Imagine…. “Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.” –John Lennon Imagine… “One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés Imagine…. “People want to lead a peaceful lives. The terrorists are short-sighted, and this is one of the … Continue reading
I have often written about the value of holding an explorer’s mind rather than a mind that is “set” to find (and sometimes destroy) what it seeks. One size doesn’t fit all (never has). And to leave the mysterious out of our writing or life is to shut ourselves off from our truest capacities. We will feel broken, lost, hopeless, STUCK, resistant, and scared at various times in our pursuits of writing something we hope others will want to read. This is part of the package when you signed up for the writer’s life: we at times feel broken. But, don’t focus on “fixing” … Continue reading
Remember the message below when you are considering giving up on your writing…or you believe you have to be an “expert” before writing on some topic. For me, I figure my life out as I write and hope that my musings translate into good reading for some future reader. This article and others by Parker are available at the Center for Courage & Renewal website: http://www.couragerenewal.org
Born Baffled: Musings on a Writing Life by Parker J. Palmer
Every now and then, someone asks me for advice on how to become a writer. I aspire to live by the insightful words of theologian Nelle Morton, “Our job is to hear people into speech.”[i] So instead of offering a dozen do’s and don’ts, I ask questions meant to evoke my conversation partner’s inner teacher, the best source of guidance any of us has. If he or she presses me, the best I can do is draw a few lessons from the story of my own writing life. Call it “advice lite.” The urge to write first dropped in on me in my early twenties and soon made it clear it was here for the duration. Nearly two decades passed before my first book was published, and yet I never stopped writing—my daemon would not let me go. But, truth be told, that first book had less to do with persistence than with dumb luck.
In the fall of 1978, I taught a class about Thomas Merton at an adult study center. For our final session, I’d planned to show a film of Merton’s last talk, given in Bangkok an hour or two before he died. At the last moment, I learned that the copy I’d ordered had been mailed to the wrong address. No, young people, you couldn’t stream or download videos in the olden days! Hoping to bring the class to a proper close, I burned the kerosene lantern late into the night and wrote a lecture.
One of my students liked the lecture so much she asked for a copy to send to her uncle. He called me a few weeks later and said he was an editor at a small publishing house. He and his colleagues liked my piece, and wondered if I’d written others like it. Knowing that I had twenty years’ worth of writing interred in my file cabinet, I replied, “I might be able to dig something up.”
So I relit the kerosene lantern, spent much of that night exhuming my files, and early the next morning mailed off a dozen pieces. My accidental editor chose six and said he’d make a book out of them. Nine months later I was holding a copy of my first book, The Promise of Paradox. I remember gazing at it with a bit of the wide-eyed wonder I’d felt when I held my first child.
Today—thirty-six years and nine books after that sweet moment—the writing scene has changed big-time. There’s much I don’t know about blogging, e-books, and self-publishing. But when someone asks me how to become a writer, I can still share three eternal (so far) truths from my own experience.
First, you need to figure out whether your chief aim is to write or to publish. Two decades of rejection letters would have shut me down if I hadn’t decided early on that my primary goal was not to be published but to be a writer—a person who, as someone sagely observed, is distinguished by the fact that he or she writes! Once it became clear that I wanted to write even if the publishing fairy never left a contract under my pillow, I could declare success as long as I kept writing. That’s a doable goal, and it’s under my control.Second, you need to lust after dumb luck. When people think I’m joking, I remind them of a simple truth: the more often you get your voice “out there,” even in a venue as small as a fifteen-student course on Thomas Merton, the more likely it is that dumb luck will strike. Be Jennie or Johnny Appleseed, scattering your words hither and yon, and a few may fall on fertile ground. But here’s the deal: this often means giving your work away free for nuthin’. In addition to being its own reward, this kind of generosity maximizes the chance of dumb luck by giving you more exposure than you get by trying to monetize everything. (And if you want to be respected as a writer, never, ever use words like “monetize.” Seriously.)
Third, and most important, allow yourself to be baffled, which shouldn’t be hard to do. I mean, what’s not baffling about ourselves, other people, and the world we co-create? The problem is that some of us (read “the person writing this sentence”) make the mistake of writing in an effort to pretend we’re smarter than we are. Take my early writing…please! When I go back and read some of that schlock, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as I watch this pathetic fellow slogging through page after page of multisyllabic muck, making his case with “academic rigor” and nary a drop of uncertainty, playfulness or humanity. I was writing to impress rather than express, always a bad idea. And what I regarded as rigor turned out to be rigor mortis.
Eventually, I managed to come to ground with a few moderately successful books, which confronted me with my next challenge as a writer. In this society, people who write passable books—and even books that aren’t—tend to get pegged as “experts” on their subjects. My ego loves to absorb and massage those projections of expertise. But my soul knows it ain’t true: I’ve never written a book on something I’ve mastered. Once I master something, I get bored with it, and writing a book is way too hard to take on a subject that bores me.
I write about things that feel to me like bottomless mysteries—teaching, social change, spirituality, democracy, etc.—and I start writing from a place of “beginner’s mind.” For me, writing does not begin with reaching for expertise by gathering facts, wrapping them in lucid thoughts, then downloading all of that from my mind to the page. It begins with making a deep dive into something that baffles me—into my not-knowing—and dwelling in the dark long enough that “the eye begins to see” what’s down there.[ii] I want to make my own discoveries, think my own thoughts, and feel my own feelings before I explore what conventional wisdom says about the subject. That’s why I’m not so much a writer as a re-writer, most of whose scribbling goes through eight or ten drafts.
