Write Well, Live Well

The third of six essential points from the Shambhala Art weekend that I’m reviewing can be summarized in this sentence:

“In art, as in life generally, we need to study our craft, develop our skills, and absorb the knowledge and insight passed down by tradition.”
from page 1 of True Perception

The alternative to this approach, Trungpa says, is very “hit or miss”. A novice can pick up a brush and create a profound work of art but only rarely.

I see this to be true when teaching poetry in schools. Visiting second grade classrooms once a week for two months ensures that almost every student will write a great poem. The creative process itself is beautiful for that reason. But these students invariably struggle the way all artists struggle when confronting a blank page or empty canvas or lump of clay. Confidence falters, and fear arises. My role in the classroom is to bolster students’ confidence so that their natural creativity can shine.

The best and most sustainable means of generating confidence is practice. The more someone has a successful creative experience, the more confident he or she will be in the possibility of having more such experiences. In fact, there comes a point when a master artist discovers that the creative experience is available every moment, always.

The two most effective creative practices for writers mastering their craft are (1)writing and (2)reading. My daily writing practice is founded on my journaling (morning pages per Julia Cameron) but also includes writing fiction, poetry, and blogs. My teacher, James Baker Hall, called it priming the pump. “Maybe,” he said, “maybe poets can wait for inspiration but to write fiction you have to write everyday and prime the pump.”

Walter Mosely says the same and makes a comparison with therapy: one can’t expect the same results from a month of therapy sessions as from one four hour session. He explains that the unconscious part of the mind works in between sessions, so the results are much greater than what could come from the conscious mind only. Likewise, the unconscious mind works on the story in between writing sessions, so when the writer returns to the page the unexpected happens.

Creative reading eliminates fear and generates confidence. Generally, I have several books going at one time: something nonfiction, a novel or short story collection, and a book of poems. My nonfiction interests include psychology, religion, critical theory, and philosophy, especially mathematical philosophy. I’ve been using the Poetry App and listening to Writer’s Almanac to find poetry. I also receive short poems from the people I follow at MYKUWorld. I don’t write MYKUs daily, but I do read them.

Occasionally I read online pubs for short stories, but I’m a bit of a Goldilocks. I don’t like stories that are too short, and I don’t like stories that are too long. My preference for online reading is 2000 to 4000 words. For printed text I can appreciate short shorts and long stories, as well as novels. Lately, the advice to re-read has started to sink in. I’m revisiting a novel I read several months ago, this time with a highlighter and pen for note taking.

The practices of creative reading and writing develop two skills necessary to write well: confidence and fearlessness. The process is simple but takes time and dedication. What really has my interest is that the process is the same for learning life skills. The first practice is live responsibly, be present and aware, respond to life. The second practice is connect with teachers and relate to everyone as such. Through both these practices come confidence and fearlessness.


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  • […] of Shambhala art are outlined: attitude of directness; the artist embodies the viewer and creator; study of craft, development of skills, and acquisition of knowledge; a total sense of confidence; appreciation of things as they are; expression without struggle of […]