Writing Practice & Rituals: Summoning The Dark Arts of Creativity
Sand Castles by Sister72
Photo credit: Sand Castles by Sister72 on flicker

Before my first writing experience in college, I had written mostly letters and game ideas, aside from the start of one ill-fated novel that disappeared in a flash of static electricity taking my Commodore 64 with it. My real introduction to writing as a craft was through the obligatory English 101. It was taught by a pair of instructors who modeled the human brain; one an emotionless stickler for ‘The Elements of Style’ and the other a cherubic and childlike mind with a poet’s soul. This unlikely pairing showed me how the art of writing could be both technically polished and creatively inspired. Whenever I run into difficulty in my writing practice I return home to the lessons I learned about the ‘practice’ of writing, specifically the creative technique of mind mapping. Mind mapping is a free association technique for brainstorming about a central topic. The idea is simple and with practice, a highly effective method of developing creativity. However the mindful practice of mind mapping starts even before one puts pen to paper.

Developing a Writing Practice

As any writer will tell you, writing is a process and many have some kind of ‘practice’ they use that makes the words flow. The idea of a establishing a practice is central to the craft of writing. As with any skill, if you want to improve you have to practice regularly. You have to do the thing to get better at the thing, whether it’s weight lifting, running marathons, or Super Mario. It takes making the time and having a plan; an exercise routine, a route to run, or a horde of microwave chimichangas and a 3-day weekend. Writing is no different; you have to train and it helps to have a method. Take your time building this practice and ritualize it as much as you can. Get clear on tools you need, time you set aside and the environment you create for writing. Having specific practices you follow when getting ready to write can help ‘set the mood’ so that going to your writing becomes more automatic with practice. It is likely you will return to it these early rituals when writing gets tough in the future so take your time to find what works and let it evolve naturally.

Create a Writing Space

Having a place helps too. Look for a space to hole up in and do the work, your place for spinning yarns. You are going to be there quite a bit, so it should be comfortable but not too comfortable. Remember it’s a workspace so you’ll need your tools at hand, whether that’s pen and paper or a laptop. Choose the tools that work for you and experiment with different media if you’re not sure. Some writers dictate into a phone, others can’t work without a quality pen and good paper that takes the ink. Bring your favorite beverage, whether it is coffee or tea, water or whiskey. Be cautious with the latter or you may end up developing a completely different habit. These will become the tools of your craft as you study to be an artisan. Don’t assume there is only one way to write, yet realize you are building a ‘writing ritual’. The tools and place you select are just trappings but in the early stages, but they will become the ‘sacred space’ of the ritual that helps summon your creativity. Once you settle into a method that works you will likely be stuck with it, at least until you learn to internalize the technique and can take it beyond your writing space.

Clearing your Headspace

Once you have your tools and workspace sorted, it is time to focus on headspace. Especially in the initial stages, try not to bring anything into your writing space that doesn’t belong. Cellphones and music bring distraction to your creative space and should be avoided if possible. These bring their own words to a place reserved for the ones within you.

If music helps you focus, try something instrumental but avoid the lyrical. The part of your brain that thinks in words, the phonological loop, can easily be distracted from your writing process by the introduction of a catchy tune. That voice you hear in your head as you read these words is the phonological loop in action. When you get a song stuck in your head, it is stuck in this loop that can only process one stream of data at a time. If it has to choose between your fledgling writing and an awesome song or an insidious jingle, you lose.

As you enter your writing space do so with a little reverence. Most of us left our creative self back in childhood and it can be shy. Don’t make it compete with your daily life. Try not to bring stress of the world to your writing or it will show up on the page. If you meditate, then start there. Otherwise try to clear your mind and relax as best you can. Bring a calm focus to your writing space and you will find it more productive.

The Process of Mind Mapping

When at ease and ready to begin, select a writing topic and write it in the middle of a blank page. Try not to struggle too hard with this, but select the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t censor or judge what arises and be willing to wait for it. Remember this is a practice and you will get better and faster the more time you put in so give yourself permission to start slow.

Once you have a topic, write it in the middle of the page and circle it. As other thoughts about the topic come to mind write them down anywhere and circle them. Connect these ideas to the topic by drawing lines between them. If these ideas relate to others write them in and connect them.

There is no right way or format here, just write anything that comes to mind as quickly as you can, without censoring or judging. The idea is to capture everything that comes up no matter what the quality. You never know what stray thought may lead to something useful. If you get stumped or led astray, return to focusing on the topic in the center with a clear mind. Dump everything that comes up onto the page. Stick with this for five or so minutes. You are done when one of two things happens; you exhaust the topic and nothing else comes or you start to get a feel for what to write and how to begin. If the former, then you should have a map of all the things you want to include in your work, a sort of visual outline of the topic including all the important points and likely specific language to use. If the latter, set the map aside and get writing!

