Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Writer's Way

I've made my way - and my living - for all of my adult life through an engagement with words, as writer, teacher and speaker. For the past fifteen years, I've led workshops on Active Dreaming, my original synthesis of modern dreamwork and shamanic techniques for journeying and healing. I've noticed that in all of my courses, in the round or online, one of the things that happens (regardless of the overt agenda) is that people turn into storytellers and writers. This is partly because they find themselves getting closer to the big stories that want to be told. It's also because, as we learn to relax into a state of conscious dreaming, and enter the places of true imagination, we are entering the "zone" where the best creative work is done.

In recent years, I've found that some of the workshops I most enjoy are ones that are openly dedicated to writing and storymaking, and I'm now devoting more time in my events schedule to "Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming" (7 days in Costa Rica in February, 5 days in the foothills of the Cascades in June) and "The Healing Power of Story" (a weekend on San Francisco Bay in January, and another in Cincinnati in June).

Writing, like anything else you want to do well, is a practice. Having something you really want to say is important, but it may never come through without a practice that supports delivery. I thought I would share, as a New Year's gift, some of the elements of practice that work for this writer.


1. Show Up. Make time to write something EVERY DAY. What writers do is write.

2. Warm Up. Journaling and writing email letters - as long as they are real letters, not just office stuff - are excellent ways to start working those writing muscles, and material you can rework in a story or essay may just pop up.

3. Set a Time Limit (until you are on a roll and simply can't stop). 30 minutes is great. So you can't finish something in half an hour - even greater, because then next time you sit down you don't have to start with a blank page.

4. Sideline the Editor and Avoid Feedback Felons. Don't judge or evaluate what you are writing until it's done. And do not let others play editor or critic - avoid Feedback Felons (anyone who gives you less than positive encouragement or saddles you with wrong or premature expectations or is simply jealous because you are creating and they are not).

5. Keep Your Fingers Walking. Don't agonize over trying to perfect any part of what you are writing until you have sketched out the whole thing.

6. Relax - and Pay Attention. The flow state is one of relaxed attention, or attentive relaxation. You are stretching yourself, and your ability to receive and bring through, without forcing anything on the level of the control freak in the ego. If you're stuck, put on some music, take a shower or a swim - getting in flow with water always helps - take a walk for five unscheduled minutes and see what the world gives you.

7. Gag the Demon of Expectations. You want fame and fortune from this, or at least some respect from your friends? Fine. But don't let your expectations damn your performance. Write for the heck of it, have a good time doing this for its own sake.

8. Put Yourself Where the Big Story Can Grab You. Writing, at its core, is about releasing a story. Never forget that the Big story is hunting YOU. The whole art of telling it is to keep moving - further and further from the tame and settled lands - until you get deep enough into the bush for the Big story to jump on you. Then everything will be different, and fabulous.

9. Remember Your Writing Partner. You may have various writing partners, but right now I am talking about the big one, the creative spirit the Romans called the genius. The more you are willing to give yourself to your writing for its own sake, to dare something new, the closer you draw this guiding power and its limitless energy.

10. If You Must Work to Deadline, Make Sure It's an All-But-Impossible Deadline. Our genius loves us best - and helps us most - when we take on the greatest challenges, and play the game hardest.


Wanda Burch said...

I did not see myself as a writer until I met Robert Moss. There were two events, one small and one large, that made me shiver with delight in his praise and encouragement.

In the first I sat down one morning and wrote about an encounter with Rose, a figure from Little Rock's past who walked with me one morning when I lived in that city and vanished at the door of the place where I worked - and where she "worked" a century earlier. I timidly asked Robert if he would read my story, and he said "yes" but reminded me that he was busy and that it would be some time later before he would be able to give it his attention. Later was only days later. He called me in great excitement from a car dealership and told me first, without hesitation - "my dear, you can write!" My heart almost leapt out of my breast! Robert had decided that morning to bring my story with him, admitting that he had been more than a little hesitant to read it and decided that a car dealership was the best place to do that. He was astounded at the new voice in my story, the southern voice he had never heard in my dream writing, the only writing I had shared with him until then. Since then he has reminded me over and over again that I write best when I write in that voice and when I tell my stories from growing up southern.

