Writing inspiration that sticks!

We writers will take inspiration in whatever form we can get it: Broken hearts, strangers on a bus, some gum stuck to our shoes. The big stuff like a break-up has an urgency in the intensity of emotion that needs to be expressed. It’s hard to miss, and we are propelled to the page to get it down.

The other, little stuff? It’s easy to miss. But sometimes there’s a flash of recognition that something important exists in what on the surface seems trivial or mundane. Then we can get a great poem or essay about brushing our teeth or watching an employee refill the drink dispensers (Listen to Ballad of Orange and Grape read by Muriel Rukeyeser on the subject. It is one of my favorites!)

But often we are so busy, we don’t see the significance in the little things. Our awareness is turned outward and we see only the literal meaning and the practical application of the experiences we have.

But, that’s okay. Because while we sleep, our brain takes our experiences, finds the significance, and translates them into metaphors in our dreams. That’s why dreams can be so bizarre and  so haunting. The metaphors are powerful stuff that can bypass the objections of the rational and habitual mind. The political and philosophical message of “Ballad of Orange and Grape,” for instance, cannot be argued against because its argument is presented as a metaphoric narrative.

A story can’t be wrong. It just is. It’s the same with dreams. We get powerful motivating statements in our dreams expressed to us in narrative form.

I frequently have recurring or similar dreams — either the same theme or the same images or same feeling-state — until I am able to understand the message of my dream and integrate it into my waking life.

For me, this is pretty easy. All those years in school studying literature so that I could be a better writer not only led to a job as an English professor, they also made me fluent in metaphors. I can recognize and understand them easily.

But when I started to use my dreams as writing prompts, using the plots and images to inspire journal writing while I downed a couple mugfuls of black coffee, I began to wake up inside the dream. In some ways, this is tantamount to lucid dreaming while awake. It has the dreamy quality of twilight sleep but I’m aware and can make choices, such deciding to pursue the analogous connections that unlock the metaphors.

My most recent example was a dream I had about B, a woman who was presumed to be eaten by alligators. When I woke and began to write, alligators seemed weird. They seemed to be the metaphor, so I kept writing. B had faced “alligators” before as in “up to your ass in alligators” when she had been a student teacher. So I wrote that into my narrative and the story’s image opened in a new way. I understood B in a new and deeper way, too. (Important because I’ve known her my whole life and I love her though we have a remote, strained relationship.)

And that gum you stepped in? Well, on a literal level it’s nothing but a hassle. But don’t be surprised if, after you’ve scraped off the gunk and gone on with your day, at night your dreams find deeper meaning than just the fruity, pink, disgusting hassle.

I’m happy to share my process with you. I am leading a FREE Dream Writing Workshop (an hour long, give or take). Once you register, you can attend it live (Saturday, February 27 at 11 am PST) or watch it in replay when you have time. Or both.

I’ll give you tips to remember your dreams, discuss the best way to write “into” them (rather than about them), and we’ll do some writing together so that you leave the workshop with some new work.

 

 

 

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Awakening in the shallow end of paradise

I jogged in place in three-and-a-half feet of cool water, warming my muscles, while I watched the sun stream its golden light into a blue sky and fill the white clouds with iridescence. Foghat pounded from a big, plastic boom box, and I kept pace with the steady, driving beat of “Slow Ride” while the pool filled with bodies.

For the next hour, on the command of the water aerobics instructor, all thirty of us swooshed right and left with the kickboard in our arms or waved our arms overhead and bounced up and down in a series of jumping jacks or whatever it was we were told to do while 100.3 The Sound offered a continuing stream of classic rock.

But my attention was on the sky. Several women also turned away from the instructor and gazed toward the swollen, setting sun as we exercised.

“Beautiful,” said the woman next to me, acknowledging our shared experience.

While we kicked, lunged, jumped, and swooshed, the sky’s blue turned to striated pastels. The clouds became pink and then bruised slowly, first on their bottoms; then the purple seeped up, overtook the pinks, and swallowed the rosy glow in their scalloped tops. Quickly then, purple became ash.

“Such dramatic change,” I thought, my mind turning toward how I often resist and resent change, even when it comes in the span of years rather than a few minutes.

That me – earthbound and limited – seemed foolish and small now to this me, immersed in the pool and expanding awareness. I was more than in the moment.

Time stretched – and I with it – as the music pulled me into a non-specific nostalgia for a past era, the water and movement anchored me in the present, and the trajectory of the sun and its myriad sky effects, still working on the Western horizon, pulled me into the future. I was in five decades at once. Maybe more.

In line waiting to pay admission to the Belmont Pool
Heaven’s waiting room: the view from the line for the Belmont Pool

On my back, I held on to the lane line, scissor-kicking and gazing up into the now blue-black expanse of the sky where time seemed to reach out in all directions. I felt myself move with it, transcending mere presence. Weightless and timeless, I felt myself expanding toward omnipresence.

