Sink Don’t Swim

What the stalled or not-yet-started writer needs is some magic for getting in touch with himself, some key.

—John Gardner

While writing in my journal the other morning, it occurred to me why it’s so easy to plop down on the daybed and scribble in those pages as opposed to working on my “real writing.”

Of course, with a book there are craft issues to consider, like structure, pacing, dialogue, setting, and character development. Thoughts about those things can clog up the mind, especially since they tend to rouse the inner editor. Which means the next thing you know I have Lou Grant standing over my shoulder chewing a cigar.

Lou is definitely persona non grata during the first shot at my composition. Listening to interpretations, analysis, and snarky little comments pinging around the mind is like inviting a bully into the sandbox. So I have to blink him out before he kicks over my castle. How do I do that? Ignore him. I let him go find someone else to torture.

Now what? Well, let’s pretend the sandbox is floating on the ocean, and you’re a sea creature with amazing lungs. On the surface of the ocean is the sandbox, where Lou is wandering around the perimeter and distractions are circling like sharks.

In the air are questions flying around that seem to offer helpful advice: Are you targeting your genre market? Are you following Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid 101 advice? Is it time for a transition scene? At first, they sound really important, relevant, intelligent. One by one, they land on the surface of the water. You give them a little attention (bread crumbs!), and now they’re all over you. Here come more!

Maybe you should learn a little more about what you’re doing before you go any further … just one little search online … it will make all the difference … you don’t want to look like a fool, do you?

No! No! Stop! These albatrosses are dangerous to fledgling ideas. Do not engage. Listening to them can only result in misery and quite possibly the gruesome drowning of your creative spark.

What to do? Activate your sea creature lungs and sink! Gotta be stealthy. Don’t paddle or make a fuss. And whatever you do, do not fight with the birds. The only way to get to the ocean floor unnoticed is to let go and relax—every muscle, especially the abdominal wall protecting your creative energy—and breathe. In, two, three, four . . . . Out, two, three, four. Feel the abdominal wall rise and fall. Relax the shoulders.

But don’t go to sleep! Sudden tired spells are a common form of resistance. Don’t fall for it. Stay alert and sink.

Once you’ve hit the ocean floor (whoa, it’s dark down here!), it’s time to sit still and listen.

This kind of relaxed awareness reminds me of lying in bed in our cabin in the remote wilderness of Montana. I’m all cozy, about to nod off, and then my husband, lying next to me reading, will say, “Do you hear that?”

Most of the time I’ll answer no because I can’t hear all that well. Then I’ll close my eyes and focus my ears. I’m not focusing on something particular, of course. I don’t even know what exactly it is I’m trying to hear. It could be anything: wolves howling, an owl hooting, or maybe just a big-eared field mouse scratching on the other side of the wall. More often than not, it’s our young cat doing something silly like knocking pens off the desk downstairs. The important thing is that I’m not listening from a place of fear or panic, only curiosity.

It’s this kind of relaxed yet alert listening that not only identifies bumps in the night, but, more important, brings original, inspired material from the formless dimension into the realm of material form.

Who is listening and who is delivering? I’ll let you ponder that. As for the result, you can’t beat it. As Robert Frost put it, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

And if that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

Published by

Monica Graff

After two decades of copyediting for scholarly publishers, I decided to put down my red pen and pick up a black one. Now I write essays, some of which have been published on various websites and in print anthologies.

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