Many of my students sign up for a writing course because they have an urge to bring forth their experiences.
They want to write stories, poems, memoirs. Many have never written before. They don’t know where to start. What to write about. How to choose fiction or nonfiction. Many have confidence issues. Fearing judgement, they hesitate to share their work.
I understand the tenderness of the beginning writer, the courage it takes to put forth embryonic work and place it under the light of scrutiny.
Even though I had written professionally for years, when I was ready to put out my first fiction, I was terrified. The marketing and training books I wrote, the manuals, web text, and scripts, even the ghost-written articles—none were as personal as fiction. It took stern conversations with myself before I started sending my work to magazines, accepting the inevitable rejections, and sending it out again.
Now, after publishing many short stories, three novels, and a few personal experience narratives, I tell my students that I learned the most about writing from the effort to produce publishable work.
My writing teachers taught me much. So did the students in the classes and workshops I attended. Every editor I hired to advise me before I sent out a piece taught me something new.
Some magazine editors were kind enough to say why they rejected my piece. Some even suggested changes. Every time I looked anew at a rejected story, I found ways to improve it. And of course there was the exquisite pleasure when an editor said they liked my story.
The whole process was a learning experience. It toughened me and eventually became fun. Not to say I enjoy rejections, but they no longer stop me. It’s not personal. It’s the work. Which can be improved.
What’s important for new writers, especially those who start later in life, is to honor the urge to create. To bring forth and shape the nascent idea nagging at you. The images you know are part of a story. The characters who spring to life in your mind. The feeling that your experiences matter. Which they do.
We live our lives according to the story we tell ourselves. We change our lives by changing our stories. Whether we fictionalize our experiences or write searingly honest memoir, the benefits of getting them out of our heads and into the world are enormous. It helps us, and it helps others.
The drive to create is in everyone. It’s part of being human. Honored, it makes us more human. Our Creative Self urges us onward. It wants to be expressed. It wants to dance, with joy and abandon. Honor it.
So, write! Sing! Dance! Paint! Make a poem! Outline your novel! Decide you’re going to tell about all that you’ve learned! I promise, you won’t be sorry.
The stories of our daily lives have changed. We had no choice. We’re working at home. Not working. Home schooling the kids. Can’t travel. No baseball games, concerts, movies, or parties. We learned to operate on Zoom and discovered you can order anything, literally anything, on Amazon.
The changes were abrupt and startling. We adjusted and asked a lot of questions.
- When will it be over?
- Am I safe?
- Is any of this true?
- When will life go back to normal?
For answers, there’s no lack of stories.
- It will end in the summer.
- The virus will run its course like the flu.
- Only old people are at risk, so don’t worry about it.
- We don’t know what’s going to happen.
- The way the story ends depends on how we behave.
We find ourselves in the role of protagonist.
But is that anything new?
There are so many stories to choose from. As much as humans love inventing stories, then repeating and elaborating on them to entertain each other, this is different, isn’t it?
Yes, and no.
Before written language, people told stories. They relayed what plant was safe to eat, what trail led away from the lion’s den and which one to follow for water.
Stories based on facts won.
When the story is about our health, safety, how we work, and how we provide for our families, we want a story based on the best facts available.
But when the story is about how we respond to abrupt cultural change and how we feel about it, that’s different. It’s about our lives. We get to make it up.
We tell a story about how we’re doing. What adjustments we’ve made. What’s going to happen. What it all means. It’s how our brains work. They want to know the next step. An unfinished story makes them squirm.
We tell the story of our lives all the time. To friends, to colleagues, when we’re interviewing for a job, or talking to a realtor about buying a house. The stories may be snippets, short stories, or in some cases, novels. This is who I am. This is what I did. This is what happened. This is what I’m going to do.
Our story makes up our personal myth.
- I’m the kind of person who always . . .
- I love a challenge.
- Nothing stops me from reaching my goals.
- If my family had been supportive, I could have . . .
- Relationships never worked out for me.
- Boredom is the worst, so I go where the adventure is.
Now that life has changed, are you changing your story? Developing a new plot? Inviting new characters into it?
In fiction the hero’s journey is a familiar plot. The protagonist ventures forth, meets allies, vanquishes enemies, and after conflict and difficulty, seizes the prize. Whether the prize is a princess to love, treasure, or hard-won knowledge, he meets his destiny. He was brave and developed skills.
Another journey is that of the heroine, taken by both men and women. It does not require a quest, but instead follows an inner path where memories, feelings, and beliefs are examined. The goal is to be authentic. The heroine examines her values, decides how much of the common wisdom applies, and who she will be in the future.
This time seems perfect for the inner journey, a pause to examine our lives, notice our reactions to the changes we’ve had to make, and decide what can be left behind. As we move forward, we may need a new perspective. New plans. A new attitude.
If you’ve thought about writing the story of your life, for personal development, legacy, or memoir, this may be the time. Especially if that story is changing. Writing helps sort things out so you can become the conscious narrator of who you are and who you will become.
