This first week, we are going to explore the theme of free writing and of giving yourself the time and space to write. We’re going to talk about the importance of getting out of your own way and valuing yourself.
You might know these lessons intellectually, but wherever most people are in their writing lives, or in their lives in general, it’s usually helpful to be reminded of these facts.
Over the next weeks, I’m going to give you much more pointed guidance, but I want to stress this week that writing is a form of discovery.
Why free writing?
We discover who we are, where we have been, and where we would like to go through our writing.
We also discover how to get out of our own way and how to find bigger perspectives, mystery, and awe.
If we already know what we want to say, the writing process becomes less interesting and usually, the words on the page lose their charge. Indeed, the difference between creative writing and all other forms of writing is that in creative writing, we surprise ourselves—we are in a dance of discovery with our own mind and body; we allow ourselves to get out of our own way so that we can learn through the writing process itself.
Here’s a great quote from the poet Richard Hugo, from his book Triggering Town:
“One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases what he has already conceived to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music conform to truth, was fond of quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like, ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said.’” 
The experienced writer will allow the writing to guide and teach us what it is we have to say, what it is we know, fear, love, and desire.
In my own life, I am often amazed at how much my writing reveals who I am, often years, sometimes decades, before I have a conscious understanding of that aspect of myself.
So when we write, we need to be comfortable with not knowing and with discovering.
One way to allow writing to be a process of discovery is to think of writing as a process of listening—when we listen we don’t hear what we want to hear (or at least I hope we don’t listen that way). We simply hear, and if we pay greater attention, we hear more. The more we get out of our own way, the deeper our listening can become.
If we listen deeply, we will hear the truck rumble down the street outside our house and the birds chirping in the trees. We will hear the children calling to one another on their way home from school and we might hear our stomach growling telling us that it is snack time.
If we listen deeply, we might start to hear other things as well. We might hear—or pay attention to—the tension in our back, our excitement about what we are writing, and our own fear, as well. We might hear, in response to that fear, a critical voice that comes up and tells us that what we are doing isn’t the way it is supposed to be done. Or we might hear beautiful music.
Listen deeply, but don’t become attached to anything that you hear. Listen without judgment. Let your ego go.
In the next module, we are going to be focusing on this deep listening, but for this week, when you write, you can pay attention to the different parts of yourself, of your story, of your imagination, your fears, and your dreams.
Write whatever comes to you, without editing it.
Put your pen to the page and just write. Move your fingers across the keyboard and just type.
What happens if you let go of your left brain and let your creative self take over?
What if you have nothing particular to say? Or if you don’t like what you write?
Here’s a great quote from Maya Angelou:
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’… And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”—Maya Angelou
This week—and throughout the course, welcome the muse whenever she—or he—comes, but remember for the muse to come, it is helpful for the door to be open.
Maya Angelou’s quote reminds me of setting the table at Passover for Elijah. Every year when I was a child, we had a Passover seder at my grandparents’ house. I was not raised practicing any religion, but we celebrated the high holy days with my mom’s parents.
I didn’t really know who Elijah was. I just knew that we kept the back door to the kitchen open, and an extra place was set at the big dining room table for the magical person who might come.
My grandmother would get up periodically during dinner and check down the back hallway to see if he was on his way, which he never was. But when I was young, I thought he might make an appearance each year.
The very fact that we set the table for this mysterious guest and opened our door for him meant that the magic, mystery, and a sense of grand welcome did come to our Passover table—at least for me. Those are now the qualities I associate with the holiday.
So yes: be open to mystery.
That is what Maya Angelou is saying. The other thing she is saying is to make time—that is the key to being a writer. Just set the table and write!
The real difference between a writer and a non-writer is that the writer makes the time for writing.
We all have the potential to be writers. But only some of us take the time and write—and if we don’t write, we can’t be writers.
We get trapped in an idea, sometimes, that some people are exceptionally talented, and those are the ones that should be writing.
But if we start judging ourselves, if we sit down and write “the cat sat on the mat,” and then decide, “oh that’s no good, it’s not worth my writing, I’m not good enough,” we won’t be there when the muse finally enters. We won’t be there for our own mystery.
You are enough; everyone’s voice is important.
I think that many people hold an unconscious belief that there are “good” writers, and those are the people who should be writing.
I think this belief is not only mistaken, but that it’s dangerous, and connected to a lot of unhealthy thought patterns that many of us have grown up with. This belief comes from centuries of a hierarchical, patriarchal, and unequal society.
