I recently had a woman come on my Haven Writing Retreat and say, “I learned more in five days of Haven than in my entire MFA program…and I’m still paying it off six years later!” I hear this sort of overture all too often, and it concerns me. I also hear, “I’m still chiseling my way out of my college Creative Writing classes and some of the emotional damage I endured there.” Same goes for many writing workshops that people take in hopes of learning more about their unique voice and how to cultivate it through craft, feedback, and the help of a strong teacher. It takes guts, putting yourself out there like that. And it saddens me that while there are so many incredible teachers and writing programs…so many people come in to an instructional writing environment with their hearts in their hands, shivering a bit in their boots, taking a leap of faith with the belief that they will be held responsibly by the experience and the people in it…only to have their guts gutted. Not on my watch!
My approach is to help people take that heart-in-the-hand and turn it into heart language…and that is a very delicate process. At my retreats, feedback is something that comes second. First, we must learn to have the courage to find our most white hot triggering subjects, to free-fall into them, to surface with words on the page and share them out loud without scrutiny– to simply have them heard, to trust that in-so-doing we are helping others to cultivate their ear, and to finally understand once and for all that our voice is unique. It’s real. It matters. And that massive act doesn’t start with creating something that we splay open for people to feast on or send back to the kitchen.
It all begins with self-awareness.
Sounds lofty? It isn’t. I hear over and over people saying, “I’m stuck.” Or “Why does my writing even matter?” Or “Who do I think I am? Nobody asked me to write. It’s self-indulgent drivel at best.” Or “I’m not good enough.” And do you know who is delivering up those words? The inner critic. (I like to call it the Inner Critter.) Most of us are not even aware of that voice that lives inside us, viciously so.
Unfortunately, I have been in a long-term abusive relationship with my Inner Critter for years. My Inner Critter poses as an Ivy League tweed-clad professor, and I tend to assign immediate power to anyone boasting to have a “smart” bespectacled academic Joyce-ean opinion, especially about writing. For years, I allowed that snivelly old sod to rule the roost in my writing chair. Then one day I heard someone say, “You wouldn’t treat your worst enemy the way you treat yourself in your own mind.” And I realized: That’s who I’ve become. That’s what’s in my way. I am my own worst enemy. I hadn’t even been aware of it until that moment. It wasn’t that I ever, for one second, stopped writing. It was that I hadn’t given myself permission to understand that no one on earth can write like I can. It’s not possible. Each writer’s voice is as unique as a snowflake. Or a grain of sand. Or a finger print. Or your Grandma’s apple pie.
So I declared war.
For awhile, I tried to exorcise the Inner Critter into the Inner Critter Sh**ter, deeming her the enemy and treating her thusly. That didn’t work. Because even though she was a confluence of many people and institutions of my life, I’d created her, invited her to live in my mind, and fed her the fat along with the lean. Declaring war on her meant that I was in a war with myself. Not a great place from which to tease the muse. The muse just stood there chewing gum twirling her keys, waiting for me to get a clue. Turns out, she has really great keys to really great worlds as long as I know how to take care of what goes on in my mind. The inherent problem with this was that not only hadn’t I been aware of how I was treating myself in my mind, I also had become used to it. And habits are hard to break. In all honesty, the Inner Critter liked living in my mind (why wouldn’t she—such five star accommodations?) and frankly, she was a better fighter than I was.
So I took another tack: I decided that the Inner Critter was really just a scared little girl that lives inside me with a large megaphone to my heart. And if my daughter came in to my room in the middle of the night raging over a bad dream I wouldn’t kick her out. I’d hug her, love her, calm her until she went back to sleep. I tried it, and it worked! I learned to daily lullaby my Inner Critter into a long nap so that my muse and I could unlock the world of possibility I so longed to explore. To enter, and to play! We knew how to do this when we were children. We just lose our way a little (or a lot) as we go.
I believe that we need to begin here if we are to paint that world with the broad strokes of a Creator all the way to the exacting Pointillism that shows the holy in the mundane—the nouns our hands touch. It takes heart-in-the-hand-self-aware-guts to go at this thing called the Writing Life. And once we have all of this in its right place…we can start to know what Picasso meant when he said, “If they took away my paints I’d use pastels. If they took away my pastels I’d use crayons. If they took away my crayons I’d use pencils. If they stripped me naked and threw me in prison I’d spit on my finger and paint on the walls.” Or what Michelangelo meant when he said that the sculpture was in the stone; it was his job to release it.
Once we are in that free place of creation, we begin to hunger for our voices. Why? Because we are in a natural flow. Once we are in that flow, it even gets easy. We’re no longer in our way. We understand that with every single thing we write, there is an inherent problem. Of course there is. Our job is to find the problem and solve it. The Inner Critter can’t scare us with this challenge any more. We understand that with every story and every character, real or imagined, there is conflict, and that conflict is blessed terrain. It’s where all the good questions and good answers live. Once we have solved a few of these writerly “problems” and rolled around in the conflict that they embody…what was once scary now becomes our guide into the great wilderness of the world we are drawing with our words. Then we are ready to give and receive feedback for our work. Then we can get into the elements of style like plot arc, characterization, narrative drive. Then we can get into the scenes and breathe our characters alive. Then we can allow their minds to be in the clouds, and their feet to be on the ground. Then we can show exactly who they are in the way they make a bed. We don’t need to tell a thing. It’s all shown. It’s all there. We’ve released the sculpture from the stone. And the heart of the world we’ve created…beats all on its own.