Remember the Centipede

W. Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” This is pure wisdom.

This quote got me thinking about all of the theories that exist in our midst that claim to know how to teach us to write. If the definition of theory is – ‘a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural,’ we might want to ask ourselves a question. What is more important, theories about writing or writing itself?

Theories lead to practice and that which can be practiced is always based on theory. Writing is spontaneous. Writing cannot be practiced or theorized. Writing needs no props, no supports and no theories. You cannot prepare for writing; you cannot rehearse for writing; you can only do writing. To be “in writing” is to drop all theories about writing and simply float in it. If we could “fall into writing” like we “fall into love” we would have it. We don’t need to practice love, we just love. We don’t need to practice writing either. We just need to sit down and write. The rest takes care of itself. Writing is fundamental. It is an existential experience that needs no theory to help it along. Nevertheless, in an effort to clarify, explain and show us how to write, numerous theories have been formulated that often confuse, puzzle and prohibit one’s natural ability to write.

There is a famous anecdote about a centipede who was walking down a path one beautiful sunny morning. A philosopher frog was sitting by the side of the road with a puzzled look on his face. He asked the centipede, “Wait. You are doing a miracle. A hundred legs you have. How do you manage? How do you know which leg comes first, then second, third, fourth and so on…all the way up to one hundred? Don’t you get puzzled? It looks impossible to me.” The centipede stopped and answered. “I have never thought about it. Let me contemplate for a while.” After standing there for a few minutes, the centipede started to tremble and fell right down on the ground.

Too many theories can cripple our ability to write in the same way. Writing needs no theory and those who write and have been in the zone know this. When we simply write, without thinking about what we are writing, our stories flow naturally. The magic of writing is unexplainable and it is real.

There is nothing wrong in listening to opinions and suggestions about writing, but in the end it boils down to the relationship we hold with ourselves. Do we trust others more or do we trust ourselves more? It is our poem, our story, our voice. Who can tell it better than us? Once our story is written, there are plenty of talented editors to help us clean it up.

When I teach my writing classes, I tell my students up front that there are no magical workshops, classes or webinars that can teach them how to write. I don’t teach theories about writing in my classes. I present writing challenges, techniques and activities that stimulate, engage and inspire writers to show up at the page and put pen down on paper.  I know that if I teach individuals how to trust in their intrinsic ability to express themselves, those individuals will know how to write naturally. Soon their hearts will be leaping and their stories will be jumping off the page.

So, the next time you’re tempted to follow some writing theory, remember the centipede. Writing is as natural as walking when you leave the theories behind.

For book and review see Amazon

Go To The Heart Of It

I sit outside of Starbucks on a “detail-gathering mission” – something I often do to stretch my writing form. I see a Cheney Bros. truck driver unloading boxes for a nearby restaurant; four green umbrellas flapping in the breeze; casual customers sipping various shades of coffee; young women donning sequined hats, stomach tattoos and blue hair; the BB&T Bank across the street; and tiny birds pecking at crumbs from a leftover pastry at my feet. I hear traffic humming, horns blowing, sirens wailing, birds chirping and casual laughter and conversation all around me. Every time I do this exercise, I am reminded of how details connect us to our world.

I sit with my one year-old grandson and watch his hands grasp a blade of grass, a piece of string or a tiny bead. He scrutinizes each object with a wide-eyed wonder and doesn’t let go until he has gone to the heart of each item. Being a grandparent has improved my ability to notice detail. When I was a mom, I was too busy doing laundry, changing diapers, paying bills and buying cheese to appreciate details. Now, I see my world through the eyes of my grandson. This ‘second chance’ I’ve been given to notice the details in my world has improved my ability to write description.

When I go to a wedding, I don’t just look at the flower arrangements, the bride’s gown and the wedding cake and say, “How Lovely.” Now, I see the blue marbles at the bottom of the clear vase of water; I study the hand-sewn sequins and beads on the bride’s dress in the shape of a heart and I smile when I notice that a small visitor’s finger couldn’t resist the frosting on the first layer of wedding cake.

Details are everywhere. They are the glue that connect us to our world and to each other. Details are the vehicles that take us beyond what we look at and experience in this world. So how do we go to the heart of details?

The answer is found in the approach. When we go to a place we have been to before, when we look at a friend we see every day, or taste the same meal we have tasted many times, we forget what the first time was like. It is always the first time if we make it so. Noticing detail is a conscious decision. With a little awareness, we can make a decision to experience the details in our lives as though they were happening for the first time. When we master the art, we won’t need to worry about Show versus Tell. The Show will be in the details and our readers will see, hear, smell, taste and touch our writing like never before.

There is a wonderful story about Chandragupta, one of India’s most brilliant military leaders in 321 B.C. Chandragupta was on a mission to seize the northwest from the Greeks and attack the kingdom of Magadha. One morning, while planning his strategy over breakfast, Chandragupta witnessed a mother scolding her child for eating from the center of his plate. She told her son that the center was hot and advised him to eat around the edges until the center was cool. Chandragupta thought about her wisdom and recognized it as a powerful battle strategy. He had planned to attack the capital city directly, but upon hearing the woman’s words, he decided to weaken the kingdom of Magadha by nibbling at the borders for a while before seizing the capital city.

Perhaps we can apply some of this wisdom to the way we approach the details in our world. The next time we go somewhere, taste our food, or look at someone or something, we can nibble at the borders for a while. We can enjoy the experience, take in the details and then, we can make a conscious effort to go to the heart of whatever it is we are experiencing. We may be pleasantly surprised.

For book and review see: Amazon