Writing as a spiritual pursuit

Writing advice from Richard Wagamese: when you start to think, stop.

As so often happens in life, Wagamese asks us to accept the counterintuitive.  One would assume that the best advice would be, “When you start to think, start.” Certainly, many writers start out that way, but, curiously, when they do, the process is a struggle and the writing comes out forced, drab and lifeless. The writer develops a headache while she strains and sweats over a keyboard, and then she walks away discouraged when she reads strung-together words that don’t live and breathe into story.

For writing to be true, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, it breathes to life from that “something more” part of us, not from formulaic structures and proper grammar.

Building the fire

I heard Wagamese speak at the annual CanWrite! Conference on the weekend. When he speaks he doesn’t refer to notes, but rather allows the words to flow through him in the oral storytelling tradition of his Ojibway ancestors. He allows this unobstructed flow in a way that those of us who have strayed from our oral storytelling roots can only envy. He encourages everyone, no matter what their genealogical background, to explore this. Everyone, he says, if you go back far enough, has an ancestral history of oral storytelling around a fire. We need to rediscover that, because “It’s all about the story, man.”

Setting aside the Logic Brain

Watching Wagamese speak, the audience felt the flow and became a part of the story because he was not thinking. If he had allowed the Logic Brain to creep into his head with, “If I tell them that I talk to myself when I walk my dog, they’ll think I’m crazy,” or “That guy over there has a doctorate. Do you think he’ll buy this?” the audience would have felt the shift immediately. They would have allowed their own Logic Brains to kick in and they would have drifted away from the story.

Writers over the centuries have talked about the idea of being a cosmic receiver and transmitter for ideas. William Blake relied on what he called a “Poetic Genius” to deliver works through him, not from him. Stephen King, in On Writing, said that “. . . good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you out of the empty sky.” I highly recommend that you watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s fascinating take on writing genius. http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

Another enticing paradox

We need our brains to write, but we need to get our brains out of the way in order to write. We need our physical being in order to create, and yet we need something more, too. We need science and story.

Dr. Andrea Newberg and Dr. Eugene D’Aquili conducted studies on the brain activity of Franciscan nuns in prayer and Buddhists in meditation. Brain scans taken during the peak of meditation or prayer showed a markedly decreased level of activity in the part of the brain they labelled the orientation association area, or OAA. The job of the OAA is to allow us to make our way safely through the physical environment around us. In order to do that, its first job is to sort out just what entity it is trying to guide through the physical environment, so it packages you, creating a separation of the self from everything around you. In other words, as Dr. Newberg puts it, it sorts out “you from the infinite not-you that makes up the rest of the universe.”

Decreased brain activity in this area during meditation or prayer indicates that your brain is on a coffee break from separating you from everything else. It allows the feeling of timelessness, infinity and connectedness that is reported during deep meditation.

What might brain scans show when a writer sets aside Logic Brain and creates from the transcendent place. Would the OAA be on a coffee break?


Writing becomes easier when a writer surrenders to the paradox. When a writer sets himself, and the ego, and all rational thought aside and says, “OK universe, do with me what you will,” amazing things happen. We become alchemists that transform the intangible into the tangible, or collapse waves into particles. When we get our brains out of the way, we stop trying and start doing. When we allow the flow, stories breathe into life with truth.

And it’s all about the story, man.

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