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Editor's 1-Minute Essay:
How To Become A Good Writer
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Henry David Thoreau: "Books are the treasured wealth of the world …Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind."
it's about having something worthwhile to say
Most writers try to impress you by being "clever," or outrageous, or iconoclastic. They say more than they know, and take a long time saying it. Others, equally vacuous, "high-fiving" each other all around, will then praise this banality as "great writing." Kinda gets ya right here.
But F. Scott Fitzgerald and Matthew Arnold, I think, hit it dead on -- a writer must have something to say. If you have something to say, something important to say - a rare commodity, it's true - then it hardly matters how you say it, as the world, eventually, will demand to hear it.
And I can hear you ask, how shall I have something important and worthwhile to say? Ahh, now we're talking.
cures what ails you
The royal road to wisdom cannot be so easily quantified and set to formula as elixir; we can't put it in a bottle and sell it for $29.95. However, there is one method that will help us on our way.
the hundred-book program
I taught my children this principle when they were very young. Choose a topic that speaks to your passion. If you read 100 books on this subject - 300 would be better - along with ensuing meditation and digestion over many years, a day will come when you will know more about this subject than 99% of all others in the world.
Meditation and reflection will be your daily workshop. Allow the treasure-trove of gathered research to percolate and simmer in your head. You will find, in a "cross-fertilization of ideas," that gold-nuggets of knowledge, acquired by reading and experience, will begin to mix-and-match in all manner of creative, insightful union.
Editor’s note: Dr. Amit Goswami asserts that creativity is a “quantum” process. It’s a “discontinuous jump” -- the famous "quantum leap" -- from the known all the way, as "The Wedding Song" has it, to “something never seen before.” How shall the gap be spanned? By a combination of “doing” and “being,” he says. The “doing” part is your inductive fact-gathering, and the “being” part is that of allowing the “quantum possibilities” to simply manifest and drop into your head. The great insights won't come by "trying very hard to think" but, rather, by shutting down the incessant chattering of the "monkey mind." You can write without muting "the voice in the head," but it won't be great, it won't be remembered, it won't move people where they live. It's destined for the circular-file.
And, after many years of this meditative work, in these inspired combinations, blessed by the creative muse, you will begin to walk farther, see things more clearly, know things more deeply, in your chosen subject, than few in the world, or in history, have ever seen or known. And then you must joyously tell the world of your findings.
It's called good writing. But it's much more than that.
We should not strive to become "good writers" so much as "good thinkers" and "good persons," because only the virtuous will ever gaze upon the higher levels of truth.
Writing is the easy part. Good writing, of the enduring sort -- not of Bartholomew’s wry "[we can] hardly get to the wastebasket in time” -- will become an extension of one's very life-force, one's "soul energies." Yes, good writing is the easy part, the mere communication, a reporting to the world of one's unique and valuable discoveries, sometimes requiring many years of intellectual and spiritual labor.
In this vein, Einstein famously stated, "It's not that I'm so smart, but that I stay with problems longer."
Do you love your field of enquiry so much as to work alone, undeified, investing solitary years and even decades, pursuing it, all the way to wondrous clarity?
Writing, properly framed, should be seen as part of the truth-seeking process. To say that someone is a “good writer,” without having something worthwhile to write, is like saying a carpenter is a “good nail-pounder” when the new house is uninspiring or defective. We don’t care if the nail-pounding or the writing is “good” if the content, the end-product, sucks.
Listen to Einstein on the issue of long-suffering regarding a project:
“The final results [of his work on the theory of relativity] appear almost simple; any intelligent undergraduate can understand them without much trouble. But the years of searching in the dark for a truth that one feels, but cannot express; the intense effort and the alternations of confidence and misgiving, until one breaks through to clarity and understanding, are only known to him who has himself experienced them.”
how few in the history of the world have ever experienced the thrill of clarity
There are extremely few joys in life comparable to that of "breaking through to clarity," having sedulously sought for it over much time. At the end of this process, one not only apprehends a beginning answer, but mentally witnesses a thousand factoids dancing in formation, the detritus of investigation, all marching toward that final clarity. Simply reading about it in a text-book, noting the work of others, as Einstein referenced the "undergraduate," could never compare.
