The Heart of Words: On Becoming a Writer

I’ve been out walking the dogs to clear my head, stretch my legs, revitalize my core energy, and find a bit of inspiration. After two days of storms here on Maui, it’s a sunny day on the mountain. The wind still rockets about the mountainside with unrestrained glee but the clouds and rain have dispersed. Finally.

Wearing my battered walking hat, I’ve got a dog lead in each hand, and two English Whippets are walking me briskly down the steep road and back up. Trees are talking and groaning, clacking their arms as they sway in the wind. The strong gusts and eerie noises startle the dogs, causing them to jump sideways and flatten their ears backwards. The mountain feels very much alive today, a realm of spirits and a very audible conversation, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Walking always gives me perspective. And energy. And it draws me into communion with the ‘more-than-human’ world that exists outside the containment of manmade walls, roof and floor. It brings me home to myself… my bodysoul.

heart_in_handsI’m not certain exactly when it happened but one day, not too long ago, I realized that I had finally made the transition from being a man who writes to being a writer. And I was thinking about this as I walked today in the wind.

Considering it, I note that the transition has been a slow falling away of my other work (primarily bodywork, counseling and coaching) over the past couple of years, like a tree shedding its foliage as winter approaches. While it doesn’t exactly feel like I’m heading into dormancy, or that I am suddenly a denuded, shapely form on the landscape, there has been a natural, evolutionary quality to the transformation. Yet it’s still a bit of surprise to consider myself a ‘writer’, as if I am suddenly now covered in new, vivid green buds and pearly shoots rather than the old leaves and vines that have clothed me for so long.

I’ve always been a writer, really, and I’ve been in love with books for as long as I can remember. I savor the feel of pages and good binding, the smell of ink and paper, the visual appeal of a fine font, the heft of a hardcover in my hand. Books are sensory treasures for me. Each one is a sensual, tangible portal to a magical realm… no matter what I am reading.

Yet like so many artists, I’ve struggled with claiming the proper title for myself. For years, I relegated my creative work to the role of hobby. Partly I feared my writing would never add up to much; partly I wanted to avoid “stepping up to the plate” and risking my own success or failure. A diminutive strategy. But still I kept putting pen to paper, stringing words into sentences, steadily threading sparkling beads and stars into stories and constellations.

Real writers are published, sneers the insidious and critical voice inside my head. Poisonous words. The only antidote is to keep writing. Publicly. Fearlessly. Bare your soul.

Rather than the other titles I’ve worn before (bodyworker, therapist, coach, chef, etc.), I’ve started introducing myself to others as a writer. Usually the first question people ask is either “What do you write?” or “Are you published?” Admittedly, it does help my self-esteem that I’m peddling a substantial manuscript to publishers.

“It’s a book for men on the passion, power, and creativity of the soul.”

I may not yet have broken through the glass wall that surrounds the publishing world, but I trust that I am very close. My determination is formidable. Focused. I’ve come too far and worked too hard to turn back. And I know this: when we truly follow our soul and boldly offer something of merit to the world, doors open in undreamed of ways.

Destiny looks differently inside the Mystery.

Still, I have been struggling lately in the effort to bring my book to the light of day. In the trenches of the editing process, I feel anything but creative. Sometimes, I’m so sick of words that I cannot even take refuge in a good book at end of day. Indeed, the process of polishing the manuscript has taken so long—it’s been almost two years since I wrote anything totally new—that I half-jokingly refer to myself as an editor-in-chains rather than a writer. Granted, I have a high attention to detail and a desire that my creation(s) be at the highest level of quality and skill of which I am capable. So I have been working through the chapters, carefully turning each sentence over like a stone in my hands, examining its merits and flaws, considering whether a jewel might be locked within. Is this exactly the optimum word for this expressed thought? Am I totally clear here? Do I feel a sense of flow from one paragraph to the next?

I’ve been mired for months in words from an editor’s viewpoint: eliminating passive voice, pruning prepositional phrases, reducing qualifiers and general nouns, pulling out clichés, weighing American rules of grammar and spelling versus the British ones I prefer, all the time deliberating whether or not the chapter is driven by its key message.

Gods, how dull.

Why did I ever want to be a writer, I pout. The creative act of writing—the initial upwelling and outpouring—seems only a modest percentage of the time invested, while the bulk of hours are spent editing. Re-editing. My enthusiasm for this particular project has long since waned and the editorial work feels little more than toil and drudgery. I am willing and determined, yes, but inspiration has slipped away behind the clouds.

Last night, however, in the warm embrace of a powerful book on soulful writing, I realized that I needed to make a shift in my own perspective. From the inception of this writing project (my manuscript), I have wanted to craft a thing of beauty and meaning to offer forward. And for the most part, anchored in my expansive breath and solid bones, I have allowed the work to arise from some deep place and emerge through me.

I need to get back to that. Rather than working in an editor’s stance and performing surgery with the cold scalpel of grammar, I need to return to the way of the artist: feeling. I dearly wish to write a book that makes readers feel. I want to open their senses. The soulful essence of the thing must come first, technique second. Indeed, if the work does not speak to the deep self, then it is mostly useless.

On some level, every reader is searching for meaning. They want to feel something. If I am reaching out to help you discover your deepest calling—the reason you are alive—I can only truly do that from my own sense of personal calling. Thus, my task in this final editing process is to hone the feeling of the words. Imbue them with meaning. Soak them in the warm, sweet blood of the still-beating heart. I will stir the imaginal, invoke the mythic, and guide you into hidden rooms where dreams dance in a smoky embrace and whisper your secret name.

As I wrote in last week’s post, ‘Living Deliberately’, “I have a profound need to be fully present in my own life, to explore the contours of each passage with outstretched hands.” Perhaps rather than ‘deliberate’ living, I should use the word ‘heartfelt’, instead. In my personal cosmos, everything orbits around feeling deeply. Why should my work with editing the manuscript be any different? I will embody wordcrafting from the heart, not the head. Rather than analyzing each sentence with the brain, I must gently stroke each line with fingertips of my soul. Does this line make me feel?

I also wrote that I will continue to trust in Grace. As if on cue, in a moment of dark despair over the uphill journey of my writing life, an eloquently magical book finds its way into my hands to offer illumination. Inspiration. Grace, encore.

Four words now guide me in my work: It must be felt.

I realize that my path as a writer is inseparable from celebrating the details of my hand-crafted life. Once again I am spiraling forward and upward, feeling as I go. As an artist I will bring my heightened skill at sensing and feeling into the very pages of the book. Lead with the heart, senses open wide, and note the subtle feeling of sensation within your body.

Walking the dogs up the mountain towards home as the windstorm plays around us, it seems to me that these four words apply to far more than writing; they form the directive or mantra for a soul-infused existence. Painful or joyous, bitter or sweet, quiet or raging; it must be felt. The path of authenticity, expansion, and soulful evolution is to feel deeply and be fully present to the moment and the work at hand. Such is the hallmark of a passionate life, one fully inhabited by those who hear their heart when it responds to what is presented to the senses.

Words. Breath. Passion. Love. Soul. Life.

It must be felt.