A Still Center

You’re fretting in traffic, stuck at a light, late for something that matters. Then the sun glints off the car next to you, catching you hard in the eye, and you think of another woman, not necessarily you, but someone you once saw in traffic – or could imagine seeing – her face pinched in worry until the sun hits her eyes. At that moment, her muscles contract, revealing an unexpected, exhausted beauty. You begin to search for the words to capture that, the way it makes you feel sad and hopeful at once. The light changes and you drive on, but you’re not trapped in the car anymore. The traffic doesn’t matter – nothing does, not for now. You’ve sunk deep inside. To the still center where you go to write.

Writers have a still center, a place that can only be accessed internally, where words link with insight, where stillness gives way to transcendence, where we dare to touch on something divine. All artists do. Writing and other arts involve a translation of experience, whether actual or imagined. To accomplish that – for writers, as soon as we attempt to put words to it – we create artistic distance. For example, let’s say you’re awake in the night because you’re hurting, and you feel as if no one cares. Then you think of putting that in a story or poem. Suddenly the hurt is there in your hands like a rough jewel that you want to lift up to the light to see how it reflects. You’ve shifted from yourself as a victim to yourself as a creator of something new.

William Wordsworth spoke of poetry as originating from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” When I first read that, I pictured him sitting on a bench in a peaceful garden (one that someone else must have supplied). Now I think of that as I race through my life, multitasking all over the place: scanning the news as I choke down my breakfast, catching up on emails as I rush down the street, scrolling through Twitter as I pretend to have conversations. Does tranquility even exist anymore?

My answer is that the place to look for it is inside. The world may be going insane, and what we now ask of ourselves in terms of staying current and connected may be a daily threat to our creative lives, but you carry the possibility of reflection inside you at all times. Try to remember that as you speed through your day. Maybe spend half of that rushed breakfast on the news, but the other half on processing it. Maybe walk sometimes without a device and simply think. Maybe set aside a little time every evening to try to capture a few moments that struck you.

As soon as you begin to connect words with experience, I believe a kind of tranquility will find you.

Remembering To Play Pretend

If you’re a writer, then I’m guessing you played pretend when you were a kid. Your dolls had distinct voices, your trucks, loads of attitude. Your forts housed secret heroes in hidden rooms. If you had a stick, you could have a character. Some of you may have even had imaginary friends. I did. I once begged to return to my grandparents’ house because I’d forgotten to bring home my ‘visbul friends. My parents just laughed, but the next time we visited, I was relieved to find my friends hanging out in my grandparents’ basement. I never actually pictured their bodies – personality was enough. They were big talkers, my friends. I supplied all the dialogue, of course, but that wasn’t how it seemed to me then.

So much of our creative process as adults seems to center on rules and restrictions. Writers may not mean to intimidate each other into normative behavior, but sometimes I’m concerned that we do. Use third person, not first, if you’re a serious writer. Don’t vary your point of view. Never use backstory. Show, don’t tellDon’t use serial commas. Don’t forget serial commas. The list goes on. But with first drafts especially, forgetting about the rules and being willing to experiment is essential. You want to remember how to play pretend.

1. Keep asking “What if?”

“What if?” is at the heart of all games of pretend – really, of all acts of creation. The way I kicked things off as a kid was “I’ll be….” I’ll be this lion tamer – at a circus – and the lions will secretly be my friends. We’ll go on adventures. And you – you can be a monkey who turns into a human at night. You get in trouble – no, you overhear the owner. He’s a crook and no one can stop him, but us…. Writing first drafts is like that. Free-wheeling, open, changeable, exciting. You take on a part, imagine the place, the challenges, the other players, and you go. I don’t mean you can’t outline. But you don’t want to worry if you’re getting it “right.” Instead of crappy first drafts, try thinking of crazy first drafts. Glorious, all-in, no-holds-barred first drafts. Be a kid.

2. Inhabit the moment

Inhabit the moment – be fully there in your mind. When kids play pretend, they don’t let normal things break the spell. The room or yard and everything in it become part of the make-believe world. When you’re writing a first draft, try to recreate that feeling. Be present in your work. Sink all the way in. Take on the mind set of your main character and see what’s around you, sense it, feel it, notice how it affects you. Truly hear what others say. Write it all down. This is your raw material – you can shape it later.

3. Trust yourself

As writers, we have to cycle through more than one stage in our work. We need to be open to criticism – to hear what others tell us – to continue to learn. We need to edit our own work with honesty and detachment. We need to be professionals who hold ourselves up to high standards and who can handle the business aspects of our careers with aplomb. But when it comes to first drafts, it’s time to put all that aside. We can’t edit before we’ve even let ourselves create. We have to remind ourselves that this is something we love. Trust your own talent. Let yourself be young.

You may just find the only hard part is typing fast enough.

Does a way you played as a kid ever come to mind when you write? Please feel free to comment.