Write from the Heart: Unleashing the Power of Your Creativityby Hal Zina Bennett
In his first edition of Write from the Heart, Hal Zina Bennett presented a spiritual approach to writing that showed both beginners and seasoned authors how to overcome blocks, unleash their creative voice, and see their books into print. In this edition, he gives readers an even more interactive experience by incorporating exercises he's developed during his many years conducting workshops. An all-new chapter on supportive critiquing shows readers how to make contacts in the all-important community of writers and how to get help with the process of writing and refining.
- New World Library
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Write From the Heart
Unleashing the Power of Your Creativity
By Hal Zina Bennett
New World LibraryCopyright © 2001 Hal Zina Bennett
All rights reserved.
Born to Write
When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Every once in a while someone asks me if I think there's such a thing as born writers. Although I suppose there are, my bet would be they are few and far between. I know I wouldn't count myself as one. Most writers I know regard their abilities as being pretty hard won, certainly not something they came into life knowing. The closest I've been to anyone who believes they were born into writing is my friend Ken who says there was a moment in his childhood when he knew he was predestined to be an author. At ten he won a library competition for a short story he wrote. They gave him a fifty-dollar U.S. Savings Bond and a little bronze plaque with his name and the title of his story etched on it.
Ken's story was published in his hometown newspaper, along with a photograph of him clutching the plaque to his chest with his right hand and holding up the savings bond with his left. His English teacher took him aside the Monday after he got his award and encouraged him to pursue a career in journalism, telling him how terrible it would be if he wasted his God-given talent. Even then he considered journalism to be selling himself short because he'd always dreamed of writing books that would be printed in hardcover and shelved in the public library. But he didn't tell his teacher that.
His story was about a kid who wanted to play baseball more than anything in his life. There was a Little League team in the town where he lived and one day at school his friend asked him if he'd like to join. But the kid in the story said no. The truth was he knew his parents couldn't afford the equipment he'd have to buy. They were farmworkers and very poor. He continued to practice, throwing an old softball at a target he'd painted on the door of an abandoned truck, down in a gravel pit on the farm where he and his parents lived. One day the boy's uncle saw him pitching the ball like that and thought he was pretty good. That night he took his nephew aside and gave him a crisp twenty-dollar bill to buy the equipment he needed to join the league.
After he won the prize from the library, and had his picture and his story published in the paper, Ken wondered if maybe he should have told them that the story was mostly true. It was about himself. The only part he'd made up was the piece about the uncle who gave him the twenty-dollar bill. For years he felt guilty about accepting the prize, until he learned that most of the world's great writers also drew their stories from life.
Last year Ken and I met for coffee at a little place on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. We get together about once a year to catch up on each other's lives and talk about writing. I've always looked up to Ken because of his literary accomplishments. When we first met we were both enrolled in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, and he already had a novel about half done. He was legendary in the department. Before we graduated he'd won two or three prestigious writing grants and an editor at Knopf was negotiating with him for his first book.
Writers do not live one life, they live two. There is the living and then there is the writing. There is the second tasting, the delayed reaction.
— Anaïs Nin
About a year after we graduated, he called me one day to say that he'd signed a contract and his novel was coming out in about a year. We were supposed to get together for dinner the following week but he canceled at the last minute. His agent (he now had a literary agent!) had been talking with a Hollywood producer who wanted to make a film of his book. They were flying Ken to Spain, where the producer had a summer home, so that they could discuss what Ken's role would be. He was insisting on being the script writer as insurance against the filmmaker straying too far from the original story.
Ken and I didn't get together again for nearly two years. I was alternately jealous and happy for him, awed by his achievement and wondering why I hadn't yet been similarly blessed. In my mind he'd become bigger than life, and I soon developed this strange fear of him that I always have around celebrities. Around friends I bragged that I knew him. But the distance between Ken and me grew until we were nearly strangers.
His book came out and critics heralded him as "the next John Steinbeck." He signed on with the movies, wrote the script, and sat through the entire production, a watchdog protecting his integrity. When the film was released a year later, the critics were generous, calling it "a new American classic."
For a while Ken lived well, yet modestly, off his royalty income. But that was more than twenty-five years ago. He has written only one film script since then, based on a short story he wrote when we were still students. I remembered the story well because I had published it in the small literary quarterly I was editing at the time. I liked the story and I liked the film. But the movie never went anywhere, even though it was good, because the distributors didn't like it. Distributors, Ken explained, will only take films with big-name actors. His film had excellent acting but no big-name actors.
