Free Yourself From Your Work

by Matthew Lowes

rainbow-road

The experience of hesitation just before one starts writing is something all writers have probably felt at some time. Whether from doubt of our abilities, the fear of what might come out, or the aversion to collapsing our grand nebulous ideas into something concrete, we hesitate, sometimes only for a moment, and sometimes for a lifetime. In the middle of a big project, doubt may seize us and again we hesitate, certain the work is a mess. Likewise, when we have expressed ourselves freely and fully, we may hesitate to rewrite and to put it out there, to let others see what we have done. And all these fears, all these doubts and hesitations, spring from one simple thing. We identify ourselves with our work.

In this day and age, when we are encouraged to brand our work and our identities to suit the market, this tendency to internally identify with our work finds ample reinforcement. It may prevent some from writing all together. It may prevent some from finishing a great book. It may prevent some from doing their best work, from fully opening themselves to writing the most challenging, most daring words they have to offer. And it may prevent some from sharing with others what they have written.

Of course, one must be critical at times, especially when learning the craft and while in the midst of doing any edit or rewrite. But to cling to this criticism or to identify ourselves with any work, is not only to suffer, but to stifle our own creativity. The creative mind is free and open, unlimited by any expectation, and unhindered by self doubt or personal identification with any work, past or present.

Don’t allow this tendency or pressure to identify with your work to stand in the way of your creativity. Whenever you feel this hesitation or doubt, just remember that you are not your work. The work itself is just a stream of words on a page, just symbols on paper. And while you have a right to the act of putting these symbols down and arranging them as best you can, you do not control the origins of this act, nor its ultimate ends.

Our own true nature will always be beyond all words. So free yourself from your work, whether it is the work you are about to do, a work in progress, or the work that you have already done. Our work is really not our own anyway. For we do not know what thoughts will arise in the act of creation, nor from whence they come. It is all a spontaneous happening. Just allow it to happen.

 

The Magic of Everyday Life

by Matthew Lowes

ice

Well, my post is a little late here but there are reasons. Right? I mean, first of all, I got sick. Then there was the ice storm. Then the power went out for some twenty hours or so and it got pretty darn chilly. Then we headed up to the Belknap Hot Springs lodge for the night. Wait a minute, you say, you were soaking in the hot springs with a past due deadline? Okay, the truth is although all this happened, I just forgot about the post. But because of this whole turn of events, I now have something to say about magic.

Friday morning we woke to snowfall up in the mountains. We hiked through the woods, had another soak in the hot springs, and on our way back into Eugene we saw the most amazing sights. All the trees were still covered in ice, and the sun had just broken through the clouds, making everything glitter like jewels. The whole city looked like it was built among the trees of a crystal forest. It looked like something straight out of a high fantasy novel. And all this got me to thinking both about the sheer magic of everyday life, and about the magic of contrast.

Why is it that the first snowfall of winter always seems so magical? Why does the ice storm delight us so much, in spite of the destruction it causes? Everything in life is noticed through contrast. Without contrast, nothing could be discerned. We would not even feel alive. That we are, and that there is beauty and wonder and awe is a function of this contrast. The first snow contrasts with summer and fall, and we so rarely see the beauty of the crystal forest that when we come upon it we are enchanted. Contrast creates all this magic.

So what does this have to do with writing? Just this: if you’re going to put a crystal forest in your novel, don’t make it the place your heroes visit just after the crystal meadow. To create a sense of magic, or to make a place, or a character, or an event stand out in the reader’s mind, you must create contrast. If characters are always arguing, their argument won’t have much impact. If they usually agree but finally have a blow up, there’s more contrast, and more impact. The storm is all the more impressive because of the calm before it.

But magic does not always have to be so dramatic as a crystal forest in the middle of your novel, although that can be fun. When you really notice, there is nothing mundane in this whole world. Everything is sheer magic. The flow of water, the rising of steam off a cup of tea, the drop of a leaf, a stranger’s voice, the play of light and shadow across the land … it’s all magic! And in your writing this magic is conveyed with the magic of a well chosen word, the magic of an original phrase, and the magic of a beautiful sentence. That is the wind in the trees. That is the face of the ever-changing sky. That is real magic.

