This is an early excerpt from my upcoming book on the spiritual aspects of writing:
This is a book for people who are tired of reading writing books. This is a book for people who want to know how creativity really works and how you work with it and how it works with you. This is for people that want to write something that matters to them and to others. If you’re writing to make a quick buck then this book is not for you and you’ve probably picked the wrong career. Most writers have to endure many years of little to no hope that anyone will notice their work or care about it in the least.
The only one who can really care about your book in the beginning is you.
This is not a spiritual book in the classical sense. It’s a slap in the face to wake you up. It will defy your expectations of what a spiritual book can or should be. I am drawing a line in the sand. To be clear, this book does not require crystals, chanting, power animals, visualizations, journaling, seminars, weekend retreats, astrology, Tarot cards, opening your third eye, chakras, Ouija boards, or walking over hot coals. There are plenty of books that will tell you’re doing just fine and you don’t have to do anything at all. They’re lying to you.
If you’re wondering why you have so many books on writing and spirituality that don’t work, it’s because they don’t work. Simple as that. I, for one, have had enough of that type of book. The world is bloated with useless books that won’t teach you a goddamn thing, written by people who don’t know anything for people who don’t want to know anything.
I am going to give it to you straight, so it burns your throat. This is firewater.
I am not going to sugar coat anything for you here. At times you’re going to want to throw this book against the wall. You will want me to talk in less absolute terms. This book will piss you off, frustrate you and enrage you. Good. Change comes from getting uncomfortable. It does not come from standing where you are and continuing to do the exact same crap year after year and hoping for new results.
If you change nothing then you will stay exactly where you are right now. This is an absolute. It is also true. If you don’t believe it, that’s fine, it does not make it less absolute. If you do not change, nothing changes. Period. You may choose to believe that fire doesn’t burn you, but go ahead an put your hand in the fire and see if your beliefs mean anything then. Beliefs are the death of intelligence. Please leave them at the door. It will be a lot easier for us to meet eye to eye.
At first, many of the things I am going to say may seem very simple, even simplistic, but they need to be said because most of us miss the most essential truths in life because they are so simple as to appear mundane. They are easy to miss. I missed them for 38 years. I still count myself lucky. I have a chance at a second life because I can see them now. Open your eyes and you will see that you are not surrounded by the trivial and the mundane but the magic and the incredible, every single second of your life.
Most people die without ever seeing what really matters.
We gloss over the simplest things; we pass them by like a bum on the street. We read them and think there has got to be more, got to be something else, something more — complex. We keep looking when the answer was staring us in the face the entire time.
The things you really need to understand in life are not flashy. They can’t be bought, bargained for or stolen. They are not standing on a stage shouting for you to hear. They don’t have a seminar or a monthly subscription. They are yours for the taking but the trick is, if you don’t know they’re yours, then you can go your whole life not knowing it and miss them.
Becoming an artist is about opening your eyes and seeing what really is. I am not talking about what it takes to churn out a good soap opera or mid-list romance or a passable SF novel. There is nothing wrong with wanting to write something like that, but that is not what we are talking about here. We are reaching for something more. We are talking about writing something that matters in a deeply personal way, something unique and authentic. We are talking about connecting to the self-same spirit that animated the pens of Whitman and Shakespeare.
The spirit that inspired the masters of the past is not gone. She burns brilliantly inside you even as you read this. Her power is not just for other people. It’s for you. I will show you how to find her and connect with her so that she transforms your work and your life.
This book is an exploration of what it means to go all the way, to sacrifice your life to bring something into reality that never existed before, something powerful and beyond your own imagined limitations. If you want to write something like that, then this book is for you.
This is not for people looking to write a celebrity bio or a how-to book on the latest Yoga craze or a feel good novel that challenges no one and goes down easy like candied soda pop. If that is your goal, you already have everything you need and I have nothing to give you. There is nothing wrong with making money, but if you want to write something that people remember, that they talk about long after bugs are eating your body in the ground, then you don’t start there. You don’t even think about it.
You start by letting go.
