The Inner Voice and Outer Flow of Writing

woman surrounded by crumpled paper (Image by ginasanders)Writer’s Block, Al Green and Happy Feet

Have you ever sat down to write, only to feel an immense resistance to getting started?  You’ve tried every “trick of the trade” for giving the inner editor the slip or for creating a welcoming space for the muse, but the ideas are just … not … flowing.  Maybe you’ve been following all the advice and strategies that are supposed to at least facilitate, if not guarantee, writing success but your writing style feels contrived and the topic is leaving you as flat as an out-of-tune piano.

If you are writing in a voice or style that isn’t fully yours alone, why would you expect it to sound anything but flat and forced? If your soul’s melody is a baroque symphony and your natural style edges toward eloquently written essays or epics, let’s face it: You’re not going to be happy writing the equivalent of short little ditties or commercial jingles, even though other writers may love and excel at those formats.  Similarly, if you are writing on a topic because that’s what you think you “should” be covering but it doesn’t resonate with you, it’s difficult to craft an inspired piece of writing.  No matter what writing techniques you use to jazz it up, that flat, uninspired tone is going to linger in the background.

I heard an interesting story, a while back, about the singer Al Green.  Apparently when he was first starting out, he wasn’t quite hitting the mark in terms of capturing a lot of listeners.  The reason, apparently, was because he was trying to sing like the Soul music guru of his early days—James Brown—rather than sounding like himself.  If you’ve heard either of them sing, you know that Al Green’s voice is silky smooth compared to James Brown’s grittier vocals.   Now I’m sure he did a great job of trying to sound like James Brown, but Al Green became a whole lot more successful after his producer persuaded him to embrace and build on the strengths of his own vocal style.

One of the best examples that comes to my mind of being true to how you express your inner self  is the character “Mumble” in the movie Happy Feet.  Remember the little Emperor penguin who couldn’t find his unique heart-song or hold a note to save his place in his community? He was ostracized for his perceived “failure” and “refusal” to conform to the norm, but he wasn’t trying to be difficult or contrary. It’s just that his soul wasn’t meant to express itself through song: He had happy feet, a great sense of rhythm, and was meant to express his spirit through dancing, not singing.

Dammed if you do and damned if you don’t

If you’re feeling resentful and resistant to writing yet another piece that doesn’t resonate for you, maybe it’s time to stop struggling with something that clearly isn’t working and check in with your inner wisdom to find out what the resistance is about.  You can also stop beating up on yourself because you can’t seem to:

(a) slip past your inner editor,

(b) get your muse enthused,

(c) convert all of the advice from the writing gurus into something you’d be happy to publish, or

(d) even put your finger on the source of the block.

The “problem” is not that you can’t follow instructions.  The “problem” might just be that your soul’s purpose for writing has been buried under what the ego thinks is the sole purpose for writing; recognition, fame, attracting a large following of readers or potential clients through your books or blog, or however you define success by external standards.  I’m not denying they’re valid reasons for writing.  After all, if your writing is the vehicle through which you serve the world and make your living, you do need readers and clients.  I am suggesting that in getting caught up in the perceived importance of external feedback and input, we might be overlooking a vitally important source of guidance in our lives.

In the process of trying too hard to please others or pandering to the ego’s agenda, maybe you’ve unwittingly fallen into replicating someone else’s model for producing their masterpiece and followed the dictates of “conventional wisdom” too well.  Rather than serving as useful guides or material you could use to support the river banks of your expressive flow, the plethora of observations and “how to” advice has either dammed the flow or diverted the flow by changing the nature of its intended course. You’ve blocked your inner wisdom and unique voice—the true wellspring of your creativity and inspiration.

I recently found myself in this situation.  I knew I “should” really be writing a blog article that was short, sweet and helpful on a topic related to my business.  But the more I forced myself to write something that was short, focused, and practical, the more resentful and disengaged I began to feel.  Instead of enjoying and immersing myself in the writing process, resistance set in and the few sentences that I would churn out felt constrained and contrived.  I think it’s one of the few times that the inner editor and the muse collaborated and went on strike until I came to my senses and listened to their demands.

