Writing from the Trenches of Self-Consciousness

6.14.09


Last week, I spent a couple days up at Lake Tahoe, hidden away in a cabin, engaged in my first-ever self-managed writing retreat.

I followed a practice, based on the work of writing-teacher writer Natalie Goldberg, during which I agreed to write for set increments of time without stopping… and without pausing to correct 'errors' (not even spelling), to judge or critique what was coming forth.

Needless to say, that last part of the commitment—no judging, no self-criticism—was the hardest to enforce. It's amazing what self-sabotaging messages our ego-mind, supposedly a friend of ours, will feed to us during such an activity. It's as if the ego-mind desperately does not want us to bypass its 'rational' management over our lives, lest we discover that insight can gush out from our 'Higher Self' (or whatever we want to call the more receptive, unconscious, unburdened part of our awareness), proving we are not merely our minds but, in fact, so much more.

This is the type of deeper connection to self that people often work toward through meditation. Only, rather than sitting still to quiet the mind through breathwork or concentrating on a candle's flame, I chose to sit still in 1-hour periods, with no other obligation than to just keep on writing. Though I already spend many hours each week producing written words, this is usually purposeful writing—horoscopes, astrology writing, focused essays with beginnings and middles and ends.

For this exercise, I was trying not to worry about the purpose of what I was writing, other than to be present in the act of writing itself. While, as you may know, I am batting around different ideas for books I'd like to write, I've also become quite clear that I don't want to take on any more projects which leave me feeling like there's more I 'should be doing'. I have enough of that in my life. Though I went into this writing retreat with several topics I wanted to write about, I tried not to focus too strictly on sticking to any one thing.

Over the course of 2 days, I wrote for eight 1-hour segments of time, producing roughly 24,000 words that ranged from metaphysical reflections to memoir recollections to personal journal-style confessions. Needless to say, my ego-mind rebelled quite a bit against both the 'no judging' bit and the deliberate lack of focus. Overall, it was a very enlightening and creatively fruitful activity, one which I'm eager to do again several more times, to see what surprising writings emerge… but it was definitely not easy, not merely on the logistical level but emotionally. I'd highly recommend it to anyone brave enough to learn more about the personal trips we put ourselves through to prevent self-expression, while, if you're willing to sit there long enough to fight past that resistance, yielding a lot of written raw-material in the process.

What follows is just a smidgeon of what came out of me during my recent writing retreat, so you may get an idea of the kind of tricks my mind was trying to play on me. While I've gone through and corrected typos and misspellings and made a very few syntactical and stylistic changes, this is about 95% unedited and unfiltered. Do with it as you will, or nothing at all. I simply wanted to share another leg of my ever-unfolding journey with you.

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Direct experience is all we know for certain. We can read facts, listen to other people's stories, put together possible theories to explain the myriad mysteries that surround us everyday… but it's all ultimately conjecture, though not necessarily useless in providing us certain skills to help us function here in the real world. It's all always tentative.

What we really know is that which we've experienced. When somebody tells us something that moves our emotions in a way that seems to touch the deepness of our souls, we don't need to check in with ourselves to determine whether or not what we've been told is 'moving'. We know it because our bodily reactions tell us it is so. We felt it. We experienced it.

There is tremendous self-empowerment in embracing the wisdom that can only come through direct experience. I wonder, even now, if what I'm presently writing will speak to anyone in the whole world, but it is not my job to assess that. My job is to sit in my body and write the things that organically come out. Then later, I can worry about whether any of this will comprise the content of a compelling (and sellable) book, or whether I will be sent back to the drawing board endless times by demanding editors or marketing executives who feel my first and second and third stabs at dictating bits from my direct experience aren't widely relevant enough to touch audiences (and sell books).

I've embraced this practice of sitting at the keyboard for set periods of time, writing whatever comes out without too much criticism or judgment (ha! easier said than done), just filling the time with moving fingers and the words they bring forth. This is a pathway directly into the direct experience I seek to write about. From this perspective, the process is the message too. How can I write about something I'm not myself practicing? Therefore, as I sit here writing words that may or may not ever make it to the eyes of anybody else, I must remain here, no matter how uncomfortable it gets.

I cannot tell you how many moments during this writing process I have felt emotionally down, sad, panicked, worried about whether I am indeed wasting my time by trying to write about something (what is it?!?) that seems to elude any easy verbalization… at least without inviting the cries of 'crazy' or 'narcissistically self-indulgent' or some perfect blend of the two. I admit, writing about one's direct experience does feel a bit like mental masturbation… for why would anybody ever care to read about the internal ramblings of a person they have never met, about experiences that, though they hold amazing relevance and spiritual resonance for me, may sound like nothing more than a catalogue of oogie eerie tales adding up to no worthwhile message whatsoever.

Still, I must keep writing, even if I spend the next hour filling this Word doc with nothing more than the insecure confessions of a man who knows he's supposed to be writer but isn't exactly sure what he's supposed to be writing about. I made this agreement: Write in these hour-long increments throughout the week, and don't worry about what's coming forth. Who knows? It might surprise me in the rereading, days or weeks later.

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I don't want to have to prove points. Maybe the book I ought to be writing is 'purely creative', with no need to convey a certain agenda other than the powerful emotional resonance any moving piece of art can provide to people. Then, the pressure will be on perfecting my vision of art, rather than in conveying a particular message in a particular way to a particular person.

I am growing more confused than ever before. I feel all kinds of pressures coming from different pulls, encouraging me to take my writing in one direction or another, based upon the sway of friends or editors or entities, and perhaps too strong an impetus to 'make a difference in the world'. I have already achieved that. I make a difference every day, and have countless emails from people who read my website to prove that to myself.

Writing, the thing I love to do, is like torture. I love stringing the words together, but I'm caught on the internal rollercoaster of deciding which things to write about are worth my time. Isn't it enough to just write about whatever I want? Some readers seem to think I'm more inspired now than I've been in a while. Is that true? I have been really enjoying writing my horoscopes lately, maybe more than I have in a long while. Horoscopes are short, purposeful and to the point. How else can I write like that? Should I focus on writing short pieces that don't beat around the bush? How might I do that right now?

All we can speak about with any certainty is that which we've directly experienced. And yet, somehow, in so many avenues, this direct experience is discredited. Too subjective. Not easily applicable to wide audiences. Navel-gazing. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Illusive or delusional. These are judgments we pin onto our own life stories because we don't feel worthy enough to share them on their own merit. I struggle, but I want to share.