Three Eternal (So Far) Truths about Living and Writing

Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - 5:12am
Photo by Dietmar Temps

Three Eternal (So Far) Truths about Living and Writing

Every now and then, someone asks me for advice on how to become a writer. I aspire to live by the insightful words of theologian Nelle Morton,

“Our job is to hear people into speech.”

So instead of offering a dozen do’s and don’ts, I ask questions meant to evoke my conversation partner’s inner teacher, the best source of guidance any of us has. If he or she presses me, the best I can do is draw a few lessons from the story of my own writing life. Call it “advice lite.”

The urge to write first dropped in on me in my early twenties and soon made it clear it was here for the duration. Nearly two decades passed before my first book was published, and yet I never stopped writing — my daemon would not let me go. But, truth be told, that first book had less to do with persistence than with dumb luck.

In the fall of 1978, I taught a class about Thomas Merton at an adult study center. For our final session, I’d planned to show a film of Merton’s last talk, given in Bangkok an hour or two before he died. At the last moment, I learned that the copy I’d ordered had been mailed to the wrong address. No, young people, you couldn’t stream or download videos in the olden days!

Hoping to bring the class to a proper close, I burned the kerosene lantern late into the night and wrote a lecture.

One of my students liked the lecture so much she asked for a copy to send to her uncle. He called me a few weeks later and said he was an editor at a small publishing house. He and his colleagues liked my piece, and wondered if I’d written others like it. Knowing that I had twenty years’ worth of writing interred in my file cabinet, I replied, “I might be able to dig something up.”

So I relit the kerosene lantern, spent much of that night exhuming my files, and early the next morning mailed off a dozen pieces. My accidental editor chose six and said he’d make a book out of them. Nine months later I was holding a copy of my first book, The Promise of Paradox. I remember gazing at it with a bit of the wide-eyed wonder I’d felt when I held my first child.

Today — 36 years and nine books after that sweet moment — the writing scene has changed big-time. There’s much I don’t know about blogging, e-books, and self-publishing. But when someone asks me how to become a writer, I can still share three eternal (so far) truths from my own experience.

(Kacper Gunia / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

First, you need to figure out whether your chief aim is to write or to publish. Two decades of rejection letters would have shut me down if I hadn’t decided early on that my primary goal was not to be published but to be a writer — a person who, as someone sagely observed, is distinguished by the fact that he or she writes! Once it became clear that I wanted to write even if the publishing fairy never left a contract under my pillow, I could declare success as long as I kept writing. That’s a doable goal, and it’s under my control.

Second, you need to lust after dumb luck. When people think I’m joking, I remind them of a simple truth: the more often you get your voice “out there,” even in a venue as small as a fifteen-student course on Thomas Merton, the more likely it is that dumb luck will strike. Be Jennie or Johnny Appleseed, scattering your words hither and yon, and a few may fall on fertile ground. But here’s the deal: this often means giving your work away free, for nothing. In addition to being its own reward, this kind of generosity maximizes the chance of dumb luck by giving you more exposure than you get by trying to monetize everything. (And if you want to be respected as a writer, never, ever use words like “monetize.” Seriously.)

Third, and most important, allow yourself to be baffled, which shouldn’t be hard to do. I mean, what’s not baffling about ourselves, other people, and the world we co-create? The problem is that some of us (read “the person writing this sentence”) make the mistake of writing in an effort to pretend we’re smarter than we are. Take my early writing…please! When I go back and read some of that schlock, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as I watch this pathetic fellow slogging through page after page of multisyllabic muck, making his case with “academic rigor” and nary a drop of uncertainty, playfulness, or humanity. I was writing to impress rather than express, always a bad idea. What I regarded as rigor turned out to be rigor mortis.

Eventually, I managed to come to ground with a few moderately successful books, which confronted me with my next challenge as a writer. In this society, people who write passable books — and even books that aren’t — tend to get pegged as experts on their subjects. My ego loves to absorb and massage those projections of expertise. My soul knows it ain’t true: I’ve never written a book on something I’ve mastered. Once I master something, I get bored with it, and writing a book is way too hard to take on a subject that bores me.

