We creative types are very good at finding fault in our own work, which really isn’t much of an accomplishment, given the perfection of human imperfection. Still, we revel in our ability to find fault:
“Look! My dream of a perfect painting fell short again.” (Sigh)
“My story is… so not as wonderful as I had hoped for.” (Sigh)
“My poems are so… [[pick one: predictable, passe, lackluster].” (Sigh)
So let me suggest something new, something truly inspiring. Today (there isn’t really a tomorrow, remember? Never will be. Is that sinking in yet?), before you go to bed, look at something you’ve made without finding fault. It takes a certain kind of courage to do that, to say “This poem or song or story or quilt I made is good” (and then not add, “I know it could be better but”).
I can help with this:
Find a place where you will not be disturbed.
Put on some headphones.
Play a George Winston song, or if you don’t like piano music (what are you, an alien?) try something from Neil Young’s Harvest.
Put in a set of fresh eyes, the ones you keep on hand for looking at your best friend’s work, or that of your child or lover. You know, those friendly eyes that see with love.
Now look at a piece of your own work, knowing it is flawed but not caring…
…AND LOVE THAT WORK! LOVE IT the way you love your friend’s or child’s or lover’s, as if it is the only piece of art that will ever be created.
It takes a certain kind of courage to do this. If you can’t do it, you need more courage, because if you can’t love your own work, not even for a few minutes, all you will ever be is disappointed, first in yourself, then in others, then in the imperfect world you were born into and will die from.
We have an arrangement in our house. If the door is closed, it means I’m writing but it’s okay to knock if something really urgent comes up. If I’ve also hung the Do Not Disturb sign, better not knock unless your injury is so severe it will be hard to dial 911 by yourself. Here are some things that are NOT exceptions to the rule regarding my Sacred Space:
We knocked because a delivery requires your signature (that’s why they leave we’ll try again notes).
We knocked because the school’s on the phone (that’s what answering machines are for).
We knocked because we can’t seem to remember where we put the peanut butter and crackers.
Knocking for any other reason you can think of.
Sacred space is so important that until you find a way to say my writing is more important than… (everything) you’re going to have a hard time finishing anything, because there are all sorts of worthy adversaries clamoring for your attention. The beauty of finding a sacred space is that once you have it set up, you’ll know the rules about what intrusions are allowed, and so will everyone else. Having a sacred space says This is mine, that is yours, and all the rest is ours. Or to paraphrase the late Swiss writer, Hughley Ericcson: Having a sacred space means sitting in one particular chair in one particular room, for the same reason you sat there yesterday – To write.
I certainly have known writers who can write anywhere, and I have done my fair share of writing in spaces that are anything but sacred, but if you read Part I of this mini-series on the sacred you can probably predict what I’m going to say about that: Variety may be the spice of life, but until you have established a solid habit of productive writing you should probably be searching for rules, not exceptions. When you get to page 300, or you’ve written 300 poems, you may be able to write anywhere. Until then…
Find yourself a Sacred Space and claim it.
Get everyone you love to agree to the rules regarding your Sacred Space.
Sit in your Sacred Space during your Sacred Time (see Part I).
Do your Sacred Thing, during your Sacred Time, in your Sacred Space.
When you reach page 300, or finish poem 300, email me at philipdealbooks.com and I’ll give you a shout out.
A: They are legitimate challengers for your time, the real people and the real reasons it is sometimes hard to find time to write.
But here’s the thing, and there’s really no escaping it: Unless you are an emergency room M.D., a soldier in active battle, or the single parent of more than six children, you have time to write. You may not have time to write and watch the same amount of football you’ve always watched, or time to write and go out with friends every night, but you definitely have time to write.
Spend more than a few minutes examining your day-to-day life and you’ll see that I’m right. The problem isn’t that you don’t have time to write; the problem is getting yourself to set aside a time that is reserved for one thing and one thing only – writing – and then doing it.
So here is today’s lesson, and you should probably start scratching these lessons into your walls in giant letters:
CREATE A SACRED WRITING TIME, THEN WRITE DURING THAT TIME EVERY SINGLE DAY.
No buts, what ifs, or I have to do something elses. Create a sacred time, a time that no one has a right to question you about, a time that you let nothing or no one steal from you. Then write today during your sacred time. Then write tomorrow during your sacred time. Repeat, repeat, and then repeat some more.
