In art, as in life, there is a strong pull to go with the flow. Even that line you just read — ‘go with the flow’. It trips off the tongue well, most people know that phrase, and it sounds like something you’d put in a self-improvement article. And follow me for a minute — that doesn’t mean it has no value. As part of a whole, such a line can serve a purpose, it can be a functional piece of the structure (if not a load-bearing one), and that first line does provide clarity, which is certainly a good step from the mud toward the stars.
‘From the mud toward the stars’? What does that mean? The long answer that, all through my teenage years, I had a little, old framed quote I had bought while browsing for antiques with my mother. On browned, chipped paper it said — ‘Two men looked out from prison bars,One saw the mud, the other saw stars.’ This quote from Dale Carnegie inspired my line in the last paragraph. Now, my line was okay, and you probably got the intent of it, but I kept most of the meaning of it — the old paper, memories of Mom and childhood, my room decorated with Breyer horses and my Simpsons quote-a-day calendar, the effect positivity has had on my life — my ‘good step from the mud toward the stars’ didn’t share any of that with you.
I said all that to say this: That is your challenge with soul-level writing. You seek the wide and fertile valley between the ridge of platitudes — of mediocre, well-tread thoughts — and the distant other ridge, rich with experiences and feelings, but un-accessed — like a dream, it is a puzzle of potential. Your goal is to travel well beyond your comfort zone, past all the clear road signs, and find the things that truly live inside your heart — and on that mountain. And then move it onto paper in a way that shares your deepest feelings and darkest fears. The bad news is that it’s never easy — the good news is that you are stronger than any challenge and you’re going to get some amazing writing out of it.
Step One: What lives in your heart?
My ‘my mud and stars’ line didn’t move me, probably a clue that it didn’t move you either. Not that it was terrible, it simply was the first thing that came to mind, didn’t require any thought, and sounded like something I’d heard before. Now, I don’t want you do go around worrying about being COMPLETELY UNIQUE because you’re you and no one else has ever the exact thoughts and feelings you do and, as the great writer Brenda Ueland said, if you write from your true self you cannot help but be unique.
That said, the stuff that comes to me too easily is to be questioned. This is different than ‘flow’, that place where you lose time and become completely absorbed in your work — that thing is great, you should write from there whenever possible 😉 But what I watch out for is glibness, the feeling that my own work isn’t touching my soul, but sliding past it onto the page.
Soul-level writing by definition is going to get under your skin, it’s going to unsettle you. Whether you’re trying to express a murderer’s remorse in a novel, a newlywed’s first dance in a song, or your own emotions about your mother’s death for a memoir, you need to go beyond ‘elevator conversation’. This isn’t the canned 30-second response you’d give your co-worker, this is about what you really, truly feel in your heart.
Let’s say the idea of a ‘first dance’ at a wedding — what if that idea makes you think of how happy they are now, but how sad they’ll be at the end of their lives together, when they are old and sick and one of them dies. WOAH. But you mustn’t think, ‘Boy, I suck at writing love songs.’ Because you don’t — that’s a potentially powerful perspective. I say potentially because you need to bring that emotional feeling down from the distant ridge and pull it into the valley of connection, leading it toward the well-trod ridge — but only far enough for people to understand what you’re feeling and feel it too. For me, loss is just about loving something so much that you never want to miss a moment of it. I was home schooled and my mother didn’t work, so when she was alive I always said, ‘I could never say we didn’t have enough time together.’ But when she suddenly died in middle of the most beautiful April I ever saw, all those words fell away — you always want more time.
So maybe you dig into your soul and start writing about that wedding day dance, and how there’ll never be enough dances with the ones we truly love. If what you write honestly moves you, then it WILL move someone else. I wouldn’t worry about how many someone elses. For me, I’m often just looking for at least one other soul who feels as I do. After I finished my 1950s coming-of-age story ‘Fall Street’, fellow writer Jill Hartmann-Roberts read it and wrote me a ‘fan letter’ talking about the characters and moments she really enjoyed. My private thought was ‘Whew! Someone understands, someone gets it. Now I can go write the next book.’
