I’m at a dinner party with a total stranger sitting by my side. With someone like you perhaps. When you hear that I am a writer, you will undoubtedly ask me polite questions, many of which I’ve heard numerous times before. I imagine this exchange happens to you as well as me—as dinner partners eating our rubber chicken.
The same set of questions seems to be inevitable. Some are predictable. Some not. Some better than others because they are more interesting than the olive floating in the once popular gin martini. There is the ubiquitous, “Are you on the bestseller list?” Or, “Have you written anything I’ve read?” And, finally, “Where is your book available?” (This last one always makes me hopeful that perhaps you will actually look for whatever is my latest.)
None of these questions are terrible, so don’t be afraid to ask them next time you are at a dinner party with a writer you’ve never met before, eating your rubber chicken. It just that there’s one more question, the “other” question, the one people may think about but don’t often voice, which is much more thought provoking. “Where does your inspiration come from?” is a real conversation starter.
Sometimes I’ll feel a little bit hesitant, maybe shy, about answering—if I’m going to come up with something more truthful than “the newspaper” or “other people’s books.” While those answers are not lies, in order to be entirely honest, I need to be personal about myself. Plus, I worry that what I have to say may be too incomprehensible to understand for someone I barely know. (Or even, possibly, for a close friend.) Nevertheless, as you read this blog, you may be the stranger I fantasize about, the one curious about the source of my creativity. Because I am attempting to be “like an open book” today, I will take a stab at telling you how it all works for me.
Ideas for novels, memoirs, essays, articles and blogs reside in a drawer in my mind. Occasionally I’ll read something on the Internet, hear a detail about a friend’s life, watch a show on television, learn about a current event, or even receive a baby announcement, and then file it away in my drawer. However, such organization only helps on the surface. At this point, it’s just an idea, not something I’m ready to write about.
The drawer just isn’t enough. An idea is just an idea. To elevate it to the point where I can begin to put it into words—where I have something to say or visualize or shape—requires much more than pulling that drawer open.
Every morning before getting down to work at nine, I prepare for the required journey. It is, in fact, an inward one. Luckily, there are practical rituals needed first, those that let me fudge a little on time—and which allow me to work up a bit of courage as well. I turn on my computer, but steadfastly do not look at e-mail. Put out a pad of paper and pen just in case I need it. Silence the phone. Microwave a mug of coffee left over from breakfast. Then sit down.
My stomach cramps as I look with dread at the blank space now staring back at me. The machine is ready for whatever I can manage to wring from my imagination, but I am not. And that’s because I’ve got to get “there” first. And “there” does not mean sitting here comfortably in my swivel chair and playing footsie with the Dalmatians sleeping at my feet.
“Where are you going?” you—my mythical dinner partner—may ask. (Another great question.) The only answer I can give is that I simply have to dive, down deep, into a fathomless place. I stand poised like a cliff diver, on a rock ledge miles above the Pacific Ocean—not above the calm blue waves that lap the shores of L.A., but instead above the gray and choppy ones that beat on the shores of Northern California. The wind is relentless and I shiver. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”
I push off. My feet leave the rock ledge far behind, as I free-fall through the air to strike the slate surface of the sea. It matters not whether my dive is graceful or clumsy, it only matters that I hit the water without killing myself.
Swimming downward arm over arm, I hold my breath for a very long time, looking for something that I can grab, capture and push off with, back upward to the surface. But there is nothing yet. The motion of the waves subsides as I go deeper. Fish fan their fins as I pass. The ocean here has no bottom, just as my mind has no bottom. And now you must ask, “To where are you diving, and at what do you aim?” And I must answer, quietly, “At my unconscious, which is endless and filled with gems.”
In Diving Into the Wreck, the poet Adrienne Rich writes:
“I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.”
When Rich speaks of a wreck, to me she is talking about the unconscious—that wellspring where all creativity hides. When writers say they are “blocked,” they mean they can’t get down to that shipwreck, which lies sideways on the sand with seaweed streaming from its mast. They can’t get let go of their conscious minds enough to struggle down deep and find the words buried there.
Trying to “think” of what you need to write about doesn’t work, because that sort of intellectual process is floating way back up on the surface of the waves, to which you will eventually safely return—but only once you have your gem clutched in your hand. In fact, trying to “think” only makes the entire experience more constipated. If you can’t descend, you can’t pretend. To yourself, or to anyone else. Your computer screen, or lined page, will stay blank.
And that’s why to write for a living, which looks like such an interesting and cushy job filled with all sorts of freedom, is actually one fraught with anxiety some of the time. It’s difficult work to make the leap, to close your eyes and imagine—which is just another way of blurting out whatever has finally come into your mind once you’ve surfaced, out of breath, but thrilled with what you’ve got wrapped so tightly in your fist. That’s when the bliss begins.
