The great cellist, Gaspar Cassado, used to say to his students how: “You can’t play great music unless your heart’s been broken.” I think this is true of writing as well – look at Rilke, Raymond Carver, Alice Sebold – and, well, do we really have to mention Plath?
Writing involves a certain sensibility, a sensitivity to the world, to people, the sound of rain, the way a person combs their hair which tells you they’d much rather be somewhere else. This is what makes great characters and emotionally powerful scenes – the more we understand ourselves and others, the more we delve into life, the more our art will deepen.
Unfortunately, we can’t usually gain this insight without pain. It’s a cliché to say all artists are melodramatic melancholics (there are plenty of those about who’ve never picked up a pen or brush, after all!) and I certain don’t advocate seeking out stressful situations (No More Drama is pretty much my mantra these days!). But when life hands you suffering – as it inevitably will (thanks, Buddha, for pointing that out!), it’s best to use that hurt, that sadness, that anger as a glass hammer which cracks open your compassion, your heart, and let’s the world in. And, more importantly, let’s you release your inner worlds onto the page.
For if there’s one thing that’s struck me in teaching writing and being a writer is that work only moves us to the extent that the writer themselves is willing to be moved.
I’ve known people who’ve had harrowing lives – profound and complex stories which speak to the defeats all of us have known to some level. Yet when they attempt to get these down on paper, their words – despite the authenticity of their experience – ring hollow because they can’t get into the fiery heart of the feelings they’re trying to convey. If the writer’s scared to go there, the work won’t go there either – it will remain on the surface, robbing the reader of its true richness.
I truly believe that this emotional block is at the heart of so much of the “telling” rather than “showing” I’ve seen before in many manuscripts. “She felt sad after her grandmother died“ is so much simpler to write in so many ways than: “She wrapped herself around the toilet bowl and wept for an hour each day after Gran had gone.“ But which statement moves you more? The one with the specificity, the one with the truth, the one which is willing to risk. That’s also the line which will connect with the reader, the line which will sew back together their broken hearts.
When I was teaching workshops, I could usually tell whose writing was going to be emotionally engaging by simply looking at how people reacted – those who shared themselves, identified, cared, worried, doubted, touched and dared were nearly always going to be the ones whose work moved the rest of the room. It may not have be the most technically proficient, it may not have be the most publishable, but what they said drew the class to the awed silence of recognition and even tears.
And that, for me, is what great writing is about – communicating the finest, darkest, most terrifying and beautiful aspects of the human spirit. It’s about acknowledging that we grieve, we love, we are disappointed, we are resentful, we are blissful … and it’s all good. Writing is a place of unconditional love for ourselves, for others, for the ragged human condition. Death, birth, shopping, unrequited love, alcoholism, aliens, trouble with builders, the ache in our back – it all belongs there. And when we show up fully on the page, our pages are full of feeling and they touch others in a way which they will never forget. Which is probably all we writers ever really want – like others, all we really need is to be listened to.
This is about going there, inhabiting the parts of yourself other lagers cannot reach! Therapy, spirituality, mentoring – these are all good ways of gently easing ourselves into this emotional realm. But really, as the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, reminds us, everything we need to become more alive is already with us. Everything and everyone is our teacher – everything is the hand that gently shakes us awake and offers us a cup of tea.
So next time stuff happens, try saying thank you. Say: “I’m a writer and this is good for me. I’m a human being and this is good for me, in fact. I’m going to put this is a book – I’m going to make art right at it.“ (As Julia Cameron would say.)
It’s hard, I know – I spent my first post-marriage year feeling as if my insides had calcified, as if there was nothing inside my chest. I even had to start collecting heart-shaped stones on the nearby beach to build hope again, knowing that without that my creativity and, even I, would die.
So there it is: the thing which got me pondering how to use this glorious crud which life will always – sorry, guys! – churn out. I wanted to consider how to accept existence’s inevitable mess and use it as fertiliser for our writing, to make that good stuff grow.