(Kome Hachi / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

I write about things that feel to me like bottomless mysteries — teaching, social change, spirituality, democracy, etc. — and I start writing from a place of “beginner’s mind.” For me, writing does not begin with reaching for expertise by gathering facts, wrapping them in lucid thoughts, then downloading all of that from my mind to the page. It begins with making a deep dive into something that baffles me — into my not-knowing — and dwelling in the dark long enough that “the eye begins to see” what’s down there. I want to make my own discoveries, think my own thoughts, and feel my own feelings before I explore what conventional wisdom says about the subject. That’s why I’m not so much a writer as a re-writer, most of whose scribbling goes through eight or ten drafts.

As a writer, my most critical inner work is to fend off projections of expertise — whether they come from without or within — that would allow my ego to trump beginner’s mind. The moment ego takes over, I lose the main gift I bring to my work, the fact that I was born baffled.

Novices are often advised to “write about what you know.” I wouldn’t call that bad advice, but I think it needs tweaking. Write about what you want to know because it intrigues and baffles you. That’s the hunger that keeps me engaged with a craft I find endlessly challenging, of which Red Smith famously said,

“There's nothing at all to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Evocative questions always trump advice. But for whatever it’s worth, my advice boils down to this:

  1. Care more about the process than the outcome.
  2. Be generous in order to maximize the chances of dumb luck.
  3. Dive deep, dwell in the dark, and value beginner’s mind no matter how loudly your ego protests.

Hmmm… The same counsel might apply to things other than writing. Who knows? Maybe there’s a book in that!

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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So thankful for Parker Palmer's wise words that are filled with faith, experience, and humility.

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Thank you Mr. Palmer! Your thoughts remind me of a Rilke quote that has long inspired me. Embracing myself as a beginner has proven to be a powerful antidote to the temptation to exude (even falsely) competence and expertise.

"If the angel deigns to come,
it will be because you have convinced her
not by tears, but by your humble resolve
to be always beginning; to be a beginner."
[Rainer Maria Rilke]

I have two comments:

On reading "Courage to Teach", my introduction to Parker Palmer and his writing, picked up at an airport bookshop somewhere in Asia, I scribbled many notes inside the back cover, including the following: "“I finish reading with a great sense of fullness and well-being. It is I believe, gratitude for the many who did not so much teach, but at different times in my life gave me permission, encouragement or a little push to learn, and to be more connected both to myself and the great things in all our lives. This is indeed a blessing you have bestowed, Mr Palmer, Thank you." And I bought five more copies, to bestow as treasures on my most special friends and the son who studies Education and Drama. I speak of the multiplier effect of a persons writings.

The second comment relates to an additional reason for writing. Writing to share. I had the privilege of working for an international health development organization and spent more than 12 years on field assignments, meeting extraordinary people and having the most interesting encounters, experiences and adventures, accounts of which I would send to colleagues, friends and family members, sons away at boarding school and later at University. These shared stories were appreciated at the time and are now my own treasure trove of memories.

I read many of Parker Palmer's pieces as a sharing of himself, and I am grateful that he does so. I suspect that I am one of many whose lives have value added as he shares his thoughts and his writings.

Words flow often unrestrained, from my heart, and I feel like an overrun well. I often feel I have to sit with this flood and search for the bed of the river, and it always lead me back to an immense ocean of humanity where I realize, I am just a tiny drop of water longing for the waves.

Wow! Your words spoke to my heart....."a drop of water longing for the waves.....

Thank you for summing up beautifully what it is I have been doing for many years. The other day my youngest daughter asked me if I had a Will(the legal document, it was not a debate). I told her I did not. She said she would like me to make one. Okay, I thought to myself, here comes the dreaded onslaught of what she might want from my collection of stuff. She must have felt my resistance as she haltingly said, 'Mom, there is only one thing I want'. Yes, I replied half-heartedly. 'I want you to leave me all your writing so that I can share it with others if something should happen to you before it gets published'. In that moment,my writing had achieved everything I had ever hoped for, I was completed. The Will has been written and the writer in me writes on with a renewed satisfaction of how much my writing is worth.