The last time we had coffee, Ken confessed that he hadn't written anything he considered significant since that first novel. He said he didn't even feel inspired any more and asked me how I managed to keep writing. Though I published mostly nonfiction, he said that he liked what I wrote because my books always seemed inspired. He wanted to know where I found that inspiration. How did I keep coming up with it year after year and book after book? I couldn't say just then, but when I got home that night I started thinking more about our conversation.
Ken was one of those people who could tell you the exact moment when he knew he would become a writer. And there's no denying that he had done it. He had one excellent novel and two good film scripts to prove it. But I had to wonder, was that the whole thing? It was as if he loaded his creative cannon at ten, the day he learned that he'd won the short story contest, fired it off at twenty-nine, made some big sparks ... and that was it. Whatever creative charge drove him to write that one novel was used up in more or less a single shot.
Maybe it's the nature of legends to go out in one big flash like that. Certainly the literary world is replete with such stories. But I have to say that as sadly romantic as they might be, these stories have ceased to interest me except perhaps as warnings.
I can't say I don't feel sorry for Ken and others like him, but I think that I mostly feel impatient, maybe even irritated. If I have literary heroes these days, which I do, they are of a different ilk. Most come from workshops I've taught or from stories people share with me when we talk about writing.
I don't know whether there is a new kind of writer in the world today or if I have just discovered something that has been there all along. I think about Sharon, a retired nun, who signed up for her first writing class at age sixty- seven. Timid and unsure of herself, she read what she claimed was the first short story she'd ever written, dutifully fulfilling the task I'd assigned. In the story, she told about a recent visit to her hometown up in Canada, where she hadn't been since she was a teenager. She went there to look for the house where she'd been born. Instead she found a vacant lot where the family home once stood. There were only waist-high weeds now and a shallow foundation filled with rubble. She described a single sunflower, about six feet tall, with a flower as big as a Cadillac hubcap, standing like a guardian over what had once been the concrete front steps.
Reflecting on that empty lot, Sharon's story took us deep inside her soul, revealing a personal history of pain, hardship, and joy, of early loves and prohibitions, of victories and disappointments, and old wounds that even after sixty years had only begun to heal. In twenty minutes, she took us on a journey into a life that somehow stood for all our lives, showing how human experience lives on in our hearts long after all physical evidence of it has been erased from the earth.
As she finished reading, the room fell silent. When she looked up, it was with an anxious smile, like a child who didn't know what she'd done and was waiting for a sign that would tell her. Across from her, a man in his thirties sat hugging his knees, trying not to cry.
Sharon finally screwed up her courage enough to say, "Well?"
"You'll have to give us all a minute to recover," I said.
"Was it that bad?" she asked.
"No," somebody said. "It was that good!"
The last time I spoke with Sharon, she was working on a collection of short stories. And if I were a publisher, I can assure you I'd have handed her a contract that day. We talked about writing and I told her again how deeply I'd been touched by that first story she'd read at the workshop.
"I learned a lot that day," she said.
"What, that you are a writer?"
She blushed. "Well, I don't know what it really means to be a writer," she said. "But I did discover how wonderful it is to write. It dissolves boundaries I thought could never be dissolved."
We talked about publishing, and she said, "I don't know as I could ever think of myself as a writer, but one day I'd like to have my work published so that I could go around the country and read my stories to people."
What she said reiterated a truth I've seen expressed many times in writing workshops. It happens at those moments when we forget our literary pretensions and let language do what I have an idea the inventor of the universe intended it to do. Though I don't claim to have any inside track to that entity, I am nevertheless convinced that language was designed to help us bridge one consciousness and another, and to help us connect with that larger consciousness which embraces all and everything.
There's something sad and dangerous about a society that loses touch with this basic understanding, that either puts writing up on a pedestal, or uses it to exploit and manipulate.
I sometimes think that in a past life I must have been the storyteller of a small tribe. When the pressures of publishers' deadlines and arguments with editors start crowding me, I sometimes dream how great it would be to just tell stories to a small circle of friends and neighbors who've gathered around a campfire. And there's no doubt in my mind that we have a lot to learn from those early storytellers, who measured their success by whether or not their stories unveiled previously hidden truths that would improve all their lives, even as they entertained.