I offer a class on Writing the Story of Your Life through UNM Continuing Education. Contact me to learn more about it.
I have always written visionary fiction. It wasn’t as much a choice as how I perceived the world. Dreams, visions, alternate realities that peek from behind the veil, reincarnation, ghosts, messengers from other worlds—all the stories that dropped into my mind included these elements. When I sat down to write, I wondered how to incorporate them. What was I writing? Science fiction? Fantasy? Magical realism? As it turned out, all of the above.
As old as recorded literature, visionary and metaphysical fiction is now considered a sub-genre of speculative fiction, along with science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
In the Iliad and Odyssey, spirits spoke freely and generally interfered in the lives of mortals. In The Divine Comedy, we learn how one visionary experienced the afterlife. H.P. Lovecraft made us feel the dread of cosmic horror. And Paulo Coehlo enchanted us with the story of a boy pursuing his dream as he learned about magic and alchemy in The Alchemist.
So what makes a story visionary?
The purpose, for one thing. All stories must engage and entertain, but not all stories encourage readers to expand their view of what’s possible. Visionary fiction tells us about places, times, and beings we cannot perceive with our five senses. A leap of faith is needed. It encourages readers to expand themselves, to explore their own depths and engage their imagination. Visionary stories tease our creative brains as they challenge us to seek for the line between real and unreal.
But how does that help us now? In today’s world of pandemic disease, racism, uncertainty, and polarization, what value could an imagined journey to a made-up world have?
A lot, actually. The best fantasies, myths, and fairytales speak from the unconscious. The language of the soul, they offer the wisdom of the twilight world couched in symbol and archetype. They speak of the emotional, the intuitive, and the underlying connectedness of all life. Our frazzled minds may not understand, but our hearts do.
To solve personal and societal problems, we need new perspectives. The old ways are crumbling and traditional solutions have driven us farther apart. So why not look to visionary literature for clues?
To expand individual consciousness, a person turns inward. This is shadow work, the search for what was denied. Jealousy, anger, blame, fear, competition, dishonesty—all the emotions and impulses we prefer to ignore—end up in the shadow. If not attended to, they re-appear at the worst possible moment, causing us to say and do things we regret. Think of all the acts of violence perpetrated by people described as “quiet, polite, never caused any trouble.”
Only as we accept our “negative” emotions can we attain deeper levels of insight. Only then can our creativity blossom.
To face the shadow standing at the cusp of light and dark requires commitment and intention. We must be brave. Admit we’re not perfect. And make the journey down into ourselves. Into our bodies. Our past.
In my meditations, the entrance to the underground appears as a cave, sometimes a crack between two rocks in the desert. Like the shamans of old, to notice the door is to be invited to enter. Anyone can do it, even though most walk on by.
If we choose not to enter, we can hang on to our established beliefs. The trick is that what we don’t recognize within will be met outside. To heal the shadow in ourselves and society, we need to acknowledge what is uncomfortable. Climb down off that mountain of certainty. Which is exactly what the best visionary shows us how to do.
If we want to participate in healing the global changes causing so much fear and confusion now, being aware of our personal shadow is a good first step.
Another step is to notice what in us is similar to what we judge on the outside. For most people, this is a tough one. I have struggled with it. It means the end of blame and judgement. A tough one.
Which is why the journey to fantasyland, the underground, or the next star system is replete with struggle. Trials and tribulations. Dead ends. Attacks of the zombies or lizard people. It’s hard. Not everyone makes it. That’s why we read about it. We wonder, if we find the courage to go, will we make it?
For the journey to be complete, the hero must return with the treasure. Which may not be a gold ring, but something better. Knowledge. Perspective. Creativity. And eventually, the ability to look back with satisfaction. As Bilbo the hobbit said, “There and back again.”
We go into the darkness to bring back the light.
To read one of my visionary short stories, originally published in ABQinPrint, go here.
Well, here we are. It’s been a month since I’ve attended a meeting outside my home. A month since I’ve taught in a classroom. Since I’ve had lunch with a friend, gone to a movie or stood in line at the grocery store. Even for an introverted writer who loves solitude, staying home this much gets weird.
Every day I bike through my neighborhood with my dog. She’s well over a hundred in people years, so we don’t go far. Lots of stopping and sniffing. I want her to keep her muscle strength as long as possible, so I persuade her even when she’s reluctant. She gains enthusiasm as we progress and on our way home, she trots along beside me, wagging and smiling. I put her inside and go out for a longer, harder ride. Sometimes I walk a Bosque trail. Most days I visit the local park to sit under a Ramada and watch people playing with their dogs and kids.
Everywhere I go, people greet me. They wave from cars and porches. We exchange anecdotes about our dogs, our shopping challenges, the weather. I know twice as many of my neighbors as before the pandemic. Maybe because more people are home. Maybe because community is our only bulwark against the waves of tragedy and fear sweeping our land.
