Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
January 2011 - Volume 11, No. 1
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How to Write

The Inner Life of Creative Writing

For many years I’ve noticed that when I write, the writing itself wants to takes over. What I had in mind at the beginning frequently gives in to something new that emerges. This is the excitement and challenge of writing - you never know what’s going to show up. It’s important to pay attention to what’s happening.  

More recently I’ve come upon a pattern or set of rules that lends itself to enhance this experience.  

I’ll begin with the following bi-directional outline:  

A)  First the writing serves the writer.   ←

B)  Then the writer serves the writing.   →

An elementary understanding of the writing task has the writer simply putting onto paper the words that are in his or her head. Perhaps I recall a dream - and then I put words to paper that represent that dream. Or I have occasion to thank someone for a gift - from which comes the common “thank you” letter or note.  

But I’ve long realized that the act of writing is an act of translation. It’s usually easy to talk , where the spoken word more immediately represents the material inside us. Our inner experience can flow more easily since we often think with talking words. This is the source of the “Freudian slip” where the inside material can sneak out without being censored. Though when the inner experience is more a feeling , the access-translation into spoken words can be more difficult (biologically more-so for men than for women).    

For most of us, it’s more difficult to write than to speak. Even to compose a thank-you letter is more difficult than to just pick up the phone and say thank you. That’s why teaching of writing in schools was often called “composition.” It takes more time and effort to translate my inner experience into the written word. Consider that the novelist Graham Greene wrote over 30 novels using the rule of only 500 words a day.    

So when I write - i.e. translate my inner experience into the written word - something especially important, or creative, is happening.  

So here are my four stages or rules of writing:

1)  Write. Let what you’re writing emerge as is. This is the First Draft, where you don’t have to worry about things like spelling, punctuation, or even the logic of your subject. Just get it out of your head onto paper (or the computer screen). For me sometimes I do best when my first first (rough) draft is on paper, then I type it into my computer, becoming the official first draft. That’s the first stage. Just get it out there.

2)  Next - and this is what I often missed - read what you have written for the presence of a message (often unconscious) from the writing to the writer.  “What does what I’ve just written want to say or show me? ” Spend some time here, this is the first direction - A ) First the writing serves the writer (← ).   For those who practice journaling, what you journal can then tell you what you have just journalled.  You can use the practice of meditation here, or the benefits of walking, especially out in nature.

Often for me, the message from the writing comes more as a pattern or gestalt that is quite independent of what I thought I wrote. Sometimes it can take some personal discipline or insight to catch this. And it’s a message no other person would be able to discern. It’s just from the writing to me ←. The unconscious it seems is always looking for ways to get our attention.  If you discern nothing, that’s OK too. You’ve honored the writing just by asking.

3)  Now, begin rewriting the document, letter, story, etc. so that it’s own purpose can be fulfilled. This is the second direction - B ) The writer serves the writing (→). Now the work can become itself, independent of the writer’s self or ego. Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” It’s up to you how many drafts are necessary for the work to become fully itself. That’s why “a page a day” is so often the pace of full-time writer-novelists.  

Frank Conroy, the 5th director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, edited a book called “The Eleventh Draft” (Harper Collins,1999), a compilation of 23 essays by writers who had been his students at Iowa. The title alone (and also since I’m a Iowa alumnus) told me I had to have the book.  

I’ll often consider that something written becomes a living entity of its own. That’s why we have honored good books by encasing them in good bindings.  Once I’ve gotten myself out of the way, my own work is to serve the writing →.  It’s not mine, I’m just the birther. Like our children, we raise them in order to let them go. Sometimes we are reminded they were never ours, just lent to us for raising.    

4)  The final task is to let it go. If it’s a letter, send it. If it’s a story, share it, or publish it (often a dedicated task in itself). If it’s an important class assignment, now submit it. If there’s no place to give or send it, put it into storage. On my computer, works in progress are on the desktop; finished material goes into files designed just for that purpose.

Then move on. You have a life. And sometimes the inner gift of the writing to you (←) is that you may need to make changes in that life.    

Pay attention!

My purpose here has been to remind you that when you write, realize you are always on sacred ground, and to honor it accordingly.  

Comments (6)

  • Can :rules be applied to the creative process?

    As always, your newsletter has stimulated my thoughts.
    The creative process, whether it be drawing, painting, writing,
    architecture,or thinking out of the box, is also an emotional experience. Every aspect of our lives is filled with creativity
    and I believe emotions are a major part of this.

    The competition between writing words and actually saying what our hearts and minds want to say is similar to an artist beginning a drawing, painting or sculpture.