After you’ve written 300 pages, or 300 poems, feel free to take a day off. For now, for the simple reason that you have never written a book, or compiled a volume of poems, you have no reason to believe you can or ever will. But have no fear; that is the beauty of creating sacred time. Respect that time every single day and you cannot help but add pages together, one at a time, until, one day soon, you will look up and say – I did it!
I have already done that, written THE END, not once, not twice, but five times and counting (and that includes only books I did not throw away after finishing). When you have done it just once we’ll talk about writing when you feel like it, or when the muse visits, or at different times on different days. For now, better to think of yourself as an apprentice who has something very important to prove, exactly one important thing: I can do it!
So do. Write today during your sacred time. Then write tomorrow during your sacred time. Repeat, repeat, repeat. When you reach page 300, or finish your 300th poem, email me at email@example.com and I’ll give you a shout out right here. You have my sacred promise.
Your back is against the wall, and that gun is pressed against your head. You have to make a choice – now!
Open Door #1 and you’ll enjoy the celebrity of success, the admiration of your peers, perhaps even wealth. The writing you did today – the outcome of your work – will definitely be recognized by others as “very good,” even though it practically killed you to get it there. Congratulations!
Open Door #2 and you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of doing, of drawing strength from purpose. The writing you did today – the outcome of your work – might only be seen as so-so in the eyes of others, but you still feel great about doing it, and you’re definitely coming back for more tomorrow. Congratulations!
Now let’s return to this choice when things are not going well, when the outcome of your work is – well, not good at all. No matter which door you choose today, the words you wrote will never be admired by others. It’s just one of those days – every writer has them – but that gun is pressed against your head again, and you have to choose – now!
Open Door #1 today and you’ll find deep disappointment, perhaps even self-loathing. After all, your words are no good, and your book will probably never be as good as Margaret Atwood’s, or John Grisham’s, or Milan Kundera’s. In fact, it’s obvious you aren’t a very good writer at all, which means you’re probably a rotten person too (heh, this isn’t me talking; outcome-focused writers are tough on themselves this way).
Now look what happens when you open Door #2. Surprise! Even when things are not going well, you’re able to draw strength from doing, from pursuing what you believe in. Your sense of worth does not depend on high-quality outcome; doing what you believe in is its own satisfaction.
A writer’s original sin – any creative person’s original sin – is placing outcome before process. Make that mistake and you set up a tortured path for yourself as a creative person.
Eyes closed, then screen dialed to black (yes, you can do that and still write) to turn my mistake monitor off.
A strange feeling, this blackness, and at first it is hard to write without seeing words.
But it feels good to pay attention to something other than words, to breathe deep, to let my head rise and fall, to really feel what I am doing, to hear the world around me, that truck that just passed in the street, the almost Niagara-like sound of my computer’s roar, steady and strong, never concerned at all about what I am trying to do.
But then I hit that same dead stop I hit when the lights are on,
the most feared moment in the creative process,
because any rest introduces the possibility of running out of words, followed by the almost unbearable pain of having to figure out a way to start again.
I can touch the darkness now, and I can’t believe this, but I see a stalking lion, or maybe I’m just seeing what Jung wants me to see. Sometimes I wonder if the only archetype is imagination, but I was writing about rest and magic, rest and magic…
…and I want my eyes, my head, my neck muscles, my mind, spirit, fingers and heart to take me someplace else, anyplace else, someplace where flight is possible, where touching stars with burning hands and frozen fingers is real, where my mouth can kiss lightning and hold fire in its teeth, where day-to-day drudgeries and weight fall off in a world unrestricted by the gnashing constraints of life.
And for a moment I feel like I really can fly, and I really am free, until I start thinking about painting my Hook Man paintings, and my sister asking me
“Why do you feel so restrained?”
And that lets in the fight between wanting to be carefree and needing to be responsible, between moving somewhere I can dress in shabby clothes when I want to and shave only when I have to, and staying in The Comfortable States of America, where I can keep my reputation as a bad boy without having to be.
And now I let language and emotion lead, peeking at my fingers through half-closed eyes, watching them fly.
Until I feel how restrictive my keyboard is, how unlike my piano’s keys, how little room there is for dance. Once upon a time while playing my Fender Rhodes, the one I later sold to Bob Rhodes, I actually rearranged the parallel rows of black and white into sweeping fans stacked on top of each other.