’t be told in a form that a wider readership wants to come to. As a freelance editor, I’ve worked with memoirists who had really interesting stories to tell, but we all have so much to read and it’s a question as to whether a publisher will think it rises to a commercial-enough level for them. This doesn’t mean that the story wasn’t found. But of course there are times when the manuscript simply isn’t working. Sometimes I think that’s because whatever the author needed to exorcise—whether fictional or factual—is purged at a point when it’s less than a book. And sometimes it’s only in writing a book that you discover, oh, that’s not a book.
I’ve heard writers say that when they submitted the same concept to magazine editors and book editors, they heard from the magazine editors that it should be a book, and from the book editors that it should be a magazine article. I think a lot of ideas exist in that in-between space—somewhere between an article and a book, and sadly there isn’t a clear market for that. But more to the point of your question—what does the writer do in the face of that kind of rejection? As someone who has discarded two complete manuscripts for novels that shall never ever ever see the light of day, I feel that I can say with some authority: Move on. It’s all you can do. I’m not saying give up on a project prematurely. My novel that is finally being published went through draft after draft. But I believed in it, and my agent believed in it, so I kept trying to hit the mark. If it had gotten to the point where my agent no longer had faith in it, or when every publisher rejected it, I’d have shelved it. I can say that with certainty. A creative person must believe that no idea is the last idea.
Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?
Peternelle: Interesting, I’ve thought a lot about this as I get to work on my second novel. I’ve been fascinated to hear what Ann Patchett has to say on this subject. She’s said that all of her novels are basically the same story—people trapped together. And she realizes that she keeps writing the same novel over and over, even if the rest of us might look at the superficial elements and find them different. For the time being, I am drawn to dark fairy tales, because I think there’s such psychological, emotional, social, and political richness to be found in them. I can’t really imagine exhausting that form, but there may come a time when I feel like I’ve done all that I can with it. …
In my writing, sentence by sentence, I ask myself: Am I falling back on cliché? Is this as fresh and wholly my own as it can be? That sounds pretentious, but I don’t mean that every sentence I write is a gem, just that I try to make every sentence I write either original or pure or both. So I try not to fall back on what others have done, and failing saying something original, I try to say something essential that can be said no other way. … Homeostasis is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. I think one can be incredibly imaginative with landscape and tell essentially the same story over and over (and there’s nothing wrong with that because, for example, it’s hard to go wrong with good vs. evil, or a bunch of people trapped together), or you can restrict yourself to drawing rooms and endlessly plumb the depths of the human psyche.
“…what we call the Muse is simply a form of intuition. Intuition is a matter of successfully sync’ing your internal and external worlds so you can easily move about your environment based on your previous experience.”
Kayt Sukel is the author of two books including THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SEARCH FOR LOVE. After suffering a midlife crisis in reverse—and feeling like it was negatively affecting her writing—she decided to investigate the science of risk-taking behavior to invigorate her craft and her life. The result is her new book, THE ART OF RISK: THE NEW SCIENCE OF COURAGE, CAUTION, & CHANCE.
Here, Kayt discusses why you need to be open to risk and uncertainty in order to catch the Muse.
by Kayt Sukel
There’s a quote that I love (and, admittedly, also kind of hate) in Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art.” He writes:
“When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.” “This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her
Successful writers understand that creation means sitting down and doing the work. It means getting up, no matter how busy we may be, how tired we are, or how insecure we may feel, and putting words on the page. It’s about making time and putting aside resources. It’s about commitment and discipline. Creativity doesn’t happen without it.
We can’t patiently wait and hope the Muse will grace us with her presence. You have to chase her down and fight, sometimes quite hard, to keep her nearby. And doing so is a lot of work—diligent, painstaking work. Working writers understand that this is the way it is. You have to fight for your words, your voice, and your creations. But I believe that Pressfield is missing one important thing from his list. Earning the Muse’s favor, and concentrating all that creative power, requires more than just hard work. It also requires taking a few risks along the way.
Let me explain.
We talk about the Muse as if she is a mystical being. Well, I mean, technically she is the stuff of myth and legend—but we’ve extended the metaphor in order to easily explain how our brain works as we attempt creative projects. Simply stated, what we call the Muse is simply a form of intuition. Intuition is a matter of successfully sync’ing your internal and external worlds so you can easily move about your environment based on your previous experience. That’s whether we’re walking down the street or trying to put pen to paper. But good intuition, as it turns out, comes from working at the edge and taking a few risks.
Erik Dane, a business professor at Rice University, says that intuition is simply your brain going through a pattern matching process. “You are essentially mapping all the experiences you’ve accrued to the situation at hand—and it’s happening at a very unconscious, automatic level,” he explained. “Often, you aren’t even aware of why or how you started moving in a particular direction.”
Sounds a lot like when the Muse strikes, doesn’t it? All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, you get that “A-ha!” and are compelled to start following a particular stream of words and ideas. But to get to the point where the brain can do effective pattern matching—helping you come up with creative, yet meaningful, sentences and story arcs—you need to do your homework. Your brain needs you to be prepared and experienced. And that’s where risk comes in. Because you can’t gain good experience by playing it safe.