You don’t think about letting go. This is not a concept or a metaphor. You really let go of the results of your writing. You stay unattached to them. When attachment creeps back in, you sever it as quickly as possible in the most vicious way. Attachment to your results is the death of your writing. You write and the rest takes care of itself.
Being an artist is very different from a normal career. Often the things that people find most valuable in corporate life have absolutely no value when it comes to artistic creations. And the things that you walk over on the way to the top in the regular world are the things that matter the most to the creative spirit. These things you pass over are the alms you collect and lay at her feet if you are serious about this journey.
So what are we really talking about here? We’re talking about a true creative breakthrough. We’re talking about tearing open the wall of reality and plunging headlong into the absolute madness of pure creativity. We’re trying to get to something authentic, a rare artistic creation that has never existed before and that cannot exist without your sacrifice and guidance. We are talking about writing something that stands out from everything else ever written, ever. In short, we are not fucking around. This is a book for people who want to know just how deep the rabbit hole goes. We are stepping off the side of the building here and falling forever.
To do that, there are a few things that you need to get a handle on right away. The first is time. Ultimately, time is the only thing you have in life. I am going to say this again, because it needs repeating:
Time is all you have in life.
If you are not making as much time to write as possible, then you have nothing. You cannot build a house without bricks. You can’t write a book by thinking about it, talking about it, or wishing it would happen. You must physically write. Move your fingers on a keyboard. Grip that pen until your fingers go numb. And you need to do it as often as possible.
Doing that means taking back your life. That means blowing things the hell out of your existence that don’t matter like you’re Ripley blowing the alien out of the goddamn airlock. You have to take back your time however you can. Cancel extra-curricular activities, turn off the damn TV, stop drinking so your brain is mush for your late night writing session.
I know what you’re thinking. All the great artists were drunks and drug explorers. Of course. So why am I saying this? The difference is how and when you use them. If you want to use mind-altering substances then you better learn to use them wisely. If you’re working a job and you have kids and responsibilities and you can only write late at night, then drinking so you’re dead tired when you get there means you’ve wasted you time. You cannot create when you are beaten up by your day and barely able to keep your eyes open and you’ve exacerbated that with sleep inducing wine. That is not accessing non-ordinary states of knowing to accelerate creativity, that is being stupid. There is a massive difference.
Don’t get lost in fighting with every little thing I say. Surrender. Go with me. We are talking about taking back your time.
Take back YOUR TIME back by any means necessary. If that means lying, then do it. If that means being an asshole, then do it. Got to fight with the significant other? No problem. Kids need to find another ride to their friend’s house for movie night? Here is the cab money. If you have to sneak out of the last hour of your job and plug some words into Evernote then do it. I am not kidding about any of this.
Writing has to become the focus of your life. Everything else is in your way.
Get rid of distractions. They are eating up your time and remember what I said, time is all you have in life. You’ve got to take it back from all the goddamn time thieves that surround you with daggers and murderous intent. These things are stealing the only precious thing you have. These are the real demons of life.
Demons are not here to defeat you. They are here to waste your time.
Demons don’t have long horns and forked tongues. They are your friends and family, the TV, movies, late night drinking with co-workers. Demons are always in disguise. They don’t want to beat you. They want to tie you up just long enough to run out the clock. Again, they want to waste your time.
And here’s the worst part: they think they are doing a good thing. A demon never thinks they’re a demon. They always think they’re on the side of the light. They believe that socializing and whiling away your time together and idle chit-chat about politics or the game last night is an actual honest-to-good use of your time. They believe it matters. They NEED to believe it matters. It doesn’t.
There is a time for friends and family and drinking and fun. That time is after you’ve written today. If you haven’t written, there is no time for this bullshit and you need to cut it out of your life as quickly as possible. I am not kidding. After you write comes everything else. In this game, you get no credit for yesterday or what you did last week. You start fresh, with a clean slate every day. What you did yesterday means nothing. Wrote 3000 words yesterday? Great. Today write some more. Today is the best day of your life. Today is the day that writing needs to get done, above all else.
