The Inner Life

In a comment to yesterday’s post, Sarah wrote,

“I’d be interested in reading about how you create an ‘inner’ life that supports your writing. In other words, a focus or groove or way of seeing things that allows you to sit down whenever you have the chance and simply get on with writing.”

Sarah, I hope you don’t mind my reposting your words here. They struck me as very interesting, in part I suppose because they raised an issue that I’d never thought about much. How do I create that inner life? Because it’s true that nowadays, when I sit down, I do in fact simply get on with writing. I sit down, and the words come.

If there’s a magic to it, I think it’s the magic of habit. It didn’t use to be that way for me, and I think it’s not that way for many people. They sit down and – they wait. That doesn’t happen to me anymore. What does sometimes happen is that I sit down, start writing something, and it’s the wrong thing. It doesn’t work. But the writing is still happening, even if it’s the wrong writing (as it were).

I think if you want to be able to sit down and have the words simply come, you have to get into the habit of them coming. It’s like anything else. We are creatures of habit: we get into habits in our eating, our sleeping. If we want to become healthier we need to exercise, but it only works if it becomes a habit. And that takes a while.

It’s the same with writing.

Think about a sport, or perhaps dance. A dancer would never expect to be able to dance every once in a while, and then get up on stage to perform. And yet writers often expect to be able to do just that. (Not Sarah, I’m sure. But I’ve met writers who do.) A baseball player who expects to hit home runs has practiced hitting a lot of home runs.

If you want writing to become a habit, you need to keep doing it, and that implies a sort of dedication. Which means you’ve already decided, within yourself, that writing is important. Your writing is important. I’d always believed that writing was important, and that my own writing could be – perhaps, one day. But at some point I had to decide that my writing was important – not one day, but now. I had to believe. And that only happened about two years ago.

So, I suppose what I’m describing (you see how hesitant I am here, because this is something I haven’t thought about much) is a sort of edifice in which belief in the importance of my own writing is the foundation. And on top of that is a structure of habit.

Bound together in places by tricks. For example, if I do sit down to write and can’t seem to get words out, I write in a different form. Sometimes I need to write a story by hand. Sometimes I type it. If you could see the YA novel chapter I’m working on now, you’d see that I began writing it by hand, then went to making an outline of certain events to understand their chronology, then made a chart of when certain people were born and when other people died. The page is criss-crossed with arrows. I add text in the margins. Someday, perhaps, it will form an interesting study for a scholar. (There, you see, is the belief. My writing will be important. Of course I can’t know if it will be. But I have to believe it to write.) It won’t come together as a draft until I type it.

I’m very tired today, and I don’t know how the writing will go. I spent the day going to the doctor, confirming that I don’t have pneumonia, and indeed I’m actually starting to feel better. The coughing still comes back in fits and starts, but for the most part I can breath, I can work. Perhaps tonight I’ll even be able to sleep.

Nevertheless, here I am, writing a blog post. Creating the habit of sitting down and writing. Telling myself that when I sit down, the words come. And they do.

There’s one final thing I want to add, which is that underlying the foundation of belief is something deeper, something like a sort of calm. It’s as though when I sit down to write, my mind goes home – to the place it always wants to go. To a fishing village in Cornwall, or nineteenth-century London, or wherever my writing takes me, but really to the shore of the sea of imagination. The place where all invention comes from.

Imagine standing on a shore, looking out at the sea, a strange green sea whose waves are always coming in, edged with foam. And the waters of that sea, and the spray, are always forming into shapes: hippocamps, sorceresses, castles. Magical rings, glass mountains, dragons. Warriors. Witches. Trees that bear flowers and leaves and fruit all at once. All the ingredients of story. (I suppose in a way I’m playing with J.R.R. Tolkien’s image of the soup. Because the soup of story is made by human beings, but the sea of imagination – that existed long before us, and will exist long after.)

In a sense I always live both where I physically am, and on the shore of that sea. Because throughout the day, my mind is imagining. I’m living as a writer even when I’m not writing. (And I’m not joking here. I used to sit on the T, which is what the subway is called in Boston, looking at the faces of the passengers and imagining what historical eras they would fit into most naturally, what they would be in those eras. There are people who are thoroughly modern, people who look medieval. It was a sort of game I played, when I was bored. Try it yourself: look at people and imagine what sorts of roles they would play in a story. What sorts of characters they might inspire.)