I spent some time fretting and running circles in the mental hamster wheel before I remembered to dig out my copy of Make Light Work (Kate Sutherland, 2010) and plunge into the work that reconnected me with the voice of my inner wisdom.  I also used some of the suggestions outlined in Julia Cameron’s Finding Water: the Art of Perseverance (2006), and a few of my own ideas to shape and guide my quest.

dreamstime_5254457_birth of a river (image by Panagiolis Risvas)Restoring the Flow

If you are—or have been—feeling similarly dammed (pun intended), I invite you to journey to your sacred wellspring and remove the debris that is preventing your inner voice and wisdom from flowing freely on to the page.  Your discoveries and decisions emerging out of this process will most likely differ from mine—as they should.  If you are inclined to share any of your discoveries and experiences along the way, I invite you to post a comment and/or additional suggestions.

I’ve outlined the steps below that I used to reconnect with my inner vision (purpose) and create a clear course for what inspires and wants to flow through me in my voice and on to the page.  The process requires both some inner journeying and outer activity.  We’ll start with the inner journey and move outward.

1.  Upstream Walkabout: This is a self-guided visualization and inner journey.  The visualization was inspired by some of the images in my favourite tarot deck (The Arthurian Tarot by John and Caitlin Matthews) that spontaneously sprang to mind while I was meditating.  Make yourself comfortable and let’s get started.

Imagine that you are out walking and you have found a mostly dried-up creek bed with a foot-path running along beside the creek.  You are not sure how long ago the creek dried up but there is no sense of the invigorating energy generated by a creek:  Instead, there are a few shallow pools of stagnant water, the mud in the stream bed is only slightly damp, and some of the reeds growing out of the mud have started to dry out.

You are curious about what happened to the creek, so you decide to follow the creek to its source—to the wellspring where it first bubbles up from underground—and see if you can restore the flow of water and heal the surrounding habitat.  You follow the path along the side of the creek and you are aware of an unnatural silence.  As you continue to walk upstream, the landscape shifts and becomes more heavily wooded, and still there are no sounds or signs of life.

You walk for another 10 minute and soon you hear a faint dripping sound.  You look over and see the place where the creek should surface, but it is clogged with debris—as if someone had tried to dam the flow of water or maybe divert it from its natural course.  You see an animal standing there, as if it has been waiting for you.  In fact, it has been waiting for you and much to your surprise it starts talking to you.  The animal tells you what happened to the stream and asks you to unblock the spring and thus heal the land.

You walk over to the spring and you start to clear away the debris—human made objects, rocks, branches, and mud. Finally, you move the last stone and cool, clear water bubbles up and spills into the creek bed once more.  It dances over your hands and feet as it rushes downhill, gurgling and babbling with joy at being free to run its course again.  The sound of the flowing water and the sense of freshness and renewed energy generated by the water’s movement is healing and rejuvenates you, too, as you walk back along the path to where you started.

Return to the present moment and take some time to write about the experience.  What kind of animal greeted you at the spring?  What did it tell you?  How does the meditation relate to your own sense of flow being blocked?

2.   Temporarily tune out the advice and wisdom of the experts. The idea is to spend some time reconnecting with the voice of your inner wisdom—your Self.  It’s difficult to do that if you’re constantly looking outside of yourself for answers and advice, no matter how wise or accurate it may be.  Once you’ve figured out how your inner knowing speaks to you, what inspires you, and how that wants to be expressed in the world, it’s easier to discern what will support and what will impede the development of your own voice and style especially if that flows counter to the conventional wisdom.

3.   Get some fresh air—literally and figuratively. Unplug from the computer.  Take a break from the writing that is currently leaving you feeling discouraged, blocked or otherwise out of sorts with your Self.  Pushing yourself to do more of the same is not going to suddenly yield dramatically different results.  I find that going for a walk through a park or by a river helps me to tune into both the present moment and the voice of my inner knowing.

For a figurative breath of fresh air, you might want to try this strategy from Julia Cameron’s book Finding Water.  Write a list of ten activities that you enjoy doing and then do them.  Whether you go outside for some fresh air or you choose to engage in another activity you like, do it mindfully and, to borrow a pearl of wisdom from Make Light Work, notice what you notice.  Be open to what catches your attention, what makes your curiosity perk up, what inspires you and make a note of it, even if it’s just a few sentences or key words in a journal.

