Writing is always an act of alchemy. We begin our alchemical transformations from the terrain of our bodies, including all the passions and ideas that call us back again and again to explore and write about them. And as we turn the material of our thoughts, observations, emotions, overheard conversations and snippets of inspiration into gold, we negotiate with time. All writing is a mark on time, represented by the white page or the blank screen, and when we give ourselves permission to linger in time, we begin to experience not only our writing flow, but our whole lives differently—at least some of the time.
But there is also another vital element to this alchemy. We need to trust ourselves. We need to trust out terrain—listen to what our heart tells us to write, what our body needs to express and give shape to. We also need to trust that we that we can change our relationship to time, as I wrote about in the previous blog. And we begin to do this by establishing a boundary that says no to constant activity. Whether the activity is over-working, taking on too much responsibility for the world around us or busying ourselves in distractions that fritter away our time to linger and contemplate, we need to say yes to life and writing by saying no to what fragments life. We need rest. We need contemplation.
Doing this deep listening to the body and heart, makes our time fragrant with possibility and it begins in trust.
And trust has to begin with yourself. Trust your intuition, your heart, how your body feels about a place, an observation, an experience that might make its way into your writing or take you on your path in life.
There are any amount of hokey memes on social media or even advertising billboards telling us to follow our hearts or trust our feelings. They can be ‘liked’ and forgotten without a thought or they can convince us to splurge on a consumable that will be forgotten in a week.
But we can also seriously attend to how we trust our hearts, which are so much more than pumps circulating blood. The heart is central to the parasympathetic nervous system, connected to other brains by the vagus nerve. Our limbic system, which connects to emotional intelligence is also strongly connected to the heart brain, which produces neurotransmitters like dopamine, which in turn plays a large role in pleasure, motivation and attention. And the heart also stores memory.
Trusting our hearts, deeply trusting ourselves, is a lifetime’s work and something we constantly need to cycle back to.
Writing about meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about self-trust as being central to meditation and to the benefits that flow from it. He doesn’t mean that we should cease learning from many sources, but that we have to be the arbiter of what we learn and take in, only we can question, sift and choose our influences and our direction. And without the inner trust to do so, we get stuck.
In practicing mindfulness or meditation or in simply deciding what to do next or what to write, you are listening to and trusting your own being. Moreover, the more we cultivate this trust in ourselves, the more we trust other people and sense what wider circle we can trust. And this is true in life and in our writing, where trusting our reader will make our writing so much more engaging and fluent.
The poet and novelist G W Colkitto puts this beautifully in this poem:
An Orkney Prayer
like some old ceremony conducted by priests we have been gathered
from many parts drunk together talked as strangers
have become friends
I could run on with this and have a feeling
in these circling thoughts
(clockwise never widdershins)
each came our own stone
with names scratched into us
with dates with broken parts
from lightening strikes
from unseen blows
or self inflicted
chipped and aged
we sit in a ring
voices I hear voices
and now not I
some indefinable shift in soul
in those voices
spoken imagined embracing loving
Trust your self
Trust your reader
Trust your listener
and as I chant an inner whisper
Trust your fellow poets.
I am crying
— maybe I should not tell you that — but I trust you
run your lips through my tears
Suspicion is endemic in many cultures and it has been made worse by two years of pandemic. I sometimes try to re-imagine the feeling of being in a crowded Christmas market in Budapest or sitting in a tiny restaurant in Paris with the neighbours’ tables close to ours, and not once wondering whether I’m picking up an infection.
And yet, as the poem above lyrically puts it, the movement from self trust to trusting others is of one piece. It’s our inner confidence and trust in ourselves that helps us to trust others. The founder of Craigslist, Craig Newark, said in an interview about the website (which is a forum for everything from getting job to selling unwanted furniture),
What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good. There are problems, and sometimes people bicker, which is a pain in the ass, but people are good.
Most of us have had some bruising encounters along the way in life. Some of these may have been deeply traumatising and we know that we need some antenna at work in discerning who and how far we let people into our lives. But healthy boundaries are not built on automatic suspicion and distrust any more than they are built on blithely ignoring the warning signals that someone might not merit our trust after all. But despite that caution, for most everyday purposes Craig Newark is right—people are trustworthy and we can also trust them with our writing, which is part of our souls. As the poem concludes:
I am crying
— maybe I should not tell you that — but I trust you
run your lips through my tears
“But I trust you” is as much an act of extraordinary self-trust as it is a statement about the other person. And it takes a willingness to be vulnerable, which is the courage to live with uncertainty, knowing we can’t control all the variables, but we’re going to take the leap anyway to decide what to share and who with.
I’ve recently been doing a course in permaculture and one of the modules used an analogy of the body that led me to thinking about the layers of healthy boundaries we can operate from while still remaining open and trusting.
