As In Writing, So in Life

comments 16
Course Ideas / Reflections

Writing fiction well is intractably difficult.

You begin with maybe one or two bricks at the ready, stand facing an unruly forest that is neither for nor against you, but possesses all the density and might of any previously uncontested wilderness, and you are armed only with the vague feeling that a Taj Mahal-like structure of beauty and possibility is alive inside you. There really is no way to know where to place the first brick, but you must place it so that another is given to you. So you look down, and you place it, noting you have just interrupted the path of an ant.

After the first day’s work you have a knee-height wall snaking between the trees but going nowhere just yet. In truth, it has gotten away from you. The first brick led naturally to a second, which led to a third, and one thing led to the next, and it all felt wonderful—just laying brick felt majestic—but you can see now you must really take stock of things. Your wall is headed towards a copse of three trees that surprise you with their beauty, but also are quite simply in your way.

But in the way of what?

You will have to grapple with the relation of your wall to the land, you realize. Not just to those three particular trees, but to all of the trees. They are ideas and possibilities. You will have to uproot a few of them, incorporate others into your wall perhaps, prune a few and leave still others untouched, but you will have to do so with some intelligence. The truth is that you couldn’t have known even this until you took a few bricks out of thin air and laid them down, let them combine their finite parcels of being into something new, a something imbued with the suggestion of something even more. You can stand on that wall and look around now, and see this forest differently than ever before, but the wall is not good enough as of yet. It has served its purpose, and led you forward, shown you what before was not possible to see.

But now you must begin anew. You may keep a particular section, but overall it must yield to the flux of discovery.

In his book The Art of Fiction John Gardner wrote that, “What the beginning writer needs, discouraging as it may be to hear, is not a set of rules but mastery…” Mastery is the power of getting everything right at once, and doing so naturally, as if it could not have been any other way. What I’ve described as intelligence in the paragraph above is not intelligence at all, but feeling. According to Gardner, “Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rule, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tells him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green… his instinct touches every thread of his fabric, even the murkiest fringes of symbolic structure.”

Can it be, when we are beginning, that our feelings are wrong? If masterful work does not flow from our pens, is it because our instincts are inadequate? It may seem this way, but it is a false and debilitating conclusion.

This same difficulty overtakes in our lives all the time. We sense we must trust our hearts—that we cannot navigate by logic alone—but this path leads us so often into difficulty. We find ourselves in moments that are prickly with doubt, that awaken forgotten pain, that do not possess the grace and wonder of our beginning. We find ourselves in moments in which we seem to be losing. It is as if we are inspired, and we dash forth in heed of the call, only to find ourselves caught in a cauldron of despair.

When I sit down to write, this happens on recurring basis. At least once or twice during the process of writing every story I’ve written in the past year, I’ve reached a point at which I simply had no way to proceed, no idea how to proceed, and no hope of having one. The joy that brought me to the paper has vanished. And we cannot produce beautiful art by thinking our way through it, any more than we can lead a great life by following all the rules.

Gardner wrote that, “[t]he first and last important rule for the creative writer, then, is that though there may be rules (formulas) for ordinary, easily publishable fiction—imitation fiction—there are no rules for real fiction, any more than there are rules for serious visual art or musical composition.”

I’ve realized recently how similar the processes of writing and life are for me. We sense the Taj Mahal of goodness, beauty and peace within us, but the process of bringing it forth in the world—the process of being in the world in a way that allows these wondrous instincts of ours to flourish—is intransigent to our will and our rational efforting. We so often feel we are denied. And every effort on our part to reduce this act of living to rules and strategies—to technique essentially—results only in imitation, which is lifeless. Imitation is not living at all, really—nor is it what will move our world into what A Course of Love describes as “the New.”

The New as described in A Course of Love is what I would equate, metaphorically, with masterful writing. According to ACOL, “The new is not that which has always existed. It is not that which can be predicted. It is not that which can be formed and held inviolate. The new is creation’s unfolding love. The new is love’s expression. The new is the true replacement of the false, illusion’s demise, joy birthed amongst sorrow. The new is yet to be created, One Heart to One Heart.” The New is masterful, wholehearted expression.

But how are we to learn what cannot be taught or copied?

The answer in both cases is to trust. A core idea of A Course of Love is that we do not learn to be who we are. We cannot, in fact. Who we are is revealed to us as we build our walls through the forest, and as we, and others, respond to what we’ve done. Trust allows us to witness creation without the false premise of dead ends. With trust we are freed to shift naturally, to pull the wall up and try again, and to discover the wall we built has led us to a place we hadn’t known existed before.

Gardner says simply that a writer must practice. She must read, write and repeat. She must be immersed in the art of it and care for what she is doing. But he also says that trust in one’s own creative instincts is one of the two most important factors to a writer’s creative authority. We need this trust to overcome the difficulty that arises when a moment of inspiration produces a structure that is untenable. We need this trust because it implies the way forward already exists, and is already within us. Our feelings and instincts are not wrong. They do not lead us astray, but we don’t live, or create, or dream in straight lines. The process of creating something from nothing depends on our ability to respond artfully to what is, to let our feelings guide us from yellow, to purple, to pea-green. And back to yellow. We cannot do this while we think any change to what we’ve done implies we were wrong about something.

