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.

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.

Colorless Green Ideas Crashed My Car
or
Your Right to Say Things that Don’t Make Sense

green car

This image was created from a photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Fast and Furious 6 Premier 5 Uploaded by tm) Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

Syntax gives us the power to say things that don’t make sense: Ideas can’t have color (or crash a car), and something colorless can’t also be green, but I can say “colorless green ideas crashed my car,” and you can understand me, even if you’re quite not sure what I mean.

The structure of a story or other piece of writing gives us a similar power. You can write about something that no one has ever experienced, and people will experience it through your story. This is not what I mean, and it makes my introduction about syntax sound like an analogy, when I’m trying to say something profound about the magic of language.

Let me try again. If I break the syntax—“green a the car colorless my”—you might not be able to follow what I’m saying anymore. You might say this string of words makes even less sense than “colorless green ideas.” However, with enough structure of other sorts, even such unconventional syntax can create deep meaning. For example, e.e. cummings: “anyone lived in a pretty how town / (with up so floating many bells down).”

What I’m trying to say is, write anything. You can change things later if it turns out you need to. Natalie Goldberg uses the example, “I cut the daisy from my throat.” This doesn’t make sense, but people’s minds will make sense out of it, and it will come to have meaning based on the context. If I say that colorless green ideas crashed my car, you’re going to start forming hypotheses about how this can happen: Maybe the “ideas” are aliens, and they are transparent but also green. That’s not what I mean either! The mind makes meaning. If you use syntax, you can say anything, and our minds will create it, even if it doesn’t “make sense.” If you use story structure, you can say anything, too. Story structure has underlying “bones” the way language does.

Here’s what I mean: Meaning is not dependent on making sense. Meaning exists even in things that “don’t make sense” in a conventional way. Look at the e.e. cummings poem I quoted above. Read the whole thing. It “doesn’t make sense” (the syntax is crazy, the words are used in ways you’ve never seen before), but its meaning is there nonetheless. In fact, we could argue that its true meaning and effect are only possible because cummings breaks the syntax and does things in this unconventional way. I’m sure it took him a long time and many revisions to get that poem into its final state.

I’m giving two pieces of advice here, for two different parts of the writing process:

  1. When you’re writing your first draft, write anything. Don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. Keep going. Write until you get to the end, and save the editing for later. (If you need a process to help you do this, I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice, detailed in her book Writing Down the Bones.)
  2. If you’re editing a piece, and the effect you want to create requires breaking syntax or creating an unconventional story structure, or doing something else that “doesn’t make sense,” DO IT! Your loyalty is not to some idea of social or literary convention, but to the entity you are trying to bring to life. You can trust your reader as the co-creator of this entity. Work hard. Make your language and structure ever more precise until what “doesn’t make sense” means exactly what it needs to mean.