New research in neuroscience is showing that taking risks is a key ingredient to creativity, flow, and decision-making. By being prepared and thoughtful, yet working at the edge of your performance ability, you allow your brain to forge new and amazing connections, to work more efficiently, to focus on the right variables, to better understand what works and doesn’t work, and to, ultimately, find success. But you have to shake things up a little to make that happen.
Am I saying that you need to go out and start skydiving? Not necessarily. (Although, if your book’s protagonist is going to be experiencing some freefall, it’s not the worst idea). But you should find ways to court more uncertainty in your craft. Go out and experience what you’re writing about directly. Ask questions, no matter how silly. Talk to strangers. Take a class (note: it doesn’t have to be in writing)—or join an accountability group. Try writing scenes from different angles. Pitch your dream pubs. If they reject you, request some feedback and pitch them again. Make the time to work on passion projects. Find joy. Throw yourself into love. Then, put the words on the page.
So, yes, do the work. Nothing can happen until you put your butt in the chair and start writing. But make sure to leave some time for risk-taking. Because while you are chasing those risks, you’ll soon find that the Muse is hovering nearby. And she’ll be so fascinated by what you’re doing that it won’t take much to catch her.
Kayt is the author of THE ART OF RISK.
It’s okay. You can stop.
Stop resisting failure and stop fighting failure and stop fighting your resistance to failure. All this fighting that adds a whole level of energy-sucking, mood-killing and creativity-busting when you’re trying to express something.
Thinking about failure is a distraction.
So is trying to think positive.
Therefore, you can also stop trying to think positive.
Two sides of the same coin.
You can also forget about star-reaching or being-like ________.
It’s hard to let go of these things, I know that from experience.
You—we—can, however, hold a goal very loosely (or forget it completely).
We can write because we love it. Because it connects us to ourselves—first and foremost.
The words we first write are fertile, but they are also like raw data. Some things are obvious and others need interpreting. So with this raw data of sorts, with the words we have, we can read them and feel them in our bodies. And when we do that we begin to know what fits and what’s uncomfortable and needs to stay, and what’s uncomfortable and needs to go.
Editing from there is a different process altogether.
When we edit we need distance from the work, but not distance from ourselves. We need to be very connected to ourselves during the editing process, and every bit as supportive of ourselves as we are when the words first come pouring out. Carve away the excess that hides the real story—the authentic, the truth–can be so frightening. It’s why so many of us get caught up in how to structure, and thinking we have to have the structure to pour the story into.
No, the story will find its structure and, as you edit, you will refine it.
Being objective doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from yourself. It means not being influenced by personal feelings about what you’ve written—or personal attachments to it.
It’s hard work to have those feelings and judgements, to tolerate them and use them rather than to think someone else, a so-called expert, will tell you how to do it. Getting help is fine, but it’s best done when you are dedicated to honoring your true self first and foremost.
Hard work, but the kind of hard work that is driven from one’s interior. The interior can feel overwhelming at times, and diving in can be consuming, but the process of writing is not only about writing, but the processing of all of this. Which is what writing is also about.
by Kim Hooper
In writing, there is much discussion of “the muse.” Who is it? Do we wait for him/her/it to appear, or go to work anyway? Does the fact that we talk to this muse make us schizophrenic?
When I think of my muse, I think of a very lazy queen, sitting atop her canopy bed, in satin pajamas. She smokes those long, skinny cigarettes and sips champagne at all hours of the day. She is snotty and judgmental. She has ideas, see, and she is not happy unless they are brought to life in the way she envisions. She doesn’t help with much of this bringing-to-life business. If anything, she gives me one line, usually at an inopportune time, like in the shower, or on a walk when I am without a pen, or in the middle of the night. How many times have I patted around my nightstand at 2AM in search of paper and a pen to please this demanding bitch?
The thing with muses is that, despite their demands, they are passive, not active. Mine is immortal, like a vampire (and judging by her preference for middle-of-the-night visits and the way I feel she sometimes sucks the creative life out of me, maybe she really is a vampire). She has all the time in the world. She teases me with ideas and just waits. She is happy if I finish that short story or novel, but I think she is also happy just sipping champagne and smoking long, skinny cigarettes.
It is my job, as the writer, to be active. It is my job to take what she gives me—inspiration from that news article I read, that tidbit from the family holiday gathering, a thud on the head with that same novel idea I’ve been mulling for months—and make it into something. If I take the initial first line she gives me and go with it, she’ll give me more. When I open a new Word document, she’s thrilled (or, actually, I think she’s the type to be “titillated”). If I set the table, in essence, she’ll continue to feed me.
Some days, I don’t have mental energy, and I may wait for that to return before I embark on a project, but I don’t really wait for the muse. To me, this phrase doesn’t even make sense. The muse is always there, waiting to be beckoned from her canopy bed. She might not come right away when I call her (she may be giving herself a pedicure), but she will come. She’ll hear the whir of the computer, or my pen scrawling across the paper, and she’ll come.
Kim is the author of People Who Knew Me.