Accept the Magic of Imagination

painting of a bell in rainbow clouds

Campanil Ascendiendo by Eugenio Cruz Vargas (used under Creative Commons license)

 

Ringing the Bell

When I was a kid at Saint Lucy’s Catholic Church, the altar boys used to ring a little golden bell when the priest raised the host. I watched from my wooden pew and wondered if that was the moment when the miracle happened, when the host changed from bread to flesh. Because otherwise why did they ring the bell?

They don’t ring it anymore. I know they used to because my ears still vibrate with its sound, but actually I had forgotten the bell until I went to a poetry reading at a church in Santa Cruz, and a poet read a poem about when he was an altar boy waiting for the time to ring the bell. The other altar boy, his rival, could ring the bell so beautifully that you knew it worked, that the bread for sure had transformed into the body of Christ. The action of the poem happens when it’s the speaker’s turn to ring, and you experience with him the build of anxiety as the priest raises the host, up, up, and finally at the apex he has to ring the bell, and it doesn’t make the magic sound but instead goes all wonky and wobbly. The poet gave a brilliant performance, and you really believed that he was the altar boy trying to ring the bell to transform the bread into body and failing, failing, failing, just like we all think we fail at the important things we try to do.

Maybe that’s why the Church stopped ringing the bell, because it makes people believe that something humans do is what’s changing the host, and the whole point is that it’s not what we do: that the ritual is not the magic, that God is the magic.

Now maybe you don’t believe in any god, or you don’t believe in the Catholic God, but please still listen to me because I’m not trying to convert you, I’m just making an analogy.

The RItual Is Not the Magic

It’s true that rituals for writing help us, but the ritual is not the magic. The ritual is a container for the magic: it may be necessary, but it is not sufficient (and there are many rituals and practices that can work). The magic comes from somewhere else. The magic comes from the Place. You can’t control it; you can only invite it. You can only make your house ready for it. And then you have to step back and accept that you’ve done your part. You have to relax and let the guest come in. At church, we hold up the bread, we ring the bell. But the miracle happens through no action of our own. The miracle comes from God, comes by grace, whether we deserve it or not.

The miracle of imagination is the same.

The Gift

Try this improv exercise with me.

Imagine a closed box, a gift for you. Notice its size, its shape. Is it wrapped? Does it have a ribbon? Hold it in your hands and feel its weight. Now imagine yourself opening the box. Find the gift inside.

What did you find? It’s yours to keep and use. I wish you the joy of it.

Who puts the gift in the box? Not you. The gift comes from the Place. We are surrounded and interpenetrated by love and support, always. You think you breathe all by yourself? No. The atmosphere breathes you: it’s the pressure of the air outside that pushes air into your lungs. Our own agency is nothing compared to the forces that continually support and help us.

Accept the Gift

Does the bread always change? Yes, because the change doesn’t depend on our poor skill at ringing the bell. Steven Pressfield says that this is his religion: that no matter how many times you open the box, there’s always something inside.

When you’re writing, remember this. You don’t have to “make it up;” you only have to accept what’s in the box and write it down. Sometimes you might want to refuse it, saying “I don’t know what’s in there,” or “I can’t think of anything,” but try not to be afraid. Remember that you don’t make the gift.

Imagination is not ourselves. The gift comes from the Place. All you have to do is accept it.

Please Finish Your Story

painting of a girl writing with a quill pen

Detail of George Goodwin Kilburne’s 1875 painting Writing a Letter Home. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Remember that story you started last week? (Or maybe it was last month, or a few years ago.) We want to hear the rest of it. In fact, we would like to purchase a publication that contains it and read it in print. But you haven’t finished it, have you?

That’s okay, I understand. I haven’t finished a whole bunch of my stories either. And it’s not that I want to force you to finish a story you don’t want, a story that’s not for you. Or even a story that was for you at one time but is now so far in the past that you couldn’t write it anymore even if you wanted to. But the ones that are still “on” for you, please finish those. Because this is what it’s like for us, your readers:

The Readers’ Experience:

We hear the first part of a story, the part you wrote in 20 minutes while sitting around a table with us. We get excited about it. We get interested in the characters. We want to see what will happen to them. We want to know why certain details of the story are the way they are, because they seem mysterious. We want to keep reading. If the text you just read out loud were printed in a book, we would keep reading past our bedtime in order to find out these things.