Why Write Anything?

by Matthew Lowes

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If we’re going to make something, let’s make the things we want to see exist in this world. If you’re writing a story, whatever the genre, write the story you want to read, drawing from the deepest motivations you can find. This is the best way I can imagine of both insuring some measure of originality and significance to your work, as well as an ongoing enthusiasm for doing it. And really, anything else is short changing yourself and everyone else as well.

In this age of social media, online reviews, sales rankings, marketing platforms, focus groups, and target audiences, not to mention a widespread obsession with social status and material success, it’s perhaps all too easy to lose track of why we would write something to begin with. So ask yourself: why do you want to write this? Really get into it, with whatever current project you are on. If you find a really good answer that doesn’t draw on thoughts of success, I guarantee that work will become more interesting.

Not that social media, markets, and reviews and all that are inherently bad. It can all be useful, and careful use can maybe help you make a buck from this crazy racket. But their best use, I would argue, is not in your creative process. Someone who writes a book about vampires because vampire books are selling well, is only writing a book about book selling and nothing else. Forgetting all that, and the fact that vampires were more a thing of the ’90s, if you have an idea for a vampire story you really want to read, then I say go for it, especially if you have an even deeper reason for wanting to write it.

Of course, most writers would like their stories to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience. Whether this is a touch of narcissism or not I don’t know, but either way I think the desire is ennobled by a pure creative spirit. Sure I want to be entertained, but I also want to read stories with a vision beyond sales, by writers who had some motivation deeper than popularity, broader than recognition, and more profound than success.

The Fiction of Reality

By Matthew Lowes

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Photograph by Matthew Lowes

As writers of fiction we are always trying to project some sense of reality into our stories. We praise the vivid setting when it feels as if we’ve been there. We thrill at events when we can see them happening. And we love the character who seems to walk off the page, fully fleshed, and yes, real. But how does it happen?

The irony is that actual people experience their lives through a variety of thoughts that start to look a lot like fiction. We are, along with everyone around us, constantly telling ourselves who we are, what we’re like, what type of person we are, what we believe, where we come from, the kind of world we live in, and on and on and on. And very little of it has anything to do with what’s really happening right now. We are creating these self-fictions out of the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and memories that arise in consciousness moment to moment.

Since this is happening in the minds of people all the time, seeing the operation of these self-fictions and understanding how they create conflict could be a great insight into creating fiction that seems real. In short, good fiction must contain the self-fictions of the characters within it. In other words, it must contain characters who have fictional views on the fictional world they inhabit. These views lie at the heart of all internal conflict, and one might say all possible conflicts.

Let’s look closer at what self-fictions are, how they form, and how they come into conflict with each other, with the self-fictions of other people, and with reality itself. A self-fiction is a story you tell yourself about yourself and/or the world. “I am a writer,” is a self-fiction. “I am a good writer”; “I am a bad writer”; “I am a lazy writer”; “I spent 20 years honing the craft of writing only to find out it’s not enough.” These are all self-fictions, and I think you can see, especially if you are a writer, that they are all self-fictions a single person could have. You can probably also see how these thoughts, if believed, will conflict with each other and with various happenings in that person’s life.

I am an American, a Mexican, a Muslim, or a Buddhist; I am a faithful husband, a loving wife, an angry person, a damaged person. Birth is a blessing; life is suffering; death is a bummer. The world is a beautiful place full of good people; the world is a nasty place full of selfish people; the world is made of stuff guided by physical laws; the world is an illusion; the world is God’s creation. And on and on and on. There are enough examples to fill an entire universe. Even something as ordinary as a tree can be a self-fiction. And in most cases, what people experience as reality may simply be a projection of these self-fictions in consciousness.