It was also Robert who encouraged me to keep a journal of ALL my dreams and synchronicities and events of my day. It was that journal that saved my life in the diagnosis of breast cancer and it was to that journal I returned in the weeks after my breast cancer surgery. I discovered that I had been dreaming of my illness for at least two years, maybe longer; and I began to write. I wrote page after page, scribbled notes about an early precognitive and recurring dream I called the "Dance Hall" dream and then walked to a bookshelf and placed my hands on a journal I had lost track of, the journal of my dreams with my father as he lay dying the year before. It was my father who had come to me in a Big Dream and warned me of my illness when I was not paying close enough attention to my journaled dreams. That journal, seeming to leap out at me, became an important chapter in my jumbled pages.

Once again I shared my pages of scribbled notes with Robert. He disappeared with them into another room and emerged an hour or so later and said - "you have a book." I smiled. I didn't believe him at the time but continued to add stories and continued to write small pieces, throwing them into the mix until they found the place they needed to be. I still had much to do and it was several years later that coincidence and synchronicity led my manuscript, via Robert, to the publisher of She Who Dreams. I was SOOOO excited when the editor of New World Library called me late on an October evening to tell me that she loved my book and that she was buying my book. My book! What a fabulous moment that was. Of course the next person I called was Robert.

Robert is still the person who encourages me to "show up." I write to him, share with him; and he gives me the feedback that I need to move on and to continue to explore the voice that comes again and again to recall the stories that haunt me and follow me and want to be shared. I know that I write differently when the southern child, the southern young woman, the southern ancestors speak through me. And when I write with them and tell their stories and my stories that want to come through, the creative partner Robert writes about, comes through. Sometimes I walk away and come back and think - I wrote that? Wow. I don't recall writing that.

Ah, and dreams. I have other stories that have come in dreams. Those are children's stories, some of them fragments, some of then complete. I recognize them when they come because they come in the voice of two children. They too will find their place someday. And when I pull one out and let it dance on a piece of paper, the children begin to speak to me and write their own story.

Thank you Robert for encouraging me and reminding me that we all have stories that are hunting us.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda: Thank you for this lovely memoir of our creative friendship. By fine synchronicity, at the moment you were posting your comment I was reading a beautiful essay by a Southern writer (Patricia Foster) I have just discovered, evoking her memories of a difficult passage at the edge of puberty in Alabama - and thinking about how well YOU write in a Southern accent.

Unknown said...

Robert: What a lovely way to start my day as I 'show up' for my morning of writing. I'm starting later than usual (the holidays have screwed with my schedule), but I arrive nonetheless. And I'm going to consider this as part of my warm up. I've got to say that your list of ten items for writers is a great reminder to us all.

The one item I might add is to take a notebook and pen with you everywhere. I often write down ideas while listening to the radio while driving. I take notes on people or research that I want to look into later. I jot down interactions between people, exact sentences spoken, all kinds of things that can be used later -- or not.

My regular schedule begins early in the morning, when I first wake up (although sometimes I read first) and begin to re-read what I wrote the day before (if I'm working on a novel). The review gets me back into the story, into the characters' heads. From there, I enter the fiction (is it the dream? the imagination?). Rather than write to a time limit, I write to a word count -- at least 1000 words. I often go over that amount, but I try to stick with a minimum.

My daughter took violin lessons from a woman in town. On her wall she had a poster that said something like: Even the best musicians practice every day. I would suggest that that's why they are the best musicians. I may not be the best novelist writing today, but I practice as though I am. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Unknown said...

THANK YOU! What a gift are your words and wisdom. I am ill today, nauseous, and cannot even begin to process or integrate your writing advice the way I'd like to. Yet, somehow I know, as I sit here watching snowflakes swirling outside my writing window, feeling like I'm being shaken up in a snowglobe and going to puke, that these points of yours will nurture and sustain me through writing endeavors from here on. I'll get back to you when I can thank you properly.

And Wanda - I am so touched by your words, as well. What they tell me is that beyond Robert's points, it is also extremely powerful for a writer to have someone who believes in, encourages, and champions the best in her. I'm so glad that Robert has helped nurture your writing voice. I finally delivered your book to my sick friend Lizzie and her mother yesterday. Thank you for the writing you've done and will do.

