Category Archives: Writing Tips

Unleashing Your Creative Canine

I was out for a stroll the other day and came across a woman walking her dog – or trying to. The dog was lying on the sidewalk, refusing to budge. She tried begging, pleading, bribing with treats, etc. but the dog was having none of it. Yanking and suppressed red-faced yelling – because of course she didn’t want to make a scene but she was getting REALLY frustrated – wasn’t working either. The pooch just lay there like a plush toy that had seen one too many pajama parties. Eventually she picked up the mutt, none too gently, and without a glance at the gathering crowd of amused bystanders, marched off home.

I know that dog. That dog is the writer within who’s supposed to be devoting the first hour of every day to a memoir/exploration about my spiritual community experience in the the 1990s. (It’s my main commitment in my 28 Days of Creative Recovery. For more on that, ask me to send you my May 2010 newsletter – donaleen@donaleensaul.com.) I’ve suited up and shown up most days, I’m proud to say, but the first day I sat down to write, the writer within refused to move.

Determined to keep my commitment to The Muse, I decided I would write about my doubts, usually the ringleader in any case of writer’s block.

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Nothing Bad Ever Happens to a Writer

Below is an example of how an apparent misfortune for the human is a gift from the Gods for the writer.

Last evening, I worked up the courage to attend a Singles event. It had been recommended to me by a discerning friend who had also been single for many years, but who had recently met a wonderful man with whom she was falling in love. They had both been referred to this event. I took it as a sign.

The write-up on the website described it as an evening for adults over 40 “looking to share their gifts with a significant other” or “with a spiritual calling to find harmony and balance in their relationships.” The quote by Rumi – “Your Task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it” – resonated with how I have tried to live my life and to deal with my confusion, emotional clamour and cynicism in the realm of love, and so I was looking forward to meeting others with a similar intention.

Having managed to find an attractive, age-appropriate yet playful outfit, make room for the confusion, emotional clamour and cynicism within, and be open to what the evening had to offer, I felt pretty relaxed as I drove for 45 minutes through the last remnants of rush hour traffic, crossed a couple of bridges, and found my way there. Doublechecking the address, I saw that yes, it was indeed the Unity Church, which I tried not to be put off by. I have nothing against the church or its adherents, some of whom are dear friends, but I confess to having judgments about it being spiritually vague, precious, New Agey, and female-dominated. What guy is going to want to come here? But I told myself to set my prejudices and raging cynicism aside and just be open and curious. I walked in the door. It was eerily quiet…like a church. A serene space with beautiful artwork on the walls, but not a lot of laughter and no male voices. A sweet young woman, well beneath the 40+ age limit for whom the event was intended, collected my $35 and gave me a self-sticking name tag.

I walked into the room and saw about 12 people, all women except for one man, sitting in a circle. One of the hosts, an attractive woman in her 50s or 60s, saw me and said, heartily, “Don’t be shy. Come and sit down.” (In that moment, the clamour of emotions didn’t include “shy.”) I filled a paper plate with salad and some pieces of sandwich, and joined the circle. The host made a comment about how the men would come in droves if they saw a picture of “all of you beautiful women here.” I look around. There weren’t too many happy faces. The lone man assured us in his nasal reedy voice, “I could take you all on!” perhaps intending to be humourous and ironic and inject some much-needed male energy.

As I choked down my spinach salad and bits of smoked salmon wrap, I tried to tune in to the conversation. The hosts, who never introduced themselves, knew some of the people – it seemed as though some (including the man) may have been therapy clients – and they were talking about things and events comprehensible only to those in the facilitators’ immediate circle. Neither of the hosts asked my name or made any attempt to include me or anyone else whom they didn’t already know. I tried to contribute something to the conversation but it was ignored. Mary, the woman sitting next to me, a Celtic storyteller, tried to interject the odd droll comment, but was also ignored. I felt like asking if she wanted to escape and go for a beer (I don’t even drink beer) but the second facilitator, who seemed stern, but was perhaps just uncomfortable that this “singles event” was such a bust, was sitting next to her.