It’s so odd that now we express our love for each other by keeping our distance.
I’m one of the lucky ones who can work at home and order what I need. And suddenly there was plenty of time. The perennial excuse evaporated overnight. Without appointments, errands, and classes, I could be wildly productive.
But it’s a month in and I’m just beginning to settle down. I have written. I always do. But my productivity did not escalate with the additional time. I found myself dithering, staring into space, watching shows on Netflix I didn’t even like.
My old responses to stress—procrastination, obsessing on unimportant details—re-appeared. My thoughts and fears about the pain and suffering hovering over the world like a black cloud was the culprit.
I meditated and prayed about it. Took the practical steps feasible for me. Reminded myself that I am safe. I am healthy. At this moment, I have a place to live, food to eat, beautiful animals to keep me company, friends to call and zoom with. And now, I’ve started offering writing workshops via zoom. Why not? Virtual training may be the new normal.
Finally, it occurred. This is the time. To stop making excuses. To look at my reactions to the changes in our world without flinching. To walk the talk. Be honest. The reason I’m not working on my new book for six hours a day is because I’m nervous!
When I’m nervous, I procrastinate. I read every email, news reports, the latest statistics. Being informed is fine, but knowing all the details doesn’t help.
So what does? What helps us live with uncertainty? This is what I came up with
- Acknowledge feelings. It’s okay to feel anxious, stressed, impatient, depressed. Feelings denied only pop up later. Now is the time to admit that I’m human. I’m upset. I don’t like this. I want it to end.
- Make self-care a priority. A walk, a bike ride, a yoga tape, an online exercise class. Deep breathing, meditation, stretching, dancing around the living room. Now is the time to move—bodies and emotions so those negative thoughts don’t dig in
- Keep in touch. Call, skype, email, zoom, wave from the porch. Make a new friend while out walking the neighborhood.
- Help someone. What can I do? Who needs help?
- Tolerate uncertainty. There’s no telling how any creative project will turn out, so that’s nothing new for a writer. It’s a good skill to master. Now is the time to let go of trying to control things. It was mostly an illusion anyway.
- Take small steps. Now is the time to say, I don’t know, and move forward. The best cure for paralysis is action. One foot in front of the other.
- And most important, notice negative thoughts. The what if’s. The it might’s. None of them are real. They’re just thoughts. And thoughts can be changed. Dissolved. Replaced.
I am safe.
I am healthy.
I have what I need.
I can adapt.
I can create.
I can do my work.
I can love.
The word is out!
Creativity goes up when stress goes down!
It also turns out that subjective feelings of happiness depend less on what we have and more on what we do.
Who doesn’t want to feel excited at the start of every day? Satisfied with the result of the day’s effort? In harmony with the impulses that spring from within?
So how can we increase our satisfaction with our lives?
Many people bemoan their lack of inspiration. I’m not creative, they say, all the while wishing they could be.
Others are sure they don’t have time. It’s true that we’re all busy. I meet people who say, wistfully, after the kids grow up, after I start making more money, after I retire, THEN I’ll do my creative work.
But what if your inner muse grows weary of waiting? What if your ideas fade to dust because you haven’t put the energy into making them real?
Creativity is like a garden. It you don’t water it, it dries up. It doesn’t take a lot of water. A regular sprinkle is better than the occasional downpour.
The good news is, you can be creative now. Without quitting your job. Without getting another degree. Without committing to writing a breakout novel or painting the next modern masterpiece.
All you have to do is give yourself the time and space to relax. To let your creative impulses come forth. Creative work comes from play. From downtime. From daydreaming. From noodling with ideas, words, pictures. From giving yourself a gift that only you can give. Permission to be who you are.
We all have creative gifts. For some, that means serious writing, painting, music, design. For others, it means craftwork. Or nurturing a beautiful environment. Or growing healthy vegetables and beautiful plants. Doesn’t matter where your talents and impulses take you. What matters is that you follow them.
Easy to say, you might sneer, and you’re right. It is easy to say. BUT, it’s also easy to do.
Start small. Allot a short period of time on a regular basis when your creative self can roam free. Turn off the phone, the computer, shut the door and be with yourself.
You could meditate. Read inspirational material. Draw. Write in your journal. Or sit and listen to yourself breathe. Or you could evoke your inner creative self with color!
Color Your Way to Your Creative Self
A great way to relax in your creative time and get those juices flowing is to get an adult coloring book, some crayons or colored pencils and have at it! It’s amazing how relaxing it is to color beautiful designs that an artist has produced. The proliferation of these books speaks to how effective they are, both in reducing stress and promoting creativity.
Books with almost any theme that interests you are available on Amazon. I’ve listed a few below, and there are many others.
Have you tried coloring as part of your creative process? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Adult Coloring Book for Stress Relief
Adult Coloring Book Stress Relieving Animal Designs
The Secret Garden Coloring Book
Color Me Calm