Writing authentically is a journey of faith.
Whenever I write now…and I find my hands hovering over the keyboard or page, while I agonise over a word, or cringe over something I have just written…I can check myself: “Uh oh…You are not in Freefall…” I know that this state of mind will bring forth my juiciest writing and I try to get back there. Fortunately, Freefall is like riding a bicycle…you never forget!
— Catherine Mercer, Denmark FreefallWriting™ Workshop 2009
Reading my friend’s testimonial about Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s FreefallWriting™ course in Denmark last year was the inspiration I needed this morning to quit my email program and turn instead to this empty document, just to see what might fall out of my unsuspecting fingers as they tapped away at the silver and white keyboard on my desk.
You see, I had a title and a topic pre-planned for this post and it scared me. It seized my fingers right up! It was ‘Unravelling, Unschooling and the University of N.O.W.’ (standing for ‘Nicola’s Own Way’ or ‘Nicola’s Own Writing’; I hadn’t quite decided!). The bit that scared me the most was ‘Unschooling’. This is a concept I’m exploring as I stand on the brink of home-schooling my 12-year-old son. That one word sent me scurrying across the Internet: through Wikipedia via Amazon.com to a book titled The Teenage Liberation Handbook: how to quit school and get a real life and education by Grace Llewellyn. There were several reviews by teenagers who’d taken the plunge into unschooling. Reading them, I wished my parents and I had been so adventurous.
My memory of school is mostly of one long unhappy drag that slowly but surely dimmed my creative sparkle and enthusiasm for learning. As a seven-year-old I used to jump up and down on the bed in excitement when an adult read aloud my stories. My grandmother thought it was most unseemly behaviour and warned my stepmother she’d have to keep “an eye” on me as I grew up! (I still wonder what concerned her most: my sheer unladylike exuberance or the vanity of being impressed by my own imaginative outpourings.)
As a five-year-old, I remember quite clearly ‘knowing’ I would be a writer when I grew up. It wasn’t anything I had to try to make myself do or work towards. Writing for me was like eating strawberry blancmange (yum!), playing medieval dress-ups or climbing the crab-apple tree and swinging upside down while counting buttercups in the garden. I did it because I loved it, not because I chose it, but because somehow it chose me.
By half-way through high school, I’d lost faith in my ability to write creatively. Sure, I could spin a good essay with persuasive arguments for whatever cause seemed worthy at the time…like the one on euthanasia that won me first-place in a state-wide competition. And I could romp it in with 10 out of 10 for clear thinking exercises. But increasingly my stories and poems degenerated into self-indulgent choked-up try-hards that neither my teachers nor I could stomach! Round about Year Nine, I wrote a melodramatic piece about a depressed character that committed suicide. I’ll never forget the angry red scribbles of my teacher, Mrs D-S, when she handed it back to me with comments like “Yuck!” and “Over the top!” Well, maybe it was; but her feedback was the last straw that clammed me into fearful silence, interspersed with self-conscious splutterings, for many long years. In a theatrical gesture of creative-self-rejection, I burnt all my childhood stories, journals and poems when I was twenty-four. This sorry (and painful) state of creative-repression continued until I met Barbara and was set free by FreefallWriting™ in my late twenties….thanks be!
What I’ve learnt from Barbara, my writing, and teaching others is that first and foremost we need a safe space to write. This means putting aside self-critical inner voices as well as the advice of well-meaning friends and relatives. Like the lonely native plant that struggles to grow and reproduce in disturbed soil over-run by weeds, we must create space around ourselves – space in which to breathe, grow tall and find the light of our own inspiration and selfhood. Our writing is like the native bushland threatened by invasive species that don’t belong. – introduced weeds (our copy-cat attempts to model ourselves on other ‘successful’ writers and styles). If these are allowed to proliferate they will take over and devastate the natural habitat.
This is why we need teachers like Barbara who see beyond our early stumblings along the path of Writing; who see our potential, and keep urging us onwards, even when we fall down badly. I tell my students that for every page of good writing I do, I might have to write ten pages of gumph first. Like turning on disused tap: stagnant water gushes out of screechy pipes before clear water can flow again and fill my cup.
In a recent class, I shared an extract from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. She tells the story of how she let her upstairs friend and neighbour read a five-foot-high pile of her old spiral-bound journals one weekend.
She said it was empowering to read my notebooks because she realized that I really did write “shit,” sometimes for whole notebooks….“If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now, I realize I can do anything.”…She said the main thing she saw in the notebooks – whole notebooks of complaints, boring description, and flagrant anger – was an absolute trust in the process. “I saw that you kept on writing even when you wrote, ‘I must be nuts to do this.’”
We all breathed a sigh of relief to be reminded that even successful writers like Natalie Goldberg write self-indulgent shit…not just a little of it, but a lot! Every great artist will tell you the same thing: that only by practising and making many mistakes do we approach excellence in our art.
Writing is like talking. When we script ourselves before we open our mouths (or pen-nibs), the words come out stilted and the rhythm jars. In the words of Brenda Ueland in her book If You Want to Write, you must “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write.” Or as one of my favourite poets and cartoonists puts it:
Let it go.
