Many successful writers have advice on how to finish a book or launch a writing career. I've heard the same advice over and over again: even if you don't feel like writing, get up early before the distractions of the day set in and write for an hour. Write anything. Make it a habit. Others insist that 1,000 words a day will have you finished with your novel in six months. Just 1000 words (roughly 4 pages). I've read over and over that you simply cannot wait for inspiration to strike you. You have to write without inspiration, even when it is the last thing you want to do. Otherwise, you'll never write.
This never felt like good advice to me. First of all, I have two kids that I homeschool. Everyone in my house is a night owl, and the idea of waking at 6 am before everyone else is completely unrealistic. My brain doesn't turn on until 11 am after 2 cups of coffee. Writing before that time will produce nothing. I don't have the luxury of writing later in the day either. My busy family and its needs, the house, and the work I do for pay (also from home) always take up space in my life, and by the time space opens up in the day, it is midnight and I'm exhausted.
So what to do? How did I begin writing The Other Land under these circumstances?
Well, for a long time, my writing was only in my head. I would tell myself stories, write beautiful paragraphs that never saw the light of day, and dream of a day when I might have space to write all this down. I talked myself out of writing and allowing myself the space to write. I regret that now, but that's the truth of it. I was denying myself my own creative life out of some sense of "practicality" and a lot of worry about "being good enough."
But when the story for The Other Land came to me, in that space between waking and sleeping, three years ago, well... I couldn't ignore it any longer. It was as if the story was alive and it was INSISTING that I make space in my life for it. The story DEMANDED that I pry open a way to make this story live and breathe as a book.
As an aside, I feel strongly that these stories are, in some way, entities. I know that sounds to some of you a little cuckoo, but my "relationship" with this story has convinced me otherwise. I thought I was alone in this belief, until I began to talk to other writers about it. To my surprise, almost every single one of them understood what I was talking about. One writer-friend recommended I read Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, in which she devotes whole chapters to this idea that stories are alive and choose us (and leave us if we ignore them.) Sharon Blackie (and others) have been writing about the Mundus Imaginalis. The more you learn about this phenomenon the more you realize that this is just another way some of us experience "creativity." So now I feel less weird talking about it. My experience is that the story chose me and "talks" to me in unusual, non-linear/non-logical ways. And I'm learning to listen to it like I would to a trusted friend.
I argued with the story at first: "Why me?" I asked. "I know almost nothing about the time period! You have the wrong person!"
The answer back, was immediate -- almost as if the story was standing in front of me and admonishing me. "YOU will write this story. Clear a path in your life. Right now."
As soon as I began researching it, I could feel a connection to the plot, the place, the time that was palpable. I began to understand why I might be the person to write this story. But over time, the connection began to fade. I felt almost a kind of panic. What if the story left me and went elsewhere?
So I booked my first writing retreat. I committed. I found a cheap cabin in northwest Pennsylvania in an old growth forest, and went there with my computer, no internet connection, and about fifty books. But when I sat down to write, the story wasn't there. How could I entice it back?
Over time and over the course of many such writing retreats, I've discovered a "ritual" of sorts to invite the story back in. For the first 36 hours or so (usually I'm gone for 7-10 days), I settle into my physical space and walk in the woods for a spell to orient my mind to the land. I pick up any unusual things I see -- a nice stone, a branch with a beautiful lichen on it, an unusual mushroom, an acorn or nut -- anything that catches my eye. I bring it back and place it around a candle, and light the candle. I keep the candle lit (except at night) for the duration of the retreat, adding objects to the mini-altar during the week.
During this 36 hours, I choose a book of fiction that I enjoy and read some of it out loud. Usually the topic is tangentially related to my own, but I'm not reading for information at this phase. I'm reading for the "flow of words" to return to my mind and to my voice.
I take out a notebook and my "story bags" (see image below) and pull objects from them. My "story bags" are leather pouches of objects I've collected throughout my life, each of which has a story of some sort attached to it. The stories might be merely emotional feelings, or they might be full-fledged stories. They might be impressions of a landscape, or a memory of a loved one. But several times over the 36-hour "courting the story phase" I pull an object and write about the story attached to it in my notebook.
Similarly, I listen to trance-like music, music without words that creates an atmosphere. (This song is a favorite that I play on repeat. Another one is this one) After about a half hour of lying down, still, and entering a meditative space with the music at my side, images begin to come to me. Voices. Feelings. Once this begins, I again pull out my notebook and begin writing. It usually isn't my story, but rather disjointed images, impressions, and thoughts. I write them all down.
I do the above for the first evening and the first full day I'm at the retreat. Toward the end of the first full day when I'm about to go to sleep, I will pull out the manuscript of the story and randomly open the "book" to a page and begin reading. I read until I'm tired and then sleep.
In the morning, without fail, the story is there. I'm overfull with ideas. I know where to begin. Whole paragraphs are coursing through my mind. For the next 5-8 days, I write and write and write. Sometimes I've written over 100 pages in five days; the words just come streaming out of me. I almost have to step aside and let them come. Also, during this time of creative hyper-intensity, I'm prone to experience synchronicities tripping over each other to get my attention, or incredible animal contact experiences, or wild weather, or water that sings songs to me. I become able to hear the land in new ways that are usually unavailable to me, a skill that I do not take lightly and incorporate into my writing as best I can.
Are my words in that "download space" 100% magnificent words, needing no editing? Nope. I still have to edit and flesh them out, massage some words and cut deeply into others. But that isn't the point. The point is that I've found a way to court the story back and we can dance together for a few days before I have to return to my day-to-day life where the story must take a back seat to my family and work.
I used to be afraid that the story would leave me. But I'm not now, because I've also discovered what the true meaning of a "ritual" is. It isn't some dead by-product of a religion that has no meaning in my life (what I used to think of rituals as being), but rather a way to court the Mundus Imaginalis to my side, to entice the stories to walk with me. Rituals are a way to heighten our awareness of the more-than-human world this is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor. Thanks to Terrence McKenna for saying it so plainly.
by Marie Goodwin