We all come to writing along different paths. For some it’s a life journey, growing in the magic of words as little ones. Nurtured in a childhood of story-time, exploration and wonder, through the stretch of adolescence and early adulthood to develop the skill and language of words. Some use their writing talent to make careers out of informing, delighting and describing the ways in which they see, experience or imagine the world.
Others hop in an out of periods in their lives when their love of writing shines for a time, and then dulls as it is put aside, sealed off, in favour of – as we are often told by those who have stifled their own creativity – more sensible commitments. The universe willing however, the glow reappears. Something or someone acts as a catalyst, a diamond in the dark. It may happen “kapow”, no stopping, or be more subtle, emerging like a chrysalis-in-waiting to fly. The butterfly, ready for take-off requires no thought. Wings open, flap. It goes. Getting to that point, however, is just the beginning. Exciting? Sure. Compelling? Yes. Scary? A little. Yet, the beauty; the buzz, the take-off is always worth it. But how do we stay in flight? How do we find the up-draught and stay airborne? How do we keep believing we can? That we’ve got somewhere to fly, something to write.
Not uncommon, I believe, in the development or metamorphosis of the writer, is the trigger of loss that gives birth to or wakens the dormancy of creativity, the artist writer within. For me, the loss has been death.
Losing my youngest and closest brother several years ago opened a channel back to writing. Gave me wings. Off in flight, through poetry and prose, my words, though clumsy and frail, helped me through his loss.
Then I fell back to ground; put my wings away, got busy and went back to walking. But come mid last year and way too soon, my eldest sister, in good health, suddenly died. To help, I wrote, and took to journaling. Day after day, building my story, one word, one sentence at a time. Crawling, stumbling. Falling into and climbing out of the abyss. Not flying. But I found my way back up the channel, onto the page and into the air. The journal became a tool for self-reflection, and an experiment to improve my writing skills and positively impact my mental health.
Writers (and others) are familiar with the practice and value of journaling. It’s numerous methods and purposes. For those growing their writing wings like me, as we build confidence and skill, it is important to cultivate and nurture our emerging (or re-emerging) artistry. Journaling can provide the space and exploration to do that. The discovery of ideas, fears, blocks and the inspirations and words, that with persistence, sweat and sometimes the intervention of a force greater than self, manifest into something comprehensible. In the hard yakka of daily writing practice, I discovered that routines and rituals around writing are essential.
Many, as I have learned to do, rise in the early light of morning quiet, to write. Others may prefer the peace and silence that comes at the other end of the day. Some use both or add a section in the middle of the day, to the structure of their writing time. The key is to make the practice of writing a habit and to put a boundary around it. To use it for that purpose and that purpose alone. It must become sacred. Be honoured, respected and loved, because it can be challenging and fraught. It can slip away and once more with folded wings the spirit to fly and write fades or is lost. The soul mourns, the writer is abandoned, the words in the heart go underground. The sorrow passed off as “ it’s too hard, I have no skill, this is not for me”.
The difference in not giving up, not letting go and believing, despite the self-doubt, fear, or disappointment is firstly giving ourselves permission to write. It’s the step that then allows us to make the commitment to the practices and routines of daily writing. Through giving myself permission, I acknowledged the life-long yearning I have had, yet dampened, to express myself more truly, through words. Once I declared this honestly to myself, and then to others, through the process of journaling my grief, I rediscovered my wings. Found and dusted off the box in the back of the wardrobe. Took that step into saying “I want to do this, I can, I will”.
So, I wake with the alarm, through the months in darkness or dawn light, same time every day, and I turn up to the page. For the crispness of thought from waking, for the sleep that refreshes the body and soul, and for me. Because I gave myself permission and said I would. Made a commitment to my dream, to the thing inside that gives me life. And I trust the process. The routine is established and the faith that the words will come is strong. What is it they say? Put one foot down, then the other. Let the body move, one leg at a time and the mind will follow?
It also takes diligence and persistence. The road here has been hard work and still is. The effort required some days is big. Not enough sleep or too much else in life weighing me down, calling for my energy and attention.
