If you’re going to write, expose your soul.
I still remember the first time I came across the term ‘write naked’. I was a teenager, so, of course, my brain went right into the gutter. I was shy and a bit terrified of my own body, so I also did a lot of blushing and giggling. You would think, then, that the truth of the phrase would have made me relieved. It did not. If anything, it made me more frightened.
I am from the midwest. We work hard and we don’t complain. We do what we have to and we don’t argue about it or play the victim. We just get it done. We don’t talk about our feelings, for goodness sake. We don’t expose ourselves. Hell, I made an effort to pretend I was so well armored that I’d come out kicking ass. Anytime I failed, especially in high school, it seemed there was always someone who was ready and willing to take advantage of the exposed soft spot (and I had a lot of them, back then). Yet now I was being told to completely open myself up on paper.
The whole idea of opening up to all the things inside scared me silly; the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, laying it out for everyone to examine gave me the shivers. The very thought of pulling out all the pain and letting people see it damn near made me back away from the entire idea of writing. I didn’t and I’m glad that I didn’t. But it was a close call.
Writing naked is one of those things that, once you start doing it, you can’t imagine a time when you didn’t. It isn’t about what you are giving to other people. I have gorilla cases full of notebooks that no-one will ever see, full of everything I felt from the time I was eighteen on. There are some gaps in there, years where I couldn’t quite get myself to write because writing is about truth and, well, I was invested in lying to myself about some pretty big things, so writing became impossible. On the whole, though, the entirety of my being is in those cases and anyone patient enough to read through the notebooks (after they get past my Indiana Jones patented security system) would learn pretty much everything they wanted to know about me.
Naked writing is scary. You have to open up doors you want to keep locked. You have to look through windows you intentionally shuttered so you didn’t have to see the monsters lurking outside. You have to climb up into attics, go down the steps into the basement, and run headlong at the demons you find there, tackle them to the ground, and beat the truth out of them. If you do it right, you come across things you didn’t even know existed within you. Whole worlds can explode and you will learn things that startle, shock, and horrify. You will learn just how much of a stranger you are to yourself and all those pretty lies you tell so that you can get on with being you without having a daily meltdown are stripped away.
Don’t worry. It only hurts for a little bit. Yes, you will discover things about yourself you aren’t proud of. All your weaknesses will be exposed. Lying to yourself will become impossible and you will find yourself faced with the painful truth that you are not perfect after all. Is it worth it? Yes. Definitely. Because you will also find your hidden strengths. At the risk of sounding like a bad self-help book, I can tell you that you will find your truth. If you dig long enough and deep enough, you will find out exactly who you are and the beauty is that, once you know the truth, you can change it if you need to.
Naked writing starts with grabbing hold of something that bites and holding on to it as tight as you can. It doesn’t always hurt, but, if you start with the things you are most afraid of, the things that have porcupine quills and hooked teeth, it gets easier faster. Once the painful things are beaten senseless, you don’t have to be afraid anymore.
I handwrite everything because I feel more of a connection to the words that way and sprint for as long as I can about whatever part of my life I’m examining. This is not structured writing, this is not writing about fiction, this is looking into your own life or the world, finding something that makes you feel, then sitting with it. Handwriting, to me, feels like it creates more of a connection to that. However, I really do handwrite everything, so this medium may work best for me just because I am most comfortable with it. Use whatever suits you best.
Natalie Goldberg says to do these writing practices for ten minutes at a time, but I’ve gone whole days doing ten minute to an hour sprints, each new exploration exposing something else I want to think about on paper. And I have filled notebook after notebook in this manner, ripping myself open and spilling it all out in ink, the good, the bad, the ugly. Why have I been so dedicated to it and how does it pertain to being a better writer? Remember how my ex used to ask me where I got the blue vases? This is where. When you do writing practices like this, you have to have plenty to write about. I start looking at the world more intently and living more fully in it. This practice has made me a better writer, not because it taught me grammar skills or made my handwriting nicer, but because it taught me to let go of rules, be wholly present in everything, and just trust my own self while giving me the chance to find my own way to describe the world. It has developed what everyone calls ‘voice’. Every fiction piece I write echoes the years I’ve spent playing with words, some better than others, and this practice has allowed me to develop the quirks of my writing that make it completely mine.