To experience the power and wonder of who we are, and to give the Taj Mahal of grace and truth within us to the world, we have to trust. And I think this simple truth can be found in every sort of creative practice there is, including the art of life itself.


  1. How interesting, both our most recent posts are an examination of the writing process and creative instincts. Yours has many more levels than mine, and is a beautiful piece Michael, I love the building idea, a Taj-Mahal in the making each time. I have lots of foundations laid out awaiting completion too *laughs*.

    – Esme nodding with Michael as they sip tea upon the Cloudy Taj-Mahal of their dreams.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hello Esme,

      I loved your piece! And will be by to visit shortly. Yes we end up with half-built walls all over the place. I read a brief account of one writer the other day who produces about 2,400 pages for every 300 that end up in his novels. I’m not nearly so wandering or prolific, and think that approach would be the end of me, but it just proves we each are unique in our creative processes. There are no rules… You’ve captured the essence of it though–the hope, the agony, the necessity… Repeat. Ha!

      I’m enjoying this meet for tea very much!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your words bring me so much peace and joy, Michael. I will remember, next time I hit the brick wall, to not despair but trust myself to climb on top of it and look around. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you enjoyed them Kristina. Realizing that art is sometimes a gathering, sometimes an application, sometimes a taking stock, sometimes a spree of activity and pixels and stanchions and ladders, and sometimes just looking, is important I think. We have every season in life. I’m always left with gratitude when I remember that.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is masterful. And I bet you hardly even needed to think about it. And you are right – the only way forward is to trust. Without trust there is only copying ultimately leading to stagnation. Trust sets you free to respond to each moment as it calls out to you. Probably the greatest thing Don and I gained from five years and eight months of being nomadic, and without a home, is that we’ve both learned to trust in a way that we never had before. Now pretty much all the time things just seem to unfold themselves.
    Much love Michael.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Alison,

      You’re right. This one came out pretty easily. I see a few errors looking back, but once I had the idea and looked up a few quotes it came right out. I agree completely with your sentiments on trust and the way it enables us to move freely and fully into who we are. I think writers and artists have to copy at some point–they have to learn techniques and phrases and methods–but we do so, so that what is truly original can eventually take shape. We have to trust ourselves eventually to leave these rehearsals aside!

      Much love to you also,

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael,
    Totally agree with your observation on how hard this stuff is. And I think Gardner is right that writing must be practiced. But I also think there’s a lot to be said for reading about the craft of writing. We may want to write more than mere publishable fiction, but I think our ability to do that is strengthened if we can first master the baseline publishable form.

    Along those lines, I’ve gotten a lot of good craft info from people like James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson, K. M. Weiland, Orson Scott Card, and many others. As writers, I don’t think we should take any one author’s views as gospel, but synthesize a lot of viewpoints into our own unique approach to the craft.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Mike,

      I couldn’t agree more, and I think Gardner would agree, too. I think we need immersion to learn a craft. The techniques must become second nature, in a way. I just began reading Beyond the First Draft — The Art of Fiction by John Casey, and there is a line in there where he says something like, “First passion, then dispassion, then passion,” as the arc of a writing student. The dispassionate phase is the period of learning the technique, learning how to read–really read–and getting a sense of one’s own tendencies and pitfalls and limitations so that one can then move beyond the technique and into the fullness of the art.

      Trust maybe is like that moment you take the training wheels off the bicycle, or your father’s hand lets go of the seat, and you wobble, and you either trust yourself to grab hold of that moment and proceed. Or you doubt and you swivel and falter. Or you doubt and swivel and falter, and gather yourself, and try again. Trust in a sense, is knowing what you desire is possible somehow, even though the task of writing a cohesive and beautiful work is so obviously impossible!

      Another resource I’ve really enjoyed, as I’ve been reading more literary journals, are the author interviews. Glimmer Train provides compilation of author interviews as a little perk for submitting your work to one of their competitions, and those have been really interesting to read. Reassuring, really, to discover your challenges are not unique. Also to see what you can learn from what others have already done.


      Liked by 2 people

  5. A great piece, Michael, thoughtful and informative, so thank you. I’m trying my hand at a bit of fiction currently, as you know, and finding exploring this new (for me) purely creative territory quite a thrill, I must say. Some days, when I don’t feel as if I could have a single novel (‘scuse pun) idea, then I plonk myself in front of the PC and just titivate (as I call the honing process), then a new idea or two springs from that. As for reading lots — as a parallel activity to my writing — then I’m not so convinced it’s terribly helpful in my case, as I find I can become slightly infected by others’ styles. At the moment, I’m reading Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and it’s a bloody nightmare! If you’ve ever read it you’ll know just what I mean. During the course of my current writing I’ve read McEwan and Barnes and Maupin and Pynchon and one or two others besides, but as I sit at the PC to write I have to become (as if inhabiting) my current narrator and block all those influences out. You’d know far better than me, but this business of writers’ reading a lot might perhaps be seen as two activities that need to be kept well apart. How do you find it, may I ask? With love and gratitude, Hariod.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Hariod!

