Read an ExcerptThe Right to Write
An Invitation and Initiation Into the Writing Life
By Julia Cameron Putnam Publishing Group
Copyright © 1999 Julia Cameron
All right reserved.
I am sitting at a small pine table, facing east toward the Sangre de Cristo foothills. My "view" has a horse tank that needs filling, a white fence with a small robin's-egg-blue gate, a birdbath in terra-cotta with some of its figurines knocked off, a bright yellow garden hose, I will use to fill the horse tank and the birdbath, an overgrown garden plot, a bucket lying on its side, my small dog, Maxwell, soaking in the early spring sunlight like an optimistic sunbather on a chilly beach day. When it warms up and that yellow hose has thawed out, I will fill the horse tank. When I warm up, I will tell you what I know about letting yourself write.
The first trick, the one I am practicing now, is to just start where you are. It's a luxury to be in the mood to write. It's a blessing but it's not a necessity. Writing is like breathing, it's possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what.
Writing is like breathing. I believe that. I believe we all come into life as writers. We are born with a gift for language and it comes to us within months as we begin to name our world. We all have a sense ofownership, a sense of satisfaction as we name the objects that we find. Words give us power.
As toddlers, first we grab and then we grab with words. Every word we learn is an acquisition, a bit of gold that makes us richer. We catch a new word and say it over and over, turning it like a rich nugget in the light. As children, we hoard and gloat over words. Words give ownership: we name our world and we claim it.
As children, we learn new words at an astonishing clip. Words give us leverage: "Me go with Mommy!" Or, "Mommy stay" Children are specific and direct. They don't beat around the bush. Their words are personal and powerful. They are filled with will and intent. They are filled with passion and purpose. Children trust the power of words.
If words give us power, when do we start to lose our power over words? When do we start to feel that some of us are "good" at language and even have a shot at being "writers" while the rest of us just happen to use it and don't dare consider ourselves in that league?
My guess is that for most of us school is where this sorting starts to happen. School is where we are told, "You're good with words ..." The neat teacherly scrawl, diagonally written across the top right-hand corner of the top page of, say, a geography report on Scandinavia, "Well written."
Well written--what does that mean? In school it usually means clear, orderly thinking. Neat enough grammar. Lots of orderly facts. It may also mean things we are taught, like "topic sentences" and "transitions." Very often it does not mean words that sing off the page, innovative word combinations, paragraphs of great free associations and digressions--all the gifts a young poet or novelist might have and want to use but not find useful under the scholarly discipline of an academic paper.
What happens when writing of that kind shows up in school papers? Too frequently, it's another margin quote, this time negative: "You stray from the topic a bit here" or "Stick to the point." It is a rare teacher who takes the time and care to praise the kind of writing that doesn't fit into an academic paradigm. It's as though scholastically we're on a pretty strict diet: "Not so much pepper here."
Not so much pepper. Not so much spunk. Not so much humanity, please. Academically we are inclined to a rather pedestrian prose denuded of personality and passion, perhaps even a bit elevated in tone as if writing is something to be done only from the loftiest of motives, a kind of distillate of rationalism trickled onto the page.
In countries and situations where writing is forbidden, it takes on primacy. In prisons, people scratch their message into stone, onto dirt. On desert islands, messages are shoved into bottles and set to sea. When communication is made to seem actively impossible, the human will to communicate rears its head and people willingly risk death and dismemberment to do it.
This is healthy.
In our current culture, something much less healthy is afoot. Writing is not forbidden, it is discouraged. Hallmark does it for us. We shop for the card that is "closest" to what we wish to say. Schools drill us about how to say what we want to and the how-to involves things like proper spelling, topic sentences, and the avoidance of detours so that logic becomes the field marshal and emotion is kept at bay. Writing, as we are taught to do it, becomes an antihuman activity. We are forever editing, leaving out the details that might not be pertinent. We are trained to self-doubt, to self-scrutiny in the place of self-expression.