When your topic is worthy, and when you know it as intimately as this, you will become a "good writer," in a natural way, almost as an afterthought. Then, just let it flow; as Rilke said, having waited "for the birth," let it flow, a self-manifestation, now issuing with the joyful exuberance of a child.
Why will you be joyful? Because in that moment of long yearned-for clarity, you will have briefly glimpsed an aspect of reality, possibly, never seen before; a previously undiscovered particle of the mind of God. In all the world, this joy is second only to "what we stay alive for."
Editor’s note: And don’t confuse “good writing” with monetary success. Don’t let the unenlightened, the “rabble in the marketplace,” define who you are or what “the truth” should be. They will merchandize you for their own egoic purposes, and then cast you aside as a spent cartridge. So many of the most accomplished in history, in all fields, were rejected and despised by the smart-money. You must believe in yourself and the inner whisperings of truth that guide you. Consider, anew, the wise words of Viktor Frankl, now applied to the subject of good writing:
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself... Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it... listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
Many years ago, while seeking for a teaching job in my home state of North Dakota – which effort proved unsuccessful as local politics barred my entrance – I found myself as a substitute-teacher for the day, addressing an English class, a group of high school seniors, only weeks from graduation. I had no prepared material or lecture to deliver. They’d never seen me before, and I did not know them, and, I could tell by their expressions, they expected our short time together to be of a “filler” nature.
Surveying my captive audience, I sat on one of the desks at the head of the room, which expression of nonchalance, I’m sure, only heightened their perception of low expectation. However, after brief introduction, I now asked them a question:
“Would you like to learn, during the next five minutes, how to become a great writer? It’s simple to explain.”
Well, they were polite and voiced no disbelief, but demeanor and eyes-of-doubt revealed an incredulity; and rightly so. But then, continuing, I added:
“I didn’t say it was simple to do, but only simple to explain.”
I proceeded to offer the information in the above paragraphs. Many of these students felt the magic-stardust power of these precepts. My wish for them, and for you, is that you might touch, and live in, the wonder of these things.
creative insight is a function of “no mind” rather than “more mind”
Over the last twenty years, readers have often praised my writings, not infrequently with extreme commendation. I’m seen, by some, as a “deep thinker,” which, they assume, must be so to have constructed Word Gems with its panoply of insights into mysteries.
While I appreciate a good word now and then, I must protest against this excessive encomium. It’s not realistic. It's not true. Whatever I see can be seen by anyone who will take the time to access the inner person. No one has a corner on the truth, everyone will be taught directly by Spirit, if we allow it.
Ascribing a status of “deep thinker” misconstrues the process. Creative insight is a function of “no mind” rather than “more mind.” Applying this principle to the craft of writing, let me say that there is no such thing as “writer’s block.” When we sense that the “creative muse” is absent, it’s best to go on to something else and simply wait to be “inspired.” If a writer attempts to write when he or she has nothing to say, I guarantee that it will come out wrong.
I experience this every day. I may have recently finished some new article or inset box and every time, when I do, a little voice or feeling in my head gives the same speech:
“Well, that writing is done. I guess it was ok, it could have been better, but maybe I did offer at least a little something that was new and helpful. But, you’re all done, buddy. I think you got lucky. Wherever that last insight came from, it’s over, and you’re a dry well now. You know it wasn’t ‘you’ that produced it, and so don’t think that you can make lightning strike again. You’re not going to have any more insights because it’s just not in you.”
I experience this soliloquy just about every day. And so, when it comes, I almost believe it, because that’s how I really feel. I do feel like a dry well. I don’t feel like a “thinker” at all. I feel like I’m still the same glassy-eyed kid in high school who had no idea what was going on.
And so I move on to some other activity. I free my mind. I don’t “try very hard” to be creative. Quite the opposite. I just leave it. I relax. And then, maybe that same day, or the next day, I’m listening to a song, or watching a movie, or driving, or reading something, or I see something in nature – and then an insight, “coming out of nowhere,” hits me, and I say to myself, with intensity and almost a breathless quality, “I have to write about this and share it with others.” And then we’re off to the races one more time -- the last time, I’m certain.