Boundaries are about our relationships, they set our intentionality, define the shape and trajectory of these relationships, they signal the areas where we have a great deal of control or a little control or none at all, allowing us to focus emotional and physical energy on what is in our sphere and what needs to be let go. The most immediate boundary, zone 0 in permaculture, is analogous to the body—the place I nurture heart and physical self, have privacy, play with ideas, resource the intellect and emotions, sleep and dream.
The physical, emotional, material and time boundaries we set around this space, permeable as they are, define us. So it matters that our boundaries are intentional and not reactive or coerced. And it also matters that we know not just what we want to let go of, but also what want to let in: the part of us that is permeable, open, trusting, willing to be vulnerable.
Finding the trust
How do we operate from such trust, especially when most of us will have had experiences where trust didn’t work out? It begins in self-healing. Not narcissism but the long process of working on our griefs, whatever they are. And it builds through listening deeply to the most intuitive depths of ourselves with compassion and generosity. It begins with the willingness to change, not as an exercise in self-flagellation or pushing ourselves mercilessly along a path of becoming someone else. Rather as a journey that is almost like a remembering—a deepening and expansion of the story we desire to feel.
It may seem counterintuitive but we often don’t make changes through the harshness of striving or, if we do, they don’t last, but the transformations that come from letting the journey unfold with kindness can be truly, if slowly, life-changing.
Of course, journeys are unpredictable. Trust is essential to life and to writing, but there are no gaurantees that things will turn out as we imagine. As Rebecca Solnit puts it:
The things we want are transformative and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of the transformation … Never to get lost is not to live.
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. … How will you go about finding the thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?
The transformative power of trust
If you don’t trust yourself, then taking the risk of the unknown can seem too much, including the risk of launching ourselves into a major writing project not knowing what it might demand of us, what we will have to give up to make the space for it, or how it will change our thinking.
In Transformative Experience, the philosopher Laura Paul points out that we rarely, if ever, know how transformative experiences will change our lives. We hear this again and again from new parents or people who’ve made a host of huge life changes. How do we begin to imagine the enormity of something that we have no experience of and yet we desire?
How do we decide that we want to write different stories or that we want to transform our writing practice and writing lives?
She suggests a thought experiment:
If you could become an immortal vampire with the promise of no pain and never having to inflict pain and the added promise of extraordinary superpowers in exchange for your ordinary human existence, and with all your friends and loved ones having already done it and telling you how amazing it is — would you do it?
And how can you decide? You can’t compare the two lives, you only know human existence. You can’t trust your friends— they’re already vampires, they’re biased.
When you find yourself facing a decision involving a new experience that is unlike any other experience you’ve had before, you can find yourself in a special sort of epistemic situation. … You find yourself facing a decision where you lack the information you need to make the decision the way you naturally want to make it — by assessing what the different possibilities would be like and choosing between them. The problem is pressing, because many of life’s big personal decisions are like this: … But as it turns out, like the choice to become a vampire, many of these big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself.
Firstly, she offers:
… in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.
The question becomes:
Do I want to discover who I would be if I became a vampire/a parent/someone committed to writing a novel/a poetry collection…?
In one sense, because the outcome will be unpredictable and could be messy, we lack the rational authority to make a decision, but Laura Paul, like Jean-Paul Sartre, appeals not just to rationality, but also to our authenticity—our first person perspective and basic trust in ourselves—we can
assign subjective values to new experiences for the sake of discovering them … If you choose to have the transformative experience … you must prefer to discover whether and how your preferences will change.
In other words if we choose revelation, we do it for its own sake—choosing to plunge into the unknown for the joy of the journey, for what we will discover about ourselves and life.
When we trust ourselves, the transformations follow, however slowly (speed is not what matters). We won’t know what’s on the other side of the trust till we’ve made the leap, and the next and the next, which is the adventure of being alive and the privilege of being a writer.
Trust your self
Trust your reader
Trust your listener …
Who will you become if you trust yourself?
Paula Greenwood says
“Trusting our hearts, deeply trusting ourselves.” Left me pondering the extent to which my writing is a means of exploring myself, my inner life, and self trust.
“People are trustworthy and we can also trust them with our writing, which is part of our souls.”
Prompts me to share a piece from the novel I am writing which relates to this topic of self trust.
“When your path leads in a different direction, it is no use clinging to what was. Standing up for what you believe is not easy, especially when others deride you, but you must remain true to what your soul is showing you, trust what feels right in your heart.”
Thank you Paula
Yes — love what you write about walking a path with integrity even when it goes in a surprising direction or others think we’ve lost the plot 🙂 We’re writers — we’re amking the plot up fro mthe heart 🙂