Love! This is the only writing advice I've read that has ever made sense, especially to write about something I want to know! This poem came to me recently about the same thing:
Mixing Metaphors

Inner push to speak comes less frequently
but stays longer and delves me deeper than
comfort. I would bury this rawness if
I could but it pours out, rearranging
its parts—jigsaw puzzle captivating—
until whole . Am I some wild pony
to tame? I demand to know only to
hear the sibilance of shush and fishing
in water sounds. Isn’t this what I prayed
for? To be used? And useful? Another
fish grabs me—hooking and holding—to pull
me on this ride through living waters.
I breathe deeply to face my fear:
How can I drown when God is here?
by Susan Chast

This is (as ever) a richand wonderful piece. So helpful to me personally right now as I begin my own blogging journey, and more universally, warm and generous wisdom for the path ahead for all writers. Thank you Mr Palmer (although from your books, blogs and wider writing I feel I know you well enough to call you Parker, a measure of your authenticity as a writer).

Hmmm ... Was it "dumb luck" that I happened to open your post this morning? I enjoyed your comments and really needed your three point advice. I have been ah yes, a generous writer for years, and often just for fun, and have been for the last few days digging though my filing cabinet for material for another book. Hopefully my "beginner's mind" (with a good editor) will be able to successfully scribble, sift, sort and scrap to produce something :)
Thank You.

I have appreciated your writing after hearing your keynote addresses at an Episcopal Coonference for Christian educators in 2003. What I most appreciated about you then, your ability to be authentic, I still hear in this article about writing. I really just wanted to say, "Thank you!"

I like your last point very much. I sometimes hate the strong societal push to write in order to pay the bills,(the need to be discovered), because the bills are always mounting in this society and I want to be able to worry less about my lack of capital, which drains me emotionally, physically,mentally and spiritually. I want to be able to dig into life and have a bounty of love to show for it. I guess the bounty desired might be the love from others who appreciate your technique of digging, for there is bounty in the hearts you bolster. Yet,I do love the bounty that wells up from within the self. Do you have both Parker?

Thank you, Lee. The answer to your good question is yes. In fact, the bounty that comes from within is the most important kind, I think, because it can never be taken away from you. Equally important, you can't give to others what you yourself don't possess. So doing things that grow good stuff inwardly is the path toward doing things that grow good stuff outwardly. Even if you can't make your living by writing (which was my case for many, many years), you can still find ways to do it and give it away that generate abundance within and without. Thanks again, and all good wishes!

What a wonderful way to start a day so instead of staring at the blank page the words begin to flow. Thanks Parker!

I love the substance, depth and presence of Parker Palmer's reflections on the journey of writing. Feeds my soul, heart, mind. I resonate with his approach and realize how many times I have allowed forces from the inside and out, meddle with my pure beginners mind. It takes courage to persevere and see one's originality through.

Mr. Palmer, you continue to inspire me with your heartfelt wisdom. This is just another example of that--as someone who has always written, I hear you, and I know that writing in some way chooses us, rather than us choosing it. I am still making friends with my Muse--mostly I resist and reject her--because she takes me deep into the ethers of my being, where it is uncomfortable and unknowable. I must surrender every time to her; funny how my selective amnesia works, that I forget right before my descent that I always return with a pearl.

Always a gift to read your pieces. Thank you.

Transformation has always baffled me, and yet I continue to find myself struggling my way into, and through changes that are more than Transitions (William Bridges). As I stand in so many liminal spaces, so many doorways, so many hallways --- as one friend suggests, when one door closes and another door opens, you stand in the hallway in between, and that is hell. I don't agree -- that is not hell, that is the convergence zone, it's what facilitators call the ""groan zone," it is what I call living. Maybe even living in the moment, when I can quiet the voice of yesterday and fantasies of tomorrow.

Because transformation is baffling to me, I have begun to journal my journey as the part-time, interim pastor with Welcome Table Christian Church in Seattle, and explore their transformation alongside with my personal transformation. And see what comes of that journaling. It should be fun. It is the first time that I have felt a need to write like this. I have wanted to write, and have had colleagues ask me to write, but I have not felt like this before. And, so, I am writing. Exploring. Filled with wonderment. And a sense of lightness that is not common for me.

Your three suggestions (that's what we call "teachings" in a twelve-step recovery program that I am in) are very helpful as I begin this journey.