For some artists this may even have to go further. You may have to extricate yourself from a true demon: a nightmare of a job that saps your will to live or a partner who is not only unwilling to support you on your journey of creativity, but actively belittles you, tears you down, and destroys you. You have to get out of there as soon as possible. The best way is the fastest way. Tear it off like a Band-Aid. Just slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan. In short, get out. Now. This is of utmost importance to your art and your life. You cannot create in these circumstances. You cannot create when you are constantly at war. These horrors will serve you later, serve your art, because ultimately everything serves your art, but they cannot serve your art while you are under constant attack. You have to get in motion here and get out. Change.
You see many people are under the impression that spiritual progress and progress in the real world are different. They are not. They are exactly the same thing.
You probably don’t think so. You probably don’t see that progress in the real world is spiritual progress. Note that I did not say success. I said progress and they are very different things. You can have much progress without success. But no matter what, you probably don’t see the physical world as part of the spiritual world. I will say it again: they are exactly the same. Your heaven and your hell are right here with you, all the time. You’re walking around in them. You’ve been living in them your whole life and you just didn’t know it.
Maybe you’re pulling back now, doubting my words. That’s because you’ve been lulled to sleep by a chorus of false words and ideas from every direction your whole life. Everyone and everything you’ve every known was in on it, from your teachers to your family and friends. They are very convincing because they didn’t know they were in on it.
The world wants you to believe that spirituality is something you do once a week or that spirituality is something that you get by reciting words over and over again or by believing strongly or by bowing and scraping. You’ve been fed a pile of sleep inducing nonsense about what life really is all about.
You cannot stand still and expect to go anywhere. And yet people everywhere think that by sitting and visualizing some better future that it will somehow manifest. It manifests by you taking action in the real world. You can’t go through exercises to release negative emotions at some weekend seminar. You have to actually release them by doing something. You can’t change by standing in the same place that you are in. You’ve got to actually change. You have to actually do something. Do something for real. Do it in the real world. If you want to be a writer, then you have to be a writer. Now.
Let me give you an example of real spiritual change. My friend, Nadia Aly, who I interviewed on my blog, was living a typical American life. She worked at big companies like Google and Microsoft. She made a great living, but she hated it. She looked around and could not understand why everyone was so happy for her, because she was miserable.
Then her friend died and it woke her up.
She quit and took off running to get as far away as she could. She spent a month figuring out her life and then realized she wanted to start a scuba diving company and website. Now she travels the world going to exotic places that look like postcards that most people will never see. Interspersed between people’s useless crap on Facebook, their little ready made e-cards, their pictures of their dogs and family and nails are exotic places they’ll never see, that Nadia sees because she took her camera and went there, herself, physically, in the real world. That is a creative life. That is spiritual progress. Spiritual progress is not a weekend retreat. This is real life. There is no exit.
All you have is your time and you better start doing something with it right now.
Once you start down the path of the artist, the things you value in your regular life: a career, aggressiveness, quick thinking, forcefulness, being on time, have very little place in the creative world. Well, being on time still matters, but the rest of that other crap should be forgotten as quickly as possible.
Creativity is about surrender. It is about letting go. It is about the creative spirit working through you on its time, not yours. You work for her, not the other way around.
Understanding how the creative spirit works will take some getting used to. As I said before, the things you tend to value in everyday life have no value in spiritual pursuits. The things you overlook are the most important in the spiritual realm. The most basic things are essential. For instance, you better learn how to breathe.
Breathing is essential as you write and move through the world. It’s probably something you’ll skip or gloss over. It seems simple. What could be more simple than breathing? In regular life you don’t think about breathing. In the creative life, make it your primary focus until you get it down perfectly.
Here’s how to do it right: breathe from your stomach. Do this all day. You spent your whole life breathing little weak mousy breaths from your chest. This is completely wrong. Push your stomach out like you are a 300-pound fat guy. Keep doing it. Every time you forget, remember it again. If you find yourself breathing from your chest, stop it. Breathe from your center, as you write, as you observe. This will cleanse your mind of useless things like your schedule and bills to pay and yet another thing that came undone that needs fixing. You cannot focus on your art when you are scattered into a million shards, thinking about so many things. You have to turn off your mind. Your mind is another one of your enemies. It is in your way.