May wonderful words and dreams find us in 2009.

Carol Davis said...

I am only beginning to say that I am a writer. My critic points out that I have not yet published that book. My writing self points to the volumes of journals filled with dreams and stories, the numerous articles that have been requested and done for reflection booklets and newsletters that circulated to between 100 and 2000 people. Most recently when I felt "unproductive", I noticed that I had written and delivered 7 lectures to groups within 4 weeks. I need those corrections from my wiser writing self. I am in the process of connecting various dimensions of my life with my writing. You could say I am waking up to my writing self, or perhaps she is waking me up! These corrections and connections have moved me to write more of the first book I intend to complete.

Within the last week I began to consider setting a deadline for the book. I have been sidling up to the idea. I'm a little scared. I always love how confirmation and proddings arrive from the larger world. This morning I received an email from Robert Moss who suggests that I read and comment on his latest addition to his blog. The piece concludes with making sure that a deadline is all but impossible. I am being pursued. Oh, my genius is stirring things up and laughing out loud!

Helen Adams said...

I have always loved words ever since I can remember. Not only writing them but reading them too, especially books that told grand tales which spoke to my imagination. I would lose myself for hours oblivious to the world around me.

So it is probably no surprise that I am a freelance writer and have been so for the past twelve or so years. I would not swap this lifestyle for any other – even my love/hate relationship with deadlines.

My writing career began for real with a shamanic journey in which I met up with a beautiful and very mystical stag, and with Merlin in wildman guise. Along with a chorus from a grove of oak trees I was summoned to put pen to paper, and have never looked back.

I write regularly for the web as well as print magazines and newspapers, and have co-authored a book, with another in the birthing stage.

A lot of the material I write is dictated by the needs of editors. I also enjoy many opportunities to explore and write about subjects which grab my attention. Daily journaling is great because it is unstructured, and is a way of winding-down or winding- up depending upon when it is done.

I have found the following tips very useful as a way to keep the momentum going, even on those days when I feel I may be scraping the bottom of the verbal barrel:

Journaling on a regular basis is the perfect therapy for writers as it not only provides a way of releasing intense emotions, keeping a record of the perfect day or detailing that light-bulb moment, it also provides ongoing inspiration, especially if you write daily and weave your dreams and journeys into the mix.

Don’t let a fear of failure put you off – keep going until you have completed the piece you are working on, whether a synopsis, article, story or chapter.

Don’t compare yourself to others – be yourself.

Once you have finished the piece you can then look over it, and will begin to get an intuition as to what needs to be adjusted, what should stay and what has to go. It is as though the template of your piece of writing already exists, and all you need to do is listen inside and make the necessary corrections.

If you feel as though you are drying up and writing is becoming laboured then it helps to switch your mind to something else. In my case listening to music or absorbing myself in art or great photography seems to connect me once again to that bubbling spring. You may need to experiment to find out what gets those vital juices flowing.

Write about those things for which you have a passion and which deeply engage your interest as this will come across in your writing. You will sound convincing and your readers will be convinced!

Above all – enjoy it. If you aren’t ‘act as if’. Put yourself into a state of joy and write from there. Your words will soon echo your vibrant mood.

Robert Moss said...

Terry: You are so right about the need to carry a notebook everywhere - we never know when an idea is going to come. Like you, I like the early dawn and, having a daughter who is a great violinist, I have had stringed confirmation of the need for practice, practice, practice!

Robin: Hope you are fighting fit again as the New Year dawns! I've noticed that I am often ill just before a BIG creative surge, though I've tried not to become wedded to the idea that this is a necessary approach run! Maybe you can find fresh words to describe the symptoms you're experiencing and work those into a story.

Carol: You are on your way, and your lectures and meditations that others have found healing and inspiring will surely form part of the texture of the book you are bringing. I'm glad my note today contributed to that "divine unrest" that Martha Graham insisted is necessary in the creative life!

Helen: I love your account of being called to write, and to vision, by the stag and Merlin as the wild man of the woods. I have walked the hill country on the Western Borders of Scotland - the land of my paternal ancestors - where the Scottish Merlin is reputed to have lived and shamanized on Deer Mountain (Hart Fell)and will write about that for publication some day. Thank you for sharing your excellent further inventory of practice.