I often think about ‘The Writer’s Journey’ (a great book) when I think about this sort of heartfelt work. Based on Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero With a Thousand Faces’, the book talks about the 12 stages of the hero’s journey. And I think any time we journey inward — past the platitudes and the ‘safety’ of our hard shells — we are the hero of our own story, and we are going into a place few dare to venture. So be kind to yourself as you travel toward the things that really move you, rest often, and know that —
A word about difficult stories: People often want to write about the toughest, hardest parts of their lives and that’s great. But those parts often involve other people, people who might get mad, or upset, or even sue you to keep their stories from being told. So you’re faced with a choice. Anne Lamott said “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I agree with this but you must be willing to deal with what you create. For myself, peace and tranquility are highly valued commodities and so I wish to ‘First do no harm’. My realm is fiction so I don’t feel a great need to name names and share my past. If I wanted to write something factual, I’d probably change names, release it under a pen name, or alter details and release it as fiction. I think you have the right to write anything you want, and writers worry too much about being sued. But people probably don’t worry enough about WHY they want to expose other people’s faults in public writings — it will hurt feelings, may even feel like lies to some involved, and it won’t make you ‘even’ or vindicated. If possible, write difficult factual stories for yourself first, then maybe ask a trusted third-party who knows the situation you’re writing about to read it and give you their opinion. You do own your stories, and they are a powerful, sharpened sword — just make sure you use it to cut the bonds that imprison you and others who are suffering and not to take arms against those who have wronged you — you’re the hero, and you’re better than that. And the world always needs more heroes.
Step Two: How to let this dangerous thing out into the word.
Now, first you want to be able to think and delve and dive into what really matters to you. But you’re a writer — you don’t want to travel into that wild land of the interior to just experience, you also want to take photos, record audio, and hopefully even trap the beast and bring it back for exhibition to the masses.
This is where inspiration meets craft. While there is no wrong way to write and express your feelings (especially with journaling and private work), if your intention is to move others, you’re gonna need some moves yourself. Bad-ass writer-extraordinaire moves.
I LOVE this quote. Partly because it illustrates for me how the writer’s job is twice as hard — we both need to discover true meaning AND write about it in such a way that it speaks to others. Firstly, I believe writing things that matter and move you is imperative to connection. But craft has to be right up there too. To quote Branda Ueland again, you need to work with all of your love and imagination. To me that means with all your ‘soul’ + ‘knowledge’.
Moving from pure feeling to great writing reminds me of a awesome section from Stephen King’s book, ‘On Writing’ — “Others hold forth at open mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about “my angry lesbian breasts” and “the tilted alley where I cried my mother’s name.” Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the competent writers. They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night. These are folks who somehow understand that although a lesbian may be angry, her breasts will remain breasts.”
Good soul-level writing is created much like all good writing — by reading a lot of awe-inspiring work, writing a lot, and always seeking to improve oneself (like by attending a class or reading a how-to blog!). But I’ll share a few things related to craft (and inspiration) that I’ve learned:
How to Write a Work of HeART:
- Figure out what moves you. This involves a lot of patience. You may have to let your mind wander, stalking the gaps, and figuring out the very thing you don’t want to think about (like death in our ‘first dance’ example). You may not cry, but you’ll probably feel like you want to — that’s the sweet spot — follow your feelings.
- Trust. My mother Dell Ratcliffe said (about animal communication) “Above all, TRUST. Trust that the process is real, that it works, that the information is valid. Go easy on yourself. Besides trust, important words are IMAGINE, OPEN, ALLOW, EXPAND.” She also said that “Language is just the symbolic way we communicate, not the communication itself. The communication is always heart based, made up of feelings that we then have to put into words to share with someone else.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!
- Balance. You want to be able to go deep — but honestly going deep should just be part of the ebb and flow of a story, song, or memoir. Even a poem, full of feeling, builds to its moments of impact. Imagine being pummeled with a blunt weapon, like a thick tree branch — you would feel it a lot at first, then less and less as you sank into unconsciousness. If you pile one emotional bombardment after another, your audience will become dulled to the pain — or stop reading altogether from exhaustion. Instead, soul-level writing should be about connecting and feeling everything more, higher highs and lower lowers. Instead of clubbing them with intense emotion, use it like a rapier — they look down, surprised at the tiny wound, almost shrugging it off, and then the blood runs red across their clothing, and they stagger to the ground, punctured, incapacitated by the tiniest of motions.
- Look to your favorites. Try to figure out what makes a book special to you. Often it comes down to moments and lines of emotion. One small scene can imprint itself over a whole work — even a single line can turn a work into a favorite. Readers often desire what they’ve seen before, but what they really desire is something that goes beyond what they’ve seen. They want to connect and experience the world anew, they want someone to show them they’re not alone, and that the world is as broad and deep and beautiful as they hoped and feared.