      Yes, and I’m excited about your fictional effort!

      My observation from other published writers is that reading and writing are interwoven–not least because writing is a daily practice, as is reading. Many writers are teachers as well, and so they are reading for their classes, reading the current writers, reading their students’ work, and writing all at once. I recently read a story I absolutely loved in the Missouri Review, “And How Much of These Hills Is Gold” by C Pam Zhang, and I found her author page, and this is her recent reading list! There’s no way I can read as much material, but I suspect for full time writers this is not uncommon.

      I do feel influenced at times by what I’m reading, but I find not as much once I’ve begun a piece. If I have a narrator and a tone established in my mind, I can re-enter that world. But if I’m fishing through my subconscious for a new idea, and I’ve just read something, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the next narrator I offer to aspire to be something like the previous one I’ve read. I read David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System last year and my next effort was a conscious decision on my part to toy with longer sentence structures. I think it is natural, normal and necessary in perhaps any art, for artists to inspire one another, and to incorporate elements they’ve admired in their own work, albeit in new ways. Every musician, writer, painter, sculptor, etc. has influences and I believe they are utterly necessary.

      I have read The Crying of Lot 49. I’ve read a number of Pynchon’s novels, actually. Mason & Dixon I found the easiest to digest as I went along. I think with some of his other works, like The Crying of Lot 49, it helps me to keep a distance from the narrator. It’s as if Pynchon constantly wants us to step back and see the bigger picture–as if only in our minds, once removed, does the whole picture fit together–and if I follow along too close to the narrator it’s almost hopeless. It’s a bit like an up close description of a wrinkle on the elephant’s hide, then a glance deep into it’s eyeball, then a sonogram of the sound coming through it’s ear. And you have to assemble all that into the elephant to finally see what Pynchon offers. It’s work! And I am fairly miserable at it, but the words and language are so rich I keep coming back!

      With Love

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Michael, that all makes perfect sense. My reading partner in our mini book club had to abandon The Crying of Lot 49 and so I have too, after 50 odd pages. There was just nothing being gained from the reading, nothing at all. I felt it anachronistic, sort of stuck in a mid-sixties Californian time-warp, annoyingly projecting (what seemed like) wackiness. I daresay there are lots of literary and cultural allusions in there that I simply don’t get, and although I can see he’s an excellent wordsmith, that particular one did nothing for me insofar as I read into it. It’s actually the first book I’ve ever abandoned. I’ve taken up Mrs Dalloway in its stead, and the writing there is quite sublime — the first of Virginia Woolf’s I’ve encountered; it’s like a long poem: dense, concise, full of acuity and interiority. Anyway, each to their own, as they say! Much love, Hariod.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hello Hariod,

          I completely understand on Pynchon. He is really an amazing writer in my opinion, but not an easy one. I have to say that Mason & Dixon is where I would start if you want to try another one. Of the novels of his I’ve read it felt the most accessible. And it was a great story.

          I look forward to reading Mrs Dalloway one day. Right now I’m about half way through Anna Karenina, and really enjoying it!


          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael, Mrs Dalloway — it’s incredible, quite exceptional, quite brilliant, in my opinion. It’s less than 200 pages, so you’ll whisk through it swiftly enough, but as a poet I feel certain you’ll appreciate it, and as a writer, it’ll make you green with envy; it has me. A stunning achievement. H ❤

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Writing is hard, especially at the beginning. I believe that we aren’t searching for the story in the forest, at first, but our voice. This is where the practice comes in. I am a self-taught writer. I’ve always believed that the arts cannot be taught beyond basic structures, but being a nomad, I also had to teach myself these by reading as much as I could. Often, I’ve felt isolated from other writers…those who are educated in institutions. When I was in an internet writer’s group, they would rarely acknowledge my presence. I’m grateful for this now, because I was given the gift of allowing my voice to emerge from the silence of solitude. The dead ends can be discouraging, but trusting your intuition is really the only way to overcome it. I’ve also noticed that the more I trust my unpredictable life the easier the stories flow. Intuition permeates all. Best of luck to you with your masonry. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Julie! Finding your voice is a great point. And I would agree trusting your intuition and spending time in the seat are the two essential ingredients. Or at least two of them. I’m not sure I entirely have found my voice yet, at least in fiction, but I’ve noticed that if I start pieces with different tones and sentence structures there are certain rhythms and ways of moving through things that I come back to. It’s such an interesting process! I think self taught is a good way to go if you can pull it off. I’ve read reviews of MFA programs–and I’m not sure if I agree with these reviews or not, but can see their point–that everyone coming out of a particular MFA program can have a tendency towards a similar voice. I can see how that might happen, and love what emerges when we wrestle with the unknown on our own terms.


      Liked by 1 person

  7. Brilliant post… The idea of revelation being related to knowing who we are is eloquent… I agree: we can not learn who we are… those moments in which we can feel we are real who we are might come and go… Life could be such a masquerade 😉 xx

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s