I had to share this video of Brene Brown delivering one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing. After watching this, I passed it to two other friends, with whom I had some profound discussions about vulnerability, its power, and the ways that we run from that source/power.
For myself, I’ve run away from this source in every possible way, and in my private life, what I run from most is writing and meditation – two practices that require one to look at things just as they are, get curious with the suffering, let it percolate to the surface of consciousness, and watch it take place, or take flight, safely on the page or in the mind. Funny that I run from a blank Word doc or the murky mind where life is simulated and rehearsed. Pause just a little bit and watch “it” for what it is, and I can experience freedom. Type it out, breathe with it, and in this way let it go.
How many of our issues could be lessened, eliminated, or given a fresh new angle if we just allowed them to arise “just as they are” without the narrative and thus judgment?
Another reason to write: to explore vulnerability, to ask questions of endless narratives (the poorest writing has all the answers), and in that exploration link with another’s loneliness, and maybe solve that for a bit, or laugh at it. I’d say it’s all worthwhile, exploring the places that scare us (to borrow from Pema Chodron).
Now, to that TED Talk!
“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.” That’s Anne Lamott in her bestselling Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book I savor to this day. Its first chapter is “Shitty First Drafts”—a heart-opening first act for a work that inspires you to dig into the muck of life and start planting. Lamott’s statement cuts through the negative ego and implores, Keep going, don’t look back.
I don’t see the same kind of self-doubt in music as I do in writing. I’ve rarely seen anyone pick up an acoustic guitar, start playing, and then stop mid-song to realize that they’re “really not that talented anyhow” and stop. But I don’t play music enough to make an accurate assessment. Usually I’ve witnessed people keep going, keep in tune with whatever they’re playing no matter how “out of tune” they might be. I wish I could say the same of my writing process.
I have stopped mid-writing—in a story or poem—letting that insidious inner voice kick in with doubt, calling itself the editor when in fact it was just the negative ego halting creative flow. Why do that to myself, especially when I may end up with a line, paragraph, or chapter that I wouldn’t otherwise reach unless I let that current of creativity sweep me downstream, the way you might find yourself soloing over a few chords and get lost in a timelessness of a few minutes?
Why stop? You have no idea what idea you might be missing.
I am speaking of course of early drafts. Surely there are times when you have already put in your time/timelessness into a draft—you’ve got the skeleton of a word temple set up, and you realize it’s on sandy ground and probably deserves razing or major fixing up, despite how pretty the ceiling beams look. That’s fine. That takes discernment and awareness to realize that you’ll maybe keep the couplet, but scrap the sonnet.
But you wouldn’t have gotten those two “good lines” until you had put that work into that first draft. And that first draft is likely going to be shitty, or at least somewhat off. Even as you touch up something, it’s going to have scaffolding around the outside; it’s gonna look ugly to you and maybe others.
Even if it is a Notre-Dame of a novel. That’s part of the progress.
Your ego is not the beginning or end of your writing. (By “ego” I mean: either the inflated OR the deflated ego, especially the inner voice of “not good enough, so stop now.”) At least, I don’t believe it should be. You are writing to give birth to something you can’t otherwise express, no matter how small or great a creation. You are getting usefully lost in perspectives and narratives the way you get lost jamming over a few chords. You are harnessing a creative energy that is so necessary to you that without that channeling instrument—be it pen, piano, or paintbrush—you would feel trapped, maybe self-destructive. That energy takes on its own life and you listen to it and nurture it, incubate it, disclose its early development only to the closest confidants.
My friend who ghostwrote a cookbook once told me that she was able to complete it simply because “I was pregnant with it.” Years after the publication, when friends who asked her why she hadn’t yet produced another book, she simply declared, “I’m not pregnant.” She knew that she couldn’t stop when she was pregnant with the thoughts, awareness, imagination, and writing mission. She knew herself well enough as a channel for creativity. Engulfing thoughts of inflated/deflated ego were not present when she spoke of writing.
I’m not so enlightened and objective with my creativity. My basic advice to myself actually comes from a grant writing teacher years ago: “Today you write. No editing. Editing is for tomorrow.” That was enough to silence any voice of doubt and keep me flowing.
How do you capture your flow? Feel free to leave a comment below.
behind the fast-talk grill
it scoops up years of undone crud
it doesn’t need
the way a lie
until it finds agreement
and slips into the anchored
QUID PRO QUO
proudly lettering the stern
it’s not afraid to bitter Basqiat
a sugary Kincaid
or raze the figures
to realize a Rothko
the wheel of suffering
insert yourself unspoken
into the spoke
as I go flying
please smile back at me
Our father, you are in heaven, right?
With all the hocus pocus here on earth,
Our squabbles must make you slink away
Tight under your turtle carapace
To dodge our nails all grimed-up with the truth.
I wanted to say,
“Hollow is your name,”
But that just seemed mean, an easy jab,
And you can dodge better those who box in time.
Besides, you live outside the ropes of even space.
Translucent be my soul—
(A line I’d add,
A widget to this song)
It’s grown so thin from sin,
Like fiberglass that gently flects the droplets
Of the rain,
Pattering arrows that I’ve mis-shot.
And shallow is my shame:
I’ve loved women, dropped them at the slightest fight,
The mildest melee.
The pain I’ve wrought
Makes waves that crash a shore I’ll never see.
Your kingdom came undone…
Your will is just the sun…
O lord, I make this up as I go along.
And no offense but you’ve had your chance to speak.
But I can’t help but try to speak for you.
Give us this day a bowl of rice,
some decent sleep.
Forgive the toe-stepping,
And for that matter, it’s only fair,
I clear the debts of all who stepped on me.
—This is how I thought it as a child.
Last, I know you won’t lead me into temptation—
This is the funny, poignant part of the prayer,
Even for an atheist like me.
And—here’s the line I always loved—
Deliver us—via smoke screen, with vanishing cream,
Like a newborn swaddled and swept up from a fire
Fast as lightning before the thunderclap—
From evil (which, God knows, is as gray
As your deliverance).
And that’s the part that makes you a superhero,
A light without the lamp,
So thanks for that.
The electrochemical couriers of the night’s tunnel delay.
Traffic tightens, mountains shift in, shipments of
sensation are lost. The quota fails to pass through,
and the index, middle, and thumb lock up on the
other side of Mont Blanc, numb as three men
whose bread will not come. They stand in
the cold and wait for morning, when the
commerce of the body can begin again.
With dawn they’re reminded the pins-
and-needles wheels to grip, the hands
(warts and all) to hold, the music
they must pluck from cellos and
breasts alike, the simple jars
(their women need them)
to turn open.
– from 7 Portraits, by Timothy Tiernan