It was 7:30, I was almost finished my salad, and was wondering how I was going to make it to 10:00. I felt as thought I was trapped at a bad dinner party to whom I had been invited by a man with whom I was in a relationship that I knew perfectly well was doomed. I went to the washroom, acknowledged to myself the obvious – I wasn’t having any fun and didn’t like the people (except for Mary) – and made an executive decision to leave, even though it would be absolutely obvious to all, and even though the pleaser within was aghast. The sweet young woman well under 40, who had collected my $35, smiled and asked me if I had had a good time. I mumbled an obvious lie about a family crisis, asked her to make my apologies to the group, and left.

I’m still puzzling over this statement on the facilitators’ handout given out that night: “Our aim is to answer the need of communication of friendship facing adult singles today.” Huh? The good news is that I didn’t stay, thereby vaulting over what I have discovered over a lifetime of experimentation to be a significant barrier to love – trying to please people who could care less. I think Rumi would have approved. Too bad he’s been dead for 736 years and probably not available.

Our Life is Our Writing Teacher

Without connecting to our truth, whatever we write has no meaning and no genuine connection with the reader. Our life is our writing teacher. Our life is the source of our true eloquence and unique voice as writers. Our life is our writing textbook.

Writing is soul work, not a mechanical process reducible to “how to’s.” It’s like making love. Knowing the mechanics of what bit goes where will not make one a better lover. The same is true of writing. It is the soul connection that is the source of our unique writer’s voice, and that is what our readers/listeners respond to. (It’s what our lover responds to as well!)

Writing is at essence an act of courage. Sometimes dark and difficult stories emerge from pen or keyboard. People are scared of pain and we live in a society that marginalizes it, but embracing our own difficult stories and attending to others’ is the source of our power and our humanity – both as writers and as people. Such stories are part of the human experience and they are universal.

We live in a wounded civilization and we inhabit a wounded planet. In the West, we are sheltered from a lot of that, but it doesn’t serve us as writers or as people to perpetuate that pattern. A large part of the writer’s role in our society is to shed light into the dark places. Sometimes we do that with humour; sometimes we do that with pathos. But whatever our means of sharing what’s true, we need to know our inner landscape to write with any real heart or authority.

Write as if No One is Reading

We’re all familiar with the fridge magnet adages – “Sing as if no one is listening,” “Dance as if no one is watching,” etc. But does that apply to writers? Does it make sense to write as if no one is reading?

Of course it doesn’t. What sane person wants to drag his or her sorry bag of bones out from under the flannel sheets at 5 AM to write a blog that no one is going to read. Well, besides you.

Well, me. Why? Good question. I don’t know why. Nobody’s going to care. Except me.

I’ve been corresponding with my writer friend, PJ Reece, the only person on the planet I envy. A financially independent expat writer living in a charming flat in Mazatland who, when he isn’t taking salsa lessons, lounging on the beach, or listening to live jazz at the nearby plazuela, is ” just trying to finish a fucking novel, which grows in size the more I work on it. It’s out of control, my dramatic thrust has vanished, a red flag that always indicates a problem at the beginning…I must sit back in astonishment at how I’ve manifested this sometimes shabby, occasionally chic, but actually very normal paradise.”

Doncha hate him? He’s also a fine writer, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve known him for 40 years (we were both in utero of course). Check out his blog and find out for yourself. You will be one of the few, as he admitted in a recent letter: “Are you reading my blog? Don’t worry. No one else is either. But here we go…that shouldn’t bother us.”

He’s right. It shouldn’t. Three days a week I get up at 5 AM to work on my upcoming book, “Where Mystics Walk.” It’s my covenant to myself. Will anyone read it? Dunno. I’ve got a bulging inbox full of projects for hire, but writing my February newsletter as well as this blog, neither of which pay, had to come first this morning. Like most wonderful things in life, writing as if no one is reading is not a rational act. It’s far more glorious than that. It’s an act of faith.

