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SLANT LETTER: What Writers Can Do to Protect Your Inner Life
“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
You’ve heard poet Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life, yes?
The only problem—and it’s a problem of our own making—is that our attentions are so divided these days. The joke about our brains having too many tabs open is less a meme and more of an hourly reality. I just counted mine right now: eleven. Not to mention the seven email drafts, instant message window, no less than three Word docs, and who-knows-how-many sticky notes (both digital AND analog), that I toggle between on the daily with just about as much grace as a giraffe on ice.
Oliver’s trifecta is inspiring advice. So why do we so often fumble at the very first charge? Our best intentions, it seems, dead in the water.
This drives sobering questions.
If resonant writing flows from a rich inner life, how can writers cultivate and protect such a delicate interior in our constant-content culture? What are the upstream practices able to sustain a writer’s creative core? How can we resist the noise enough to create from a soulful space?
As an editor of writers who are wrestling these questions, and as a finite human being who is haunted by them myself, I have high stakes in these tensions and how we might better pilot through them. As I bet you do, too. The conversation seems to be rising like a fever pitch, for good reason.
I believe creatives today are facing a crisis of our attentions. It will take nothing less than upstream resistance to reclaim the interior space we need to create the art we most long for [tweet this].
This is why I’m excited to be hosting a circle discussion on this topic at next month's Festival of Faith and Writing. The circle registration is now full, but if you’re headed to Grand Rapids for this biennial gathering for writers and readers, I look forward to seeing you there! Be sure to check out the other circle options as well, which makes me wish I could pull a Hermione and time-turner my way to join them all at once. This will be my sixth Festival (I can hardly believe it) and I wholeheartedly commend it to anyone who geeks out on a good word (read: you!).
But I also want to host a wider discussion here for us to compare notes, because what we're talking about is the task of a lifetime. More on that in a minute, but first, I think I’ll tell a story.
One of my favorite reads on the power of creative focus, that I discovered years ago, is an article called “There Is No That.”
Opening scene: it’s a Saturday night in 2013, and a writer is writing alone.
He lives in Manhattan, and imagines the glitzy parties with interesting people and literary luminaries studded throughout the city and its wide night, parties he was not invited to. But this writer has work to do, and that’s exactly what he does.
“I wish someone had told me, so now I’m telling you,” he says. “The party you imagine is happening. It’s full of gorgeous and fascinating people. But it’s not the artists...They’re busy...They’re tiptoeing into their offices and firing up their laptops, or heading into their studio and confronting the canvas. It’s Saturday night and it’s late. And they’re working.”
He knows the secret: if you want to write, you have to be relentlessly choosy about where you are spending your energies [tweet this]. You have to muscle up against your own fear of missing the fun and spring for the far less intriguing option of opting out.
I imagine this writer on a Saturday night setting up shop to get to work. I bet you he put his phone to bed hours ago. Not that it would change much, because I bet he doesn’t have any notifications linked to his screens. Maybe he has even turned off the wifi on his laptop. Maybe he has closed everything except for a single document, a single space he has carved out for himself where he can focus all his energies.
I bet this writer opts out of a lot of things. I also bet he is capable of quite a lot for that very reason.
That’s the plot twist, isn’t it?
The real party, the reward we’re ever after, is never “out there.” The real prize is interior—creative work that is mined with care from a writer’s inner world [tweet this]. This writer knew the secret we would do well to practice: when we devote our full attention to our craft, the craft becomes its own reward.
I’ve read this article half a dozen times over the years but this time brought with it a first: I had never before looked the writer up to see where he is today. I was curious to see where life had taken him since that Saturday night in 2013. Do you know what my search results told me? “Myke Cole’s debut novel won the 2013 Compton Crook Award.” And that, my friends, says it all.
Here's what I'd like to do: I'd like to tackle this question of how to protect our creative life in future SLANT LETTER issues to come, because there is so much more to be said. And I'd love to hear from you! What are your practices for staying curious, curating your input sources, and opting out of the race-to-the-bottom-of-mortal-knowledge also known as the internet?
I’m all ears. Please reply here and let me know.
Mary Oliver’s trifecta is as good advice as ever. The trick is in the follow-through: and that’s the fight, my friends. Cheering you on in it.
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, and I hope you find some encouragement here.
P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
P.P.S. // Find a Good Thing Here?
This letter is this editor's off-hours labor of love. If you've found something useful here, please pass it on! You can forward this message to a writer friend, share this post, or the subscribe link here.