The truth is, I don't really want to be a writer so much; it's just that, some of the things I'm allowed see are so wonderful that I have no choice but to "shout it from the rooftops." If I were an Old Testament prophet I'd be saying, "The burden of the Lord is upon me." (smile) I look forward to a time when I can just ride my horse on my farm in Summerland.
See the article on "Higher Creativity."
what will we write about when there are no threats and the world no longer needs saving
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Dr. Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) and Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley)
Editor’s note: The great writers, as we’ve seen, assert that a “story” is defined by some form of problem-cause-solution. But what will happen in Summerland, a perfect society, where there are no threats, no invasions, no wars, nothing to mar and jar? Will there still be such a thing as writing or storytelling?
Kairissi. We spoke of Jack and Cathy in “the 500” writing, but they can help us again to think about the author’s question.
Elenchus. In our world, people like Jack and Cathy work to thwart the efforts of those who would destroy civilization. But will Jack and Cathy be out of business in Summerland?
K. In a sense, yes, they will be as Summerland cannot be invaded or threatened. But this does not mean that people in Summerland do not work for the greater good.
E. Granted, but will this service toward humankind make for a “good story,” as the great writers like to define it?
K. I would have to say, no.
E. So, does this mean that there’ll be no stories in Summerland?
K. I think storytelling and writing will be led to higher ground.
E. Ok, let me play devil’s advocate to bring a good answer to this. In the Jack Ryan movie, we see people performing heroic and life-threatening deeds in an effort to stop the bad guys. In that sense, it’s a typical action movie with a lot of slam-crash-boom all around. Many of the people involved, good and bad, are killed and things are broken. But this dark chaos couldn’t happen in Summerland, and so, would the “story” still be interesting?
K. Here’s the deal, Darling Dear. In our world, problem-cause-solution stories, generally speaking, are written by dysfunctional egos for an audience of dysfunctional egos. The ego craves to strengthen its sense of “me against them,” a sense of isolation and “otherness.” The typical action movie, or any other movie featuring traits of the ego, is just “red meat” to the “needy little me.” It just loves it. It feels stronger, that is, less connected to others, with these ego-horrific stories.
E. Ok, so you’re saying that Summerland is a place inhabited by people who are beginning to live from the “true self” rather than the “false self.”
K. When this happens, one’s choice of art and entertainment will change, too.
E. In “the 500” writing we used the phrase “It’s the joy, stupid.” We said that Jack Ryan did what he did for the honor and joy of serving, as opposed to bolstering a “needy little me.”
K. In Summerland, this elevation of spirit will be “writ large” upon society. We’ll no longer be so impressed or fascinated by “slam-crash-boom.”
E. Good point. Who’d want to watch a movie about “threats to the world” when one’s world cannot be threatened by any means whatsoever. Sounds boring.
K. In that day, we will seek out artists, philosophers, the wise, the able, the prescient, who might give us a better view of a higher level of joy. Coming to a theatre near you, buddy.
E. Could we sit alone way in the back of the theatre?
K. (small smile)
while standing in line at the bank...
During a trip to my local bank, as I chatted with the teller while he processed my transaction, our brief conversation turned toward the downloading of free apps concerning virus protection. I suggested that it’s always safest to go to a reputable service-provider’s home site and retrieve the app from that safe territory rather than downloading it from some random ad, which might be fishing for your information, and not to your benefit.
With this last comment, a lady standing behind me in line, overhearing the banter, couldn’t help herself but to interject, “Oh, really? I didn’t know that! That sounds like good advice with all the scams on the internet these days.”
Later, her exclamatory remarks came to mind as I prepared this inset-box on “story-telling as problem-cause-solution.” It occurred to me that the lady had found my “story” extremely interesting, so much so that she couldn’t contain herself to know more. But why? Was her engrossed curiosity fanned by just the right words and phrases, just the right delivery, from me? Of course, it was none of that. In a hot moment, she’d found herself gripped by fears of invasion of privacy, of identity theft, and the like.
And I submit to you that, virtually, 100% of the time, that which passes for a “great story” in our world is just the Needy Ego reveling in either its terrors of loss or its cravings for “more.”
