“I was cultivating stupidity.”
That’s what Andre Dubus III said when he wrote his first memoir, Townie. The son of a prominent short story writer, Dubus had met success as a novelist, the least of his successes being that The House of Fog and Sand has membership in Oprah’s club. But when it came to his own story – with his father’s story entwined – not only was he in new genre territory.
He also had to let go of what he thought the Story might be and let the writing show him.
Easier said than done. Business artists and writers share a common uneasiness with ambiguity. The business artist – start-up or in transition – wants to shape a business identity now and get moving tomorrow. I hear the restlessness at times among the business artists and professionals in the Your ArtMark™ expedition.
And the writer wants to shape the book today and ship it tomorrow. I hear that restlessness among clients and mentorees in the Your Captivating Book mentorship program.
I don’t blame their haste. The World of Buzz pushes us to speed things up. Ship. Churn out. Get things done. Sound advice for the over-thnking Maven who wallows in indecision and incomplete projects. But patience and tolerance for ambiguity remain virtues for creative questers.
When do you let go of hasty shipping and when do you invite the not-knowing? It’s tricky to know.
My best advise is this: In the early stages of your project, wander. But wander with smart tracking wonder tips so you know how and when to get back on-track. I’ve aimed the ideas below particularly for writers, but business artists would be wise to view their own businesses as similar creative projects that require patient, artful drafting and re-drafting. See what you think . Then, contribute or dispute in the comments section below.
When writers ask me for tips about first drafts, I tell them to get lost. In their drafting, that is.
Starting a fresh draft is one of the most exhilarating – and excruciating – parts of writing.
The uncertainty drives some writers crazy. But uncertainty may mean you’re on the right path. Otherwise, you may be writing what you already know and, thus, what your audience already know, too.
As a writer, learn to trust your faculties, to discover your innate traveling tools. Learn to trust your versatility in your writing that you learn how to navigate tricky terrain and find your way out of dense thickets. You want, in short, the ability to draft and get lost with confidence.
We have a stigma about getting lost. Some people view it as a sign of weakness. Parents dread the thought of their children getting lost. Some of our religions and fables teach us the hazards of straying from the path. One definition of wander is, after all, “to deviate in conduct or belief; to err; go astray.” Rooted in wind, to “wander” sounds like being “wanton,” to have no discipline. Yet, there is a discipline and an art to being able to wander well as writers and as business artists.
If we fear getting lost, we might draft and create like an over-scheduled tourist. Experiencing a rushed draft can feel like taking an hour-long tour that shuttles you through Manhattan’s highlights. True, staying safely on subject while drafting can be helpful for report makers and journalists and blog writers but hazardous for novelists, poets, or creative nonfiction writers.
Here’s the deal: We often remember surprises, novelty, revelation, and we encounter such things more often when taking time to stray.
Poet and translator Andrew Schelling of Naropa University once told me what he viewed as the core distinctions between touring and journeying. When we tour, he said, we accumulate and take from a culture and return with more stuff—plastic knickknacks, ashtrays painted with “Tahiti is Smokin’,” and jewelry we’ll never wear once back in the States.
When we journey, we open ourselves up to the place and to the moment and perhaps return transformed or at least slightly different. We have a fresh perspective and stronger wits instead of more trinkets and photographs.
So it can be with how we draft. Slow down. Get lost. Drafting is a time for journeying, for uncovering your story’s unexpected plot twists, for delving more deeply into an image that keeps bugging your imagination, for discovering a character’s disturbing blemish.
When you get lost in your drafting, you often realize your real subject, something you wouldn’t have found had you stuck with your original writing “plan.”
When drafting, I don’t care how I look because I’m the only one watching: I overwrite, digress, strike the wrong chord with a word choice. I know later I must return and clean up, but without this unbridled process I wouldn’t be able to start anywhere. I’d be stuck with frozen fingers, worrying what and how I should write.
“Slow drafting’ can be a subversive act that resists our speed-driven culture.
“Slow drafting” calms the analytical, taskmaster mind and awakens the fertile, intuitive reservoir of images stored in our embodied imagination.
When we write without concern for speed and efficiency, we also may sharpen our wits and hone our navigating skills for the next time we write. Not that writing becomes any easier with each trip. But perhaps the more we challenge ourselves as we draft, the more versatile we will become and more able to move toward more difficult writing. And then we must be avid and adept rewriters and editors.