Then at the next writing session, or the next week, or the next time we see you, or even just randomly as we go about our days, we are hoping to hear the next part of the story. I know that stories don’t always come out linearly; I know you can’t promise the next installment as though this were a serial on TV. But we want it. The brain science people would say our biology expects it. This is the point of view of the external reader: we want to see what happens next. But as a writer, you also have to take into account the internal reader: yourself and your own interest in a story.

Don’t Finish a Story You Don’t Care About

Remember my story “The Death of the Station Wagon”? People asked me to write more; they wondered what happened next. But I’m not going to try to find out what happens next, because I think that story is either complete or failed. If I ever work on that story again, I might add a second thread to try to make the events more meaningful, but the sequence of events is already complete: after the station wagon dies, the story is over. So if you wanted to hear what happens next, I’m sorry. Nothing happens next. The universe ceases to exist, and all the white mice get their necks broken.

I’m not asking you to keep going on a story you know has no future, one you’re not interested in, one you think is done. Don’t let anyone else tell you to do that either, no matter how interested they are in the story. They can write their own story.

Say no to narratives you don’t care about.

Finish the Ones You Care About

So I’m done with “The Death of the Station Wagon.” But there are others, like “Dazzlewelts,” that I still feel the pull of sometimes. I know there are people who wish I would finish that one, and I am one of them, because I want to see how it turns out. You have stories like that too. Please finish them. I want to read them. I bet you do, too.

Watson Loves Me

This illustration by Sidney Paget originally accompanied “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” which appeared in The Strand Magazine in December 1892. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Watson loves me. I know because he treats me so kindly, explains things so clearly, never sends a harsh word in my direction. I know because he’s willing to be vulnerable, to share his potentially embarrassing thoughts and feelings with me. He is a gentleman narrator; he is warm and welcoming; he takes me into his confidence; he expresses his love through the care he takes in his sentences.

But I also know he loves me because he loves Holmes. Watson fails over and over to make the correct deductions, but he keeps trying. Holmes treats him callously, but Watson understands that Holmes doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings; he accepts Holmes’s intentions to teach rather than getting upset at his friend’s unskilled delivery. He treats Holmes kindly, both in person and as a narrator. Even when he is assessing Holmes’s lack of knowledge about the solar system, Watson is kind.

I am unlovable in the same ways as Holmes: I am unstable and obsessive; I care only for my work; I am socially inept. (You may know me and disagree, and your view is probably more accurate, but this is what it feels like inside.) But Watson loves Holmes anyway, cares for him, lives with him joyfully (as much as possible—Holmes is annoying). And because this is fiction, everything Watson does for Holmes, he does for me, the reader.

When I am lonely and sad, when I need a kind hand on my shoulder, I turn to Watson. The Sherlock Holmes stories are often repetitive in their structure, with pages of summary and not much plot. I almost never read them anymore to find out what happens or to solve the mystery. I read them to spend time with Watson, to participate in a living relationship between narrator and reader, a relationship that is no less real than Holmes and Watson’s celebrated friendship, and no less real than a relationship between two non-fictional humans.

Why am I saying this? To tell you to write? Of course, yes! Write! Maybe you will write a character who becomes your reader’s true friend, or maybe you will write a story that lets your reader experience unconditional love. But I think there’s something else here, too.

There are other types of narrators, and they show us different ways we can be. Chuck Palahniuk’s narrator in Survivor hates the reader and shows it. Borges’s self-narrator in “The Aleph” is so journalistic that none of his emotions reach the reader at all. Walt Whitman’s narrator in Leaves of Grass makes love to the universe in a way that is practically obscene. These people show us different ways to live, as well as different ways to tell a story. Maybe I will never allow myself to be as exuberant as Whitman; maybe I will never write a narrator like his; but he shows me that it’s okay to feel that inside myself. A first person narrator expands our idea of human experience. It lets us see more ways of being human; it lets us accept parts of ourselves we might otherwise deny.