Sometimes I think my friend Ken lost sight of what writing is all about. He got seduced by the ivory tower and forgot that being a writer is really something much more than being the literary critics' darling. I don't know what he thought might happen to his life after publishing his novel. Whatever it was he dreamed obviously never came true for him. And the thing that did happen — fame, fortune, kudos from the most respected critics — didn't do it for him.
When language is working for us, the way I think it does for Sharon, it touches something ancient and even primordial and pure in us — if we're open to it happening at all. It's a path into a territory so essential and so elemental that once we're in there we feel like we've come home. It's a place where individual behaviors, different tongues, races, genders, to say nothing of religious and nationalistic identities, cease to divide us. And it's a place where even our harshest self-judgments disappear.
Generally when it happens, it is a fleeting glimpse, as startling as the glowing eyes of a nocturnal creature who dashes off to the side of the road to escape the bright beams of our car's headlights as we race through the night. But as fleeting as these moments might be, they can also change your life forever. They can happen whether you are writing the Great American Novel or an entry in your private journal. These are the moments we yearn to experience in writing, and I'm sure this yearning is the fuel that drives us to put pen to paper.
Rainer Maria Rilke said, "We are only mouth. Who sings the distant heart that dwells entire within all things?" The poet was reflecting on the Logos, the Word, as in St. John's Gospel: "When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was." While I am not a religious scholar by any stretch of the imagination, those opening lines from John's Gospel have always intrigued me, just as they apparently did Rilke.
Some years ago I stumbled upon a book by an obscure but stimulating writer by the name of Georg Kuhlewind, a proponent of Rudolph Steiner's anthroposophy. I really don't know much about anthroposophy or Steiner, but that's not the point. While exploring St. John's writings, Kuhlewind came to believe that the Word "is truly the primal beginning. As soon as something moves, to do something or to think, the Word is there and, with it, the beginning." His point is that since all that moves or thinks came from the Logos (the Word), we are ultimately all joined as one through it. He says, "Without the Logos, there would not be even the attempt to communicate, nor any claim to communication."
Who can say if all this is true or not? I tend to believe that philosophers spend too much time and energy trying to figure things out. Pretty soon they begin to believe themselves and can no longer tell the difference between their own stories and the larger truth they're trying to comprehend. What matters to me in Kuhlewind's speculations is the possibility that language is much more than we think it is. If it's true that all begins with the Word, then maybe what so deeply moves us about writing is that it somehow connects us with our primal source. That spark of recognition and connectedness that we experience when we're really on isn't an illusion. And this drive we feel to write something stunning and glorious isn't self-indulgence or addictive behavior. Rather, what excites us is the recognition that our writing literally builds bridges between our own consciousness, our own life experience, and that of at least one other person. And beyond that we've tapped into that little piece of the Logos we each hold within us, the creative source from which we all come.
There are probably religious leaders who will tell me I'm crazy, or that I'm wrenching the text and treading on dangerous ground. But I don't think so. I believe there is a part of writing that's divine, that connects us with a greater authority than ourselves. And that, certainly, is something we're all born with. If that makes us born writers, so be it. The promise of this is that we can learn to tap into that potential at virtually any point in our lives, trusting that the Word lives in all of us. Whoever dares to claim the prize will have it.
WRITING EXPLORATION #1 DREAM IT TO LIFE
Recall your first experience of creating with the written word. For twenty or thirty minutes, write a short piece about that moment, but write it in the third person, as if you were telling a short story about someone else. Describe the thoughts and feelings you had before, during, and following that first creative writing experience. But remember to tell it in the third person, as if you were looking inside the heart and mind of a man or woman you know extremely well.
For twenty or thirty minutes write to describe your wildest dreams about how it would be to live as a successful writer. Focus on how you feel about sitting down to write each day, on how you feel upon completion of a book, on how you feel upon the book's publication, and on how you feel when you go out to talk about your writing with groups at bookstores and other meeting places.
Excerpted from Write From the Heart by Hal Zina Bennett. Copyright © 2001 Hal Zina Bennett. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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There are few other writing books out there that focus as well on creating your ideal writing space and your ideal reader as this one. This book got me to begin to keep a journal which has served as a springboard to my becoming a writer. Unlike the detached style in many books, you can feel presence of the author in this book. Not in obtrusive way but in a gentle guiding fashion that really worked for me. Bennett's stories within this book about his own creative process set me on fire to begin creating myself. This book is trully exceptional in getting you started as a writer.