You also need a place to write that is away from everything. Coffee shops and other public places suck. They will have to do if you have nothing else, but you need a quiet place with no people milling around and making noise to distract you. I know what you’re thinking again. You’re thinking J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a coffee house. Great. I guarantee you she did not do that by choice. She did that because she needed her kid to fall asleep and that was the only place it happened.
No, no, you think, I like coffee houses. What you like is distractions. What you like is feeling like you are not alone in this thing. You are alone. Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best is a lonely life.” At its best. This is not a team sport. If you want to drop into the depths of the creative spirit, if you want to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes, then find a warm, safe, quiet spot.
What Rowling’s example demonstrates is not that quiet is not essential. It demonstrates that you write no matter what. If you don’t have ideal circumstances then you do whatever it takes to keep writing anyway. That’s what she did. She did not use her child or her lack of a room of her own to skip writing. She did not wait to get started. She wrote because she had to. If you still think she liked writing in coffee houses so much then ask yourself if she wrote her second book, after she was a millionaire, in one? No. She wrote it in a quiet room in her house.
Of course, you can get to the place I am talking about by writing wherever you are. But I am talking about the fastest, most ideal way to get there. Of course, you can test it for yourself. If you truly like writing with noise all around you after you’re had a chance to do it in a clear, perfect spot, than so be it. But I say turn off the TV. Invest in some noise canceling headphones, good ones, the kind that put out their own white noise and blot out the world around you. Writing is an inward journey. It has to be quiet. I cannot stress this enough. Any distractions need to be cut off. Tell your family to stay out. Tell them to leave you alone. Push them out the door if necessary. Yell at them. Plead with them. Cajole them. Bribe them. Whatever. Just get them the hell out of your writing space.
Carve out multiple hours to write, every day. This builds on itself, a kind of headlong momentum that can’t be stopped. The first hour of any writing session is usually a complete waste of time. You have to settle your mind and let go of all the crap that had to be done that day. I have to call Bob and do the dishes and pick up Jenny at daycare. Your mind will cycle and spin and get in your way. You have to stick around long enough to get to the real good part of writing, which comes after that hour, as you clear away the garbage and your fingers start typing on their own. This is essential.
If you can’t set aside enough time then you aren’t trying hard enough. Cut something out. We are talking about sacrifice. Something has to go. Multiple things have to go. Get them out now. The faster this is done the better.
After you’ve done all that: taken back your time, dismissed your distractors and demons, found the perfect writing spot and gotten past your mind’s useless prattle, then the real work starts and the real adventure of writing begins.
After you’ve crossed the wall of that first hour, things begin to come together. Now is when you’ve crossed over into true creativity. You are free. And freedom is a terrifying thing. The white page stares back at you. What will you say? Up is down here. This is an opposite world. Beneath you is the Void. You stand on nothing. And then suddenly beneath you is the searing chaos of the creative spirit, a swirling abyss that all real art comes from. Look into it. Be afraid. Be ripped apart. Be slaughtered on the alter, but above all: keep going.
This is where stories are made. Down in the abyss is horror and joy. Both are essential. They are you. They come from within. They will set your writing on fire in a way that nothing else can.
All things come from this abyss: the psychopath stalking children in the night comes from the same abyss that makes your loyal dog that you cuddle in the darkness. They are all down in this hole, as yet unmade and waiting for you to unleash them. They are down in the fire, unborn, waiting for you and only you to free them so they can terrorize reader’s minds or make them weep with joy or teach them what real love is and how to find it.
All this is made from beyond the mind. You have to peel away all the layers of your ego to become other things. How can you think like a monster if you are a suburban house dad? The suburban house dad is gone. He dies in the fire of that first hour. Out here in the whiteout, he is lost. You are not you anymore. Other people lurk down here and you will make them by embracing them, by becoming them and putting their thoughts and feelings on the page, not yours. See through your characters’ eyes.