When I ask the question “How shall I live?” I always look to literature for the answer. Watson has shown me his answer, and that helps me find my own.

No Enterprise

photo of laptop and books, including Uhura's Song

Warning: This essay contains a very minor spoiler (not plot significant) for the third book in the Bloody Jack series.

I’m in the movie theater watching Star Trek: Beyond. I haven’t gone in blind, and I’m finding much to complain about. But although my mind is churning on dialogue problems and weird plot choices, my main experience is this: My heart wants to come out of my chest and go to the screen. I don’t know these new characters; I keep comparing them to the originals; I don’t understand them at all. But they are on the Enterprise, and I feel a gravitational pull to be there too.

Later I’m crying, and it’s not because of the events of the movie. It’s not even because Leonard Nimoy is dead. I’ve known that fact for over a year, and my mind can finally almost touch it, but not quite, certainly not enough to cry. No, this is something more fundamental: I’m crying because Star Trek isn’t real. I can’t live there. There is no Enterprise.

Where can I find consolation? Where can I learn what I should do in the face of this problem? Of course I look to literature for the answer. Here’s what I find: In Under the Jolly Roger, L.A. Meyer puts Jacky Faber on the Pequod, even though his novel is historical fiction and the Pequod is a fictional ship. Why does he do that? It’s so he can live in Moby Dick, through his character. By putting her on the Pequod, he refuses to be left out of fiction; he declares that we’re all the same, and that we’re all in the same world, whether we be fictional or whatever the other thing is.

So, Mr. Meyer, I thank you for this comforting hypothesis. And I see that, in a way, I live in Star Trek when I experience Star Trek stories. I see that if I were an officer on the Enterprise, I wouldn’t be living in Star Trek the story, I’d be living a life on the Enterprise. But still, in the theater the feeling is visceral: My whole body is straining toward the screen: I belong there, not here.

Writing this, I realize: The feeling isn’t that I belong in space, or even on the Enterprise. It’s that I belong in a story. It comes down to that. I’ve never seen it so clearly before.

What makes your heart swell? What makes your soul want to come out of your body and go there, more than anywhere else? I love Rembrandt, I love van Gogh, and my heart moves toward The Starry Night. But it moves toward Star Trek more, toward stories more. I love linguistics and math, and my heart moves toward them, but they are mainly loves of the mind. I love making books and origami, but that is mainly a love of the body, of fingers and eyes. The place that pulls my soul out of my chest is fiction, is words, is story. Literature is my first and truest love. I can’t deny that anymore. I must make it my first priority. What must you make yours?

There’s a fashion for saying to do only your top thing and ignore everything else. But if you need to be creative, doing only your top thing doesn’t work. You have to live in order to get ideas. You have to go deep in other areas if you want to make breakthroughs in your area of specialty.

If you love writing, but it’s not your top thing, keep writing. Maybe write a little less and do your top thing a little more, but keep writing. Keep coming to Write to the End. What you do with us will help you do your top thing.

I won’t stop making non-written art, doing other things I love, living in the moments I’m not writing. What a gift this world is, what varied and wonderful opportunities it contains: Not only to read and to write, not only to study the things I love, but also the meaningfulness of pure experience: to touch the texture of a 20-year-old construction paper cover I made for Uhura’s Song, to hear slow crickets at 2 a.m., to feel the lemony squeeze of tears beginning to form, to look into the night sky and find Antares and recognize the Scorpio that’s not Jessica’s Scorpio, but to think of it, and her, and the times we spent together. Life, if I let myself open to it, is like being in a story.

I promise to write, but I also promise to live, and I ask you to do the same. Do your top thing, and put it first, but let the rest of your life flower, too. The other things you love, the care and depth with which you do them, the appreciation you give to the passing and irretrievable moments of this one life—all will return to you and help you as you work on your top thing, and your life will become a story.

Promise me you’ll do it.

There is no Enterprise but the one we make ourselves.

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.

Keiko’s Gardening Tips

garden with tomatoes

How does gardening relate to writing?