So get writing. No  one will care. But that shouldn’t bother you.

“Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” Don Marquis

Suicide – A Loss That Knows No Bounds

On January 24, 2010 at 6:00 PM, I’m going to be giving a talk at Valley View Funeral Home in Surrey, BC to a group of folks who have lost loved ones to suicide. It’s the first talk I’ve given since the launch of my book, Did You Know I Would Miss You? in November, 2008. Why has there been such a delay, given that I wrote it because people need it, and given that I’ve had a lot of great feedback on it from my readers? In fact, this is my first blog about loss by suicide. What’s that about? My hunch is that I haven’t wanted to acknowledge my loss. I was naive after producing my book, thinking that by telling the truth about my brother’s suicide and about my own grief, guilt, shame, and regret, and by charting the healing process for others, that I would somehow leave it all behind me and it would never be able to hurt me again. Talk about magical thinking. My hunch is that the sense of loss just goes underground, into the subconscious. Not necessarily a bad thing. Who wants to continually and consciously feel the pain of losing a loved one in such a sad and brutal way? We wouldn’t be able to function. But pain that is lodged in the subconscious can still affect us. It can prevent us from taking risks, from living fully, from feeling the full spectrum of our feelings, from being creative… In my case, it has prevented me from sharing my book, the single most important work of my life – at least so far.

So how do we deal with this loss that knows no bounds? From a loss that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is comparable to surviving a concentration camp? Recognize that it’s bigger than our will or our egotistical insistence that we’re immune or have transcended it. Acknowledge it, breathe into it, and see it as a reminder of our humanity. Suffering is part of the human experience, at least for most of us. When we try to deny that, or gloss over it, we separate ourselves from our loved ones who are still living, and from other wounded humans. At the heart of our suffering is our love. Something we have never lost and never will. Let’s send love to that inconsolable part of us and to all others who have suffered loss by suicide or by some other means. Let’s send love to our brothers and sisters who couldn’t bare the pain and took their lives. Let’s share the love that also knows no bounds.

One Phrase at a Time

When you’re faced with a writing project, how do you deal with that paralyzing sense of overwhelm glaring at you in the unforgiving light of the blank screen?

Somehow you have to come up with an article, essay, story, blog, novel, screenplay or whatever — and you wonder how the heck you’re ever going to get past that mean little flickering cursor and come up with something intelligible, never mind brilliant. You’re not the only one who feels this way. Maybe it’s an undeclared dread of The Other, The Great Unknown, The Abode of the Damned that leaves so many of us avoiding our writing project du jour — or worse, eternally distracted by endless emailing (which I am convinced is a disguised hell realm).

I’ve been writing for a living for-ev-er and I still struggle with cursor-phobia. The famous Gene Fowler quote — “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” — is not hyperbole. It’s my life.

At my choir‘s recent dress rehearsal for our Christmas concerts, our director, Gail Suderman, pointed out that we were looking like deer caught in the headlights in our collective dread of our three performances this coming weekend. “Here’s the deal,” she told us, “When you’re singing, all you have to keep in mind is your next phrase, and then your next will follow. Keeping your focus on each breath, on each phrase, will carry you beautifully through all three performances.” Hearing this, we all relaxed — and we sounded one heck of a lot better as well.

One phrase at a time. It’s comparable to what the great meditation teacher, Stephen Levine, author of A Gradual Awakening, refers to as “just this much.” It applies to singing, to writing, to all creative undertakings — pretty well everything, in fact. We don’t have to upload the whole thing in one go.

And so the next time you boldly suit up for your writing session, just take it one breath, one word, one phrase at a time. Each phrase will lead to the next, which will lead to the next, and before you know it, you’ll be done!