It’s a belief that is held both by newbie writers and by established award-winning writers—wherever you are on the spectrum of literary “success,” I believe this orientation to the creative process is limiting; it limits how we see ourselves and it limits how we see the world.
We all have a voice. A real democracy is a place where everyone’s voice can be heard—not just the talented or the wealthy or the well-born, or people with one color skin or one kind of story.
This is one of my pet peeves, so I’ll be talking more about this a lot in the course.
For now, I want to encourage you to take your own voice seriously not because you are better than anyone else—that’s not the point—but because you are you. Because everyone should take his or her voice seriously.
That little voice in the back of our heads that whispers or shouts to us, deridingly (who do you think you are?) is no longer needed. It’s time to tell it to go away, politely.
You can try this as an answer: Who do I think I am? I am a human being. I am a person with my own life and likes and loves and my own wishes and hopes and sense of justice and wellbeing and stories and values and voice, thank you very much and, Namaste. (Namaste means the light within me sees the light within you—so it’s a salutation that recognizes that each and every one of us has a precious light.)
If the voice is still there, don’t worry too much. Just be mindful and don’t give it too much weight or credence.
I was listening to Brene Brown interview Oprah recently, and Oprah said that she still needs to contend with that voice saying “who do you think you are?” So don’t take that whispering doubting voice too seriously or as a sign of your success or unsuccess. Know that it visits almost everyone, whatever our success level. The key is not to let this voice stop you! Keep going.
Your voice matters not because your writing is brilliant and unique—that is wonderful if that is the case, but I’ve seen many famous writers confuse their self worth with their capacities as a writer.
One day they write something brilliant and they feel great, and then the next day they write something not as brilliant and they feel like sinking down into a deep hole. They forget who they are, as whole people, with their ups and their downs.
We tend to have this tendency to equate our self-worth with our accomplishments or with some very limited part of ourselves: maybe our looks or even the amount of money we have. That is a way to become much smaller than we really are. Rather than allowing our creative work to make us bigger, we allow it to shrink us.
Sometimes people stop writing because they associate themselves, their own self-worth, with their worst work and don’t allow themselves the time and opportunity to stick with it, keep going and eventually grow.
One of my favorite poets is Elizabeth Bishop, but some of her unpublished poems were really very uninspired. We need to keep moving through our creative processes, through our ups and our downs.
We need to remember that our voice matters independent of those ups and downs. Because everyone’s voice matters. We can use our resources and tools to make that voice as skillful and beautiful as possible. However, our self-worth and the importance of our voice are always more embodied and larger than the isolated voice itself.
Contending with that unhelpful deriding voice, or that unhelpful overly inflated voice is one part of our creative bind.
Time is another important issue for all writers, even, and sometimes especially, for professional writers!
We have a lot on our plates.
The contemporary world doesn’t slow down. Almost everyone is doing more than he or she feels is the right amount.
So how do you find the time to do the things you want to do? How do you find the time to write, meditate, do yoga, and nourish your creative muse?
I know many professional writers who get so caught up in the business of being a writer and a university teacher that they have no time for writing. Or they make time for writing, but the writing becomes “work” and they lose their connection to what made it mysterious and sacred originally. Or they get attached to their “writer self” and produce work that is similar to their past work, instead of allowing themselves to take the risk of writing less good work and exploring new terrain, and growing as a person and writer.
A big part of what this class is about is finding time for yourself, prioritizing your creative self, and taking the time to get into that uncomfortable space of not being immediately “productive.” It’s about letting yourself flounder around in not knowing and in exploration, about connecting with yourself and learning from that experience.
We need to just set the time aside for our creativity—without attachment to results.
Sometimes we need to write material that we end up throwing away for days or even weeks as a kind of detox and clearing process until we can actually relax enough—and trust ourselves enough—for the muse to be ready to enter.
Trust the process. Allow it to take the time it needs. Don’t be too immediately attached to results and productivity.
Trust that when you give the process time, it will reward you.
Making Time (2)
Making time is such a big issue, it deserves two sections!
You resolve to make time for yourself. You know all the reasons this is a good idea.
But somehow it doesn’t quite happen. You will get to yourself when you have finished all the essential things you need to do first.
The key to finding the time for yourself and for your writing, yoga, and meditation is scheduling it! Put it on your calendar. Treat it as an important meeting. Turn off your phone. You cannot be disturbed.
Look at your schedule for the next weeks and find the time each week that you can devote to this course.
When my kids were little and I had only limited childcare, I got in the habit of taking all my childcare time for myself—I would not do housework, or anything business-oriented. It was purely my writing time.