I had a dream that I was in a workshop where we had to practice giving a presentation off the top of our heads. I chose gardening, even though I have not succeeded at that. Here is my presentation. I came up with the tips as I was talking.

“Have you wanted to grow a garden but you haven’t done it? Maybe you fenced off an area in your yard years ago, but that’s as far as you got? Or maybe all you have so far is the dirt that was there when you moved in? I was the same. But I’ve been watching my mom, who does have a garden. Here are three tips for how you can have one too.

1. Schedule specific times to work on it, including regular weekly hours AND a start date.

2. Don’t worry if things don’t turn out how you wanted. In fact, plant one vegetable you don’t like, on purpose, and then you will see that what comes out of your garden in any one season matters less than having a garden. (And you might be surprised – you might like that vegetable when you grow it yourself.)

3. Join a gardening group that meets regularly in order to get and give support, advice, and motivation to keep going.”

I considered and rejected: Give it enough water but not too much. Go organic. These may be important, but they are tips for people who are already gardening. My tips are for people who want to garden but aren’t yet doing it.

After I finished my presentation, I thought, “Hey, this would work for writing, too.”

Our “gardening” group meets on Tuesday nights. You are welcome to attend.

My New Writing Coach

hand receiving business card

I’m going to be my own writing coach. I will read my first draft of the story I’m working on, and I’ll say to myself, “Hey, Keiko, this is really good! Keep working on it!”

I will reply, “Really?”

“Yes!” I’ll say. I’ll be so enthusiastic I will convince myself. I will say, “Write a second draft. I want to see it.”

“Okay,” I’ll say. And I’ll send myself the next draft.

When I get it, I’ll call myself up right away. “Okay,” I’ll tell myself, “This is really starting to turn into something.”

“Thank you,” I’ll say. “But I don’t know where to go next. Do you think you could…?”

“Sure.” I’ll sound very encouraging. I will help myself learn to figure things out for myself. “What do you think is missing?” I’ll ask.

“Well,” I’ll say, “I think I need to know more about what the houses were like in San Francisco at the turn of the century. And how much they’re still like that today.” I’ll think for a minute. I won’t interrupt myself. “You know,” I’ll say, “I’d really like to have it set in a real house, one that’s actually there. I love it when people do that.”

“I’ve noticed that in your work, too,” I’ll say.

I will be impressed and flattered at first, but then I’ll sigh. “I never seem to manage to do the research.”

I know what it’s like to feel defeated like that. But I will have the solution. “You know,” I’ll tell myself, “research is just an excuse to read things you’re interested in.”

“I guess so.”

“Go to the library. Find some books.”

“Well…” I will hesitate. I won’t believe I deserve it.

“Go ahead. I want to see the third draft, the one with the details set.”

“All right,” I’ll say. And I’ll go to the library. I’ll write the third draft. I’ll send it to myself.

“I think you should send this to beta,” I’ll tell myself.

“I want to fix a few things still…” I’ll say.

“No, remember what Gayle said: Do beta on things that aren’t quite ready. Hey, I’m sure Ruth will love this one. And she’ll probably be able to help you even out the facts, like she did with ‘Willie Blake.’ And Anthony might know specifics of that neighborhood even, or the time period.”

“Well—”I’ll say.

“And Liza is a historian, and Betsy—”

“All right.”

“Are you typing the email?”

“Yes.”

I’ll stay on the phone with myself until I’ve sent it.

#

When I get the beta comments back, I’ll go over to my house and sit with myself to go over them. Or better yet, I’ll meet myself for coffee. I’ll help myself understand what the comments mean for my story. I’ll draw out of myself what the story wants to be. I’ll help myself excavate the fossil. I’ll buy myself another latte and make sure I leave with a plan for the next draft.

When I send myself the next draft, I’ll reply, “Submit this.” When I balk, I’ll tell myself to send it to the Flash Fiction Forum ladies. “That will be less scary,” I’ll say. I’ll agree. I’ll call myself up and stay on the phone with myself while I submit it.