How could this checkered dynamic hope to survive in a perfected world of Summerland? Yes, it will take time for us to shed our worst nightmares of neediness when we cross over, but eventually, as we mature, as we start to believe that everything is truly alright now, in sated well-being, with no threats of any kind extant, we will find ourselves bored with the typical problem-cause-solution story format of our world. It won't cut it anymore.
This coming elevated frame of mind will change the very foundational underpinnings of what is considered to be art. In that new day of loftier perspective, we'll be asking, “Who can show me a clearer example of ‘the joy’? Who can be my mentor to attain greater happiness? Who can help me access even a particle more of the mind of God? That’s all I care about now.”
we don’t like stories that have 'no ending,' that leave us 'hanging,' with no resolution of plot and no clear statement of good and evil
In the early 1960s, on cold winter evenings, Dad would watch a television program, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”
I was just a young kid and didn’t really care for it too much – too cerebral, not enough action. But I still recall, more than once, at the end of these programs, Dad virtually cursing the tv with “that made no sense,” or “there was no ending,” or “how are we supposed to know what happened?”
We don’t like stories like that; in fact, according to the great writers, if you create some writing like this, it’s not even to be classified as a “story.”
Stories have endings; stories tell you the good from the bad; stories might not have a pleasant conclusion, but at least they need to wrap things up so we can say “been there, done that, got the video and the t-shirt.” If it doesn’t do that, it’s not even a “story” – we don’t know what it is, but it’s not a “story.”
Well, Hitchcock may have been a little ahead of his time. In his own way, he attempted to portray “art as reflecting nature”; for, if we're older than seven, we may have noticed that Life rarely ties up circumstances with a pretty pink bow. Most of what happens leaves us hanging, events go unresolved, good and evil often drift into a grey zone, with loose ends and unfinished business.
If one is caught in a hurricane at street level, all seems as chaos, utter confusion, and disorder. However, from outer space, a higher perspective, that same chaos becomes cosmos – a breathtakingly beautiful swirl of order, a purposeful orchestration of symmetry and proportion.
the popular concept of “story,” with its structured problem-cause-solution outline, is part of the larger dysfunctional ego’s craving for control and safety, and, at a deeper level, its terror of living in this unpredictable and dangerous world
There's nothing wrong with liking a story with a happy ending and justice served; we'd all like that for ourselves. However, if we crave and insist on a certain literary structure to assuage our terrors of living life, then it can become pathological. It's the "canary in the coal mine" that signals trouble for us. What kind of trouble? - a systemic spiritual blindness and love for illusion.
The ego wants to eliminate uncertainty and clearly label everything as “good” or “bad”; thereby, it believes, gaining a measure of power over the randomness of life. Its problem in this effort, however, is that it has no idea what “good” and “bad” really mean.
Eckhart Tolle helps us to understand.
an excerpt from Eckhart Tolle's "New Earth"
CHAOS AND HIGHER ORDER
When you know yourself only through content, you will also think you know what is good or bad for you. You differentiate between events that are “good for me” and those that are “bad.” This is a fragmented perception of the wholeness of life in which everything is interconnected, in which every event has its necessary place and function within the totality. The totality, however, is more than the surface appearance of things, more than the sum total of its parts, more than whatever your life or the world contains.
Behind the sometimes seemingly random or even chaotic succession of events in our lives as well as in the world lies concealed the unfolding of a higher order and purpose. This is beautifully expressed in the Zen saying “The snow falls, each flake in its appropriate place.” We can never understand this higher order through thinking about it because whatever we think about is content; whereas, the higher order emanates from the formless realm of consciousness, from universal intelligence. But we can glimpse it, and more than that, align ourselves with it, which means be conscious participants in the unfolding of that higher purpose.
When we go into a forest that has not been interfered with by man, our thinking mind will see only disorder and chaos all around us. It won't even be able to differentiate between life (good) and death (bad) anymore since everywhere new life grows out of rotting and decaying matter. Only if we are still enough inside and the noise of thinking subsides can we become aware that there is a hidden harmony here, a sacredness, a higher order in which everything has its perfect place and could not be other than what it is and the way it is.