Thank you for this wonderful reflection. "Write about what you want to know, because it intrigues and baffles you" is such a sound idea for writers. And, developing the qualities of generosity, curiosity and a willingness to give up what we already think we know is fine advice for us all. Thank you again for this insightful and wonderfully human reflection.

Carrie: you have given me great joy in your songs.
So reflective. You want to know the new just beyond
the known, or am I wrong?

Thank you for your thoughts, and for the link to Merton's last talk.

I really appreciate this piece. I resonate most with the final point that we should write about what we want to know. It reminded me of something Flannery O'Connor said, which is "I write to discover what I know." This entire piece is very encouraging, especially to someone in her early 20s who loves to write, but has no idea what will come of that. I will remember this advice.

I decided I wanted to write above all else, but I also want to share. It's frustrating to have, in my case, unproduced plays. Years of work that no one has seen. In the world of self-publishing, I've decided to change genres, and adapt them to graphic novels perhaps. Writing is first, but I want to share, somehow. Thank you for your wise words.

Thank you! This is the clearest understanding of why I once wrote, and also why I stopped, and why I want to begin again. The process was always what engaged my heart, and from there, sharing freely was child's play. Then, after the death of my youngest child, I could not fathom the pain, could not dive deep within, or have a beginner's mind. Only now, 30 years later, does your love of writing engage my heart, make it sing of its own accord. Thank you!

What a generous, thoughtful column. I teach writing and have attempted to impress upon my students that they learn more from the process than the product (often this is when they are hectoring me for a grade) and I especially love your advice to write what you'd like to know about. I will be sharing your essay with my seniors on Monday. Grace to you and peace.

In December 2013 Kenneth Wapnick passed away. I had the pleasure of meeting Ken and his wife Gloria in 1983. Without Ken's help" A Course in Miracles" might not have been published,he wrote and published several books all based on the principals found in "A Course in Miracles". He founded the Foundation for Inner Peace that continues today to help extend the principals found in the Course.

Precious Brad,thank you for your comment re Kenneth and ACIM! I worked in a super maximum security Canadian prison psychiatric centre, in the 1980’s. Being exposed to so much negative energies (more from the bureaucracy than the prisoners), I became physically, mentally, emotionally and Spiritually 'burnt out’. Thankfully, I learned (from 3 sources) that an ACIM group would be meeting at our church! Thus, the psychiatrist, institution community outreach nurse (who was also the musical director of the church), and a dozen others committed to studying the course for a year, & met weekly! Miraculously, although I thought I’d miss many sessions, I only missed 1 or 2 in the year!
It literally saved and changed my life, as I was so paranoid and ‘mentally sick`, when I started. After working for 12 years in the psychiatric centre (to financially support myself, husband and 3 sons), when they all went off on their own, ACIM gave me the courage to quit the high paying job and survive with much less money, no car and no permanent home. However, the Universe is guiding, protecting me, giving me Creative gifts and health!
Am so very grateful to Ken, ACIM and for being Divinely guided--and for this wonderful site, Krista!

"Novices are often advised to “write about what you know.” I wouldn’t call that bad advice, but I think it needs tweaking. Write about what you want to know because it intrigues and baffles you. That’s the hunger that keeps me engaged with a craft I find endlessly challenging, of which Red Smith famously said,

“There's nothing at all to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” I have written journals, prose, and poems all my life and only had a poem published once when I was 19 years old. I have not submitted anything for publishing, so I would be termed a "writer." I get joy from the discipline of observing nature, human behavior, dog behavior, spiritual behavior and writing about it. Thank you for this quote and for all that you write. Blessings to you.

I love this, thank you! As someone who has only recently decided to take her passion for writing serious enough, to actually do some writing, this is GOOD advice.

Amen. And thank you!

Such wonderful advice from a baffled mind!

Your sage advice reminds me of my work in CPE:Care more about the process than the content; dive deep and dwell in the unknown for a while; value the mystery: and never think I am the supervisor with all the answers. Observe and reflect back. thank you so very much for your generosity and sharing.

Thanks…..writing is such hard work…I find excuses. Your advice urges me on.

Thank you for this gentle reminder of why I write. When I tell people I'm a writer, the first thing they want to know is whether or not I've published. Now I understand why this question has always baffled me.