4.   Give yourself permission to simply write what wants to come through you. Trust that when the writing is guided by your inner knowing and the subject resonates deeply with you, the words will flow effortlessly onto the page.  (You’ll still have to edit the piece, but getting a first draft onto the page will be a lot easier and whole lot more joyful.)  My guess is the piece will feel inspired and exude a genuine engagement with the subject.  It’s likely that most of your readers will also notice this and respond in kind.

You may lose a few readers or potential clients who have fixed ideas about what they think you “should” be writing about and what they consider to be an appropriate “format”, but so what? You might also gain some new readers or potential clients who also “get” what you’re really about.  They want to work with you or read your blog or books because you radiate a heart-felt engagement with your writing and you honour rather than constrain the natural flow of things, whether it’s a topic that needs a 4,000 word essay, or a one page “how to..” article.

5.  Give it the light touch. Sometimes we just care too much about whether we’re doing things “the right way” (read that as entrenched and often unquestioned), whether others will like us or our writing, or whether we’re successful according to some vaguely defined set of standards “out there”.  If all the external debris and hubris has squelched whatever joy you originally got from writing, it might just be time to gleefully exclaim “Undam it all”, and let your inner wisdom and vision flow freely.

December 1, 2010   Posted in: Writing process

6 Responses

  1. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now - December 2, 2010

    I love the stream meditation. Sometimes we need to get out of our own heads to get the written word down.

    I know I get too caught up in being perfect. Once I stop forcing myself to write well and just let whatever comes without judgment I find the writing energy starts to flow.

  2. Susan - December 2, 2010

    Hi Karl,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the meditation. It just unfolded spontaneously one day and it was a lot of fun to writeYes we do need to get out of our own heads, sometimes, in order to write effectively. Whether the pressures and blocks come from internal sources (perfectionism) or from a sense of overwhelm as a result of trying to please too many people or follow too many (sometimes conflicting) sources of advice, it’s hard to even hear what our own inner wisdom says, let alone step aside and just let it flow through onto the page.

  3. Kate - December 3, 2010

    Hi Sue,
    What a WONDERFUL Blog post. I experience it as one that flowed for you: It is a joy to read — truly walking what you are talking.

    Everything rings true to my experience of writing. It is also gloriously relevant to public speaking, another place where people recommend countless tips and strategies, all of which take me further from my authentic voice. I love the visualization. I moved a big block.

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. Walter - December 3, 2010

    You have mad me think about my approach to writing. Frankly, there have been many times that I force ideas to come up, yet in vain. I don’t understand why until you have eloquently explained it here. I think it’s important to be true to ourselves when we write. :-)

  5. Susan - December 4, 2010

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for the feedback on the blog post and I’m really glad to hear the visualization was helpful for you. I can see where the same kinds of overwhelm with all the suggestions and tips for public speaking could also start to get one questioning one’s own inner wisdom if it runs counter to “conventional wisdom”. You are in a more fortunate position than many because you do have that established relationship with your inner wisdom and authentic voice so you know when something is not a good fit for you and either needs to be altered or you need a tailor made outfit or approach.

    Many of the tips and strategies on writing, speaking, time management, what have you, generally do contain a general principle that’s useful to understand (although we may not see it if it isn’t written in the “language” that our Selves resonate with), but if the strategy doesn’t resonate for us it will leave us feeling less rather than more connected to our authentic voice. The trick is to get past believing that our only option is that we have to take the information presented to us as it is. We don’t. We can choose to not buy the outfit at all, get it altered so it is more flattering to us, or opt for a personalized, tailor made approach that fits perfectly and reflects our individuality. I look forward to hearing what your inner wisdom decides to do about creating an approach to public speaking that works for you.

  6. Susan - December 4, 2010

    Hi Walter,

    Glad to hear the article was helpful to you. Yes, it is so important to be true to our wise inner selves when we write. When we trust that inner wisdom and write about what truly inspires us, it makes all the difference to the overall tone of the piece. Good luck with your writing endeavors.

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