Unknown said...

Although I've been in a dream group for over two years, I never was able to regularly use this "dream portal" to help me access my creativity before. Suddenly, through reading Robert's books and attending his online classes, I have discovered a NEW WAY of writing.

As a published author and columnist for over twenty years, I am now taking out "stalled" projects and miraculously the words are flowing like never before.

How is this happening? Through dream intentions and opening myself via Roberts exercises, learning to interpret my dream symbols, and discovering my higher consciousness.

Thank you Robert. I only wish it didn't take me twenty years to discover the dream connection to creativity!


Nancy said...

Robert & Robin,
If I have noticed that I am often ill right before a big creative surge, I would see it as morning sickness, my body's preparing for the coming forth of something new & grand during my time of gestation. Happy birthing!

Robert Moss said...

Lizbooks: I love the image of you taking up those "stalled" books and projects from long ago and finding them full of forward energy. I see them whizzing around the floor like a child's tops and wind-up trains. You are spurring me to think about my own unfinished "trunk books" and stories.

Nancy: Yes, I feel the truth of that "morning sickness" analogy in my body. As a mere man, the closest I get to the experiences of a mother-to-be (except in my dreams) is when I am gestating and getting ready to deliver a book. Sometimes I discover I am carrying twins or quads, and have to do something to ensure they all have the room and nutrients to grow - and then comes the row between them as they jostle to decide who comes out first.

David Spangler said...

Robert wrote and asked if I'd offer some suggestions as a writer. Reading his blog, I found that he already covered all the important bits and had said pretty much the major things I would say. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

Here's a couple of other things that work for me. I'm a multi-project person. I write text everyday for online classes that I teach, I work on several books at once, I write essays, and I write long emails. Each of these has its own flow, its own muse and character. If I feel stymied with one of these, I switch to another until I discover where the flow is at the moment.

I would not have wanted to start writing using this method--it can be dispersing and confusing at first--but now, after years of practice of writing, I find it works well for me. It's like having a team of writers at work in my head, which is fine as long as I keep them properly organized and in a good relationship together!

Some kind of writing everyday is important to me, even if it's just a paragraph or two.

I pay attention to the spirit of what I'm writing. If it's a fictional piece, this means listening to and living with the characters. I know I'm in a good flow and have been seized by a story when the characters come alive and the story tells itself. Indeed, I am often amazed at how things work out, as if I'm just transcribing a movie I'm watching in my head.

Every year I write a Christmas story for friends and family. This year I had a theme I wanted to explore, but the story and the characters didn't go anywhere. They just sat there on the page, a bunch of lazy lie-abouts! I realized that the characters were all wrong for the story itself, and with this insight, new characters presented themselves and proceeded to tell me the story that I needed. Just in time, too! I finished it the day before Christmas!

If it's non-fiction, the spirit of the piece lies in the reason I'm writing it: what do I want to give to my reader? For me, it's often vital that I have a sense of the person or persons for whom I'm writing and what I'd like him, her, or them to get from it. Writing is communication, after all. At the heart of it is love. If I can love my audience and love the theme that I'm writing about and I allow love to form the intention for the piece--that is, what a reader will get from it, then I find it flows. Love really is a key for me.

Well, these are just a couple of thoughts to add the excellent ones that Robert has offered. I'm excited he's offering writing classes. Very wonderful!

David Spangler

Olivier Clerc said...

French writer André Gide used to say, "L'art se nourrit de contrainte et meurt de liberté", which approximately means, "Art strives from restraint and dies of freedom". Having a deadline does just that : puttint a restraint, a limit, something that will force us to give our best. Thanks for this post, Robert ! And Happy New Year (Bonne Année !).

Robert Moss said...

David: I am juiced by your account of realizing you had a set of layabout characters who needed to replaced. I'll keep this in mind as I appraise some fiction projects of my own that have laid dormant for a while. You are absolutely right when you observe that for fiction to work, the characters must come alive and do things the author never planned. Many blessings to you (who have done so much in your beautiful inspirational work to remind us to use the power to bless) at this turning of the year.