So, where were we, before I waxed all lyrical?

I’m the sort of person who likes to make lists, so let’s make a list.

1. You need to live an imaginative life, just in general. Spend the day going around and imagining. Don’t worry, you’ll still look perfectly normal. No one will realize that you’re imagining a stranger on the T as the Grand Inquisitor.

2. You need to believe in the importance of your own writing. That deep and fundamental belief will allow you to have the faith you need to put in the hours. The many, many hours.

3. You need to make writing a habit, a regular practice. That’s the way you’ll be able to, consistently, sit down and write. Some people may not need to do this, may be natural geniuses, I don’t know. I rather doubt it? But I know that I need to.

And each of these things supports the other. The more you write, and particularly the more you publish, the more you will believe in the importance of your own writing. (Because that reinforcement really does help.) And the more you will live in your imagination, because you’ll be living in your stories, even when you’re not writing them.

I suppose what I’m reinforcing, really, is the quotation from Mario Vargas Llosa in the blog post I called “The Tapeworm”: that writing is not a hobby, not something you can do on the side. Not if you want to do it well. It’s something that will become your life, that will determine how you look at the world, relate to others – relate even to yourself, because you will live in part by the shore of the sea of imagination, which is a magical place to live but also means that you will only ever be half in the ordinary world. Half of you will be elsewhere. And that will be disconcerting to the people around you.

But perhaps artists are always disconcerting, I don’t know.

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6 Responses to The Inner Life

  1. sarah says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you for answering my question. Actually, earlier today I wrote at my weblog about how I use blogging daily as exercise for my writerly mind. For me its about habit but also maintaining a momentum and a sense of belief that I can write because, look, here I am writing!

    I also agree with you about living a half-and-half life. My writer and artist friends say the same thing, share the same sense of always being elsewhere. But most of all I agree with believing in the importance of your writing. I wonder how hard this is for many people.

  2. Nivair says:

    Oh, I love you so much. This is everything I needed to hear and everything I always wanted to say and … just yes, YES!

    Also: I MISS THE T SO MUCH. And was it a soup, with Tolkien? I thought it was the leaf-mould. Did you perchance get that from Jeanne at Odyssey? I have been putting soooo much thought into my leaf-mould since last year, eheheh … 😉

  3. Nivair says:

    P.S. Sarah: As to believing in your work, YEAH, I’m pretty sure that’s one of the hardest things for anybody, even if they hide it. I’d been writing since the age of six or seven, posting my work online and critiquing for more than ten years, when I went to Odyssey last summer and since then, for reasons I can’t fathom, I don’t believe in my writing anymore. This past year has been a festival of suck, because my body HATES me not writing, mentally, physically, spiritually, everything. But there it is. Anyway, it’s something we all have to struggle with at one point, even if we thought we’d already developed a thick skin. Apparently they can slough off. Best of luck. KEEP WRITING!!!!

  4. I actually am doing all these things. And I’ve begun to believe in the importance of my own writing now that I have seven stories, three poems, and however many essays published.

    But when I start imagining, I do not look perfectly normal. I act out the characters and talk to myself. And then I realize I’m in the back yard and all the neighbors can see me.

  5. Alex Wells says:

    A great post that reinforces my own beliefs about habits, which I had heard for years about writing, but didn’t really believe until I put them into practice myself over the last year. I love living in that world of fantasy, and find it most difficult to live the half-and-half life when I have to come out of it on command. Having to end writing because the kids have an orthodontist appointment or I have to make dinner or do some other work is almost physically painful sometimes, like being dragged from the ocean.

    I often wonder what I could accomplish if I could live my life like some writers or artists have, where they feel no obligation to participate fully in their family life and can shut every distraction out for as long as needed. I feel like my choice to have a family and be the primary person in charge of the household has this loss of time and momentum as its main sacrifice. But at the same time I’m grateful to get what I get and have a constant sense of urgency to use my time efficiently. I think that’s hard, because to me, efficiency is often the enemy of imagination. I have to find ways to quickly come back into a story I’m working on, because I know I may only have a bit of time before I’m interrupted.

  6. sarah says:

    Nivair, I sympathise. For me, writing is a biological need. If I don’t do it, I get physically unwell. By the way, I hope it’s okay to say here that I love the introduction to your spoinky website 🙂 It is funny and charming and makes me say I really hope you get back your writing groove because I’d like to read more from you.

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