Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

Writers, how patient are you? Do you really listen to what your stories are trying to say before you try to tell them to others?

Do you give your stories enough time to grow creatively, to blossom into their fullest form?

I read a lot of blogs and group chats about self-publishing. One of the biggest problems I see is the impatience of aspiring novelists to write, finish, and get published. (One of the stranger phenomena in speedy, don’t-look-back writing is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month; it encourages writers to create a 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month. Yikes!) Especially in the fantasy field, I run into plenty of newbie authors who have written a trilogy, zooming ahead to sequels full of plot twists and further adventures . . . before having fully contemplated and completed the potential of their first (and most important, career-wise) novel.

In contrast, accomplished authors recommend the importance of taking time to reflect, to work through a series of drafts, to put work aside for a time, to come back later to revise. They know that this passage of time involves actively listening to what a story is trying to say, to seek the hidden door to the treasure cave that lies hidden in the shrubbery of early drafts.

Why do the best authors often talk about reaching a watershed moment in the course of writing a novel – a state of mind in which the characters of the work-in-progress start to “talk back” to the author, resisting being pushed into pigeon-holes or, conversely, resisting something not in their “true nature” or self-interests?

This is the point when you’re dreaming about the work, when you’re thinking in the back of your mind about it as you’re doing mindless, repetitious work like washing the dishes or going for a walk, when the brilliant solution comes unbidden and you have to scribble it down on an old napkin found in your car’s glove compartment.

I’ve quoted this before, in How To Write Your Best Story and a few other places:

“When I’m really writing, I’m listening. . . . [Listening] takes us places we have no idea where we’re going. Surprises always follow.”
– Newbery Medal–winner Madeleine L’Engle

To listen, you need to allow the quiet time to do it. I recently read a brief piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by psychotherapist Philip Chard on the dangers of “hurry sickness”:

So one of the casualties of hurry sickness is the [lost] opportunity to contemplate, to apply one’s quiet attention to some experience or idea or to one’s sense of self and life purpose. Contemplative introspection . . . is an ancient and proven practice that supports emotional balance and mental clarity.

Historically, it was the preferred method for making important decisions, as well as for nurturing greater self-understanding. When someone had to figure something out or clarify their identity or sense of purpose, she or he would be cloistered away from distractions, often in a natural setting, where it was possible to fully focus on the issue at hand. Think of Jesus in the desert or Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Do you have to figure something out or clarify something in your fiction? Do you have a (metaphorical) tree you can go and sit under?

Sometimes you need to sit in silence and not do anything. Here’s some wisdom from an Inuit elder named Majuak, from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing a native practice of creative contemplation called karrtsiluni to Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in Rasmussen’s 1932 book The Eagle’s Gift.

In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals for the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up.  The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale.

And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights.  The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young – ay, down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.

It was that silence we called karrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth.  For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst.

[I encountered this wonderful passage in Bob Kanegis' blog, Storyteller's Campfire: Thoughts on Living a Storied Life]

Maybe your story could be better. Have you asked it?

As Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton wrote: “Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness.” For writers, the real significance of your story might lie hidden in the quiet cracks – in unspoken thoughts, in missing passages, in unrealized potential. The plot is the noise, but inner nature of the story is what you need to listen for and draw out into the open.

Do you need a fresh song to catch a great whale? Yes.

To find a fresh song and to be a good writer, you might need to take a little time to silence the “hurry sickness” and listen.

3 comments for “Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

  1. January 24, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Beautiful article, and great questions. To me, preparing to write and meditation go hand in hand (as well as washing dishes, walking the dog, and other repetitive tasks).

    This is just a personal preference, but I could have done without the anti-NaNoWriMo business. For me, drafting is the ecstatic dance that follows contemplation and precedes the deep meditative states of revision. There are as many different paths to creation as there are writers, I suspect.

    • PhilipMartin
      January 24, 2013 at 5:59 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. I loved the “ecstatic dance” description of drafting. That’s a wonderful phrase.

      There are many different paths, I agree 100%. In my opinion, when I back off and look at the results I see that are most worthy, not as many come out of a NaNoWriMo experience as from other paths. I’m not anti-NaNoWriMo, but question the value and encourage writers to do the same. I like the concept of jumping off a cliff and developing the wings on the way down, Ray Bradbury-like. But a month-long marathon is long and probably requires pushing the draft along far too quickly. But if there’s a benefit to you or any writer from full or partial participation, full speed ahead!

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