    I found my creative expression in lithography and the stone was the
    competitor. A drawing was placed on the stone and the stone reacted
    to it. The stone and I became competitors working towards the final image. Many reworkings occured!
    In the end, we both owned the creation or we found the sacred ground.

    Rules & patterns can be difficult to follow or even establish in a creative process and may become very mechanical. This can defeat the
    creative process?
    Yet, I agree that an introduction to or “training” our behaviour
    to allow for creativity is a great way to get started.
    Please keep the ideas flowing in your newsletter.

    — Dawny cromwell, 1/2/2011
  • As a retired teacher of Advanced Composition and other secondary English classes that always involved writing, I would love to have shown my students your method of organization and thought. The books I taught from had the same basic ideas, but with their own unique twist, as does your newsletter. No wonder you’re such a good writer yourself:)
    Go IOWA !!!

    — Glenda Swirtz, 1/2/2011
  • Response to Dawny

    re “Competition” and "rules"

    Dawn, when I write my newsletters, I have in mind many different readers, and your face is prominent in the ones I know will attend to whatever I say as long as I am speaking from my own heart.

    I’m intrigued by your use here of the word “competition.” I like it, and will try it on for size to see if it fits for me. I consider that with words, it’s a wrestling, more to squeeze out (of an opponent?) that truth which has always been there for you, but for proving your own worthiness. A strong image, that I think would fit both of us, is the Biblical Jacob wrestling with the angel (God) at the ford of the River Jabbok (Gen 32). That could be considered a “competition” because in that moment it was a contention of equals, where in God submitting, both essentially “won.” So I can hear you saying much the same thing with your word, where each is equal as a worthy contender, the outcome being the continuation of an ongoing creative process.

    If you want to know why that particular story is so significant for me, email me and I’ll respond. (That’s an offer for other readers as well.)

    And to your question – Can rules be applied to the creative process? I thought of this while writing, and realized what I was doing could only ‘point’ to the process itself. Rules and patterns are important for teaching. I once heard (but have not been able to confirm it) that in some old Trades Guilds, a Journeyman only becomes a Master when his work surpasses that of his own Master. My own “rules” are meant to be surpassed, and rendered mute. Then they have accomplished their (my) purpose. Bill

    — Bill McDonald, 1/2/2011
  • Bill, thank you for this – both the article and the comment stream. Much of what you present resonates with my own experiences – both as a journeyman pattern maker and as a preacher. It was vastly rewarding to me when I became attentive to how it was(is) that my journaling ‘read’ me. I’ve often described my journal as a conversation with God, and it is that message from my writing that I’ve heard from my dialogue 'partner.'
    During my time as a skilled tradesman(essentially a sculptor) and in my informal creative endeavors I’ve found having the mental agility to know when to submit – to the medium, tools, design, etc. - is often the catalyst that allows the true form of my creation to emerge. - Jim

    — Jim Harrison, 1/3/2011
  • Hi Bill,

    I received your recent newsletter and went back an issue to review last month’s column about Business and Community, which I hadn’t read. Very good for me to read something to confirm that I’m not the only person working in the business world that thinks the business model is not the best thing for the community’s health. However, our universe is quite small. At business meetings, I’m usually the only one in the room with even a hint of liberal tendencies.

    While I applaud you for wanting to try to help bridge the communication gap, the problem I see with your “solution” is that, unlike getting a married couple together in counseling, where often, both parties can see how couseling could benefit them, the BIG powers in business (not the Mom & Pop businesses) that control the political agenda, have no interest whatsoever in coming to the table to come up with solutions to their differences with the other side. The Community side WANTS to find a common ground. That’s what they do. Not so, the Business side. If you have any doubts about that, just think back to when Obama tried naively to “compromise” with the GOP. They had no interest in compromising with him. Their ultimate goal is to defeat him and further their agenda of getting even more of the wealth of the country on their side of the ledger. Ultimately, a prescription for failure for the whole community, but the rich don’t really care, because they got theirs... With the Tea Partiers essentially buying their line, too, I don’t see much hope for “Hope and Change.”

    Have a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

    — Jim K, 1/4/2011
  • Creative Process

    Thanks Bill.
    I’ve noticed a parallel in creating an oil painting.
    1.) I start with what I “think” that I want to do.
    2.) The painting starts to take over, and I’m become the scribe.
    3.) If I honor/embellish what’s offered, the creation cycle continues until finality.
    4.) When complete, I let the piece go. I don’t necessarily need to see it again.

    — Tom McGettrick, 1/12/2011

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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