We become trackers, sojourners, peregrinators. Not tourists.
Draft to Discover. Craft to Design.
Here’s Tennessee Williams’ take on first drafts:
I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do — then go ahead and do it.
Don’t maul, don’t suffer, don’t groan—till the first draft is finished.
Then Calvary—but not till then.
Doubt — and be lost — until the first draft is finished.
Trip the Fear Wire.
But we’re wired to fear the unknown. That according to Jonathan Fields‘ review in his book Uncertainty of Daniel Ellsberg’s 1961 study of risk and uncertainty. When faced with uncertainty, Fields notes that the brain’s fear and anxiety center — the amygdala — “lights up, triggering a cascade of physiological and psychological events.” How do we trip that wire?
Fields goes on to review more current research by Stefan T. Trautman and team that shows a telling variable: Eliminate the element of being judged, and study participants are more likely to take risks.
So, when writing first drafts, leave the editor at home and bring along your Drafting Buddy — you know, the happy-go-lucky pal who lets you go where you want to go and explore. My Drafting Buddy is the equivalent of my inner Labrador.
But I also put in a few safety measures, the equivalents of a map and water supplies, just in case.
My first safety measures for “getting lost” are setting an intention and moving with my imagination in my body – on a walk, a run, or yoga flow. I feel less inhibited if I move my body and explore my imagination before sitting before a blank screen. Doing so lets me wander safely within the bounds of time, deadlines, and energy. If I know at least the subject or angle or topic or question I intend to write into, then I have a variety of ways to “trick” my imagination into coming out to play so I can explore with more facility.
This process works for me. And something like it works for numerous other creatives and business artists.
So once you’ve set a writing intention (e.g., “I am writing into…” or raise a question such as, “Where is this scene taking me?”), you can draft and not know where you’re going. You might forget everything you think you know about your subject, story, or image. Begin with fewer preconceptions, and you trust your wits to see you through.
This kind of not-knowing brings more joy than fret. Susan Orlean (Rin Tin Tin, The Orchid Thief) said at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival a few years ago that she knows when she’s onto a hot topic when in the first draft she has more questions than answers.
Begin with the concrete.
If writing a first sentence daunts you, start with the concrete. A scene. An image. Maybe it’s one that haunts you, such as a woman pacing a room. Describe the red chiffon dress with an orange leather belt she wears or the fresh scratch on the side of her cheek. See where describing that image’s surfaces in detail takes you.
Another similar way to begin is by describing a character’s quirky action. For example, a story draft might start with “Alison reads dictionaries backwards. She tries to read a letter’s worth of words a week. This afternoon, she’s on ‘u.’ Umbilical.”
If as a writer you’re intrigued enough, you’ll ask yourself about your own character, “Why does she read dictionaries backwards? Why this discipline? Why is she reading the definition of umbilical when this story starts?”
The same process works when writing nonfiction. If I’m writing into my mother, I might begin a personal essay with, “When I was ten, my mother tried out belly dancing.” Now, I have no idea why at that time, in 1975, she came home with finger cymbals, a fringed purple and gold outfit, and a record with music reminiscent of Sinbad the Sailor, but I’m sure if I trusted my wits enough to recall such remote memories that some answers would avail themselves.
If not, then this memory likely would lead to other related memories, and soon after writing to discover for two or three hours, I would be deep into some fresh territory.
Let the writing beguile your imagination, and the writing might pique readers’ curiosity, too.
Starting with details and images can anchor your imagination (and your potential readers’ imaginations) in this imagined physical world. Writing description stimulates the brain’s more intuitive visual cortex and parietal lobe, so your drafting often bypasses the blah-blah-blah path – the more abstract and analytical voice that wants to figure things out and explain them away for writer and reader.
Another way to start your story, essay, or poem concretely is in the middle of a conversation. Dialogue creates immediacy in your imagination and can help you hear the piece’s voices. Follow where remembering or creating the conversation leads you. “What’s the story with your obsession with red pansies?” Benny asked his sister-in-law. Indeed, you the writer say to yourself. What is her obsession with pansies? Who is Benny? You won’t know until you draft some more.
