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I have met some amazing people on this creative journey and Jeremiah Abrams has a great deal of knowledge to share that I know some of you will resonate with. Last year I was the teacher on a retreat in Bali and this year, Jeremiah is teaching at the same resort in Ubud, Bali on the theme of Write for Your Life–Developing a Strong Narrative Voice. The retreat is just after the Ubud Writer's Festival so check it out if you're keen to learn, write and grow in paradise.
There are three rules for writing well.
Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
––W. Somerset Maugham
Somerset Maugham, who was reputed to be the most highly paid author in the English language during the 1930’s, had neither need nor time for rules about writing. He was on a productive rip and much too busy applying himself to his meteoric writing career. Yet what a lovely conundrum Maugham has given writers to contemplate: there are rules for writing/ there are no rules for writing.
It is a minefield out there (in there). The solo task of writing can wind one through labyrinths of distraction. Writers must dodge temptations to reduce their task to obeisance to a set of simplified rules and also avoid the perfectionist’s obsession with a right way to write. The real mission of writing resides in finding one’s authentic narrative voice and allowing it to speak through the page. This is the ultimate concern for us as writers, to find and do what enables us to author our authentic voice.
But writers certainly can benefit from knowing the experience of other writers. The blood and guts of the writer’s calling can be absorbed from biographies and interviews with writers whose works we admire intensely. And it is satisfying and useful to swap stories about writing. Sharing in writers’ circles and groups is an increasingly popular and useful pastime for the contemporary writer. We may learn just what we need by listening to what emerges in a gaggle of writers.
And what about antidotes for writer’s block, the dreaded demon enemy? Not everyone suffers from blockage, but we all could use a preventive dose of suggestions on hand, just in case the cliché becomes a reality. You can find a raft of rules for writer’s block in the information stream; just google the phrase “antidotes for writer’s block.” I particularly like Tom Robbins advice:
“If you're willing to take chances, risk ridicule, and push the envelope, and if you've managed to hold on to your imagination (the single most important quality a writer can possess, even slightly more important than an itchy curiosity and a sense of humor), then you can dissolve any so-called block by imagining extraordinary, therefore unthinkable solutions, and/or by playing around uninhibitedly with language.” (Wild Ducks Flying Backward)
When it comes to writer’s block, I see myself as a motivational coach. I bring enthusiasm to the writing enterprise, knowing that self-expression is always much more than just craft or intention. We each need to find our own best therapy for writer’s block, not to coddle ourselves but to keep the writing habit going. I especially value what the prolific Irving Stone had to say: “When I have trouble writing, I step outside into the garden and pull weeds. . . best therapy there is for writer’s block.”
As for the three rules for writers promised in my title, I say to hell with Maugham, here is what makes sense to me today:
1. Be A Reader
The trait all writers have in common is a passion for the written word. Learn from other writers, find the writers who turn you on, emulate them, compete with them, honor their trail-blazing, and, short of plagiarism, borrow from them. T.S. Eliot once said that the best way to judge poetry “ . . .is the way in which a poet borrows.” What Eliot observed about poetry easily applies to all forms of writing: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
2. Listen To Your Inner Voice And Take Dictation
In my own research listening to and reading many interviews with writers, I found this surprising result. The majority of authors explicitly stated that their writing process consisted of listening first. The creative act is in writing down what you hear. Whether it is a character speaking dialogue or a discursive inner monologue, crafting your writing means being the scribe to an internal narrative process.
3. Read Your Written Work Out Loud
Hearing your own words spoken aloud is essential for editing and rewriting. Listen for the music and cadence as the words flow and fall like a dancing brook of ideas and feelings. Instantly, you will hear what does not belong and also notice where the narrative thread needs work.
Jeremiah Abrams is a Jungian psychotherapist and author, based in the San Francisco Bay area of California. An avid reader and researcher he has also had a career of writing, editing and publishing. Jeremiah helped to launch the New Consciousness Readers series for Penguin/Tarcher with his books Reclaiming the Inner Child and the best-selling Meeting the Shadow. His newest work is part audio, part music and part writing, The Dreamtime Journey: The Path of Direct Experience.