Sylke Jackson: The last time I wrote regularly was on a bet. I wrote for 4 hours every day for 2 weeks. At the end of the time I felt like my ego was about to explode and that I would have a nervous breakdown if I continued to write. I wasn’t strong enough.
It seems to me that writing, perhaps more than any other calling, requires tremendous reserves of initiative, discernment, and faith. How do you sustain yourself day after day to create a career as a writer?
Diana Goetsch: This reminds me of my grandfather comparing every job to digging a ditch when he wanted you to appreciate how hard he thought it was. But now that I think of it, it wasn’t every job, it was whenever he had a writing task. “For me, that’s harder than digging ditches twelve hours a day,” he said. And he was talking about simple stuff, like disputing a parking ticket, which he loved to do verbally (he was a salesman), but hated doing in writing.
Then there are those who write effortlessly, girls in their diaries, shut-ins on their political blogs, people who use the word “journal” as a verb, who can’t not write. They seldom revise or even read what they’ve written—as we’d never read transcripts of our daily conversations, were they to be made available—partly because they’re too busy writing new stuff.
But then there’s serious writing, high art, literature, James Joyce “forging in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” That already sounds hard. My head hurts just thinking about it. And maybe compared to Joyce we’re all like my grandfather, who’d rather dig ditches. But before this gets too circular I would like to ask: was Joyce having fun? Fun may be too crass a word, but was he excited? Was there something going on besides work when he wrote, even though work was involved? We all know the answer is yes.
In your anecdote about the bet, you never say why you made the bet, and maybe it goes without say that something powerful attracts us to writing (though other things inside us resist it). That powerful thing is the sense of being closer to the workings of reality. It is as though the universe has a power switch, and literary artists, by virtue of what they can do on the page, have their hands on that switch. The obvious question is how did they get there? How do we get there?
SJ: Having your hand on the universe’s power switch sounds pretty exciting. I guess you have to trust that you can handle all that energy.
The other time that I wrote seriously (nine hours a day for a couple months for a publisher’s book that was behind schedule) I also got burnt out. Couldn’t sustain writing like that, or at all really, after the book was done.
The whole process seems to require incredible poise and self-determination. And getting yourself there. Can you answer that obvious question on how to get to the switch in the first place?
DG: I called it “the obvious question” but the answer’s far from obvious (otherwise the power switch would get millions of visitors, like Niagara Falls), and ultimately the question can only be answered with a journey we need to take.
You could start by doing the kinds of things you’ve already mentioned—write on a bet, or to a deadline, or a publisher’s assignment, and see if what initially begins as work can turn into something else. That’s the outer practice: you give yourself some kind of container, a choiceless situation and see what you do with it. The container, if it’s well designed, addresses the part of the ego that wants to flee.
What happens then is the ego gets squeezed, which is something you’ve also mentioned: you feel like you’re going to explode, or implode in a nervous breakdown. There’s no access to the power switch if any ego is present. The ego is very smart, so it knows this, and it battles to hang around—in the form of habitual patterns, self-cancelling beliefs, mental fatigue, whatever. And we can feel it, actually physically feel the ego’s resistance.
So then we need an inner practice. The outer practice, or container, handles the ego that resists commitment to a writing schedule, and the inner practice addresses the ego’s block on honesty and creativity. That block has to be dissolved, if only temporarily, so we can write.
SJ: What does the inner practice look like? How can we cultivate it?
DG: Visually, it looks like someone sitting in a chair for a long time writing. That may sound facetious, yet it’s also the point: staying in the game for longer than we might have thought possible to give things a chance to happen. One of the ways we cultivate this is by not judging our practice. There are going to be bad days—bad years even—and it’s important not to make conclusions about ourselves as writers based on them. It’s even more important not to judge ourselves by the good days. It’s great if we have a breakthrough, and write our best page ever, but we need to let it go immediately. Otherwise, if we chase that same wave every time, we’ll be disappointed, and it will make us frail. So don’t judge.
We also cultivate the inner practice with our approach to the page, how we engage the mind and keep it open to possibility at the same time. The Free-Writing Intensive, a course I’ve been teaching around the country for the past ten years, has been all about the inner practice, which comes down to what the poet William Stafford calls a “stance” while writing that is “ready, open, susceptible to now.” There are many exercises I give students, all of which address how we go about filling page after page while in that chair, so that we’re not just typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” a million times, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
When I was a dancer (and I know you’ve been a dancer too) I had a teacher who taught us how to take class, how professional dancers assimilate instruction, or go about a barre sequence, so that they’re always working on something, monitoring, developing, being alive, and not just going through the motions. The inner practice is analogous to that.
SJ: Wow yeah, it sounds exhausting. Maybe it’s a spiritual problem for me. I stay in avoidance mode, and seldom summon up the courage to even fiddle with the power switch. “This won’t work, I won’t be able to do it, none of it is worth it” are common tunes. Is there any faith component to how you work?
DG: Faith, yes! In Buddhism, the faith tradition I know best, there are six virtues called paramitas, one of which is “joyful exertion.” Just plain exertion wouldn’t quite be a virtue. Joyful exertion doesn’t involve any less effort than plain exertion—in fact, it brings in much more energy and effort.
The key to joyful exertion is confidence. Not the hollow confidence roused by self-help affirmations, but real confidence from trustworthy sources. Real confidence can come from authors who inspire us, and from a mentor who appreciates our abilities, reminds us of the legitimacy of writing (in a culture that doesn’t), and points out obstacles along the way.
Another source of confidence comes from what can be called the secret practice—so now we have outer, inner and secret practice. The secret practice is what enables us to plunge so deeply into the fabric of reality that ordinary self-expression becomes other expression, and we as artists become “the antennae of the race,” as Ezra Pound says. That’s the power switch we’ve been talking about, which can sustain us.
SJ: Sounds epic and enigmatic. Like entering the sanctum sanctorum of writing. Well, I look forward to being initiated into some of these practices in the workshop this weekend. Maybe I’ll a gain a little faith in the process…
Diana Goetsch will be teaching The Three Practices—a radical look at your relationship to writing this weekend at Cuppa Pulp Writers Space. For more info or to register go to the event page.