We Welcome All Writing

image of the Lagoon Nebula

New stars are being created in the Lagoon Nebula. Detail from a photo by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, K. Harpsøe. Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

At Write to the End, we do two main activities: We write, and we welcome all writing. These two activities are the foundation of our group.

Welcome. I welcome you, and I welcome your writing. All of your writing, not just the parts you think are worth welcoming.

I use Natalie Goldberg’s method of writing practice, which is a practice of noticing and writing down first thoughts, “the way the mind first flashes on something.” This is a form of welcome. Writing practice is not choose what you receive but rather receive what you have already flashed on, even if it doesn’t make sense. All first thoughts are a gift. When we welcome them, we notice more first thoughts. When you welcome the tip of a thread of a story, it lets you pull it, and more story comes through. It’s scary to do, but don’t close off. I’m scared, too. I close off sometimes, too. But I’m always trying to improve my skill of staying open, of welcoming first thoughts, of allowing the thoughts to come through. (I am calling them thoughts. I don’t know what else to call them: visions, images, words—they come in many forms. You know what I mean, though: the things that arrive that aren’t you, that aren’t something you choose or make up or figure out. The things that come from the Place.) You don’t have to do anything with these thoughts later. You can choose what you turn into a piece; you can choose how you edit and what you publish. But if you welcome first thoughts and write them down, you’ll have something to choose from.

Steve DeWinter of Fiction Silicon Valley recently asked me what fiction I like to read. (I fished around in my brain and came up with Philip K. Dick and Julio Cortázar.) I welcome what I read because I choose it. But sometimes it’s necessary to welcome something you didn’t choose. You can turn off your biases and judgements, your desire to find fault with something in order to seem cool. For example, it’s easy to go into a new Star Wars movie in a defensive state, ready to complain about every tiny thing that doesn’t live up to our expectations. I might not seem cool for saying this, but I will tell you that I loved the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens. I was able to love it because I went into it blind on purpose. I turned off everything and just watched the movie as though I were a blank sheet of paper. I saw it for what it was, and even though there were a few moments of cheesy dialogue, and maybe some other things I could have complained about, I forgave it all and let myself love the movie. This is a beautiful and vulnerable thing to do. You should try it sometime. You don’t have to try it with Star Wars.

And here’s what else you should do: You should try it with your own work. Try turning everything off, all your judgement and smartness, all your desire for something to be a certain way, all your expectations of greatness or awfulness or anythingness, and just go in blind and see what you wrote for what it actually is. Let it affect you the way it wants to. Let yourself be defenseless against it. This is hard and scary. But you do it for others’ work. If you come to Write to the End, you practice every Tuesday doing it for others’ work, at least I hope you do. People write anything here, from disconnected notes to scenes of novels, from sonnets to To Do lists. And then they read these things out loud: what they just wrote, during the previous twenty minutes. And everyone turns off everything and listens; they take it in without context; they don’t expect anything from it.

When you sit in this circle, you listen to someone read something that you didn’t choose, and you appreciate it for what it is. You don’t try for it to be something else. If you aren’t doing that the first day, you learn from the example of people who have been here a while. If you start out faking it, pretty soon you’re really doing it. Write anything. Welcome everything. It’s hardest to do it for yourself, for your own writing, but try.

This time, when you read what you’ve written, turn off everything. Be blank. Be blind. Be nothing, and become what you read. Let what you read be all there is in that moment. We will support you. If you start to crack or even break, the structure of the group will hold you. And most likely, what you’ve written will become the glue that sticks the pieces back together stronger than before, and you will be a better writer for it. This is why we welcome all writing. This is why we welcome you.

How to Believe in Yourself

Sun streak illuminating the sea from above; San Francisco dark in foregroundI got a fortune cookie last time that said “Believe in yourself and others will too.” That’s probably true, but it’s not very helpful as advice. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you start? People who already believe in themselves will say, “Just do it. Just believe in yourself.” But this is the same as saying “I don’t know.”

Here’s how to believe in yourself, which is backwards from the fortune cookie: Hang around with people who believe in you, and eventually you will believe in yourself. This is the reason you need a writing group.

And not just any writing group. You need a group like Write to the End: one that’s full of people who believe in you. (You need this even if you already believe in yourself, because we all need to believe in ourselves more than we do.) This is possible within many different writing group structures, but I think it’s easier to find in a structure like ours, one that’s focused on writing together and sharing our work with each other, rather than on critique.