#

I’ll go to the Forum. I’ll introduce myself to my writing friends. When it’s time for me to read, I’ll sit in the audience with my friends. When I get down off the stage, I’ll tell myself I did a great job. I’ll make sure I write down any comments the audience gives me so that I can see if they need to be incorporated, but I’ll tell myself to wait and not think about it yet. “Just enjoy the rest of the Forum,” I’ll say.

The next day, I will get together with myself and help myself do the final draft. We’ll choose the first place where I’ll submit it. I’ll stay with myself until I’ve mailed it off, and then I’ll take myself out for lunch.

How do you keep yourself writing?

OK, so I have a serious question for all of you writers. I don’t do well with “structure.” If I decide that I need to write every day starting at 11 a.m., I will literally never start writing at 11 a.m.. If I decide that I need to leave the house every day in order to write in a coffee shop, then chances are I won’t be able to write in coffee shops. And last week, when I committed to spending the week working on my story, to make a great push to get it to the next turning point… I literally couldn’t touch the story all week. My brain says, “Aaaahh! Crazy people* making unreasonable demands on my time for absolutely no good reason, must turn into a floppy blob on the couch!”

The positive side was that I wrote a million and a half blog posts, and I did tons of laundry, and I made tons of food. But … I didn’t write story at all. And if I ever want to reach The End, as one does, then I need to keep writing. Obviously that level of commitment was too much “structure” for me, where structure is defined as a box that I must fit within. I’m trying to learn to redefine “structure” to mean “useful tool that keeps me heading towards my goal” of writing a lot and reaching the next turning point in my story.

So help me out: What “tools” or “structures” do you use to keep yourself writing and making progress? Do you have any “tricks”? What gets your butt in the chair?

———

* Just for the record, the crazy people in this instance were me. Yes, even my own brain thinks I’m a crazy unreasonable person. Sigh.

Why Write to the End?

manuscript with "The End"

Often new members come to our writing group and ask for feedback on their as-yet-uncompleted novel. Or someone who’s been with us a while will get an idea for a story while at the group, write a few scenes of it during the writing sessions, and then ask everybody what we think. This seems perfectly reasonable on the surface, and is, I think, why many people start going to writing groups in the first place.

However, as a group we have learned that giving feedback on the actual writing is not helpful in these situations. What we invariably say to people is, “Have you gotten to The End yet? Have you finished the first draft?” And if the answer is no, then our feedback is “Keep going! Get to The End! When you get there, you’ll be able to answer your own question.”

There are quite a few variations on this advice. For example,

Writer: I’ve just realized I need Character X to be an insurance salesman instead of a knight, and the book needs to start off in Palm Springs two years earlier!
Group: Write yourself a note to that effect, pretend you already made all those changes and they are wonderful, and KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

Or

Writer: Do you think I should structure this story as a series of flashbacks, or would it make more sense to do it in chronological order?

Group: Finish the story however you can. When you reach The End, then you’ll be able to figure out what story you’re actually telling and whether it will work better told in flashbacks or chronologically. Don’t waste time deciding that now. Just KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

Or

Writer: Should I use first or third person? Past or present tense? I keep switching as I write.

Group: Use whatever gets the story out. Switch all you want – that’s easy to fix later. Anything that helps you get the story out is the right thing for that moment. KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

We’ve been together for quite a while (I started running the group in 2004, and some of our members have been with us since then), but we didn’t name our group for over seven years. Why did it take so long? I don’t know.  Maybe it had something to do with wanting the name to reflect our identity as a group. Why did we choose the name Write to the End? That’s easy:  It’s the advice we most often give each other. As soon as we thought of that name, we knew it was a good one for our group. And we’re also experiencing an unexpected benefit: It’s very satisfying and motivating for the name of our group to be a sort of rallying cry. When one of us is getting bogged down in a story, another of us can say, “It’s going to be okay. Just write to the end!” I think it has already made our group stronger and is probably helping our members with their writing projects.

Of course “Write to the End” has other meanings too, which as writers we appreciate and use. But its most useful meaning is to always prefer finishing what you start over worrying about what you’ve written, which I would encourage you to apply to your own writing. Remember, don’t fix it—finish it! Write to The End!