How Do I Do? Very well, thanks.

Natalie Goldberg says to free write until you get past monkey mind and she’s right. Then again, for decades she’s been right about writing. So, thanks to her I’ve altered my morning writing sessions. For years I’ve clung to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and filled three pages, much of which was truly monkey mind, full of to-do lists or rambling self-castigation about my insipid journal. Then, for a short while I tried to model my morning writing after Eric Maisel’s Deep Writing, attempting to “clear my mind” and write “deeply” about the first object in my line of sight. That approach ended when I wrote deeply about my slippers or my coffee table.

Recently I’ve been adhering to Nat’s advice in The True Secret of Writing. (I feel free to refer to her by her nickname, having once met her briefly at a book fair.) More often now, I’m having fun, not as quick to judge, believing most days, that if I don’t censor and don’t quit at the bottom of page three, something interesting and fresh will pop up, sort of whack-a-molish. But lately I don’t smack the pop-up, keep the pen moving, excited to see where the words lead. And I’m through, I think, demanding that every page I fill must be productive.

For all my years of preaching process and practice over product and publication, I see now that I often didn’t take my own advice. Now I have a purse-sized notebook full of Nat’s advice–like “Don’t waste this one precious life.” Writing is again discovery, getting beyond my own opinions and, you know, it’s fun. And the more fun I have, the less I ration time and paper.

Beethoven, Yo Yo Ma & Me

PW bookYears ago I first encountered Proprioceptive Writing, a process with a daunting label that attracted me because it seems to have originated in Maine and I lived there, still visit often and was curious to know what other writers in my then-home state were up to. For reasons that I have forgotten, I tried it and set it aside.

About a week ago, it rose to mind and I decided to visit it again. As some of you know, I’m a strong advocate of daily journaling. I do Morning Pages, a la Julia Cameron, and I keep a notebook with me at all times, a la Natalie Goldberg. Now I’ve added half an hour each morning for PW. My first attempts were frustrating. I felt fenced in. The process calls for Baroque Music, a lighted candle, no interruptions, not even to sip coffee, and a deep listening to the thoughts that fly through my head at the speed of sparrows before the cat catches them.

Thanks to Apple Music, I found exactly the recommended Beethoven cello concerti by Yo Yo Ma. I bought a candle that will last a long time if I dedicate its flame to that half hour. I found a stash of unlined white paper and a folder, a little stapler. Okay, no problem with the tools. But the process? I resisted and persisted. And this morning, on my fourth Write, I broke through that resistance. I think I’m hooked. Traditional mediation has not worked for me, although I am drawn to whatever reveals the inner workings of my mind and personality.

If you are curious, I suggest you get the book (see above) and jump in. I started the process as soon as I understood the Three Rules and Four Questions and that seems to be a good plan. I’m aware of the values that Linda Metcalf and Tobin Simon espouse as I go along. My copy of the book is underlined, marked and close by. It’s my instructor and my solace when I’m stymied by writing not meant to be shared. The relief I now feel with this process may well be a reaction to having just formatted the ms of a novel about to go out to beta readers, to be critiqued, chewed up, spit out, panned and praised. The PW Writes are all mine and will remain so.


Keep the Pen Moving

If you could see my desk, you would think that I’m a shopaholic. Well, you might be right, given the three dozen or so pens in the holder. All the same kind, albeit with different colors of ink. These are what Natalie Goldberg calls “fast pens.” They are Pentel Energels, and they fit my hand well, and glide across most kinds of paper. They do not smear, even for lefties like my daughter. They are refillable and recyclable. So why do I have so many? I can’t quite figure that out, except that when they go on sale, I buy them. I keep three or four beside my reading chair and another couple in my tote bag. Just the thought of being without the right pen makes me slightly uneasy. No, I don’t need therapy for this, and meds wouldn’t help.

As my friend Bonnie says, it’s my way of treating myself. In addition to chocolate, I consider pens a great treat. I have a box of other pens that I’ve accumulated over the years and occasionally I dip into that on the rare chance that my fast pens don’t feel quite right on a new journal. All of which suggests that like any other artisan, I want the right tools for my trade. I want a generous supply of ink, paper and folders. I don’t have time to make do and redo. My pens, files, notepads and stickies are at hand, so I have no excuse not to get to work. Before I retired from my day job, a reporter’s notebook and a retractable ballpoint were essentials. Every day meant a new leaf, dated and full of the details I needed to keep my job running smoothly.

If you don’t yet know what your best writing tools are, give them some thought, experiment. A carpenter needs the right hammer and keeps it close by. A surgeon knows which clamps and scalpels work for her. I know that a pen is as essential as a keyboard for me. I do not apologize for being particular. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I packing a notebook and four pens to see me through a weekend in the mountains where there is no wifi. At nine thousand feet it’s just me and my pen.

Get a Group

There are nine writing groups in my life. Each one unique, but three of them are mostly fun. I write a lot about having fun writing, because I believe that finding pleasure in what we do lets us do more of it. The three that I just referred to involve few rules and lots of writing.

In group one, five women gather every two weeks. First we talk and drink coffee. Whatever topic surfaces is good. Then we write for twenty minutes. This is not craft or critique work, but free flowing, whatever comes to the page. Usually, one or two main ideas surface in the conversation and we go with that soft focus, but if something individual needs attention, that’s fine, too. When time’s up we each read whatever we have, not to get help or correct anything, just to share the writing and react to the content. Because we have been together for several years, the level of trust is high and we can share even delicate information without fear of criticism or embarrassment.

Group two is fairly new, but again we meet every two weeks, in an artist’s studio and do three or four eight-minute free writes. This group grew out of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. The prompts come from the group at the moment we start. We abide by the timer and we keep the pen/pencil moving on the page, no time for editing thoughts or language. Often we have trouble reading our own handwriting, but that’s okay because, again, this is not craft but a chance to let our minds off their leashes and put words on paper as they come to us. In neither of these two groups is there any keyboard or screen. We write the way nature intended us to, with our hands. It’s finger painting with language.

Group three is an ongoing, larger, more organized group that meets at Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop in Denver. It’s called Friday 500, given the goal of each writer getting 500 words down in an hour. Because we do not share this work, the goal stays private. But the quiet attention to our work is a joy. There are beverages and cookies and comfortable chairs and tables. Here laptops and tablets and pens are the tools of choice. After an hour of silent, private work we reassemble in a classroom and join in a discussion or writing exercise where we do share as time and purpose allow.

If you are not involved in a writing group, think about creating or joining one. It takes a few tries to find or build one that fits your style and satisfaction, but it’s cheaper than a movie and more creative than television. (Well, for me almost anything is more creative than TV.) It’s free, it’s freeing, it’s social without the need for fancy clothes or equipment. It’s writing. Just do it.