As humans, we tend to avoid things like naked writing. Don’t poke the bear, don’t get eaten, don’t do anything dangerous, don’t think about the things that hurt you. But, as writers, our job is to shine a light into the dark corners and figure out what is hiding there. You can’t have the courage to do that if you don’t first poke a light around in your own corners. Trust me, once you find the monsters hiding in your head, you’ll never be quite as afraid of the ones you find outside of it. The good news is that it is sort of like lancing an infected boil. Once you start to drain it, you realize you can heal, that you don’t have to keep avoiding those negative thoughts because you are able to steal their thunder and use them in a positive way. In Buddhism, we call this turning poison into medicine. Is it painful? Yes, especially the first time. But do it anyway.
My first writing was done with my best friend, sitting at her kitchen table, drinking her mother’s (amazing) sweet tea by the gallon. I don’t remember exactly what inspired our first writing sessions together, just that it became our normal. It began with poetry, so, naturally, we traded poetry a lot. I grew numb to that terror of someone else reading what I wrote. Then I remember picking up Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down The Bones’ during a bookstore visit. I had an obsession with ghosts and death and anything paranormal, so the title grabbed me. I was hooked from page one, from those first words that drew me in because everything Natalie Goldberg writes is naked. And there, in that book, were those exact words. Write naked. Strive to write from way down deep, where you know exactly what you want to say and don’t be afraid of it.
My best friend and I would sit for hours, reading Natalie’s book out loud to each other, writing page after page, seeking out the dark places. Each time we thought we’d hit bottom, we’d find new depths to explore. We would trade our notebooks, reading what the other wrote and that would inspire new things to write. We had whole conversations that way. That was back when I understood the value of writing vs. speaking, something that I struggle with now. When you speak, no matter how eloquently, the words run out into the air and are quickly lost. Writing keeps them safe. Writing keeps them where you can capture the power and harness everything good about it while forgiving yourself for the bad. A good portion of our discussions were written in paragraphs, almost poetical in their emotion, with barely a single spoken word passing between us. It was a beautiful way to interact with another person; her passion for writing matched my own and sitting there with her, getting right down into the mud of who I was, I felt like I was answering the question of what I was meant for and had pretty damn good company for the ride.
Over time, I’ve gone through periods where this sort of writing has been nearly impossible. Back when I knew my marriage was a sinking ship, I would be lucky to write twenty pages in a year and none of it was good. I shied away from those things that I didn’t want to know about myself, that would have just made me more exposed to the criticisms and constant disapproval of my ex. I shied away from letting myself know that this was a hopeless battle, that we were the Titanic and nobody could close a hole that big. Had I accepted it then, I would have had to leave and I wasn’t done telling myself that loving him was enough. Of course it wasn’t; nothing I ever did was good enough for him and there was no-one there who could tell me I wasn’t worthless because that is the nature of the military; nobody ever gets to know each other all that well before they have to move again. So I ran away from my notebooks, avoided them like they might bite me, told myself I’d write the next day, or the next, and managed, for months at a time, to be okay with that. It didn’t last, though. Always, I seem end up back here, pouring myself out on the page with my ballpoints and my desire to figure out what is really going on and, better yet, find the poetry of my life.
I encourage you to go pick up all of Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing. I encourage you to dive into everything that you are. Be silent, be still, and look deep. All those things you don’t think you can face? They aren’t really that bad. And, even if they are, a festering sore can’t dry out until you cut it open and expose it.