If you want to start you own group, I’d recommend using a writing structure rather than a critique structure. I know people who swear by their critique group, and I’m sure those groups are filled with people who believe in each other. But a new critique group can’t get off the ground unless the members already believe sufficiently in themselves. Most critique groups I have experienced did not have that minimum, and they either self-destructed in an implosion of shame, or they churned members forever and ruined people’s pieces at every meeting.

In our group, we write together, share what we write, and encourage each other to keep going. This is a long process, but it helps people come to believe in themselves.

I wish I could instantaneously take away Casy’s trepidation, because that would turn her into a sun. What can do it? I know of nothing fast. At the group, we are participating in the slow process of transforming ourselves into suns. Every Tuesday, people take my writing seriously. Every Tuesday, people I admire and respect act like it’s normal to write, and act like it matters that I write, and act like what I write matters.

When my arms were injured, Betsy typed up the first draft of my story “Chen.” Sometimes I still boggle over that: Why? Why would anyone possibly do that? (Though I’d do it for any of us, and I bet you would, too.) Also, she sent me an email to say she’s glad I’m planning to publish flash fiction. The logic is inescapable: she believes in me. Other group members do other actions that have the same inescapable conclusion: they believe in me. And it’s working: It is forcing me to believe in myself.

We do this for each other. It peels away the scale, bit by bit. And writing does, too, but we’ll talk about that another time.

I believe in you. Keep going.

This is the process of turning into a sun.

The Magical Unread Session

We used to meet at Barnes and Noble when Barnes and Noble used to close at 11 p.m. Now we meet at places that close at 10, because nothing closes at 11. Most places close at 9. This means that if there are a lot of people, like tonight, or if we are all writing long and amazing things because the group is in a state of communal flow, like tonight, sometimes the last writing session ends just about the time IHOP closes. Usually when this happens, we each choose one sentence to read aloud as a token of our writing, and it is not enough, but it has to be enough anyway, and everyone hopes that this situation will not be frequently repeated.

The unread session also has the unexpected effect of letting you write something that maybe you wouldn’t have written if you were hearing the voice in your head that is the voice of yourself reading out loud to the group, which is the voice I usually hear, and the voice I am hearing right now. I don’t know if we will read this session out loud, but we might, because that’s what we did last time: stand around outside and open our laptops and read.

Is this the right thing to do? It is terrible for everyone not to read and not to hear what people wrote. It is also terrible to write something embarrassing because you found you wouldn’t have to read it, and then to read it anyway. However, it is worse to skip a few of the most embarrassing sentences and then wonder forever if someone might have read them over your shoulder and now knows not only that about you but also that you weren’t willing to read them out loud. But the thing is, I am over this. I share nearly everything, and I am not embarrassed that there are things I choose not to share. It is not necessary for me to share the depths and range of every obsession explicitly, because what matters will always come out anyway, eventually. Fiction reveals everything, whether you want it to or not. I am okay with that now. I am willing to be revealed.

I have read my dreams here for years, and they reveal everything, too. What small particulars of my life reveal is nothing compared to what is revealed by the metaphors of my dreams. On the other hand, why write an essay about this if I’m over it? So, again, you see how everything is revealed. Even if I don’t read this, it will be revealed. Even if I do read this. Even if I never write again or see anyone here again, even if I die or disappear. All moments are saved, irrevocably, into the past. Victor Frankl says this with joy. I see it with joy, too: all moments are published. You have to try your best in each moment, and it is done, it is published, whether you want it to be or not; that is the magic of the physical, the tyranny and the miracle. It forces you to commit; it forces you to be done; it forces you to publish, what you have, the best you can, right now. That is the magic of the writing group, too. But the magic of the unread session is different, and I think it is a dangerous magic. It allows us to think we can hide ourselves, it allows us to believe in being unseen. It allows us to return to our pre-writing-group concept of ourselves, the writer who can perfect something, the writer who doesn’t have to reveal everything, and this is a lie, because everything is revealed unless you quit, unless you chicken out, and even then it is still revealed, but it is changed – what is revealed is what you became but didn’t want to be. So have faith. Keep going. Eat pancakes or don’t eat pancakes. Type anything. Write anything. Stay here. Stay present. Don’t care about the future. The future will take care of itself, will be published in its own time. Focus now on this moment as it writes itself, as it publishes itself; make it the best and truest it can be, because it will last, it will be revealed, for all time.

