Where do you get your ideas from? How often I’ve been asked that. How do writers begin? How do we get past the surface of the blank page, down to the place Robert Olen Butler calls “From Where You Dream”? Which is the name of his excellent book on the process of writing fiction. In a chapter from that book entitled, A Writer Prepares, Butler says:
There is no intellect in this world powerful enough to create a great work of novelistic art. Only the unconscious can fit together the stuff of fiction; the conscious mind cannot.
But the question remains… how do you consciously drop down into the unconscious?
A few months ago I sat in a restaurant in St. John’s Newfoundland and had a chat with an acquaintance who is writing his first novel. He asked me when I knew what the ending of a book would be. I told him I began writing, urged forward by a character I’d created, someone who intrigued me, someone I’d put in an interesting, dramatic situation.
I said by “drama” I mean desire + danger = drama, and just as ‘desire’ doesn’t necessarily mean sexual desire, by ‘danger’ I don’t necessarily mean physical danger — psychological danger is just as interesting, if not more so, than car chases.
I said that once I’d written, oh, say one hundred pages or so, an end scene began to form in my mind…a place, the character, something happening in it…and most importantly, an atmosphere, an emotional resonance. Perhaps it is a woman standing alone, looking out over a landscape, thinking a particular thing, feeling a particular emotion. Huh, I say to myself at that moment — so THAT’S what I’m writing about. And then I start arcing the narrative toward that end point.
“So you know what the ending is by the time you’ve finished the first five chapters or so?” my acquaintance asked.
“Well, I know what I’m writing about, and I know how I want the reader to feel at the end of the book, but the exact details of the final scene, including who’s in it and what they’re doing, may change by the time I read the end. But thus far, with every book I’ve written, the atmosphere and emotional resonance has been exactly as I first imagined it.”
The fellow fairly shrieked. “WHAT? That sounds like hocus pocus! Magic! But how do you DO it?”
What I’m about to say does not address the nuts and bolts of writing, of course. (I can address some of those in different essays, if you’d like.) This isn’t about how to reveal character or write in significant details, or any of the rest of literature’s mechanicals — I’m assuming you know all that. This is about, having educated yourself on how to use the tools of the trade, you actually begin to WRITE.
What I’m suggesting is that you go into a sort of writing dream…a kind of self-hypnosis. Now, the truth is that how you get there is going to be different for everyone. Just like prayer is different for everyone..just like they’re aren’t any right or wrong ways to pray, there aren’t any right or wrong ways to get into the waking-dream state necessary for deep writing — although there are perhaps ways with are more effective FOR YOU than others. Eric Maisel, a psychotherapist who works exclusively with artists, has written a book by that very name, DEEP WRITING, and in it he suggests some good ways of getting into that creative state, including simply saying “Hush, hush,” to quite the mind. He says:
“…managing the mind is both a loosening and a tightening of one’s grip. But you don’t need a set of complicated instructions to know when to loosen and when to tighten or how to do both at once. The principle is simple. Orient toward thought, engage your brain, let old habits of thought slip away, silence any demons that have the temerity to howl, say “Hush” and mean it. You will then experience both qualities simultaneously, the tightening and the loosening, as if a bowstring were pulled taut and an arrow let fly all in the same instant.”
Dr. Maisel then gives a very good “hushing” exercise, which I’m not going to repeat here, because really, you should support his work by…oh, I don’t know…buying a copy of his book!
Writing from the Body by John Lee is another quite good book full of useful tips for getting down into what Lee calls “the grammar of the gut, the syntax of the sinews, the language of the legs.”
What do I do? Well, first I go to my writing place, which is a quiet place and away from distraction. If you don’t have one of those you need to get one. Unless you’re one of those odd people who can write in cafes. Now THAT’S a mystery to me! But I digress… what do I do? I do actually pray. There are a variety of prayers I use, and sometimes I simply sit quietly and listen for 15 minutes or so. Or, I might say this prayer for stillness:
God of stillness and creative action, help me to find space for quietness today that I may live creatively, discover the inner meaning of silence, and learn the wisdom that heals the world. Send peace and joy to each quiet place, to all who are waiting and listening. May your still small voice be heard in the love of the Spirit.
I also sometimes light candles, burn incense, ring bells (Good Lord, you’d think I was Catholic!) and drink a quart of tea. I recommend reading poetry for a few minutes, just to get the taste of good language in your mouth. Another thing that helps is the right music. I suspect this is a common tool for writers, evidenced by the special feature in The New York Times’ book blog, “Paper Cuts” entitled “Living with Music” wherein once a week a writer shares their writing play lists. I check in on a regular basis — it’s always fascinating, with such diverse entries as Charlie Mingus, Asha Bhosle and Bob Seeger, although there’s a shocking lack of classical entries, for my taste.
I have a play list on my iPod named: “Dream.” I play this as I try to work my way into the trance state conducive to deep writing. This play list consists of songs without words, although sometimes with vocali
zations, and a couple with lyrics in a language I don’t understand. Jonathan Elias’ The Prayer Cycle, Ludovico Einaudi, Lisa Gerrard, Arvo Part, Azam Ali, Anouar Brahem, among others.
I close my eyes; I sit; I breathe; I listen; I wait…I breathe…hush…hush… after a few minutes images begin to form…without analyzing them I pick up a pen…hush…hush…I wait some more. And to be honest, some days there’s an awful lot of waiting involved.
Once I’ve got a good writing buzz on (if you will) I choose something appropriate for both the novel’s overall theme and for the particular scene on which I’m focusing. For this novel I’m writing set in the Anglo-Saxon 7th century, I’m listening to a good deal of atmospheric Scandinavian music: Lauri Vainmaa, Annbjorg Lien, Bukkene Bruse and Jukka Lincola — all artists I discovered in the course of the writing process.
Every book is, of course, a different soundtrack. I’m so inspired by music that in my last novel, The Radiant City, the readers’ notes in the back contain a soundtrack play list.
So — prayer, hushing (meditation), music, and finally, actually picking up the pen. You can’t forget that last bit, you know. Very little gets written until you write it. No magic elves, I’m afraid. And really, although it may all look like so much abracadabra, magic wands and rabbits-in-hats, it isn’t. It’s patience. Trust. Faith. Intention. Discipline. Meditation. Desire. Breath…silence…a soupcon of creative imagination…divine intervention,… and well, maybe a little magic.