Sometimes writers start with a tango of topics. A novelist might start with an itch to explore the relationship between botany and desire. An essayist may wonder how myths of goats relate to notions of masculinity. A poet might set out to see in a series of couplets how the idea of origins and eggs relate. Characters, situations, anecdotes, and images—all the concrete aspects of writing imaginatively—become intuitive ways to explore these ideas.
Heed your breath.
As you draft, check in with your breath. Most of us hold our breath when we write. Holding the breath deliberately is an advanced practice, but doing so unconsciously can create tension in our bodies and induce unconscious anxiety. Writing while periodically observing your breath, on the other hand, helps you write with a bit more ease (although it won’t make writing easy).
Your slow exhalations dissipate the chatter while you write, and breath awareness reminds you, too, that your source of drafting encompasses other parts of your body besides your head.
You release physical tension so you can be open to imaginative tension. So, if you feel compelled, let yourself detour. As in “un-tour.”
Listen to a word’s sound and let it rebound throughout your inner ear until by association another word suggests another path of words to take.
Let’s say you’re writing about a time when you picked apples. The word apple in the first line of poetry or the first scene of a story might tickle the word garden or Eden or Snow White. Recurring images and sounds not only thread a series of lines or scenes together. An impression of a word—its connotation, its music—may prompt a memory, an analogy to a film or anecdote, another word, image, or metaphor.
When we let our inner ear and eye follow these feathery associations, we let each word and sentence guide the next word and sentence. The piece’s inner logic of interrelated words guides you as much as the outer logic of ideas and plot.
I’m not suggesting a random, disjointed stream-of-consciousness. Instead, you follow a thread and follow your breath and at some point, any point, an image or word may beckon you to digress.
Keith Abbott describes his writing process as a jazz improvisation: In the moment of writing itself, you let the music play you. Either way, you’ll have perhaps a new, even richer story to tell. Read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or a novel by Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, or Tom Robbins to sense how prose’s current can charge fiction.
But cut yourself a little slack, because not all sounds are musical and not all ideas are worth keeping and sharing, just as not all food is piquant. Permit yourself to write crap. Pull out the leftovers, old worn-out drafts from ten years ago, if reworking them gives your imagination something palpable to sink its teeth into.
Even if what you start to write sounds as if you’ve been writing the same thing for years, write it. Some writers have only one idea their whole life, on which each novel or set of poems they publish simply plays a variation.
If you insist on drafting only when you feel each word must be recherché to avoid your words tasting like a rechauffé, then you might actually starve your muse. You’ll have time later to clean up the mess—the excesses, the overwriting, the creative indulgences, the melodrama—that you made. For now, enjoy the trek. Drafting, like cooking, can be messy.
To let yourself get lost while drafting is to go blind. It’s to be content at times with being in the dark where seeds germinate.
Write in the dark.
Writer Kent Haruf pulls the wool over his eyes—literally a wool cap—when he dives into his first drafts so he won’t be worried about hitting the right keys on his keyboard. He explains in the essay “To See Your Story Clearly, Start by Pulling the Wool Over Your Eyes” that he writes sections of stories loosely to quell his analytical mind and “to stay in touch with subliminal, subconscious impulses and to get the story down in some spontaneous way.”
It can work. I’ve tried it. My imagination’s engine, with this newfound freedom, happily chugs along on and off the track. This practice works best, though, if you can type comfortably (although I’ve had writers try it hand writing in their notebooks too). You might close your eyes or turn out the lights, clarify an intention that is no more specific than to receive whatever your intuition has to give you and, with your eyes still closed, let go and write in the dark.
When you regularly stoke your intuition as an ally, uncertainty and ambiguity are not so frightening. At least during the first draft. Then, as Williams suggests, you can groan and maul and suffer. And as Chopin suggests, then you can apologize for the trouble your curious writing will get you into.
Until then, happy sauntering.
How do you wander?
I’ve offered a few concrete tips, but I’d love to hear how you scholars, writers, creatives, and business artists let yourself wander when you need to. Share your tips, stories, and opinions here.
Thanks for running with me,
Note: Some of this text is adapted, rearranged, and added to from a chapter in The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies & Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Penguin 2004; updated ed., Monkfish 2008)