You might ask what the purpose is. How does this make you a better writer? After all, it isn’t like you are writing a memoir, so what good does it do to examine your life, to write poetry, to do these exercises? Because, in connecting with yourself, you are connecting with the divine. You are reaching in and talking about your life, about all the things you know and finding beautiful ways to say them. You are teaching your brain to think in deeper terms. And it will come out in all your writing. You are finding the voice inside you, the one that is always there, because you alone think like you. Writing practice gives you the rock to grab on to when it feels like writer’s block is trying to suck you under and drown you. It isn’t always easy and it sometimes hurts like hell, but practice will always reward you, if you do it enough.
So go on. Go spend ten minutes writing about the dog that died when you were ten, about your grandmother’s habit of shutting you in the closet, about seeing a ghost when you were eight. Write about anything. Write about everything. Find the words that make you fall in love with your whole life. Go find all the blue vases.
Silence is one of the major thresholds of the world. – Anam Cara
I’m a talker. Like, the second I meet you, I’m trying to work my life story into the conversation. I’ll start babbling on about my dogs, horses I’ve ridden, every character I’ve ever imagined. I’m like this unstoppable, babbling machine. I’ll tell you everything you never wanted to know and then some. I’m aware this is a flaw. This wasn’t always true. Had you told me when I was younger that it would ever be an issue – this talking thing – I’d have laughed in your face.
When I was growing up, I hid in the darkest corners. I tried to avoid talking, if at all possible. My single year of Speech for high school English was absolute torture. When I first started writing, I was so quiet that people often forgot I was in the room. When they asked me what I was writing, they were lucky to get a single sentence. I did my talking on paper. I lacked social skills – still do – and I had this desire to listen more than I spoke. Part of that was fear; I was so used to being bullied that I simply assumed there was nothing I could say that was worth anything or that the listener would just start laughing at me. But there was more to it than that. Once I began to write, I was always listening inward, waiting for the words. It was intoxicating; after so long wondering if I had any talent, I’d finally found something I was good at. I had a best friend and this was how we communicated, through our notebooks as we sat writing at her mother’s kitchen table. I can’t really make anyone that isn’t a writer understand what it’s like, to sit down with a pen and just fall into this poetic flow of words that sizzles through your mind like some sort of song, like a fast rap that you have to grab hold of and try to catch as much as possible. The only comparison I can imagine is flying.
Those moments were so wonderful, so perfect that I can still tell you what it was like to sit there, listening to the insects buzzing outside the window, smelling the deep, rich green of summer drifting in through the screens, listening to the scratch of pen on paper and knowing that every single thing about our lives was just fodder for my voice to turn into poetry. Those moments are so clearly etched in the fabric of my being that, if I close my eyes I can be there again and tell you everything about them, right down to the clothes I was wearing. There was this sense of transcendence, as though we were about to be enlightened, and I didn’t care if anything ever changed. In Buddhism, they talk about the eternal now and even though I didn’t have the words for it back then, that is exactly what it was. I was standing right on the edge of enlightenment, so fully present in my own life that those moments still have an impact on me over twenty years later.
Of course, having moments like that, those wild, high hours of pure presence, mean that, when you are struggling, you know you are struggling. Like, really, really know. To the point where it breaks your heart a little because it feels like you’ve been exiled from heaven, somehow, and you aren’t really sure how to get back in. Recently, I’ve been trying to understand why I so often find myself without anything to write about. I’ve begged the universe for signs (and didn’t pay enough attention see them until there was a sense of something very big losing its patience with me). I’ve done sprints and word play. I’ve downloaded plot generators, signed up for classes, denounced waiting for inspiration and motivation in the name of charging on without them, done every writing prompt, and still found that the mysterious connection to the words, that weird and wonderful thing that used to transport me to another, clearer level of being, is missing.
Maybe it is because I don’t have that friend anymore, someone to trade notebooks with, someone I trusted so explicitly that she is still the only person on earth that knows anything about who I really was back then. Maybe it is because I lost the habit of writing about my own life – no-one was around to read it or comment on it, so the conversation became one sided and I lost touch with the desire to explore myself. Does the reason really matter? I didn’t think so. I just wanted it back. So I went on this whole journey trying to understand where I have been going wrong.