“This must be what it’s like to be God,” I thought, not with self-importance but with awe.

This side of heaven and still time-bound, class ended at 8. The bodies began to emerge from the pool. While people wrapped themselves in towels, I did a handstand. I turned a few somersaults. I stroked the surface of the radiant blue water, which had become more beautiful now that it twinkled in the pool lights, wanting to stay.

“It’s time,” I thought, making my way toward the steps. My fingers were water-logged. My bladder was full.

Back on the pool deck, I felt a different pull. Gravity.

As I picked up my towel and made my way toward the exit, everything felt twice as heavy as it had before I’d gotten in the pool. And I wasn’t ready to be burdened again – not physically with the weight of the world, nor mentally by the conventions of linear time and thinking.

“Nope,” I thought. “Not yet.”

Tossing my towel toward the bleachers, I took several large and eager steps and plunged back in.

When you’re afraid to go there

It was a perfect day for a beachside BBQ. A cool breeze was blowing in off the Pacific. The sun was shining full and warm. I’d awakened with the sun at about 6:30 a.m., an hour earlier than my alarm, and made pancakes and eggs. I had enough time that I’d even considered going to a 10 am yoga class before meeting with a new friend to go to her co-worker’s BBQ party.

Then I reconsidered. I was overcome by an urge to stay in, to gather myself. Not understanding the urge, I started to gather things. I began putting what I would need for the day in a pile on the corner of the couch: towel, sunblock, a change of clothes, phone charger, a cooler full of sodas, snacks. Then I remembered: I was taking my bike, so I started to rethink, unpack, and regroup.

IMG_2356The closer it got to “go time,” the more I felt like I should stay. Something wasn’t quite right. I tidied the bathroom. I put away some clothes in the bedroom. I organized the files on my desk. I started double checking things. Was there enough food and water in the cats’ bowls? Did I close the refrigerator door all the way? I was now officially late.

“Go,” I told myself aloud. “Stop fucking around and go!”

But my resistance was strong. I considered texting my apologies and staying home and watching movies.

“What are you doing?” I said again out loud. “You’ve been looking forward to this!”

I stopped for a moment and took a breath. I paid attention as the inhale expanded my body — my neck, shoulders, and chest were tight. And that’s when it hit me… I was afraid! I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know if I’d fit in, or if I’d be physically comfortable there (too hot, too cold, too hungry, etc.), and that was enough to create unconscious fear. (When this happens chronically, it’s called anxiety.)

What’s weird is, I’m constantly told how brave I am. People say to me “I wish I had your courage” because I travel alone, because I play my guitar and perform in public, because I’m willing to try new things – improv comedy, spoken word, sailing, sky diving, entrepreneurship.

People assume that because I do these things that I’m not afraid to do these things. They are wrong.

I’m afraid a lot. But the fear involved in the “big stuff” like jumping out of planes and into new things is easier to deal with than the everyday fears of the “little stuff” like the beach party. The big stuff is easier because I know I’m afraid so I can face the fear, but with the little stuff it’s easy to overlook the fear. When I don’t see it, I’m not able to challenge it; then, I’m unconsciously controlled by fear.

Writer’s block is just like this. Like the beach & BBQ outing, writing is something I want to do. But deep inside, I’ve also been afraid. I dawdle and procrastinate when I am afraid “to go there.” For years, I was unaware of this fear, so I was really hard on myself for not writing more. I’d tell myself I was never going to amount to much (even when I was working as a weekly columnist) and I’d feel like a fraud around writers and artists who were prolific. In essence, I compounded my yucky feelings (fear) with more yucky feelings (shame).

And I wondered why I just couldn’t be more creative!?!

IMG_2005
I faced the fear of sharks, freezing, drowning, and loss of control when I learned to sail…but it’s still not as scary as writing.

Does anyone create well when they are afraid and ashamed? Self-actualization and self-expression are high on the pyramid of the hierarchy of needs and safety and acceptance are at the base. It’s difficult to deal with the needs at the top if we haven’t met those at the bottom. In fear and shame, I couldn’t build a happy, productive creative life.

My point is, “Just do it!” (or as my friend put it the other day “Just sit down and fucking write”) is not the answer for someone who is deeply and unconsciously afraid. I had to build a healthier relationship with my feelings and creativity. Awareness of the fear lets me begin to negotiate my way through it. Then writing is like sky diving: I face the fear, lean into the resistance, and take the plunge.

In case you were wondering, I also made it to the party. And I had a great time.

Watch my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers to learn other approaches to move through resistance and enhance creativity or click on the button to get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.

GET STARTED AND KEEP MOVING ON YOUR WRITING!