“Children are extremely perceptive and absorb what goes on around them long before they can talk or even comprehend language. They are like finely tuned receivers that pick up much more than is merely said. They are receptive and attuned to every mood, feeling, and change that goes on in people around them.”
– Theodore Isaac Rubin
I just got back from an amazing week in Historic New Harmony where my friend Terry Price and I led a week-long retreat for writers called West of the Moon Retreat. It was our third year doing the retreat and, somehow, each year tops the last.
One of the underlying intentions for the week was to encourage the writers to be RECEPTORS or RECEIVERS (i.e. to more RECEPTIVE – like those old Pioneer and Bose receivers that allowed stereos to pick up so much extra musical goodness that was bouncing around the stratosphere).
We invited them to be OPEN to whatever sort of inspiration might present itself rather than going into each writing session with preconceptions about how their inspiration would come to them.
There’s a need to approach each writing session with a specific intention, a focus, but we discussed how writers often go into a session expecting their inspiration to come in a specific way. As a result, we set our dials and tune in to that one way and we tend to dismiss so many other signals instead of recognizing that our body and our unconscious mind reach out to us in a variety of ways.
After showing the writers a series of yoga poses (not to be confused with ninja moves) put together in a brief sequence for the purpose of opening them up for those myriad signals (any image, color, word, sensation, etc), I finally had my own chance to walk the walk, so to speak. And what a walk it turned out to be.
Generally, Terry and I don’t get much time to write during the retreat, as we have to keep up on everything, but by Thursday afternoon prep time gives way to writing time and I managed to sneak about 45 minutes in while sitting on one of the colorful chairs located on the main corner in town (just outside Sara’s Harmony Way which houses a delightful coffee shop on one side and the town’s charming wine bar on the other).
Now, I should probably reiterate here what I have posted before – I have a jiffy-pop brain and my thoughts are not only popping all over the place, constantly, but I am also quite easily distrac-pretty bird. Oops, my apologies.
I have always had a difficult time focusing and my thoughts get caught in the tractor beam of everything passing by on the periphery of my life (movement, colors, sounds . . . oooh, there’s that damn bird again). Carrying on a simple conversation during a TV show or at a basketball game is often difficult for me, as I can’t tune out the sound or the action going on around me.
I mention that because, although quite peaceful and beautiful, sitting at the main intersection in a small town (the only four-way “stop” with a light, which causes traffic to change pace, to become more noticeable) might not have been the best idea given my limited time to write and my propensity to pop.
Now, I had sat in that same chair last year and wrote quite a bit, only I had done so later at night when the town was quiet (things tend to quiet down in New Harmony by 8:00pm). Last year I had no trouble tuning out the birds.
At mid-day, however, I learned that despite New Harmony being such a small town, that main intersection is one happening place with vehicle after vehicle driving through (most of them doing the infamous “rolling stop” and never actually stopping) before turning left and heading out of town or turning right and heading back toward the Inn.
I know that none of them actually stopped because each time a car or a truck or a bike or a pedestrian pulled up to the flashing four-way stop light, I looked.
Yep. Every. Stinking. Time.
Of course, I was doing exactly what I had warned everyone not to do all week long.
I finally had a chance to write, a brief window, and I’d sat down with the intention of creating a new poem about Chris and Ann, the two main characters from my YA novel-in-verse. But I had a preconceived idea as to how that poem was supposed to unfold, how my muse was going to inspire me.
And I kept being interrupted by those darn cars until one of them squealed all the way through its pseudo-stop.
It sounded so much like a wounded animal – whimpering and creeping.
All the while, I had been trying to control my thoughts and my initial response was to resist the distractions. To try to ignore the traffic of life, but that’s when I had my epiphany. I remembered what I had been preaching all week.
BE RECEPTIVE . . . TO ANYTHING. TO EVERYTHING!
I had told those writers, over and over, to be open to sounds and sensations, to images and colors and words, to whatever came to them.
I listened to that squeal. I watched that car drive away, and suddenly I envisioned Ann pulling up all noisy like that and offering Chris a ride. I let go of my preconceptions and was receptive to what was coming at me and suddenly I was immersed in a new poem that unfolded on its own and took me exactly where I needed to go.
I couldn’t have scripted it better.
Armed with this reminder, I explored New Harmony the next day after most of the writers had left for home. And I had several more instances of success.
