Most writers have a life-long fascination with the process of writing.
We spend endless hours studying and practicing our craft. We attend writer’s workshops and conferences, pay big bucks to take writing classes, and some of us even earn a lot more money teaching workshops and classes than we earn from the actual writing itself. This fascination with writing is a life-long addiction we couldn’t break even if we wanted to try.
I spoke recently at Rock Valley College about the joy of writing that occurs when we are in flow. Flow is a kind of ecstasy not unlike orgasm or religious rapture. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered through extensive research (and demonstrated by his own books and articles) that flow occurs when the challenges we face are equally matched by the skills we possess. Mythologist Joseph Campbell called being in flow “bliss.” Campbell said, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are -- if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
Stephen King talked about the same thing in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. “Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already.”
I began writing another new novel this week after submitting a new 6,000 word short story to a magazine and sending the completed manuscript of Spilled Milk to a book editor. I’m in that in-between refractory period when I’ve temporarily removed both my writing hat and my editor’s hat so my naked head can breathe. I inhale new ideas by reading books written by other writers. I am able to see both the forest and the trees in perspective.
I am, for the moment, consciously aware of all I need to put into my writing to make it flow for the reader. When I’m actually writing fiction, my subconscious takes over and automatically does what long hours of reading and writing have trained it to do. When I am in flow myself, I’m so focused on a fictional world that I’m not conscious of my actual environment or my body or any and all of the disparate elements that go into creating a work of fiction. It is only when I take off my writer’s hat that other worlds—including the real world--come into focus.
Perhaps it’s because I wore my editor’s hat so long while revising and submitting my completed manuscripts that I’m still focused on analyzing the process of writing rather than doing the writing. Perhaps it’s the shock of emerging from ecstasy and rediscovering my own body and mind. Whatever the reasons, I’m now focused on the process itself. My analytical left brain is in charge.
This is the point where I’m capable of writing a synopsis or a proposal for a new work.
There may be some truth to the saying that “Those who can, do; those who can’t do, teach.” I can’t teach writing when I’m in the process of writing. Were anyone to observe me when I’m wearing my writer’s hat, they would see a madman maniacally pounding on keys or staring off into space. If they were to ask me what I was doing, I couldn’t tell them. I don’t consciously know what I’m doing when I’m writing. I’m carried away; I’m floating on clouds of ecstasy; I’m flying; I’m orgasmic. No one can teach that. It must be experienced.
So, now that I’m not completely caught up in the experience, my mind wants to know what happened so I can duplicate the experience again and again. I can only assume other writers go through this, too. Even beginning writers—those that are also readers—have an inkling that the experience is much to be desired.
These are the twelve steps of the process that work for me: (1) totally immerse yourself in the written word; (2) alternate between reading and writing; (3) find what you like and duplicate it yourself, but do it in a new way that is uniquely your own; (4) do it again and again until it becomes automatic for you, second-nature to do it that way; (5) try something new that has never been tried before; (6) learn from both your failures and your successes; (7) if something doesn’t work—doesn’t feel right and doesn’t create ecstasy--try something else; (8) settle for nothing less than perfection; (9) enjoy what you’re doing while you’re doing it; (10) don’t stop to analyze until the ecstasy is over; (11) know that all good things must come to an end; (12) begin again.
It’s all about new beginnings and new endings and the feelings of ecstasy that come between the beginnings and ends.
I go through this process of reading and writing and analyzing as if I’m caught in an endless loop of beginnings and endings with brief periods of ecstasy to sustain me. Sometimes writing is painful, and that’s when I know I’m growing beyond my previous comfort zone. When reading or writing becomes painful for too long, however, I need to realize I’m reading or writing the wrong thing. I’m a hedonist who seeks pleasure and avoids pain. But pain, in small doses, can prove invigorating.
Like my characters, I must sometimes suffer pain in order to grow. Rather than avoid pain, I must learn to incorporate it into my being. Muscles are built on scar tissue.
And then, when I’m in ecstasy again, I can appreciate it so much more because I survived the pain.
Writing, like life, is a process. Sometimes, it’s a step by step process and sometimes it’s a quantum leap from here to there. Sometimes, it’s painful. More often, it’s joyous. If it’s not that way for you, you may be in the wrong business.
There’s a story that famous artists, musicians, and writers love to tell--each in their own way--which is, essentially, the same story. It goes something like this:
Once upon a time there was a young artist (or musician or writer) who thought he had talent and dreamed of pursuing a career as an artist (or musician or writer).
One day, this young artist (or musician or writer) met Michelangelo (or Beethoven or Shakespeare) and asked the Great Master if his painting (score or poem) showed talent. Michelangelo (or Beethoven or Shakespeare) looked at the painting (listened to the score, read the sonnet or story) and shook his head in despair. “Do you really want my advice?” asked the Great Master. “Of course,” said the young man. “Then you should give up this silly notion of wanting to become a great artist (or musician or writer) and instead take up a valuable trade or become a merchant.”
The young man was heartbroken. He thanked the Master for the good advice. Then he went off to pursue a career as a merchant.
Years later, the same man met Michelangelo (or Beethoven or Shakespeare) quite by accident at a civic function. “Maestro,” said the no-longer-young man, “I want to thank you again for the excellent advice you once gave me. Thanks to you, I am now a successful merchant, and the richest man in Rome (Munich, London).”
“What advice did I give you?” asked the Master.
“Why, don’t you remember? You told me to give up my thoughts of ever becoming a great artist (musician or writer). Obviously, you must have known I had no artistic talent. I took your advice and became a merchant. And now I am wealthy and very happy.”
“I never said you had no talent,” said the Master. “In fact, I seem to remember you had great talent.”
“But, then, why on earth did you tell me to give up thoughts of becoming an artist (musician or writer) and become instead a merchant?”
“I say that to everyone who asks if they have talent. You see, my friend, many men have talent. But only those who know in their innermost hearts that they were meant to become artists (or musicians or writers) and therefore disregard my advice--only those--will ever become great. You see, it makes no difference what I tell them (or what I told you). If they (you) have what it takes to become great, then they (you) will do it despite (or in spite of) whatever I tell them. You, my friend, were not meant to be an artist (or musician or writer). If you had been, what I said would never have mattered at all.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to put my writer’s hat back on and return to work.