All this is made in the white-hot center of the volcano. And volcanoes do damage. They erupt and melt the world. Here is where you do your work, hovering above this madness, the sulfur and the flames.
After you’ve burned in the fire of creativity for an hour or hours, you’ll be done suddenly. You’ll run out of gas, complete a scene, run into a problem that you can’t fix today. That’s all right. That’s good. You don’t live in the abyss; you just visit there.
When you come back, drink a little water. Stretch. Take more deep breaths. Walk a little.
Come back to Earth but understand that you are going to that place that is no place, which is nothingness, again.
Understand that meeting the creative spirit means showing up to meet her and then surrendering absolutely. It means surrendering to the chaos of creativity.
If you’re refusing to change a scene because it is too hard or would require changing too many characters or take too many rewrites then you are not working with her. She does not work for you. You work for her. You must surrender to her absolute will and trust that she knows better than you. In your walks with the creative spirit she will tell you many things. If you can become quiet enough, you can hear them clearly. Listen. Understand. Let her tell you what to do. Ride into the abyss on her winged back. Soar over the flames and let her plunge you into them. See will tell her story through you.
You may have been working under the impression that you are writing your story. In fact, when you are doing this right, you have nothing to do with it. You are not writing anything at all. You are aligning yourself with something you cannot possibly hope to understand or put into words. You are letting it guide you, wherever it leads. As the Tao Te Ching says, “the ideal artist follows his art wherever it goes.”
You may have made a common mistake and thought you were the director. You are just in the way. The spirit has the pen and your only job is to filter her as little as possible. She has a plan that your tiny little monkey brain cannot understand. This is not an insult to you; it is just a fact. We are specks of dust in the universe and the creative spirit was around before time began. It knows how to set things in motion that make no sense to you now, but make perfect sense later.
Let me give you an example from my own life. When I started writing my current book, I took the names of my characters from Chinese mythology. I stole these names before I knew much about the plot of my book, much less the themes of the book and its broader implications. Through the process of writing, the themes slowly began to emerge as they always do: things fall apart and come together and then fall apart again. Life is cyclical. It’s a year later and I am heading off on a trip overseas and I grabbed some books to read while I am there. Since I am going to China, I picked up Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an ancient Chinese masterpiece. I didn’t think much about it. Then I flipped to the back cover and saw that one of the places I took a main character’s name from just happened to be this very book. I’d scanned Wikipedia for myths and didn’t think much about it once I had the names, if at all, over the course of the year. I opened the book and read the first line. It said, “The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide.”
In short, the very first line of a book I hadn’t read, that I took my character’s name from just because it sounded good at the time, turned out to be the central theme of my book before I even knew what the central theme of my book ever was.
That is when you know you are aligned with the creative spirit’s plan. She sets things in motion for you to discover that are simply not coincidence. The chances of my picking just that book, with just that theme are nearly impossible, if not completely impossible mathematically.
And yet it happened.
This is the creative spirit at work and she is not bound by the same rules you are.
I can’t explain that. I don’t need to. Nor do you. You can ascribe some mystical aspect to it or call it coincidence or post-quantum mechanics. It doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that this is how the creative spirit works through you. It has a plan that you cannot see or understand. You just have to go with it.
I can give you a thousand other examples. This happens to me in small ways nearly every time I write now. I get the exact thing that I need at the exact time that I need it. Whatever I saw that day, whatever emotion I felt, goes right into that character and scene.
When you set aside all the crap in your life, you demonstrate your intent to the universe and it molds reality around you to help you. You can’t wish for a Ferrari or a big house like that bullshit the Secret tries to fob off on you like some used car salesman. That is a baby’s way of understanding the power of intent. That is for sales people and morons. There is no secret. It happens every day, all the time. The power of intent is doing something, setting in motion the life of a true writer and the universe responds. It wants to help. This is the creative process at work. And you can understand how it works with you and through you. All you have to do is the hardest thing in the world and change your life.