- Go too far. We often self-censure, afraid of upsetting people, or looking stupid, or not ‘playing to our strengths’. But everything of value I’ve written and done has been (at least partially) outside of my comfort zone. Heartfelt storytelling isn’t just about sadness and pain — it’s about crazy, silly comedy; great love stories; and sharing your uncommon beliefs. Believe me, sometimes you’ll fall flat on your face, but far more often you’ll connect with people in a startling way. I tell the story all the time of being in my first critique group, and reading a section that ‘wandered’ and gave a couple of pages of back story about one of my villains. I thought I’d be chastised and told to ‘Get back on track!’ Instead, everyone praised it and loved it. The lesson: Trust that if it interests you you should write it. And then you should have the guts to share it. Readers get underestimated every day — give them MORE than they’re used to. And you can always keep in mind the Hemingway quote — “Write drunk, edit sober.” I’m not suggesting actual imbibing, but instead writing as uncritically and with as much passion as possible with your first draft and returning with a clear head and a cool eye to edit and improve later.
- Be subtle and leave things unsaid. One of my favorite new concepts is ‘wobble’, the idea of pushing storytelling almost to an unsustainable point — a spinning plate or top that starts to shake — and keeping the audience engaged at that spot with you. At its best, you are taking them to places and experiences they haven’t often seen. Another important tool is leaving things unsaid. We can be so excited to share our feelings that we tell everything, but in writing, don’t forget the power and connection of less. I just heard an amazing exchange on ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge’ on NPR. Anne Strainchamps was speaking to Marwa al-Sabouni. Marwa al-Sabouni and her family have chosen to stay in Syria during the years of fighting and bombing of her country. Marwa al-Sabouni has her PhD. in Islamic architecture and wrote a memoir about architecture and destruction in Homs, Syria called “The Battle for Home.” At the end of the interview Anne Strainchamps said, “One last question: We’ve talked a lot about destruction and loss; I’m sure there are still moments of beauty. I’m sure there are still things that are beautiful. Can you tell me about one thing, something you’ve seen that makes you happy?” Now that was a good, thoughtful, end-of-the-interview question — I was interested. But what happened next blew me away. There was dead air, a long pause, something you so rarely hear on the radio. Then Marwa al-Sabouni replied, “Frankly, I can’t think of one.” There was another long pause, then Strainchamps said, “I’m so sorry.” Marwa al-Sabouni said, “Me too. But hopefully, there will be again.” A common answer about a lone, beautiful building caught in the sunlight or birds flying or children laughing — I would have probably forgotten, but I might never forget these few words about the reality of living in a war zone. An amazing example of the power saying less.
- People want more. And finally a story about sharing your soul with people through writing —
Society & Civility was a novel I started as a lark — I love BBC movies and Jane Austin books set in the early 1800s, especially those with romance and strong heroes. The idea had been floating around in my head for only about six months (I’ve worked on some stories for ten years) but in fall of 2014 I started to tell the tale of Ann, who was raised as a gentleman’s daughter in the country and then challenged and changed by her first social season in London. The novel also involved several suitors vying for her hand and her heart.
Well, I did my damndest and thought I’d written a quite good story (I even re-read it several times just for fun over the winter months). By next summer I was ready for my first three bata readers to tell me what they thought. Yeeouch! They were of one mind, really enjoying the story as a whole, but hating the modern ‘twist’ of having Ann start a sexual affair with one of the men in the middle of the book. Now, I could have just stood by my work and called it finished, but their feedback intrigued me (after making me gnash my teeth and question my abilities as a storyteller). I had thought it was great, but they were looking for more. Beyond. Their other comments were so positive that I wanted to create a story they’d enjoy from first to last.
But altering the middle changed my feelings about what happened in the last third of the book — the threads leading out of their (now chaste) relationship changed everything. I started writing a new ending, and was often frustrated that I couldn’t make the suitor who was ‘supposed to’ propose. He just wouldn’t do it — wouldn’t tie up my story in a neat little bow. I trusted his reaction, rolled around with the problem, and eventually my frustration became the feelings of another suitor in the story — and that pushed the love story to interesting, challenging new places. It became a book I loved much more than my first — unchallenged — take on Ann’s life.