The sea of the unconscious is filled with caves that are ugly, as well as with those that are beautiful. If a writer isn’t willing to delve into dark places in addition to sunlit ones, she may not move forward with writing of any complexity. Both her pain and her joy are what make her able to empathize with her characters (fiction) or her compatriots (non-fiction), and thus connect with her readers. A good writer holds her breath and simply forces herself through a natural fear of the depths. And that’s the way I find the words, which are, in the end, a treasure of enormous value.
Shallow swimming makes for shallow writing, which in turn makes for shallow living. In the long run, a writer must be an “open book”—not only to others, but to herself, as well. Smarts doesn’t take you down to the wreck. Or intellect, no matter how intellectual your book may wind up being in the end. To me, any writing that does not sound the gong of emotion makes for very dry reading.
When I am successful at breaking the surface of the waves once again, with the surprise of a pearl in my palm, pleasure overcomes me. I wade back onto the beach, climb the rocky ledge and dry myself off. Fast. For, in fact, I am already typing away on my computer. Furiously. Hours will pass as I write, without moving to refill my coffee cup. When the dogs clamor to go out, I’ll look up at the clock and, lo and behold, it is almost always time for lunch.
And now you ask, “How do you get down there to begin with?” (Yet another great question.) My answer: “the power of free association.” When we daydream, one thought follows another with ease. Without conscious focus, different images flow past, leading us somewhere we likely never intended to go. On and on, we follow our mind on its voyage. Falling asleep is the same sort of process: that dark slip under as the active and disciplined mind rests and drops us into dream, and the unconscious one, filled with fantasy, wakes to hold us in its arms—sometimes gently, sometimes violently.
Another one of my favorite poets, Anne Sexton (who just happens to be my mother), was the one who taught me how to do what Rich describes with her metaphor of diving. When I was twelve, I began writing poetry, natural enough for a girl who grew up in the home of a Pulitzer Prize winner in that genre. During the years of my adolescence, she and I sat in her study for several hours every day, before I began my homework, exchanging opinions on our poetry and short stories. I listened to her, and she listened to me. She encouraged me to mine my mind as deeply as possible, with both hands, for all the wealth she assured me was there, and showed me how to pay attention to language and its possibilities. We bounced words off each other, or just jump-started ourselves by putting one rapid-fire sentence against another without thinking. That’s free association. Shrinks use it, and writers do, too.
In the early 1970’s, just before her suicide, my mother taught her creative writing students at Boston University how to begin a poem by using short exercises in free association. There were many of them and some forty-six years later, I can’t begin to remember them all. But what I do remember is that every one of them succeeded. Start free-associating and it’s hard to stop. It makes the unconscious-you more accessible to the conscious-you, so that you can begin to write. Little exercises like these are great for writer’s block on a day when you just can’t force yourself to dive into the gray Pacific, or for when you’ve had a long stretch away from the sea entirely and haven’t managed to eke out a word for weeks.
Over the years, I have learned that even novels and memoirs can be started this way—in fact, just about anything I want to write. Including non-fiction articles, and the essays for my e-newsletters. Even an essay like this one, which I began yesterday with nothing but a single conscious—and therefore inadequate—thought: I’ll talk about how creativity depends utterly on the unconscious. I didn’t know what I was actually going to say about the subject until I started to type, diving off the cliff and leaving my conscious mind behind.
Among all my mother’s poems, one of my most favorite happens to be “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.” John Holmes, her first mentor, told her that subject matter so emotional and so “confessional” as hers was not appropriate for public consumption. The year was 1957 and this sort of intense poetry was only then coming onto the literary scene. As she answered him in the poem, defending her right to bring her intimate truths (from her mental illness to her love affairs) into work she would eventually publish, she spoke of the way in which she accessed this sometimes difficult material, without using intellect alone:
“Not that it was beautiful,
but that, it the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind…
I tapped my own head;
it was a glass, an inverted bowl.
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl.
At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself.”
For Adrienne Rich, the metaphor for excavating the rich bed of the unconscious was to dive into the wreck and find treasure. For my mother, the metaphor was to tap her head and discover, as the poem goes on to say, a bowl full of “cracked stars.” For me, it is a combination of both.
So, this is how it works every day when I sit down in front of my computer, facing what I fear or disturbs me, as well as the things I do and don’t want to talk about. I tap my head, take a deep breath, and then dive down into the wreck—hoping to discover something worth offering to my readers, holding it aloft in triumph when I break through the surface of the Pacific, at last.
Linda Gray Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1953. She is the daughter of the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, Anne Sexton. Linda graduated from Harvard in 1975 with a degree in literature. She has published four novels: Rituals, Mirror Images, Points of Light, and Private Acts.
Her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was optioned by Miramax Films. Linda’s second memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, was published in 2011 and takes a hard look at her struggle with her own mental illness and the legacy left to her by her mother and her mother’s family. Her latest work is Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair With Thirty-Eight Dalmatians.
Linda is now at work on a fifth novel and writes a bi-weekly newsletter/blog at https://lindagraysexton.com/category/newsletters/. Her website is lindagraysexton.com, where you can learn more about her, as well as read excerpts of and order her books. She lives in California with her husband and their three Dalmatians.