Olivier: Thank you for that memorable aphorism, which may come to some of us writers as "tough love" but is so very true. A gentler way to say it is that we need to define a space or create a frame within which the work can manifest, and let all the good things that want to come through come and join us within those "retraints" rather than flap away in wild but unproductive freedom. Bonne annee to you!

Nancy said...

Many times I've heard you say "I am a mere man". Today for the first time when I read those words of yours I saw "mer-man", & envisioned you swimming along with the tides & crests & swells of your many stories, accompanied by your malleable characters, all "going with the flow". What a great image for a writer! Happy plumbing of the depths...

Unknown said...

I am feeling a bit better now and wanted to come back and tell you how helpful it was to have the prompt to "find the opportunity in the setback" of sickness today.

I've found several, one of which, as you suggested is the fact that I can utilize this miserable experience to write believably about the universal condition of waiting in agony to toss your cookies (again). Another, as you and Nancy also offered, is the idea that physical illness might be just such a "spiritual cleanse" necessary to clear the way for a creative flow burst (keeping my fingers crossed on this one).

It made me laugh when I read the analogy to morning sickness and giving birth because just prior to that, as I was wretching, I'd been imagining sort of the opposite. I determined that the ICK that was being removed from my body in this forceful way was all the doubts and reasons and rationalizations that hold me back from writing accomplishment. And I flushed it away today.

Anyway, it's all food (oh, er, excuse me - feeling queasy -) for thought...;-)

Also, this topic on your blog today really is spot on. I feel so blessed with all the powerful practices shared so generously by successful writers. I am inspired by the courage it takes to write truth with love. Gratitude to everyone who took time to write here about writing.

Robert Moss said...

Nancy: I love your "mere man"/merman association and will play with it. Being in creative flow does feel for me a lot like catching wave after wave and revelling in the movement of water. Of the 42 statements you are supposed to be ready to make as the "negative confession" in the Judgment Hall of Osiris in the Egyptian afterlife (probably impossible to make, in toto, for any mere human) one has always appealed to me as an affirmation for anyone who wants to live the creative life: "I have not obstructed water when it should flow." Happy New Year!

Robin: Glad you are bouncing back. I have sometimes seen personal blocks to creative flow as a bunch of stuff stuck in a hole in the high wall of an immense reservoir, some of it stuffed in because the little self is terrified of the power that might come surging through if those deep waters are released. You'll want to find your own metaphors. But certainly a clearing - an opening to flow and then the ability to channel and contain what comes streaming through - is vital to the creative process.

Robyn said...

Robert, thank you for opening this treasure chest of dialogue! You inspire me with your writing, and encourage me to do my own.

Something I'm working on now as a retrospective of 2008 and a creative prompt for the new year, is to go through my dream journals from the past year and write one line from each dream, chronologically. It can be the title, the snapper, or just a phrase from the dream. I'm treating is as an epic poem draft that I will develop either as a whole piece, or in parts that want to become new wholes.

Here's to a 2009 replete in creativity!

Robert Moss said...

Robyn: That's a grand idea, to compose an "epic poem" from the passing year by pluckling one-liners from journal reports. I'll be interested to see whether your remain constant to the chronological order, since of course when we go dreaming we step outside tick-tock time into that spacious Now the scholastics called the Aevum, the space between time and eternity. You may inspire many of us to follow your lead here, and read, with poetic consciousness, the dream-logic of a year in the life. Happy New Year!

michele said...

Dear Robert -

I have more experience as an artist than a writer and can apply your excellent suggestions to both practices. Showing up at the blank page every day and writing and sketching in my journals is so vital. If my inner critic jumps in and tells me an idea is "dumb" or a sketch is "ugly" I remind myself it's "just a journal" and I keep on going. Sometimes I find I need to get through the muck to reach the good stuff.
Then it's as if the world opens up and I am in a place of total flow. Time disappears and the story unfolds on it's own. It's absolutely magical. I've cancelled plans in the past because I was so involved in the story I was writing that I needed to find out what happened next!
I resonated strongly with your suggestion of going for a walk if you're feeling stuck. I've had wonderful ideas when I've set the work aside and gone for a walk to clear my head. A lot of my best work has also occurred with close to impossible deadlines. I think it's because there is little or no time to engage with my inner critic or labor over words. I simply go deep and write.
Thank you and all the marvelous writers here for your wonderful suggestions!
Happy New Year/Bonne Annee to all!