As a writer, my most critical inner work is to fend off projections of expertise—whether they come from without or within—that would allow my ego to trump beginner’s mind. The moment ego takes over, I lose the main gift I bring to my work, the fact that I was Born Baffled.
Novices are often advised to “Write about what you know.” I wouldn’t call that bad advice, but I think it needs tweaking: “Write about what you want to know because it intrigues and baffles you.” That’s the hunger that keeps me engaged with a craft I find endlessly challenging, of which Red Smith famously said, “There’s nothing at all to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Evocative questions always trump advice. But for whatever it’s worth, my advice lite boils down to this: (1) Care more about the process than the outcome. (2) Be generous in order to maximize the chances of dumb luck. (3) Dive deep, dwell in the dark, and value beginner’s mind no matter how loudly your ego protests.
Hmmm… The same counsel might apply to things other than writing. Who knows? Maybe there’s a book in that!
Parker J. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy. Parker holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, along with eleven honorary doctorates, two Distinguished Achievement Awards from the National Educational Press Association, and an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press. In 2010, Palmer was given the William Rainey Harper Award whose previous recipients include Margaret Mead, Elie Wiesel, and Paolo Freire. In 2011, he was named an Utne Reader Visionary, one of “25 people who are changing your world.”
Still room for you in these upcoming opportunities:
BINDU Breathwork: Visioning Through Breathwork November 12th, 6pm In a safe environment and with an established practitioner, you can explore inner realms, release repressed emotions, explore spiritual questions, experience transpersonal states and have personal visions. Breathwork is an internal vision quest.
January 15th, 2016: Winter Writers’ Retreat for Creative Nonfiction Writers. I will be helping 6 writers with their creative nonfiction at this day-long retreat. Held at Thundering Clouds, LLC (Room for two more).
Writing Creative Nonfiction: Making What’s Meaningful to You, Meaningful to Readers A class offered through UW-Madison, Continuing Studies. Tuesday’s Feb 2-Mar 8, 1:30-3:30pm Where: Continuing Studies, 21 N Park St, Rm 7041, Madison, WI.
If we don’t push ourselves to move and explore outside our comfort zone we can become like the walking dead, eating other’s flesh. (I thought a bit of a Halloween/zombie theme would be timely). Life can be quite spooky if we don’t step outside of our comfort zone. Spooky dull. Deficient. We become hungrier and hungrier, but eating the same diet just doesn’t satisfy. And, too often in our states of dissatisfaction and comfort, we live off the lives of others. We become frighteningly zombie-like if we give into letting our routines and habits live our life for us. A favorite quote of mine that is … Continue reading
If we don’t write out of our comfort zone the words will fall dead onto the page. If we don’t live outside our comfort zone we become like the walking dead, eating other’s flesh. (I thought a bit of a Halloween theme would be good). Life can be quite spooky if we don’t step outside of our comfort zone. Spooky dull. Deficient. We become hungrier and hungrier, but eating the same diet just doesn’t satisfy. We become frighteningly dulled down if we give into letting our routines and habits live our life for us. A favorite quote of mine that is attributed to a … Continue reading
Dear Writer, I hope sharing some of my personal story helps you. The first several years of our writing (for most of us, and for me it was my first decade of writing) — we fall in love with subjects we want to write about. We are compelled to get it down on paper and then we fall in love with our words and stories… we see before us our life and ideas on the page. We have made a new world!! Our love is intense, driven, …passionate, lusty, like all young love. It is also blind. Our beginnings are always romantic, intense, meaningful, … Continue reading
First, let me invite you to attend this year’s final (and free) Writers’ Retreat this coming Monday October 12th. As many of you know, I am addicted to quotes. So for today’s World Into Word blog, I share some with you . . . “I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then”― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want … Continue reading
There are no experts on a subject. I trust the teacher (doctor or friend) who is still learning about their subjects. I trust the one who continues to explore subjects. When someone stops exploring, they stop learning and this “quitting” interferes with their capacity to truly contribute. When they stop their exploring their view becomes increasingly narrow where they ignore a wider berth of possibilities. I don’t seek “experts,” unless they are willing to engage in authentic conversation. In this authentic conversation we both explore together, so that we may discover what is truly possible. If we “already know” then we are unlikely to discover anything new. For … Continue reading
The Vulnerable Man Who? Who is to turn this frog into a prince? Who is to wake the one asleep inside the virescent, damp skin? I see him glimpse out into this cast spelling world . . . Who? Who is to release the Divine, hidden in the heart of the exiled Beast? Beauty me? Beauty you? Beauty before, behind, below? Who? Who cast the spell? drove the beast into exhile? made thorns on roses? Who? Not me! Have the Maker kiss the emerald frog, break the wet skin that holds the inner man Have the Maker and Caster … Continue reading
I took this photo on a recent trip to San Fransisco with my daughter. This dog stood outside a hair salon watching as streams of people passed. She didn’t have a leash. She didn’t move from her spot. If you pet her, her tail didn’t wag. She just stood watch. As she was trained to do. Every day we had some memorable dog encounter. Later we read a large billboard announcing San Fransisco as a dog-friendly city. Even when we visited Carmel beach for its sunset, we encountered dozens of dogs without leashes. Inevitably, their human would be ahead of them, and the dog, without being … Continue reading