Let it out.
Let it all unravel.
Let it free and it can be
A path on which to travel.
— Michael Leunig
I’ve often wrangled with myself over whether to go back to University and study the art I am passionate about, acquiring qualifications and credibility in the field. Or whether to keep unravelling, Leunig-fashion, in my own merry but messy way (at the University of N.O.W. – Nicola’s Own Way).
Some time ago, I met up with an old friend and fellow-writer from Melbourne. She entered post-graduate studies after publishing a prize-winning novel years ago, and has since completed a Masters and PhD in Creative Writing. I was bowled over by her first book, but haven’t been as moved or gripped by what she’s published since. So I asked her the question that was jumping up and down in the back of my mouth:
“Have your University studies helped your writing?” She contemplated me for a moment through shiny spectacles, before answering.
“No. I’m a better editor and critic of my own and others’ writing, but I’m not a better writer. I wrote a novel for my doctorate that is completely unpublishable…it’s so over-written and over-worked that I’m probably going to have to put it aside and start all over again.”
She didn’t regret the path she’d chosen as it had brought her many rich experiences, such as teaching, ghost writing and being immersed in an elite world of fellow literary-adepts. But she did acknowledge the Melbourne writing scene could be competitive and bitchy…not always conducive to creative authenticity.
I was reminded of my brief sojourn at University, several years after I’d discovered FreefallWriting™. Before I began the Creative Writing course, I was just beginning to be confident in the voice I had found and the stories I wanted to tell. After six months, I was a nervous wreck, juggling two young children with assignment deadlines and the pressure to write prose that was edgy and cliché-free. I had one poetry tutor who was truly inspiring. (Isn’t it always the good teachers, and not the curriculum, who give our education meaning!) But otherwise, I was suffocating in a ruthlessly competitive and critical environment.
Somehow or other I managed to get a ‘High Distinction’ for my efforts. But my FreefallWriting™ friends watched in dismay as my authentic writing style was rooted out and replaced with some impressive but definitely foreign flowering words (or weeds). Thank goodness they cared and were honest enough to tell me (gently) that my writing had got worse rather than better since I’d started at Uni, and that it no longer sounded like me. Worse than weeds, I was cultivating plastic flowers I’d bought from the shop of “I’m a cleverer and more original writer than you!”
I still cringe at my prose writing from that time. As a writing teacher I am also horrified by the unhelpful feedback I received from my tutors. Instead of (like Barbara) focussing on and reinforcing what was working, they underlined, circled, crossed-out and vilified what didn’t work in my writing. They were like those bushland warriors I mentioned in an earlier post who are so hell-bent on removing and obliterating the weeds, they don’t realise they are doing more harm than good. With destructive chemicals, big machinery, control-burns and unnecessary soil-disturbance, such warriors fail to recognise and protect the native seedlings lost among the weeds.
Collecting seeds from the bush after a savage control burn. Writers and plants are resilient and can regenerate!
Here are a few samples I picked out from one page of my Uni journal, just to give you the flavour of their faint praise:
“most of this redundant – edit”
“too sentimentalist – weakens the experience”
“this is OK”
Occasionally, I’d receive more encouraging feedback, like: “Don’t give up! We’ve all been here. I am incredibly older than you and more experienced, that’s all. Besides, talent is nothing without diligence!” (At this point I was starting to think that much more of this kind of diligence and all my joy in writing would evaporate in a toxic chemical fug.)
Phew! The methods we were taught for planning and conceiving poetic or fictional works left me as dammed up and desperate as I’d been before I met Barbara three years earlier. And it took another week-long intensive with Barbara, lots of support from my friends and complete abandonment of the academic/analytical path for me to begin to recover my confidence as a writer.
Writing authentically is a journey of faith. Writing is the vehicle in which we travel, and the journey, to borrow words from the seer J. Krishnamurti, is “a pathless land”. Barbara often reminds her students to abandon any plans or plots they’ve pre-formulated in their heads. Just as I had to abandon my title and plan for today’s ramblings. We scare ourselves when we set our sights too high and our goals too grand. By letting go and trusting, we may yet find ourselves arriving at longed-for destinations, almost by accident.
Since I left Uni, I’ve learnt it doesn’t matter whether I’m published or not, successful or not. What matters is to write it in my own words – however plain or clichéd they may be when they first fall out. By reading other writers, by listening to each other’s writing, by giving and receiving feedback about what works, by abandoning all plans and by keeping faith in the journey—no matter what—we continue to move forwards. We continue to evolve as writers, as human beings and as souls on a path of self-understanding.
What I hope for myself and my students is that we will have the courage to write stories, poems, plays, articles and books that no-one (not even us) could have imagined; and that we will continue to support each other with caring and astute feedback, enhancing strengths and removing impediments for each writer. Only thus may we find the courage to write, not only what we dare not say, but what we do not know we will write until we have written it.
As a non-artist, I did this painting with Dawn Meader (www.DawnMeader.com) who teaches art like I teach writing...so that anybody can do it and have fun!