Robert Moss said...

Michele: I love that creative state you evoke when we find ourselves in the zone, and just have to brush aside any external commitments that would pull us out of it. Yes, we really do want to keep our dates with that "blank page". Sometimes it helps to do something really fast to make sure it doesn't stay blank for more than a couple of moments. When Churchill took up painting, relatively late in life, he was advised by a lifelong painter to take a very big brush and cover the canvas right away, removing any fear of the blank page. Balzac moved at high speed, leaving gaps in a story where he hadn't figured out the details or didn't want to get bogged down in them until he had sketched out the big picture. I like both examples.
And yes - it's amazing how many creative breakthroughs have resulted from taking a walk. My advice to people who complain about blocks is often simply: "Take a hike". When they realize I mean it literally (as opposed to blowing them off) they ususally do much better!

Janine De Tillio Cammarata said...

Your comments on writing are so true and writing every day makes such a difference when you are trying to keep the flow going.
There are three types of writing for me--Fiction for other's pleasure, hopefully!; Remembrance through journaling my children's and family's history; and healing by journaling for myself.

My dreams have often led the way when it comes to my fiction writing. In my book, Warriors Within: Book One of the Fianna Cycle, many of the martial arts scenes and the fantasy characters came from my dreams. So the first part of the writing process comes from keeping my dream journal and writing down as much detail as I can remember. Then when I sit down to write my novel, bits of those dreams float through my head and provide the creative juices I need when I'm stuck. Besides the many great ideas that Robert provided, I also make sure that I always have a journal or tape recorder with me, because you never know when that creative muse will strike and it's always harder to go back and try to remember that jem.

Journaling to remember my history has been a major part of my life and I never knew how grateful I would be for it. When my father died I not only mourned him, but I mourned his words, his history. There were so many stories that I didn't know. So when I was pregnant with my first son, Nick, I journaled to him about every possible detail. And I kept that journal which turned into a detailed scrapbook of his life and my other son, Stephen's, life. Nick passed away in October and though my heart mourns for him daily, I am so grateful that I have small details like what words he first spoke or what he liked to do when he was two years old and I have the pictures to go along with it. So when you journal for your children or scrapbook, which is a form of writing, don't leave out the small details, because you won't remember them otherwise. And cherish and record your family's history. Your children and theirs will be thankful for it.

Finally, writing for healing has been a tremendous effort, but when the words flow out of me then so does some of the pain. Whether it's a poem, a scribble, jumbled words or a letter to another, it's your words and they are not meant to be edited or critiqued. They are yours words that hopefully help and heal.

Writing is a release, a need for me, almost as much as food and oxygen. And I make sure that I write in one or sometimes all of these forms daily.

Robert Moss said...

Janine: Thanks so much for sharing so generously what writing means for you as story, memory and healing. I feel for you in the loss of your wonderful young son, and also the consolation of having that book of the life you shared with him. I am reminded that Memory - Mnemosyne - is the mother of the muses.

Roger Z. said...

Great reminders for getting out of my own way and just "doing it."

I will keep this blog close as I let the Writer in me speak clearer everyday.

Robert Moss said...

Hey BigDreamer: "JUST DO IT" is one of my favorite bumper stickers, for any day in the life, in relation to anything worth doing. Write on!

Ingelise Israel said...

I am very grateful to You all who shared your experience!

I have loved writing as long as I remember myself. I had a blog for several years, but somehow it stopped... and I really miss that.
There were so much going on in my life, so many changes, so many transformations... I have wanted to share it and same time I was afraid to exposure all these inner thoughts and worlds I have experienced. I have continued to write my own journal, but not online. I really want to find that door again.

I gathered all your suggestions and printed out together with Robert, Your guidelines, to support myself on my writer´s path.
I am inspired by the courage You all possess - to write truth with love, from the heart.
Gratitude to everyone who took time and effort share your thoughts and hints here!

Let the generosity of the Muse guide and support your paths!