Over the years, as my kids were in school more, I needed to revise that a bit. However, though I made time for writing, I found it really hard to make time for meditation.
I knew that many people said that meditating actually makes you more efficient—the time you spent meditating is time you saved elsewhere, but nonetheless, I could not commit to a regular meditation schedule.
I would try to squeeze it in in my free time, and it never worked. But after my first ten-day vipassana retreat, when I was in the habit of waking up and meditating every day, I decided to just take the early morning as my meditation time. If I meditate first, then that sets the rest of the day. I’ve made my time already before everything else comes clamoring for attention. I’ve seen from experience that the time I put into my meditation is more than made up for by the clarity and emotional well-being I have for the rest of the day. Indeed, my days, weeks, and months are smoother. I am more in tune with myself and with the people around me. I can make decisions more easily and have more energy in my life. I move forward with my projects more steadily and with more happiness. I listen to my children better.
So find the schedule that works for you and then stick with it.
The same is true for writing—if you take it as nourishing time for yourself to be open to whatever comes, the time you put into your writing will more than come back to you in emotional well-being, energy, and radiance. You will have more patience with and understanding of others.
When we invest in ourselves, and in our own internal alignment, our own peace, and our own creativity, we are not selfish or self-indulgent. Instead, we are investing in contributing more meaningful to the world around us; we are setting an example of how to shine in the world with grace and generosity.
I’ll say that again:
Investing in yourself is not self-indulgent or selfish.
This is something that women especially need to learn.
We’re all taught—again, if in slightly different ways—to focus on “helping” or on being “productive” or on somehow doing the right thing. Those are important qualities, but in focusing outward, something essential gets lost.
We lose our own connection to ourselves, to our embodied being, and to the sacred.
From early childhood, we become what we are supposed to be—or what we think we are supposed to be—in a society that is full of rules and full of too-busy schedules. As a result, there is no time or energy left to be who we really are meant to be.
On the airplane, we are told to put on our own oxygen mask in the case of an emergency before we help our children. At first, this may seem counterintuitive, but it’s essential that we care for ourselves first. Metta meditation is built upon first practicing loving-kindness for oneself before praying for the wellbeing of others. In other words, only if we wish well for ourselves and really learn to have love and compassion for ourselves, can we truly be generous with and loving with others. We can only shine our light on others if that light has been turned on and if the electricity does not have a short in it.
So many people are narcissists in our society not because they are spoiled, but rather because they have from a very early age been deprived of some of their basic needs—love, attention, physical comfort, a sense of spiritual wholeness, a sense of empathy, and compassion. Whatever it is, narcissism often comes from a deep lack that the person is unsuccessfully and misguidedly trying to fill.
When people give themselves the attention that they need and invest in their own creativity, rather than being more self-indulgent, they become more compassionate and more giving.
Remember, your creativity is a gift—it is a gift to you from whatever life force there is, and we are not meant to hold it inside, but to radiate it out and share it with others.
When we get out of our own way, we shine.
Put your ego aside, so that you can come into your most creative, aligned, radiant self and create the work you were meant to create.
This course will help you do that. So let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty of the course.
If you haven’t already looked at the introduction page, please do that. There’s lots of information there.
This week you will explore writing in a few different ways.
I recommend that you listen to or read this lesson and the close readings to guide your experiences this week.
I’ve included basic yoga sets and meditations that will help get your energy flowing, in your body and mind.
I’ve provided some writing prompts in the “Writing Exercise” section to help you free write and to give you some ideas. Start with the first prompt. Then move to the second. If you don’t have time for more, that is fine, but if you have more time or if another prompt jumps out at you, you can do those.
Bring the prompts to your meditation and yoga sessions. Pause the recordings and write if you feel compelled to. Otherwise do the whole yoga and/or meditation recording and then go directly into your writing prompt.
For this week, I want you to just explore. Just see what happens, without attachment to the outcome. We’ll worry more about outcome in other weeks.
Come on over to the live coaching/Q&A session if you can (see the calendar page). If you can’t make the session live, email me your questions and there will also be a recording.
I also encourage you to talk to one another and to share work and get feedback from one another on the Facebook group.
Next week, the module focuses on deep listening, so we’ll pay closer attention to the relationship between our body and different parts of our mind and spirit then.
We have a strong and committed group of writers and women in this course! I look forward to working with you all and seeing your writing—and you—grow.
 p4 Triggering Town. Richard Hugo. WW Norton and Co. New York, NY. 1979.