A few weeks ago someone asked me what it takes to write a book, and last week’s blog, Some Thoughts on Writing Winter’s Graces, described two characteristics that have proved invaluable in bringing the book to completion and into the world: passion and courage. Two others, flexible tenacity and trust in the process, are described here.
There are times when the words just flow, but often they don’t, and realizing that ebbs are part of the process can be comforting – and freeing. Reading a wonderful writer like Sue Monk Kidd describe her struggles as a writer (Traveling with Pomegranates), helped me not to turn against myself or give up when stalled or stumped.
While working on “The Grace of Creativity” I found myself typing, “Don’t quit, shift.” In that moment I realized that getting stuck had tutored me in navigating dry spells. I had heard that Jane Austin used to play the pianoforte when her writing stalled. For me, taking a short break to walk, swim, pull weeds, or wash the dishes, helps clear my mind and often gets the words flowing again. In one longer than usual dry spell, I shifted gears and spent a few days doing mundane tasks related to the book, like checking endnotes and returning books to the library. Shifting gears keeps me working, but releases me from banging my head against walls that apparently have no intention of yielding – yet.
Being stuck happens, and it passes. And it’s not the enemy. I now see being stumped or stalled as an indication that something is “off” or not yet ripe. And many of my best insights and favorite sentences have come after a time of stuckness. What’s been important is to find ways to keep working through both ebbs and flows and to let the process unfold at its own pace and in its own way.
Trust in the Process
I’m an open yet fairly cautious soul, and one of the greatest gifts that writing Winter’s Graces has given me is deeper trust in the creative process (and in life itself). Something else that popped out on the page before I realized that I knew it (like don’t quit, shift) was this:
“In [writing], we use the instrument of the self and also allow ourselves to be guided and inspired by something beyond it . . . . Whether we know that something else as the deep Self, the unconscious, the Muse, intuition, or a mystery, [writing] requires being open and attentive to it. We do not create alone; we are cocreators, really. Creating is like dancing with an unseen partner, infinitely imaginative yet trustworthy. In that dance, we sometimes lead; often we follow.”
Somewhere in these 15 years of writing Winter’s Graces, I’ve gotten better at discerning when to keep doing what I’m doing and when to let the Muse nudge me in another direction. The latter is especially hard when sensing that something I loved writing is now unnecessary or distracting and needs to be eliminated.
I’ve heard that for some writers such necessary pruning can mean putting aside an entire first draft and starting over. I created a bone pile/file for sentences, quotations, and hunks of chapters I loved but sensed I needed to sacrifice, for the sake of the book. For me the bone pile was a way to cut but still shelter what I was not ready to release entirely.
I still have that bone pile, though I haven’t looked at it much since making it – probably because somewhere in this journey of writing the book and growing older, I’ve learned to trust that the Muse / Life knows what she’s doing, even when her guidance is hard to follow initially. I’ve also realized that the creative spirit is always in motion, and we needn’t fear letting go because there is always more coming. There is no need to hold on to everything. In fact, relinquishing empties our hands so they are ready to catch the next thought, image, or emotion that will lead us to an essential insight, a beautiful sentence, or . . . we never know.
Some last words for those who might be inspired to write but are daunted by the prospect: “What you can do or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” I’ve always loved this sentiment, attributed to both Goethe and John Anster. Having written Winter’s Graces, I feel its truth even more deeply.
PS (for older writers especially) In my experience, all of the qualities that helped bring forth Winter’s Graces – passion, courage, flexible tenacity, and trust in the process – ripen with age. In fact, courage and creativity are two of the eleven graces of winter, and a chapter is devoted to each. Flexible tenacity draws from the graces of authenticity (growing trust in oneself), contentment (the capacity to adapt creatively to adversity), and wisdom (deepening discernment in the face of important challenges). Trust in the process is supported by the graces of self-transcending generosity (a growing sense of being part of something bigger than the ego or little self), necessary fierceness (the willingness to do what must be done), and simplicity (a deepening capacity to relinquish the non-essential for the sake of what matters most).