[box]The final guest post in my vacation series is by Cheryl Davies, a writer and Kriya Yogi based in Europe. She lived in four countries by the age of 30, and is now working on her first novel. Visit her website or connect with her on Twitter.
The interplay between the writer’s life and the writer’s writing is often ignored in favour of the old adage that says that, to be a writer, there are only two things to do: read and write. I’ve heard of writing instructors advising students to stay home writing in lieu of getting out there and living, a message cringeworthy enough to keep me awake at night, and one that young writers internalize without knowing better.
Writing burrowed itself into a chamber in my heart, building underwater castles and princesses to live in them, when I was around seven years old. This world of words has lived with me now for over two decades, present and resolute, though I denied it for most of that time. And yet, through all of my aliases, the necessity stayed with me. Writing is the most natural form of expression that I know, certain neural networks seem to fire up only when I’m engaged in this one practice of spitting out the thoughts and feelings masquerading themselves in my head. The masks come off, clarity comes, and there’s transformation. I’m also a terrible talker, so it’s almost by necessity that I write rather than choice. Writing is like another limb that formed itself on my body in utero. I am by no means an expert, a lifelong apprentice is about right, but over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about life and writing that I offer now as almsgiving to followers of this arduous path, and to remind myself of these things along the way.
I started travelling at 16 and by 17 I’d emancipated myself and moved from a small, sleepy city in Ontario, Canada to live in Los Angeles with my only belongings: my clothes and notebooks. Eventually, I’d lived in four countries. The experiences I had along the way: They’re mine now, worlds within me that I can pull from whenever I want to. Years later I continued my education, somehow landing in a postgraduate creative writing program based on my portfolio, and later getting a degree in psychology. I did these things because they were practical, they were “normal”; I’d always been unconventional so I thought I had something to prove to the world and myself. Plus it felt like the easier path.
But it was travelling, living fully and colourfully, that informed my writing and enriched my life vastly more than formal education even came close. With the perspective back then that I have now, I would have continued the way I started: a fervent learner at the university of life.
New writers face a danger of being holed away in the classroom for too long. They face the very real possibility of becoming too conventional for their own good, and what good are conventions in art? The rules are there to learn, and then to break. Learn techniques, yes, but don’t forget to forget them once the right of passage is over with. Live inside of the pages of your work, feel as though you’re busting through from that world to get back here (where ever that is) each time you set down your work for the day. Do what’s best for the truth of your story. Be mindful of following anyone’s advice, including any of this. Because, you see, you are the only one with the answers.
I have had to back track, hoping once again to tap into that pure place that we come in with, when we’re wilder and freer. There’s no need to lose sight of it to begin with. Given that creativity isn’t nurtured in the current curriculum, there is a duty for the rest of us to let it be known that there are alternatives to conventional routes. And maybe someday soon we’ll be back on track with fully inclusive education. Until then, videos like this one are our lifelines.
I’ve personally watched as higher education turned people further away from their passion, making them believe in being colder and more mechanical than when they went in; I’ve also watched it push people in the other direction, moving them closer by contrasting against what’s not right for them (an expensive lesson indeed). And so it goes, there’s no formula. But the saying is, “Wise people learn from other’s mistakes,” for a reason.
Formal education will not necessarily make you or break you as an artist, as a writer, but in my experience a true artist will sooner or later have to remove every barrier that has been stacked up taking space in our heads. I’m still rigid in ways that I never used to be, creative muscles atrophied and going through rehabilitation after years of studying. Enrolling in a creative writing program, or any arts program, is a truly subjective decision that should be considered case by case. It’s entirely possible to utilize your time so that you more fully embody your art on your terms.
How? Take a few writing workshops to learn the technical skills needed to be a proficient writer; read as many great books on writing as you can; connect with writers and experts that you admire; freelance; join a writing group; and continue as usual reading, writing and living your life. And one of the absolute best options is to become part of a community of artists. Friends that share your passion are tremendous gifts. You can write your short story, book of poetry, or novel and hire a freelance editor to work on it with you. Through this kind of learning experience, one done on your own terms, it’s very likely that you will gain more than what any institution can offer. It won’t be easy, it will hurt at times (you will be truly humbled when your writer’s ego starts taking left and right hooks), but it’s real and true. And your goal as a writer is always to be, at your core, real and true; for that to be the mirror reflecting in your writing.
Imagination plays its role, but also, you need experiences grounded in your heart, flowing in your bloodstream, through your fingertips, landing on the page. People detect authenticity or a lack of it instinctually, they smell it. Life experience teaches writers a kind of hunger and discipline that we’re not necessarily born with, things that can’t be packaged and sold. These experiences are muses. We recycle them, taking from what’s now our backdrop, and our stories imbibe them. They make the people in our stories real, not simply characters; people that breathe and feel in our pages. So fall in love, have your heart broken; be hungry, eat your fill; feel what it’s like to think you might die, from joy and also from sorrow. The duality of life is more raw, more tender, than we can imagine. And so, we have to experience it before we can begin making real art. It’s not a skill that can be taught. But don’t worry, everything you need is already there: inside of you. It’s there. Don’t harass it with force. Just trust it. Let go.
The real core of writing happens when the prose pours from your heart, the place you live before you’re taught to be confined within the four cold walls of your head. But it’s precisely your heart that holds the key to the mastery of your art. Education is only worthwhile insofar as you use it as a first step, whose rules you take and deconstruct after you’ve learned them. Contrary to what many tell us while growing up, intelligence doesn’t come from learning concepts that originated from someone else’s work – that’s simply rote, recall – no, no… That kind of study says more of someone’s memory. I’ve known people getting their degree(s), on the doorstep to entering the real world, and they have nothing to say. Zero. Real deal intelligence comes when you take what you’ve learned and make something from it, something of your own. You will fall, and fall, and fall and believe yourself a failure until the day comes when the light switches on there’s a masterpiece. Then real intelligence begins to peak its head from behind the curtains, where you’ve kept it hidden in the dark. You break free from convention, finally, and know your potential when you are creating. When you make art from the heart then you truly feel what it’s like for inspiration to come through you – escaping through you and reaching outward like a soul liberating itself – because it has nothing to do with you. The point is not to force anything, it’s to allow these stories that are waiting to be born to labour through you into existence.
Staying in the heart is possible when you accept the world as your teacher. But for many of us, once academia gets hold it becomes more difficult to drop down to the heart where you’re needed. Write from the heart, rewrite from the head. Anything less is unacceptable. If you’re not willing to bleed on the page, as Hemingway called it, then perhaps you might consider a different path altogether. But if you can’t help yourself: keep reading, keep writing, keep living moment to moment. Observe, observe, observe; everything you can. Listen more than you speak. In silence there’s everything. Take it all in. Enjoy the awe.
We hear little about all of the brilliance that has come from people who’ve dodged higher education, and I mention only a few of them to you now hoping that you will join me in taking time to appreciate the quality that comes from doing what you love free of headiness. These people are masters of expressing the depths of their creativity; they are fluid and unencumbered by technicality yet technically mastered. They are joined at the hip to the Muse. They’ve dipped into the same river of potential inside you, and inside me. Claim what’s yours. And hopefully, if the gods are very kind to us, we’ll get to someday – as Neil Gaiman puts it – make good art.
Robert De Niro
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Andy and Larry Wachowski