Part of my search has involved reading, of course, but I am a reader by nature. Currently, I’m reading four different books at a time and only one of them is allowed to be on writing. I did find it curious when two my most recent books choices in this area suggested not daily writing practice, but sitting in silence and listening inward. But I didn’t quite grasp the importance of this simple act, didn’t quite let myself remember that I’d once been happy to play mute. Then I began a book called Anam Cara – not a writing book – and there, again, a chapter on the importance of silence. And another book on Celtic Shamanism talking about silence. Then yet another book, this one pure fun, in which silence played a major role of inspiration and rebirth. And that’s when I saw the shadow on the ground and realized there was a piano hanging out a fifth story window, just waiting for one little push from the universe – which felt just a little exasperated with me at that point. It’s the sort of realization that makes you shake your head at yourself because the most obvious answer to the issue has been there all along. Which, of course, I knew and very adamantly told myself I did not. All this time, I have been willfully ignoring the one question I should have been asking and kept refusing to answer. Who was I, when this writing thing first grabbed me? What changed?
Back when I began this, I embraced silence. I loved to sit and listen to my own thoughts. Over time, some things changed, partially because of who I became, partially as an attempt to please others – not suggested, fyi – and I forgot how to keep my mouth shut. I forgot to save my words for the page. I was scared to death no-one loved me, so I opened my mouth and tried my best to convince them of my worth by babbling on mindlessly, looking for that thing that would make them smile and say they couldn’t live without me. Yes. Here we are at fear, which is the number one problem I’ve always faced. Only this fear included consistently sabotaging myself for fear that, if I made them wait, they wouldn’t stick around.
Now, I won’t say this is my only problem; I have more issues than Playboy, as we used to say, but this is one of those simple things, one of those fixable things. And it is clear that someone or something was trying to get that through to me; so many things were pointing clearly to my tendency to ramble on, unable to embrace silence the way I once did. Unable to be still. I was so busy babbling, so busy chasing updates on Facebook and trying to find something worth watching on television, so busy trying to bring some external meaning to my life, that there was no stillness left inside or out. My talking issues are very closely linked to a lot of other things, just to be clear. My need to check Facebook (don’t want to be left out), my need to post random, silly things (pay attention to me), my endless talking (will someone just confirm that I still exist and that I matter), all of it is part of the same thing, that fear that nobody would notice if I was gone. So there was only one thing to do about that. Get real quiet and vanish into the wall, if only to remind myself that, once, I’d found comfort in just that.
And there, my dears, is the advice of this post. Be silent. Be still. Stop worrying what Sarah is eating for lunch (or who she is eating it with). Stop telling your stories to people who won’t remember them tomorrow. Spoken words evaporate like a drop of water on Arizona asphalt in the middle of summer. Catch your words before they escape your mouth and channel them down into your hand, instead. Learn to love listening because that is what this job is really all about.
Sit someplace quiet and, for a while, at least, listen to what is going on inside instead of chasing external obsessions. Stop talking. Let yourself be quiet. Inspiration is like a butterfly. It does not choose to land on those who aren’t patient enough to stay still and wait. You can chase the butterfly, but, in doing so, you run the risk of tearing his wings or chasing him away for good. In silence and inward reflection, we meet our true selves and hear the words that really matter to us, the ones we really want and need to write. It is a beautiful and terrifying act of willful denial. To turn off the television. To put down the phone. To just sit with yourself. It is in our nature to shrink from such things. But if you want to write well, the first person you need to know – flaws, desires, and greatest wishes – is yourself. The first voice you need to listen for is the small and quiet one from within and it will only ever whisper. So be silent with me, if only for a few minutes. Sit and listen to what your inner voice is saying. Facebook will be there in ten minutes, tomorrow, next week. But if you deny your inner voice for long enough, it might just vanish forever.