May 13, 2015

Uncharted Territory

One of the cool (read: terrifying) things about writing is that you're always striking out into uncharted territory. You might be on the road to publication and enduring the sinking-swimming sensation of querying or the ulcer-inducing reality of being on submission. Or you might just be writing, which is in itself gut wrenching enough, with the constant push to improve your craft and find your heart.

That bit about finding your heart is perhaps the most challenging.

I'm a firm believer that anyone can learn the craft of writing with enough study and practice. Writing is a skillset. That skillset can be enhanced by what we call talent--a natural propensity for the skillset--but writing is still just a learned skill. We all start out tracing letters and filling in blanks. Where we go from there varies. Some of us discover a passion for story early on, while others take a while to get there. The idea, though, is that at some point, it's not our minds but our hearts that demand we write.

You hear a lot of writers talk about the "story of their heart." I think that phrase is a bit misleading, because there's not just one story of your heart. Just as you can love multiple people, or pets, or flavors of ice cream, you can love different stories. The key, though, is figuring out how to tap into that love in the first place.

When you're early in the journey of writing craft, many stories call to you. If the puzzle pieces fit together, you're hooked. They key is understanding that you might just be hooked on the fact that the story works, and not the content itself. That's okay. That's how you learn. That's also how you end up querying a book that doesn't pan out, or going on sub and coming up short. Your early passion for writing is productive, but it can lack that zing of emotional heart.

How do we tap into our own hearts?

I attended a workshop with Meg Rosoff last fall that keeps bouncing around in my head whenever I think about this topic. She talked about the unconscious mind, and how it holds onto the things that matter to us, the things that resonate in our emotional cores. It follows that tapping into your heart requires tapping into your unconscious mind.

There are lots of different ways to tap into your unconscious mind, the center of you. Some of them are as easy as shutting your eyes and allowing your mind to wander. In yoga, we call this shavasana. You assume a comfortable position and sit still. You shut your eyes, and listen to your breath. In and out, in and out. When the grocery list pops into your mind, you acknowledge it and send it away. You try to only hear your breath, think of your breath, and let your muscles sink into the earth. Your mind will slow down. It will start to wander. And after a while (it'll feel like ages but only be about 5-7 minutes) little blips of light will pop through. These blips, these random thoughts, are your subconscious talking to you. By actively releasing your conscious mind, the boss who runs all the things, you allow those inner thoughts to come forward. When you reach this state, ask yourself: what matters to me? You'll likely be overwhelmed by the emotion that surfaces.

For some people, this emotional release occurs when running or walking. For others, when they recount their dreams or listen to music. Give yourself the time and space to tap in. Practice it regularly. You will gain better access to your emotional core, and all of the distractions will fall away. Once those distractions are gone, you'll know what matters to you. Is it the video of a police beating that went unprosecuted? Is it the memory of your grandmother? Is it the struggle of your oldest child, who cannot sit still, who won't tell you their secrets any more, and who you fear for in the worst of ways?

There are things that matter, and there are things that MATTER. Find the things that matter to you. Follow them into uncharted territory to find the heart of your stories.


  1. I love this. It's true - the most emotionally resonant stories come from our deepest selves. Next time I do yoga I'm going to stay in shavasana a little longer and see what floats to the surface.

    1. Thanks, Beth! It is so easy to get overrun by all of the noise. It really is nice to stop and let ourselves feel things.

  2. I don't spend enough quiet time just letting my mind work. This is a great reminder. Thanks for this post.


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