You Can Never Say Thank You

picture of birds on a wire

The first book I ever bought about how to be a writer was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I still have it, and I just looked inside the title page: it is a first edition. So I was lucky, because really you probably don’t need any other book on writing, ever, except for that book. I am rereading it yet again, and it’s as though she’s right there, speaking only to me, telling me just what I need to know right now, just like all the other times I’ve read it.

So, if somebody writes a book like that, even if it is non-fiction, it’s natural to get this urge to say thank you. And what that looks like for me is writing hundreds of unfinished letters inside my head, and rehearsing what I’d say if I ever met the author, revising it over and over, to try to convey how much her book has meant to me. And believing that if I could just say thank you that I would feel relief from this terrible debt of gratitude and be able to accept the gift of her book and go on with my life.

But here’s the thing: I met Anne Lamott last spring, and I got to talk to her twice: once just passing by in the bookstore where she was teaching, and once after I’d waited in line for 45 minutes to get her book signed. (Not the first edition! Can you believe I couldn’t find it? More on this another day.) And both times, I tried to say thank you. I did say, “Thank you.” I said, “Your book changed my life.” I said, “I got your book when it first came out.” I said, “I’ve reread it many times, and it always makes a difference for me.” I said the right things the first time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. I said them again the second time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. She was gracious and kind both times, but Anne Lamott is wise, and I got the feeling that maybe she knew I was attempting something futile. I know I did the right thing to try, but I left feeling worse than ever, because there was no way I could convey, even to the author, my experience of her book and how much it has meant to me. There was no way I could make her experience what I experience when I read her book, no way to make her feel the love she transmitted to me through her words. She wrote it; she is herself. She can’t read it as me. She can’t feel what I felt and experience how she changed me. I hope you understand what I mean, because I can’t say it any more ways.

So, while I was sitting outside the bookstore, bombed out on having totally failed to repay the debt of gratitude I felt I still owed, I thought of the title of this piece, and I realized the reason you can never say thank you. In order to repay your debt, you need the person to experience what you experienced. That is impossible, so you are out of luck.

Except.

Except that they did experience what you experienced. They read something else, by someone else, and they experienced it. And then they wrote the thing that passed that experience on to you. And therefore, the only way that you can ever repay this debt is by writing something that passes it on to the next person.  And then maybe they will try to say thank you and fail. And you can never know if what you wrote succeeded, because even when people say thank you, they can never convey their experience, and you will never experience it back from your own work. You have to have faith that what you write could touch someone. You have to try. There is no guarantee. But you owe the debt already, so you must try. It is the only way you might ever get the chance to say thank you.

The Practice and Magic of Writing Every Day

I am not working at a job right now.  I accepted a retirement package from work and am taking this time (and money) to write.  I plan to return to work in about 6 months, and right now I write.

I have been writing since May 1. For me, every day, every morning is a new “in the beginning.”  With a cup of tea or coffee I sit at my desk and plan my day.  There are three themes to my plans: doing some kind of social event (otherwise I will start answering myself when I talk to me), some kind of social event for Bella, my German shepherd, because I don’t want her to go nuts either, and writing.

It’s 8 a.m. (or 7:30 a.m., if I really have my act together), and I write random thoughts.  Some of those thoughts become what I will write about.  I am writing a short story that has mutated into a long and longer story, so I figure out what I am going to do there, and I also spend some time writing about whatever comes into my head.

Regardless of whatever I write about, I usually remind myself in the first 10 minutes of my morning ritual how blessed I am to have the opportunity to do this.

Stephen King wrote that he writes 6 hours a day 6 days a week.  When I decided to dedicate myself to writing, I thought I would do that. On my first day, I lasted 15 minutes and decided some serious time management and writing restructuring would need to be done.  And, I have been restructuring my time and writing and restructuring my time and writing ever since.  In other words, doing whatever it takes to get myself in the chair and write ANYTHING.

Then something happened last Sunday. Two days ago.  Sunday was my day off from writing, but when walking Bella I had an idea.  I wrote for about an hour, and this idea became a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  I spent some time on this story yesterday and today, while writing other things too, and this afternoon I declared it finished.

Finished.  Now, you may not like the story, I don’t know.  Here is what I want to say about it — it wrote itself.  I was the one who sat in the chair, but the story really just happened.

And I know that it would not have happened if I and not spent the last 2 months sitting down almost every morning and writing.