Life, Death and the Blank Page - the Lure of Writing
Published author Jesse Blackadder gives us a great
insight into the mysteries of what drives a writer to
BE a writer, and what it takes to become a BETTER one..
|'Go within. Search
for the cause, find the impetus that bids you
to write. Does it stretch out its roots in
the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow
that you would die if you were forbidden to
write? Above all, in the most silent hour of
your night, ask yourself this: Must I write?
Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And
if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently
meet this serious question with a simple "I
must", then build your life upon it.'
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.
If you have felt the profound pull of the desire to write,
you will understand what Rainer Maria Rilke was asking
this young poet to do. Not everyone who writes will feel
that their life depends on it, but there is no doubt that
if you feel this powerful urge, your life can be enhanced
hugely be the act of creative writing - be it keeping a
private journal or setting out on the journey of writing
Almost a million writers in Australia
During the 12 months prior to April 2004, over half a
million (556,500) Australians were involved in some form
of paid or unpaid writing work, including writing for books,
magazines, newspapers, journals and newsletters and creating
scripts for films, television and plays. Another 317,200
Australians were involved in writing as a hobby. That's
more than 870,000 people who were scribbling away in notebooks
or tapping at keyboards over a whole year, according to
the Australian Bureau of Statistics report Work in
Selected Culture and Leisure Activities, Australia, April
Taking a wild guess that a few closet scribblers didn't
confess they liked to put words on paper, this means there
are nearly a million writers out there in Australia alone -people
who are entranced by the power of words and the desire
to tell their own and other's stories.
Health, creativity or a career?
The motivations for creative writing, as a hobby or a
form of work, are many - and yet I believe that deep down
they come from the same source. Writing is storytelling - one
of the oldest human activities. It is a way that a writer
can make sense of his or her own life, and share that understanding
Many theorists have posited that the notion of 'story'
is embedded into our DNA and the common elements of story
go across cultures and genders, bonding us at the most
basic level of our humanity. It's a Jungian notion, that
all stories consist of a few common structural elements,
found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams and movies.
Writer Christopher Vogler calls these elements the 'Hero's
'The pattern of the hero's journey is universal, occurring
in every culture in every time...It is as infinitely varied
as the human race itself and yet its basic form remains
constant...Such stories are accurate models of the workings
of the human mind, true maps of the psyche. They are
psychologically valid and emotionally realistic even
when they portray fantastic, impossible or unreal events.'
Vogler, The Writer's Journey.
But what does this mean for an individual writer? The
notion of writing a universal story that means all things
to all people can be enough to freeze a writer in his or
Storytelling is a powerful art, but telling our own stories
might be as simple as writing in a journal, writing letters
or even blogging - anything which takes our own specific
experience and shares it with others. It starts with knowing
that you want to write.
Knowing you want to write
Some people are aware of the desire to write from childhood,
others come to it later in life. For some it may be a desire
that's met by keeping a journal or writing letters, for
others nothing less than that Holy Grail - writing a complete
novel, play or screenplay - will suffice. The fact that
only a miniscule percentage of completed manuscripts make
it to publication seems to be no deterrent - and neither
is the fact that it is extremely difficult to make a living
from writing fiction in Australia.
Although I wrote poems, short stories and even a (truly
awful) attempt at a novel as a child, I wasn't conscious
of the writing urge as a strong force inside me until I
left school and eventually began studying creative writing
at university. Like many would-be writers, I then worked
in related fields in order to make a living: journalism,
public relations, promotions, and writing annual reports
and newsletters. Creative writing took a back seat for
a number of years, but the desire to do it never truly
A powerful dream in my early thirties was a turning point.
In the dream, I lay in bed, next to the sleeping form of
my lover. A stream of young girls started passing by the
bed. They were poised at adulthood but still with the vibrant
energy of youth. I recognised them as classmates from my
final year at school. I watched them flow past, enjoying
the life that rippled out of them. At the end of the line
was me and the shock of recognising myself felt like a
physical thump in my chest. The air around this younger 'me'
glowed with a golden energy and my younger self seemed
full of beauty and potential. Then a voice spoke, and said 'You
must write'. The words seemed to resonate right in the
core of me and at the sound of them I felt a splitting
apart and a great sob came up from my heart.
I hardly needed a dream analyst to help me discover the
hidden meaning of that dream! There was no doubt in my
conscious mind that creative writing had to come back to
centre stage. Within a year or two of having the dream
I had moved to Byron Bay and started work on a novel. Creative
writing had taken its rightful place again.
How do you know if you want to write? The feeling could
be anything from 'a feeling in the ankles' (as described
by novelist Ruth Park) to a complete obsession. It can
be strongest when you're not actually writing - for me
it is a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach when
I'm not doing it.
Especially at the beginning, it's important to treat this
urge kindly. If you feel that you want to express yourself
through writing and don't know where to start, there are
any number of inspiring books that can help you, such as The
Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, a step by step course
in discovering and healing your creative self. When you
first start writing - or even when you first acknowledge
the desire to write - you may have to overcome a lot of
resistance from your inner critic - that voice which will
tell you repeatedly that you're not good enough and you
won't be able to do it.
The wild mind and losing control
Entering into the creative world of writing can be as
wild and psychologically challenging as any spiritual practice.
Zen teacher and writer Natalie Goldberg, one of the earliest
and best known authors in the 'how to write' genre, used
her creative writing practice as a Zen meditation, and
encouraged her students to step bravely into the danger
zone of the psyche - or 'wild mind'.