That morning, I went back to the same corner, though I sat in a different spot. I finished the new poem about Chris and Ann, but my attention kept being pulled to that flashing traffic light and to the fact that no one actually stopped.
Suddenly I was writing a poem about that light. A new poem that fit with the overall story.
After a bit, though, I wasn’t feeling that spot any longer so I took a walk and settled on my favorite bench in the town’s park, the hot sun beating down. That’s the thing I noticed most and I allowed myself to explore Chris’s experiences with the sun while he practiced football.
After spending over an hour-and-a-half working on a couple new poems, I went back to my room and got my camera. I decided I was being pulled toward some of the visual treats I’d been observing all week and I spent the next hour exploring New Harmony through a different lens.
Then without realizing it, I accidentally hit a button on my camera (there are so many) and I changed a setting (see results to the left), one I hadn’t changed in so long that I’d forgotten how to turn it back.
So I grabbed my sketch book and made some rather poor renderings of what I was witnessing. In the process, though, I also opened up to a visual “spark” for another poem and was soon writing again.
I continued with these activities over the next two days.
On Monday morning, I started my drive back to NY with the intention of writing a new football poem (I often write while driving or running) or a new poem about Chris interacting with his family, but the traffic was so thick in spots on the Interstate that I was struggling getting started.
The sky was so crowded with fat gray clouds that I found myself continuously drawn to them and then I realized what was happening, so I started writing a new poem about the gray sky and the rain and how it related to the changes in Chris’s life.
Then I wrote a poem about a storm for a book of poetry I am also working on titled Hurricane (a completely different project from the novel-in-verse).
As I continued on the Interstate, I thought about how Chris probably felt with his life in such upheaval learning that he has to move to a new town and I contemplated the temptation we sometimes get to run away. Suddenly I was writing another poem. A poem that was necessary for the story. A scene I hadn’t even thought about prior to that moment in the car.
Later that morning, despite intending to focus on the novel-in-verse, I drove for nearly an hour with my thoughts going to another story entirely. A chapter book for which I had written the first chapter sometime in early Spring and hadn’t consciously thought about for weeks.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, over the past few months, I guess I had been trying to work my way through the question of who one of the main characters (an antagonist of sorts and a key character in the story) was going to be – his name, background, and so on.
Somehow, as I was driving, as I was passing a big truck, something about its name struck me. Rather than forcing myself to focus on the novel-in-verse, I just let go and was receptive, and suddenly I had the character’s name and how he came to be an integral part of one of the protagonists’ lives.
Following that thread led me, somehow, all on its own, back to the novel-in-verse and, as the miles passed beneath me, I worked on a second poem about running away.
I’m not sure if any of the writing I did in New Harmony or on the trip back to NY will be good enough to make it into the final revision of any of the books I’m working on, but that will come out when I sit down to rework each piece and to polish it.
For the initial writing, though, allowing myself the freedom of not caring how good the writing is, or how much sense it seems to make, and by being open to whatever sort of signals come my way has helped me keep at the page, and keep moving forward, and keep developing my craft.
It has allowed me the opportunity to continue to do this thing I love. This thing I hope to do for as long as possible.
If you’re pursuing your own creative passion and you find yourself struggling from time to time, take a breath, and give yourself permission to be open to anything (sounds, images, ideas that don’t seem relevant, words, names, sensations or emotions . . .).
Even if the signal you’re receiving doesn’t seem in any logical way related to your project. Perhaps, especially then. Chances are, by the time you get through, it will sort itself out. Chances are, if you’re like me, you’ll discover key elements to your story or your work that you hadn’t even been consciously aware of yet.
But the body knows. The unconscious mind knows.
And they’re often screaming at us, squealing right there in front of us, trying to get our attention, trying to help us out. And often, all the while, we try to resist and to ignore. All the while we try to force our way through things, we wait for some preconceived spark to some and miss it as a result.
Herman Hesse claimed: “Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.”
Goals are great and are helpful, but they are outcome based and can act as anchors if that’s what we get stuck focusing on. That’s the beauty of setting an intention, of giving yourself a gentle nudge in a particular direction, and then letting go and being receptive to anything. That’s when we end up “finding!”
Take a breath. Be receptive.
Have fun delving into the unknown, into the unexpected. You might just be surprised at the wonderful things you find there.