Such a situation is created through a repetition of thoughts. Every time a thought arises it may become a self-fiction if the mind grasps hold and believes it. The more it repeats the more grasping occurs, and the more real and binding its contents will seem. At this point the self-fiction takes root in the person, and it will continue to seem real and binding even if present experience or new thoughts come into conflict with it. Because all things change, and new experiences and thoughts always arise, conflict with these self-fictions is inevitable. Even the most seemingly accurate and objective self-fiction cannot be right at all times, in all places, and in all situations.

This is all pretty abstract though, so let’s create a more elaborate example. A man and a woman fall madly in love. The man thinks, he could never love anyone more than he loves her. They are made for each other, two people sharing the same love, the same life, the same being. Eventually he asks her to marry him. She says “yes!” and a whole new level of love opens up to them based on the depth, the sincerity, and the promise of this commitment. Of course, he has moments of doubt. Can he really be satisfied with this one person for the rest of his life? Why did she get so angry about the wedding cake? What if she turns out to be like her domineering her mother? They are just little thoughts in conflict with the established self-fiction of their relationship. But, he says to himself, they are in love and love perseveres. Marriage is for life and he is the kind of guy that can stick with someone through thick and thin. So the wedding happens and they start their life together.

Maybe you can see how this goes already, even without the details. While so far they have been sharing a wonderfully pleasant self-fiction, each has other self-fictions. She envisions a house in the suburbs, three children, and traveling the world. He envisions life in the city, no children, and a romance without end. Or whatever. The point being, things change. They argue about moving. She get pregnant but miscarries. His father dies. The stock market crashes. She gets a job that keeps her traveling all the time. A thousand other stories interact with their lives and every one starts to seem in conflict with the others and especially with the one in which they are in love. He starts to think about other women, but he could never have an affair. He’s not that type of person. Only he keeps thinking about it. Maybe if the situation came up … hell, maybe he is that type of person. Maybe everybody is! Maybe that’s just the kind of world it is. And one day, he find himself in a hotel bar with a woman he works with, and in that moment ….

This can go on and on, but it’s just playing various self-fictions against each other. It’s all self-fictions, all the way down. And the more the self-fictions conflict with each other and the situation itself, the more real and interesting the characters and situations seem. That’s because anybody with a modicum of experience knows intuitively that’s exactly what it’s like. That’s exactly what happens. And if the conflict increases enough, some kind of crisis will occur, and things will change. Some self-fictions will crumble, and others take over. And perhaps, if in an instant one sees through it all, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards. Then what?

If you look at things this way, maybe you can consciously manipulate the self-fictions underlying your writing. That may mean both the self-fictions of your characters, as well as your own. In fiction, as in real life, these self-fictions can be obvious or incredibly subtle and deceptive. Every protagonist is a conglomeration of self-fictions that will come into conflict with each other and the world. Every villain has a conflict generating mass of self-fictions guiding their actions. Every POV character presents the setting and events of a story through the lenses of their own self-fictions.

In fact, if one gets right down to it, there may be little difference between real life self-fictions and fictional self-fictions in the mind of a reader, since real life self-fictions are themselves imaginary in some sense. Which means fictional places, characters, and events may seem real by being, in actuality, just as real as the self-fictions through which the human mind usually perceives reality. Indeed, every aspect of fiction can be examined and manipulated as a projection of self-fictions in conflict, precisely because this real life function of the mind may be what fundamentally makes fiction possible, present, interesting, and hopefully entertaining.

Writing Between the Lines

by Matthew Lowes

between the lines

Photograph by Helgi Halldorsson

Description is boring … or so people say. Few people want to read page after page detailing the intricacies of a landscape or a room, or cataloging the attributes of character, however interesting they may be. But how then do good writers convey their settings and characters so well that we feel as if we were there, or that we knew exactly what a character looks like? It helps to change your perspective on what is really going on.

If you think of description as something that happens only within the lines of your text, and that only that which is included will be experienced by the reader, you are missing the point. The text is only a signpost used to orient the reader’s imagination, and allow it to engage properly. The real magic is happening between the lines. So it helps to think of description not as description, but as evocation. The words are like a spell creating the dream image of a place or a person in the imagination of the reader. Too many words and the dream will collapse, too few, or not the right ones, and the dream will not arise.