My final lesson of trust still lay before me. I had a last scene in mind, a shift in time and place. But originally I thought the final emotion might be a revelation of Ann being pregnant. I’ve certainly seen some sweet endings that hold on that hopeful note. But it felt wrong — it didn’t tie into Ann’s hopes or struggles. More importantly, I’m not having kids and I lot of my female friends might not be either — and yet we are dogged by endless images that perpetuate the myth that the emotional and societal apex of a woman’s life is becoming a mother. That felt wrong. It doesn’t jell with my and my sister’s life — full of adventure and discovery — and it does a disservice to the accomplishments and spirit of my friends without children (male and female). ‘Well, shit,’ I thought (this statement is often the predecessor of hard work and good writing).
So one morning while my sister was working the morning shift at Best Buy, I went to Starbucks to work on my final draft. As I got to the last few pages, I felt tired of being in one place and left, climbing a super-steep hill behind the Best Buy to sit on the edge of the woods, in the middle of the city and yet apart from it in these couple of acres of pine trees and old barbed wire fences stretching back to the 1950s. I sat against a giant fallen tree. I had two hours till I picked up my sister. I had an ending to write.
I had begun to feel that I had moved on to a new awareness in my writing. Society & Civility finished up an unofficial ‘love stories’ trilogy and my next novel would be very different from those three. I felt like I’d already moved on and yet here I was, ending this story anew. I had decided to dig deep and evoke some of what I was feeling about life in these last few pages. It seemed a terrible idea on the surface — this was a light, romantic story and I was about to change course and dump some self-improvement mumble-jumbo into the last few pages. Terrible idea. And yet. It was my book, and the worst that could happen was to be told that it didn’t work and try again. And I’d already heard that before so — big deal. My grandmother Bernice always said of crocheting — ‘Be a cheerful ripper,’ when you have to take out mistakes, so I just trusted myself and gave it a shot.
I looked from my high, high vantage point out at the piercing blue skies, the birds, the bugs crawling under my legs. The soft needles and the hard bark under my fingertips. I thought about what mattered most to me, how lucky I felt to alive here in this moment doing what I loved. I thought about the characters’ journeys and what they’d learned. I thought about the people I loved and the people I’d lost. And I wrote — imperfectly, full of emotion, and sometimes through tears. I thought it was all silly and a waste of time, bound to be thrown away when I read it later. But I wrote on. My time dwindled — I was in ‘flow’ as never before — 1 hr left, 30 min, 5 min. I raced the clock. I finished my words, my thought, my story. I was spent and unsure. I still believed it to be a supreme waste of time — but an enjoyable one on such a beautiful day, and a harmless indulgence.
A few days later I returned when the heated words had cooled, already planning how I might chuck them and leave an abbreviated, more standard ending in their wake. But there on the page — amid dust and debris I would wipe away and polish in the next few days — there on the page stood something real and meaningful. Whether or not anyone else would find significance in what I had written would not be known for weeks. But somewhere on that windy hilltop, straddling the massive shopping center below and the wild woods behind, I had caught a piece of my soul, and my characters’ souls and twisted them together onto the page. It felt like luck but I also knew I had climbed long and hard to end up in a place to be so lucky.
Writing from the heart is a lifelong pursuit. Trust yourself, your instincts, and write your first drafts with passion. Then edit your stories using all your experience and judgement. Never settle and never forget that the world becomes more beautiful every time you let us see what you’ve been hiding inside your heart.
I will also say that great writing is too hard. Every single time. If you are pushing against the limits of what you can do, then by definition it will never be easy. When I wrote my first novel ‘Other Gods’, I didn’t think much about the editing process. But once I’d been through multiple edits, two things stood out in my mind: the story was getting better than I ever thought it would be and — I must be doing it wrong — because it was too hard. The professionals didn’t have to go through this, did they? Surely there was an easier way, a shortcut? But as Beverly Sills said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” And if being a great writer is your goal, you can handle a little ‘too hard’. In fact, you’ll eat ‘too hard’ for breakfast because, to paraphrase a popular fitness quote, “Great writing is hard. Being a lousy writer is hard. Pick your hard.”
By serendipity, the final thought on this topic comes from my grandmother Mary, who passed away exactly a week ago as I write this (she passed on April 6th, 2016). My sister Sarah was cleaning out her (Sarah’s) room and discovered a message behind a picture in a frame my grandmother had painted for me many years ago. Her message —
“April — 1994 To Katherine — Well, I had so many mistakes making this “duck?” that I was rubbing the paper away! This is a reminder that all gifts aren’t perfect — but full of love —- Love you, Grammy”
May you share all your gifts, even the imperfect ones, with great love.
All the best,