Oh, my! "Dive deep, dwell in the dark."That speaks to my experience with
poetry. Going into my soul for grounding is what I have said to myself.
Thank you, Parker.

I have been a writer ever since I was a thinking individual in my teens.It is a compulsion, I believe a gift. I long ago realized this. And I am not motivated by fame or fortune, but I do want to share. I do want to be more than a journal writer. I blog, I write letters to the editor, I just self-published my first book. Your article resonated with me, as does your work. Thank you.

Thank you so much for this article. So many things resonate with me. I would much rather focus on writing than focus on getting published, even though someday that would be nice, it really isn't my main goal. I love the give it away/dumb luck approach. This thought confirms that writing my blogs are worth while, mainly because I enjoy doing them. Thanks for the great reminder. I also love the beginner's mind approach. I am always curious about things and I love to do research on things I don't know. Once I know about them I too get bored and move in. I want to stay curious.

Great Wisdom. A friend just recently said that he loved my blog but what keeps me writing with such a small readership? I guess I t's my way of trying to live on the Möbius strip --to share the insides to my outsides. I have a montra, when I breathe in I think "life" and when I breathe out I think "love." Writing (when I'm mindful) is a way to breathe out. So happy to read your perspective having just been thinking along those same lines!

Precious Ken, thank you so much for your writing 3 point advice/wisdom. I have been writing poetry (the 1st 2 as a lovesick teen) and many more since 1981! After encouragement to share with others, a few poems were given to and published in newsletters, etc. Also, was guided to self-publish and hoped to make some money from this. However, I soon learned that this was not lucrative!
Then, songs started coming to and through me (unexpectedly) in 1996!

Thus, have been very content to share my creations freely, trust in “dumb luck” and put my ego aside!
Most recently, have been so impressed with Malala and her efforts. Wishing to donate some money to “The Malala Fund”. and possibly share some of my Creations, finally this week emailed the fund re this. Thus, Matt, from the fund contacted me a few days ago and highly recommended the ‘On Being’ site!
So here I am! Now to figure out how to share my song ‘Precious’, my new words for the old tune of ‘Frere Jaques’, which I have written on a little card, which I’ve given to thousands of people from around the world!

Wise advice. Recently a friend said, "I love your blog, but so few people read it, what keeps you going?" In response, I said something like, "it is a way for me to live a bit on the möbius strip --bringing my inside, out a bit." I have a montra. When I breathe in, I say, Life. When I breathe out, I say, Love. Life, Love, life, love ... When I write, it feels like I'm breathing out. I'm so glad to read this today and remind myself, it is not about publication, it is about love. Thank you.

Thank you.

This blesses me today in that I have been told to write a book multiple times but am always lost after I hear those words spoken. I can't just sit down and churn out what someone wants me to. When I write it is in response to internal processing/meditation that lives in me. When something makes sense or gets clearer, I have to write about it. My blog has provided me with a place to do that. I've beat myself up thinking that a more disciplined person would be able to "do" a book. This piece from you lets me know I'm doing just fine writing from my inner life and in the way I am doing it. Thanks so much!!

Interesting article! Thanks. I often tell new poets and writers to write about what they notice then investigate, research, be accurate.

Thanks Parker, I enjoyed your article. My offerings to the topic is to make sure, when inspired, to write down your musings. They are so easily forgotten. ...And inspiration comes at any time. Pen and paper next to bed is a necessity!

Sometimes a few words pop into my head representing an idea. I work out a title from this idea, as a tool to focus more than anything. Then I start a document with the title only. Following this, I allow my subconscious to mull as long as it wishes. When the 'ready' signal come up from the subconscious, as an eagerness almost a drive or hunger to write, I open the document and write out what the subconscious has prepared. Works well for articles and short stories.

What a great article! Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this way. I truly resonate with Red Smith's statement, "“There's nothing at all to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this way.

just write like a blank bond paper. nothing is right or wrong. I wish to start.

Rilke, oh, no words to articulate. His heart dictated.

like a blank bond paper, I try to start. Fully trusting, it flows. thanks for inspiring.
Rilke, what to say!! he touches my soul.

You're spot on. You have inspired me! Thanks.

Well done...written...said?