Writing The First Draft

With regular practice you should find this process flows directly into the act of writing more and more frequently. Again and this is one of the hardest parts of the technique to master; do not censor anything! Leave typos be. Don’t worry about complete sentences. Don’t use backspace or the arrow keys at all. Forget everything you ever learned about diagramming sentences, paragraph construction, and grammar. Learn to let every thought flow onto the page and let it be a mess. Editing is not writing. Proofreading is also not writing. This is the rough draft and the more you let it be rough, the faster and more fluidly creative your process will become.

When you begin to run out of things to say or feel done, you are. Save it, close it and walk away. Seriously. Walk away. Go. Take a break, at least for a few minutes. Now is the time to bust out your phone, refill your beverage, or go outside. Do whatever it takes to put some distance between you and the work. Don’t worry, we’ll wait…

Craft Your Writing through Revision

Here’s where Gestalt psychology comes into the mix. When your writing is fresh in your mind your brain doesn’t much care what’s on the page. It will fill in missing words, translate typos, and even make you read what you ‘intended’ regardless of what you actually wrote. Optical illusions that ‘fill in’ missing space or make identical straight lines appear different size or bent operate on this same principle. In the case of writing, the brain will translate or create language it ‘thinks’ is there simply because it should be. The best solution to this, and an imperfect one at that, is time. This is why it is best to always have someone else read your work. Their brain does not automatically know what you meant. Though they may ‘expect’ certain language and fill in accordingly, they read in their own voice and that makes them more objective, but not perfectly so. Reading out loud helps here too. Or if you want to feel less crazy, have your word processor read the text back to you. Computers do not suffer from this same gestalt tendency. Most software such as MS Word can convert text to speech but if not there are websites that can do so.

The final tip I want to include is this; write once, revise many times. While the above generates an initial draft quickly and without excess effort, that draft is far from finished. Revision is also not a single stage process. No matter how flawless your copy, most any piece of writing can be improved. At a minimum, read once for initial copyediting and once more for polish. If you have not read your work at least twice, it is not done.

The flip side of this maxim is the corollary; beware ‘revision paralysis’. Striking the balance of ‘good enough’ in a finished product is sometimes an art in itself. Continue to grind on a piece until it becomes overworked and we break it. The first or last few lines of any work often get the most attention and therefore the worst treatment. Workshop with smart people you trust to restore objectivity when you can. Break up longer pieces and work on them in sections. Don’t keep reading and rereading your intro. If you’ve seen it a hundred times of course you hate it. Perfect writing is a unicorn; it’s elegant, beautiful, and mythological. ‘Done writing’ is a family pet; you see it all the time, it’s nice to the neighbors, and everyone loves it as long as there’s no mess on the carpet. Bring your writing in dirty, clean it off, brush it out smooth, and then take it for a walk. Rinse and repeat.

Read, Write, Revise, Repeat

Keep in mind writing is a process that begins with reading. If nothing is coming out, try putting something in before coming back to try again. Work the process of writing and your product and productivity should both improve. Maintain regular mindful practice and lean on techniques like mind mapping if they help to get the juices flowing. Once the words start to come, don’t fix. Remember, editing is not writing. It’s a separate task and you should make time for it, but not while you’re writing! Learn to make ugly first drafts and you should find you write more and more creatively. As you set down to write, remember the words of Shannon Hale, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Here’s a little more sand;

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DAPL is Our Generation’s Wounded Knee
DAPL: Our Generation's Wounded Knee
Photo Credit: Joe Brusky on flickr

This is our generation’s Wounded Knee. This time the cavalry is riding in on unarmed Elders and children with assault rifles, armored vehicles, and ‘sound cannons’. They are defending land granted them by treaties with the US government and the waters that make that land livable. They are protecting identified sacred sites and the resting places of their ancestors. Police and private security are beating them, stripping them naked in the freezing cold of North Dakota, locking them in kennels like animals, and then destroying their property. This is not Abu Ghraib; this is Bismark. These ‘public servants’ are firing on horse and rider alike. They are defending themselves with prayer. Our government has politely asked construction to take a time out, yet these militarized forces continue to escalate the violence, like a spoiled toddler relentlessly throwing their toys at others simply because they’re not getting their way.