The mind is comfortable in a landscaped park because it has been planned through thought; it has not grown organically. There is an order here that the mind can understand. In the forest, there is an incomprehensible order that to the mind looks like chaos. It is beyond the mental categories of good and bad. You cannot understand it through thought, but you can sense it when you let go of thought, become still and alert, and don't try to understand or explain. Only then can you be aware of the sacredness of the forest.
As soon as you sense that hidden harmony, that sacredness, you realize you are not separate from it, and when you realize that, you become a conscious participant in it. In this way, nature can help you become realigned with the wholeness of life.
GOOD AND BAD
At some point in their lives, most people become aware that there is not only birth, growth, success, good health, pleasure, and winning, but also loss, failure, sickness, old age, decay, pain and death. Conventionally these are labeled “good” and “bad,” order and disorder. The “meaning” of people's lives is usually associated with what they term the “good,” but the good is continually threatened by collapse, breakdown, disorder; threatened by meaninglessness and the “bad,” when explanations fail and life ceases to make sense.
Sooner or later, disorder will erupt into everyone's life no matter how many insurance policies he or she has. It may come in the form of loss or accident, sickness, disability, old age, death. However, the eruption of disorder into a person's life, and the resultant collapse of a mentally defined meaning, can become the opening into a higher order.
“The wisdom of this world is folly with God,” says the Bible. What is the wisdom of this world? The movement of thought, and meaning that is defined exclusively by thought. Thinking isolates a situation or event and calls it good or bad, as if it had a separate existence. Through excessive reliance on thinking, reality becomes fragmented. This fragmentation is an illusion, but it seems very real while you are trapped in it. And yet the universe is an indivisible whole in which all things are interconnected, in which nothing exists in isolation. The deeper interconnectedness of all things and events implies that the mental labels of “good” and bad” are ultimately illusory. They always imply a limited perspective and so are true only relatively and temporarily.
This is illustrated in the story of a wise man who won an expensive car in a lottery. His family and friends were very happy for him and came to celebrate. “Isn't it great!” they said. “You are so lucky.” The man smiled and said “Maybe.” For a few weeks he enjoyed driving the car. Then one day a drunken driver crashed into his new car at an intersection and he ended up in the hospital, with multiple injuries. His family and friends came to see him and said, “That was really unfortunate. “Again the man smiled and said, “Maybe.” While he was still in the hospital, one night there was a landslide and his house fell into the sea. Again his friends came the next day and said, “Weren't you lucky to have been here in hospital.” Again he said, “Maybe.”
The wise man's “maybe” signifies a refusal to judge anything that happens. Instead of judging what is, he accepts it and so enters into conscious alignment with the higher order. He knows that often it is impossible for the mind to understand what place or purpose a seemingly random event has in the tapestry of the whole. But there are no random events, nor are there events or things that exist by and for themselves, in isolation. The atoms that make up your body were once forged inside stars, and the causes of even the smallest event are virtually infinite and connected with the whole in incomprehensible ways. If you wanted to trace back the cause of any event, you would have to go back all the way to the beginning of creation. The cosmos is not chaotic. The very word cosmos means order. But this is not an order the human mind can ever comprehend, although it can sometimes glimpse it.
NOT MINDING WHAT HAPPENS
J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, spoke and traveled almost continuously all over the world for more than fifty years attempting to convey through words which are content – that which is beyond words, beyond content.
At one of his talks in the later part of his life, he surprised his audience by asking, “Do you want to know my secret?” Everyone became very alert. Many people in the audience had been coming to listen to him for twenty or thirty years and still failed to grasp the essence of his teaching. Finally, after all these years, the master would give them the key to understanding. “This is my secret,” he said. “I don't mind what happens.”
He did not elaborate, and so I suspect most of his audience were even more perplexed than before. The implications of this simple statement, however, are profound. When I don't mind what happens, what does that imply? It implies that internally I am in alignment with what happens. “What happens,” of course, refers to the suchness of this moment, which always already is as itis. It refers to content, the form that this moment – the only moment there ever is – takes. To be in alignment with what is means to be in a relationship of inner nonresistance with what happens. It means not to label it mentally as good or bad, but to let it be.
Does this mean you can no longer take action to bring about change in your life? On the contrary, when the basis for your actions is inner alignment with the present moment, your actions become empowered by the intelligence of Life itself...