So the trick is not to describe a setting or character, but to evoke the setting or character. Just by changing the way you think about this, you will likely discover, all on your own, new effective ways of doing this. With just a short line of dialogue an entire character can be evoked. With a few choice details an entire setting can be evoked. You can’t describe everything, but you can evoke everything if you write not just for what’s in the lines, but what’s between the lines.

When you’ve got nothing …

by Matthew Lowes

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Nothing is a blank page, an empty mind, too little sleep, and a present deadline. But the value of nothing is generally underrated. What use is a bowl without the emptiness inside? What use is a door without a hole to walk through? So here I go, wandering here and there among the words, like a hermit wanders among the woods, noticing this and that, aimless and happy.

As writers, we tend to think writing is a big deal. The more serious we are about it, the bigger a deal it must be. How else will we lend weight to our words? Even, how else will we give purpose to our lives? But all our thoughts are only thoughts. All our words are only words. In the very next moment or in ten billion years they will all amount to nothing. And life is beautiful without any purpose whatsoever.

So if you’re facing a blank page and you’ve got nothing. Don’t despair. In fact, empty yourself even more! Forget the writer you imagine yourself to be or not be. Wipe away all the memories of an ancient past. Discard all predictions of an uncertain future. Beneath your left heel stomp out fear, and beneath your right heel crush all hope. Empty yourself completely. Become nothing … a blank page. And you will see: it is from this nothing, and nothing else, that all things have their origin.

Look around.
The world itself is made of poetry.
Just notice, and transcribe.

Writing at the Limit

Or What I Learned about Writing from Ayrton Senna

by Matthew Lowes

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Image by Gabriele, CC-By-2.0

In the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix qualifiers, Ayrton Senna drove what is widely regarded as the greatest lap in the history of Formula 1 racing. Watching Senna drive his McLaren-Honda MP4/4 through the winding streets of Monaco with 1200 horsepower of turbocharged fury screaming behind his back, one has the sense of seeing something extraordinary happen. And this thing, whatever it is — maybe it’s art — could only happen because of one man’s obsession not just with winning, but with driving at the very limit of what’s possible, with pushing himself into realms unknown.

Anyone who has sat in a chair and stared at a blank page knows writing isn’t nearly as visceral as race car driving. Nevertheless, there are real challenges, and there are physical, emotional, temporal, and technical limits. One must also consider genre and linguistic conventions, internal logic, story structure, characterization, conception, design, and deadlines, all of which present various types of limits within the creative effort. And these limits are not just there to make your life difficult. They are there to present you with incredible opportunities.

We often think of limitations as impediment to our goals, but limits are really the prelude to genius. Without them there is nothing to push against, nothing to strive for in our creative work. In fact, when you consider it, the imagination itself may be a tool evolved to overcome limitations. The ability for creative invention is stimulated by challenges and obstacles. And perhaps only at the limit can we discover the truest and deepest potential of our endeavors.

On race day at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna extended his lead over teammate Alain Prost so far that team managers were telling him on the radio to slow down. But he didn’t slow down. He kept driving as fast as possible, faster than anybody thought possible. Ultimately, he made a mistake, ran into a wall, and lost the race. Some people look at that and say he threw the race away, and sure he was devastated, but when you listen to Senna talk about his experiences you hear a different story. It’s clear that weekend, driving at the absolute limit, he discovered something far greater than winning a race could ever be.

Without any limitations, we might gaze eternally in beatific wonder at the splendor of an undivided universe. Unaware of any limitations we might sit on the sofa and do nothing at all. Neither one will get your novel written, or short story, or whatever it is you’re working on. After all, “the end” is a limit just waiting to be reached. So find some limits — create them if you must — and push against them! Push against them hard enough for long enough, and something extraordinary might happen. Because while writing may not be as visceral as driving the Monaco circuit in an MP4/4, anybody who has felt the wonder of seeing a story come together at their hands, knows it can be just as thrilling.


 

Hear Senna talk about his experience at the Monaco Grand Prix: