The Discovery, the Bones, and the Artist’s Way

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about beginner’s mind, where we go back to the beginning to remember what it is like to try something for the first time. As someone who has been writing since high school with the intention of being published, and as someone who has had a few literary successes I thought I knew what writing was.

And then I didn’t.

It was the stuff outside writing I started having problems with. I understand what social media is and how to use it (some of it, anyway). I understand more about marketing than I did before Her Dear & Loving Husband was published. Suddenly, publicity and marketing became overwhelming because there’s too much out there. Blogs, books, podcasts–all proclaiming “I’ve sold a million books! This is how you can do it!” And then when I didn’t get close to the numbers the experts claimed to have achieved I felt smaller than a gnat. I wanted to sell a million books too, so I allowed myself to be persuaded by iffy claims and false advertising–sometimes from people who hadn’t sold any more books than I had. If I had been around in the era of the carnival barkers I would have fallen for their every sales pitch, believing that saw dust would cure all my ills. I followed every publishing site, read every book, and listened to every podcast searching for that magic nugget, that one big reveal that would set me on the road to becoming the Next Big Thing.

One day, not too long ago, everything I was reading about publishing started to feel like noise–a residual sound like a tinnitus-type ringing in my ears. Then I wondered, how have I contributed to the noise? Is that what being a writer is now? Spreading noise instead of thoughts, opinions, and ideas? Instead of sharing stories? How much of my work has come from my heart, and how much has come from my beliefs about what I think others want from me? As of right now, I know what I do not want: I no longer want to contribute to the noise.

As soon as last week I was making myself crazy trying to discover what kind of books I should write that would make the most money and how quickly I could write those books and how to best market those books and which influencers I should connect with and how to publicize everything to my best advantage.

Only I didn’t want any of it.

Somehow, call it a flash of enlightenment, I understood that I was marching to the beat of other people’s drummers instead of my own. I’m a pretty independent-minded person, and even I followed the pied piper.  I went along because I lost track of what being a writer meant to me. I lost track of being an artist, of seeing the world through wide, open eyes that recognize life on earth as the miracle it is, like when I taught kindergarteners–a job I adored–because everything was new to them. The simplest experiment–making bubbles from soap and water and empty strawberry cartons and watching the sunlight reflect rainbow prisms as the bubbles floated away in the white-cloud sky–made them point and giggle with glee. In that moment those bubbles were the greatest thing ever. After 23 years of writing, that’s what I wanted for myself–I wanted to watch bubbles with wonder. I wanted to get back to beginner’s mind.

I’ve read Writing Down the Bones too many times to count, and this morning I finished reading it once again. But it was a different experience this time. This time, it hit me exactly in the innards. I had seen myself as a writer for many years, and while I always loved what Goldberg said and took a lot of it to heart, I didn’t really understand the book until this latest reading. I had also read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way before, only the first time I read it cover to cover, which is not how the book was meant to be experienced since it’s a 12 week course to be studied week by week. I loved what Cameron said about living a creative’s life, but I didn’t take it to heart because I thought I was already doing all right in that department.

Maybe I wasn’t as creatively all right as I thought. I want to get back to the heart of being creative and the soul of what I really love–writing. I am really only at home in the world when I’m writing. I am now going through Cameron’s course week by week. I’m on week one. I’ve started doing morning pages (or writing practice, as Natalie Goldberg calls it). So far I’ve done my morning pages every day this week, though I haven’t done my artist’s date yet. I have a feeling Saturdays will be my day for my artist’s date. I think I would like to do a page or two in my art journal, using finger paints and designing whatever I see in my mind’s eye at that moment. I haven’t touched my art journal in nearly a year, and I have missed it.

For so long, writing had become a chore because I had so many other worries. Like Natalie Goldberg says, writing does writing, and that’s where I lost my connection–to writing and myself. I was trying too hard to push the writing this or that way thinking I should do what others told me to do instead of doing what my heart wanted to do. That is always a mistake.

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