The magical mystery process; creating
There are those among us who believe that writers are mystics.
According to some, we're the most religious of all the artists; the most tuned-in-to-the-muse people on the planet.
They believe that when a writer sits down to create, the work flows or fumbles, dependent only upon the muse.
I don't buy it. But hey, I write for a living. If I consigned my livelihood to the whims of wonder, I'd never be able to pay my mortgage.
A former mentor of mine once said that to be a good writer, one must empty the mind. She advised me to quiet my ego, silence my intellect and let the writing speak.
That's the reason, she said, that historically so many good writers have been falling-down-brown-bag drunks. Hard to empty the mind without first emptying a bottle of Jack Daniels.
As I write this today, it's hard to remember how I tolerated such nonsense.
I did, however. For many years I believed I was not the writer of my prose; I was a vessel.
As a younger, more impressionable women, I'd grab my pen, trot to a little plot of land or a sweet little coffee shop and wait for the muse to smack me up the side of the head.
Those were the days, I guess, of wine and roses. Short lived and mighty worthless.
When I started a writing career in earnest I had to face the hard, fast music of the market and my abilities.
Like other professionals, I was responsible on a regular basis to deliver a product. In my case, my product was high quality prose for publication.
The loony opinion that I should sit, locus style, in front of my computer unprepared to delve into a concept, an idea, a philosophy or a story was incomprehensible.
For ten years I wrote a regular column for a major newspaper. The content of my next column was on my mind every day of my life.
In conversations with others, I considered my column. While buying groceries, I watched for something to write about.
The discipline of high-accountability made me a better person in many ways; a terrible woman in so many others.
I am, I think, damaged by my long career as a social critic.
But that's the topic for another blog entry. This one is about the mystery of our process and whether or not we should embrace or run from the ambiguity of our craft.
I studied creative writing at San Francisco State College back in the late 1960's, In those days we were told to honor our "inner voice," and listen for its still, small presentation. Hard to imagine, but that was the standard approach.
I cringe when I consider how many of us received that bad, bad advise. On good days I think of the ignorance behind the message. On bad days, I wonder if it was intentional.
Think of this - my generation, probably more than any other - was populated with wild-haired revolutionaries and dreamy romantics. Raised in over-populated Sunday schools, temples and synagogues, we were taught the moral obligations of social action.
I remember my seventh grade Sunday school teacher telling us the story of the Good Samaritan; a gospel tale of selfless love.
"Will you be a Samaritan?" she asked us. We all nodded, confident in our goodness. "If not you, who?," she said. "If not now, when?"
When we weren't in Sunday school, we were glued to our television sets, watching weekly morality plays on Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and the infamous You Were There.
Everywhere we turned we heard the drumming requirement to be good, follow the conscience, do the right thing. We were primed to review, critique and if needs be, overthrow the old orders.
We were the first raised as a "youth culture," and our remarkable self-absorption was (and is) legendary.
Because we were so critical, so Sunday-school thoughtful, so moral, we were a force to be reckoned with.
Our harsh review of our parent's life must have been insufferable. It was righteous and revolutionary, a combination difficult to put down if one is trying to be a good parent.
Our music, our energy, our good will was hell-bent on destroying the old order and creating a new one.
And so we needed to be side tracked from our mission - and the best way was to begin to explore the joy of mindlessness.
The only way the revolution could be stopped would be if we turned inward and began to ignore the damaged, hurting, imperfect world around us.
I don't think we fell victim to any conspiracy, although I have friends who argue this. No - I think we were the children of light, moving through the darkness. Those who examined us knew our generation would change the world forever. We were pacifists. Socialists Our music was subversive and shocking. And we were the Pepsi generation. We needed to be brought home to our consumer values - the status quo.
It happened, I think, in 1969 - or maybe in 1970. I remember - almost overnight our adult mentors began to put down the virtue of "conscience" and the importance of "doing the right thing."
Instead, our elders began to preach passive acceptance to the world around us. No more talk of "doing good." Instead, we heard how important it was to be "enlightened."
The messages were straight up. "Tune out. Tune in. Turn your mind around.
"Have you never been mellow? Have you ever tried to find a comfort deep inside you. . .? "
And our educators were not the only folks who told us to stop thinking. Pop psychologies came up with short-cuts to the lovely, passive life; Primal Scream workshops for the malcontents, "I'm Okay, You're Okay" weekends for divorcing couples; we were inundated with cheap and easy ways to discount the work of being fully human.
Not me, of course. Nope. Never did any of that. Of course, it's never too late, I suppose. . .
In a heartbeat, my generation was in retreat from the struggle. The escape was necessary. Otherwise, it looked like we were going to grow up and change things. That, of course, would never do.
And so, our educators told us to "let go" and see what happened.
When I trained at the seminary, one of the common mantras was "Let Go and Let God." My response was, "Let God do what?"
No one I met ever had an answer to that question.
True art does not need structure. It does not need a "message" or an "intention." The true artist meets his or her art with an empty head. The art draws itself forward.
Of course, this is hogwash. How did I know? I began to look around at the dozens of people who called themselves "writers" yet produced nothing.
For a while I lived in a small, Minnesota town populated with underemployed, over-educated women. I was invited by many of them to join writing groups, poetry collectives, playwright forums.
At first, I jumped at the chance to meet like-minded people. But there were no like minds in my little town.
I joined a salon for social criticism and all we did was talk about the best place in Burnsville, Minnesota for Friday night dining, or the cheapest place to buy place mats.
Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's not, however, a writer's life.
In the end, like it or not, writing is simply writing.
You can run, you can hide, you can try to escape by pretending writing is something else. But in the end, it is what it is.
It is not therapy, although you may find it therapeutic. It is not world changing, although the world might indeed change because of it.
Writing is only writing. Those who do it are only writers.
Not an easy life; not a simple life.
But a life, when well studied, when well attended, produces great work.
The apostle Paul, when asked how one might identify the good people of hte world, replied, "By their fruits you shall know them."
So it is with writers.
Let's keep talking about how that comes to pass.
One thing I know for certain; it doesn't come without hard work, discipline and serious consideration of the craft.
My mentor was wrong. Good writers plan, think, care and develop their messages, work their craft.
The process might be tedious.
Never, however, is it mystical.