This level of response is unconscionable. The state of North Dakota has effectively declared war against a sovereign people, invaded and laid siege to their lands with the intent of protecting corporate interests at the expense of human lives. Pipelines leak. One of the worst on record happened in North Dakota when a 2013 lightning strike dumped 840,000 gallons of crude oil into a wheat field. Screws fall out all the time; it’s an imperfect world and accidents happen. Just ask BP about ‘unintended consequences’. These concerns are valid.

Racism is a factor in this. If you take race out of this story, would this behavior be acceptable? If unarmed whites were defending their land, their water rights, and the cemeteries of their grandparents from paramilitary forces how would we respond? The National Guard would likely be called up to defend these people and to put a stop to the violence. We would see their brave resistance against incredible odds on the nightly news. All major news networks would be on the scene, barraging us with 911-style, wall-to-wall coverage until the valiant struggle was resolved. There would be a ticker on the bottom of the screen for sending donations and relief. If race were not involved, these invaders would have been stopped, arrested, and prosecuted. Instead, the National Guard was mobilized to attack these unarmed civilians and unless a celebrity is arrested this story rarely makes the evening news. There is not one major network camped out with the protectors.

The acquittal of the whites responsible for the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge proves this point beyond doubt. How long was that on the news? How many of them were beaten, shot, or stripped naked? How many armored vehicles, how much ammunition and how many tax dollars were expended to bring them in? How many attack dogs and sound cannons were deployed to drive these people from land they took by force in direct action against the government? These were armed men. They threatened to kill police. They seized public land in an armed assault. These were not unarmed people protecting their land and water.   They were armed white men who fired on police. The stark contrast between the two stories is evidence that, just as in Ferguson, race affects the level of force police utilize in different parts of the country regardless of threat level.

This is our generation’s Wounded Knee. History is repeating itself right before our eyes. It is our chance to stop the violence. We can choose to turn a blind eye and let these atrocities be literally bulldozed over or we can call on those responsible to put an end to these vicious attacks. We can compel our elected representatives to denounce the violence and demand they perform their civic duty and serve the people. We can send material and financial support to one of the most impoverished groups of people in our nation as they stand up to corporate greed and military hardware with only their bodies, faith, and prayer. We can withdraw financial support from those entities who are funding this war on indigenous peoples, specifically Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, US Bank, and the list goes on. We can stop stealing the land of a people against which we have historically perpetrated a mass genocide. We can put an end to this story and begin telling a new one where we stop taking from these people, where we begin to address the grievous wrongs perpetrated on their ancestors.

Or, we can dig those ancestors up, imprison their youth, treat people like animals, and drive them from their land. Again. The stain of blood is already upon us all America. How much fresh blood must be spilled before we change our ways? To do nothing is to be complicit in completing the extinction of a people by ignoring our own American holocaust as it unfolds right now in North Dakota. The time has come to make a choice. You can pretend this is so far away or that there is nothing you can do but it is just not true. You can make a call, donate a dollar, or pack a bag and head to the front line to stand beside them. Don’t let this happen again. You can put a stop to this. You all can. But we must act today.

How to Support Standing Rock

Sacred Stone Camp:
Legal fund https://fundrazr.com/d19fAf
Camp fund https://www.gofundme.com/sacredstonecamp

Red Warrior Camp
Winterizing fund https://www.gofundme.com/redwarriorcamp
Legal fund https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/red-warrior-camp-legal-fund-nodapl

Official Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
http://standingrock.org/news/standing-rock-sioux-tribe–dakota-access-pipeline-donation-fund/

Medic and Healer Council
https://medichealercouncil.com/donate/

Red Owl Legal Collective
https://fundrazr.com/11B5z8?ref=ab_0634x9

How to contact your elected officials;
https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

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Of Water and Time

Rising from the headwaters of history
Slipping and spilling in languid inevitability
Through eternity toward each dawn anew
Dashing relentless waves upon the sands of time

Spray gathers in drops, drips, and beads
Rolls across the land only to return
With restless, frothing persistence
To the depths of dark beginnings

From the seminal spark in that primordial pond,
To those first stubby, faltering steps beyond
The mirror sky of a liquid world
Into the parching light above

Where we first learned to thirst
To feel the elemental drain of life
In spills and sips, slipping through fingers
With the capricious certainty of rain

Carrying the oceans of origin within
Boiling over in angry steam
Washing clean, in nurturing soft caress
Or growing hard in icy resistance

Picking up detritus along the flow of time
Patient erosion, precipitating silt of existence
Marking an exchange in its passing
On earth and stone

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