Other days, I’m ready before I wake. Tingling with intention, ideas and excitement, the words spilling to the page before I arrive at my desk. I take the good with the bad. Delight with the rough. When the drought means words need squeezing or won’t come at all, I sit and wait. Those mornings I stick to what I call process writing. What Julia Cameron (The Artist Way, 1994) has taught me so well is stream of consciousness writing. To write what I see, think and feel, even about the words not coming. The daily journal she calls the Morning Pages, have taught me to start from the place I am at. Thoughts will flow, words will come, the page will fill, the story will take shape – eventually. Sometimes, one just has to be patient.
There are other things that have been important outside the practice of a writing routine. It’s those things that welcome me to the writing space. The inspiration and ideas board on the wall behind my computer and in-front of me as I type, full of reminders why and what I love about writing. What I love in this world and my own little corner of it. The people and places that are important to me. From yesterday to my dreams for tomorrow. Proverbs and quotes from some of my favourite writers. Items I collect that represent or become what Julia Cameron calls Happiness Touchstones. Images and objects that bring me joy . And a few snapshots of my achievements – reminders of where the hard work can lead.
But so too have I had to challenge and change some of the inner processes that work against me at worst, or at best are under-developed and need to be tendered with love. The inner critic and voice within that tells me she knows better about me in the world than I do, and I really should put my wings away and do something less perilous. “Flying is for the birds, the butterflies and the creatures that nature intended this for. Stick to the ground, you’re good at that, more stable down there”, she says. “You may have written professionally, or even won a competition, but you’re no Helen Garner or Elizabeth Jolly. They’re writers, published and acclaimed. You’re a half-caste girl, who ran from her family and her country and you’re still looking for somewhere to belong. Well, it ain’t on the page. Pack up while you’re ahead and spend the rest of your summers in the garden. Believe me”, she says with authority.
Yes, it is a strong voice I’ve have to deal with. She’s been speaking to me like that for years. But I haven’t always been able to recognise her for what she really is and laugh as I can now. I haven’t understood or seen where she was really coming from. Now days I know she is the voice of my fear, my anxiety. Sometimes she’s also been the voices of those I was conditioned to believe.
But I know now that she was seeking to warn me of the things, she thought I couldn’t do. The stories she thinks I shouldn’t, mustn’t, write. I see now, she’s just been trying to let me off the hook, save me from disappointment, rejection, failure. But she has never realised that at the same time she has helped to stifle and stunt the dreams through words I have longed to pen. So, I have had to soften towards her, let her have her say, try to unravel the ground from which she grew and took a presence in my life, so big. How could I know she was trying to protect me when she heard the racism, abuse and bullying I grew up with, by telling me to keep quiet. And so it went. A life of shush up. Until now.
Over recent months I have heard another voice. The one of inner knowing. Quiet, patient, observant. Occasionally coming through. “Yes, you can. Write that down. These are the words you’re looking for”.
The lesson is to listen to her, hear what she is trying to tell me and to follow the beat of my heart. Not to waver or tip against the voice of my fear that thinks she’s helping. The “maybe not, are you sure? Ooh, I wouldn’t use that word if I were you. It’s way too strong, they won’t like it”. But, with time, practice, luck and synchronicity, I learn to trust the voice that sounds more like me.
When you grow up in the reflection of others, always trying to please, you learn to listen. Then, becoming a mental health nurse and a psychotherapist, further developed an ability to hear deeper than the spoken word. My career and work with others in pain, sharpened my emotional attunement, as I built curiosity and awe in the fragility and strength of the human condition. People. The meanings we make of the world, how we traverse and navigate the landscape, how we survive and share. How the rest of us can learn from that. All rich and fertile ground from which an open and curious mind yearns to grow story.
A while ago, I gave a colleague (I must have known I could trust him), a short piece I had just written. Showing others your work can be exposing, daunting. You fear they’ll see the bumps and potholes, the cracks beneath. What he said, could have only come from someone who was himself, an artist. A kindred-creative with the understanding of how others need to be cheered on. He said he thought I had “the chops for writing”. It was just what I needed to hear. And he, the sort of person I needed in my corner. We all need someone like him in our corner. His comment I carry in my little bag of writing pep-ups. With the touchstones that keep me flying, keep me believing and coming to the page.
He helped me get to the place where, I gave myself permission and space to write.