I first came across Natalie Goldberg's book Wild Mind more
than 15 years ago. Her four rules of writing practice have
stayed with me ever since, and I return to them when I'm
feeling blocked. They are - 1. keep your hand moving, 2.
be specific, 3. lose control and 4. don't think. She supplements
them with a few other guidelines - 5. don't worry about
punctuation, spelling and grammar, 6. you are free to write
junk, and 7. go for the scariest parts where the energy
'...sit down in the middle of your wild mind.
This is all about a loss of control. This is what falling
in love is, too: a loss of control. Can you do this?
Lose control and let wild mind take over? It is the best
way to write. To live too.'- Natalie Goldberg, Wild
In the 15 years since Wild Mind was published,
there have been a spate of books full of exercises to help
unblock creativity and help writers face that frightening
moment when we come to the blank page, full of fear and
anticipation. I have used many of them and I still come
back to Natalie Goldberg's first writing exercise in Wild
Mind . She says to use the starting phrase 'I remember...'
and to just start writing without stopping. Every time
you get stuck, go back to that phrase and start again.
While you're doing this exercise, you follow her writing
rules. Go for ten minutes, don't stop no matter what.
It sounds simple, but the results can be extraordinary.
The rules give you a way of bypassing the inner critic
and going to a deeper part of the mind. You can allow your 'first
thoughts' - the ones that contain life, daring and power - to
flow on to the page.
A ten-minute timed writing can be an exercise in its own
right, or a limbering up before working on something else.
I know people who have written entire novels (that were
subsequently published) using this technique.
Another popular way to encourage any form of creativity
(not just writing) is 'morning pages, as described by Julia
Cameron in The Artist's Way . Morning pages are - not
surprisingly - three pages of long hand writing, done each
morning, strictly as a stream of consciousness. Their function
is a brain drain - by getting the dross out of your head
and onto the page, you stop it from standing between you
and your creativity. No one reads them except you. As with
Goldberg's exercises, you ignore structure completely and
let anything happen. The results can be truly magical.
These techniques are useful for both the hobbyist and
the serious writer. If you do want to take your writing
beyond the level of a hobby, there's something important
you'll need - the courage to write badly.
Getting serious - writing badly
'Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank
sheet of paper until drops of blood form your forehead.' Gene
Fowler, American journalist and biographer.
What morning pages and timed writing exercises have in
common is that you need the courage to write badly while
you're doing them. This is the starting place for most
writers. Anne Lamott, in her humorous book about writing, Bird
by Bird , calls this the 'shitty first draft'. Unless
you can find the courage to write a dreadful first draft,
you'll never be able to move to a good second draft and
a fantastic third draft.
Facing the fear of the blank page and the fear of writing
a terrible first draft is something that most writers have
to do on a daily basis. It gets easier with practice, but
courage is one of the main prerequisites for the job.
The most often repeated advice if you want to be a writer
is to write every day. Natalie Goldberg says that daily
writing practice teaches you the basics of writing and
reminds you to go back to the beginning over and over again.
She likens it to jogging - the writer needs daily practice
to keep fit. Stephen King says if you can't take writing
seriously enough to write one thousand words a day, don't
waste your time! And Annie Dillard describes how a work
in progress quickly becomes feral, like a lion kept in
your study, and if you don't visit it every day and reassert
your mastery over it, you become afraid to open the door
to its room.
This kind of advice can be a bit overwhelming for the
beginning writer, but there is no getting around it - if
you are serious about writing you will have to face the
demon of the blank page, every day if possible.
Take a lover
One of the great misconceptions about writing is that
you need huge amounts of free time to do it - preferably
a year off if you want to write a novel. This is a luxury
that most of us won't have. Most writers, even successful
ones, have to fit writing in around the rest of their lives
and their jobs.
The best advice I've ever come across for doing this is
to treat writing like your new lover. You fit it in the
way you would fit in a passionate affair - finding snatches
of time here and there when you're busy, having the luxury
of a whole day or weekend every now and then.
The old adage: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, is nowhere
truer than in creative writing. If you want to be serious
about writing, your job is to turn up at the desk day after
day, no matter how tired, busy or uninspired you may feel,
and write. To put it another way - a large pot of bum-glue
Join a writing group
Writing isn't an easy profession or hobby. It requires
large amounts of time alone and sometimes the powerful
desire to write can be matched by a paralysing terror of
the blank page.
One way to overcome this is to join or form a writing
group. You can meet to share your experiences, or better
still, spend your time together doing writing exercises
(such as a Natalie Goldberg timed writing) and then read
what you've written to each other. This builds trust and
acceptance of your own and each other's writing and eventually
makes sharing your work with a wider audience less terrifying.
I have been in a writing group with three other women
for several years. When we first met, none of us had published
fiction, though one had written a law textbook. We got
together every two weeks, shared food and drink and stories,
did writing exercises together and eventually read and
gave feedback on each other's drafts of novels and plays.
As I'm writing this, the last member of the group to be
published has just had an offer from a publisher for her
novel. The other three of us have each published a novel
or play while we've been together - and become firm friends
in the process. I can't recommend a good writing group
Make it your life
Like the great poet he was, Rilke summed up what is needed
to be a writer in a simple sentence or two. If you must
write, then simply do it. Build your life upon it. You
may never be published, but writing will enrich your life
immeasurably, by giving it observation, reflection, creativity,
spirituality and that sacred and vital contribution to
being human - the sharing of our stories.
© Jesse Blackadder,
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