As a result, most of us try to write too carefully. We try to do it "right." We try to sound smart. We try, period. Writing goes much better when we don't work at it so much. When we give ourselves permission to just hang out on the page. For me, writing is like a good pair of pajamas--comfortable. In our culture, writing is more often costumed up in a military outfit. We want our sentences to march in neat little rows, like well-behaved boarding-school children.
Burn down the school. Save the books, perhaps, but get the teacher to tell you the real secrets: What does he write and read as a guilty pleasure? Guilty pleasure is what writing is all about. It is about attractions, words you can't resist using to describe things too interesting to pass up. And forget lofty motives.
I don't write from lofty motives--I never have. In sixth grade, when I wrote my first (very) short stories, it was to snag the attention of Peter Mundy--Peter was a newcomer to St. Joseph's grade school, Mrs. Klopsch's class. He'd moved north from Missouri. He brought a southern accent and chestnut hair, hair the color of a jar of Tupelo honey, a physical look as sweet as the something southern that whispered through his voice. I wanted Peter to be my boyfriend. I wanted him to notice me. And so, I set about wooing him by writing him stories.
Twenty years later, long after he'd dated Peggy Conroy instead of me, Peter told me I had captured his heart with my writing, "I just chickened out."
Peter may have chickened out, but in the act of chasing him with pencil and paper, I discovered a bigger chase, the thrill of chasing anything with words.
Writing is a lot like driving a country blacktop highway on a hot summer day. There is a wavery magical spot that shimmers on the horizon. You aim toward it. You speed to get there, and when you do, the "there" vanishes. You look up to see it again, shimmering in the distance. You write toward that. I suppose some people might call this unrequited love or dissatisfaction. I think it's something better.
I think it's anticipation. I think it's savoring. I think it's tasting a great meal from its scent on your nostrils. I do not have to eat freshly baked bread to love it. The scent is nearly as delicious, nearly as much the satisfaction as the thick slice of bread slathered with butter and homemade apricot jam.
The brain enjoys writing. It enjoys the act of naming things, the processes of association and discernment. Picking words is like picking apples: this one looks delicious.
The act of writing, the aiming at getting it right, is pure thrill, pure process, as exciting as drawing back a bow. Hitting a creative bull's-eye, a sentence that precisely expresses what you see shimmering on the horizon--those sentences are worth the chase--but the chase itself, the things you catch out of the corner of your eye, that's worth something too. I love it when I write well, but I love it when I write, period.
When I began this essay, it was a blue, cloudless day. As I finish it, big weather has come up. Fat, dark clouds are spitting a petulant rain. The wind is gusting in stiff puffs fragrant with spring. I don't need to fill the horse tank. The rain is doing that nicely. My little Maxwell has come inside and is cuddled by my feet. The day, like this essay, began one place and moved to something else entirely.
Kabir tells us, "Wherever you are is the entry point," and this is always true with writing. Wherever you are is always the right place. There is never a need to fix anything, to hitch up the bootstraps of the soul and start at some higher place. Start right where you are.
Left to its own devices, writing is like weather. It has a drama, a form, a force to it that shapes the day. Just as a good rain clears the air, a good writing day clears the psyche. There is something very right about simply letting yourself write. And the way to do that is to begin, to begin where you are.
This tool puts you directly into the water. Take three sheets of 8 1/2 by 11 paper. Start at the top of page one and for three pages describe how and what you are feeling right now. Begin where you are--physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Write about anything and everything that crosses your mind.
This is a free-form exercise. You cannot do it wrong. Be petty, critical, whining, scared. Be excited, adventurous, worried, happy. Be whatever and however you are at this moment. Get current. Feel the current of your own thoughts and emotions. Keep your hand moving and simply hang out on the page. When you have finished writing three pages, stop.
Excerpted from The Right to Write by Julia Cameron Copyright © 1999 by Julia Cameron. Excerpted by permission.
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