I’m stark naked in broad daylight, sitting with my new best friends who also happen to be naked. We’re immersed in steaming water that smells faintly of sulphur, having an Important Conversation. Thirty feet below, the Pacific churns in fifty shades of green, crashing and foaming onto jagged, kelpy rocks. Above, a grassy hill stretches sharply towards a blazing blue sky.
This is California, of course. Where else would a group of new BFFs take off their clothes and jump into a communal bath to have an Important Conversation?
We’re contemplating creativity, what it means to be a human, and how on earth we’re going to take everything that’s happened in the last week back to our lives of phone calls, texts, emails, deadlines, dental appointments, dead batteries, car pools, cooking, laundry, and people-who-need-us-to-do-stuff.
We’ve been here for a workshop in the art of memoir and creative storytelling with two modern masters, Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston. If you haven’t yet read Cheryl’s books Wild or Tiny Beautiful Things, run, do not walk, to get your hands on them. Wild is the book that inspired Oprah to restart her famous book club; Tiny, Beautiful Things is Cheryl’s collection of raw, wise Dear Sugar essays–the advice column to end all advice columns. And Pam’s latest book, Contents May Have Shifted is an evocative collage of adventures about relationships and exotic places, told with intimacy and wit.
I came to learn how to be a more compelling writer, but I’ve gotten so, so much more. I’ve been particularly stuck by the parallels between creating literature and creating a life, about how the process of any great creative pursuit parallels our personal journeys to stretch, grow and emerge as fuller, richer, kinder humans. The issues that I explore daily with my coaching clients and students are the same issues that these two great writers regularly confront, and that have inspired this Important Conversation today in the baths.
I had previously imagined that writers on this level simply sat at their desks each morning and the perfect words and stories flowed directly to the page, perhaps needing a little tweaking or rearranging here or there.
I was dead wrong. Great artists who produce great work are just like us. Really. Just like us.
–They struggle with fear and avoid their work, just like we do. It’s just part of their creative process. They tell themselves it’s too hard. They tell themselves that they suck and that they’re not good enough. They worry about what other people think about their work. Both Pam and Cheryl do this and said that every other writer they know does the same thing.
But, here’s their secret–they’re onto themselves–they expect that inner backtalk and their resistance. It no longer surprises them. They know it’s part of their process. And they don’t let it stop them.
Writing is hard, they agreed. Getting what’s in your head onto paper takes hours, lots of false starts, and often brings frustration. But the difficulties are not reason enough to avoid your soul’s calling.
After they fret and flounder, they roll up their sleeves and go to work. In Tiny Beautiful Things, a stuck, self-loathing young woman complained she could only “write like a girl,” and sought Sugar’s advice. Cheryl famously advised: “Don’t write like a girl. Don’t write like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.” In other words, do what burns inside you to be expressed and do it ferociously.
–The demands, routines, and curve balls of life do not keep them from their work or their dreams. Both Pam and Cheryl cope with the ordinary and extraordinary interruptions of life, too. Just like we do. They deal with email and phone calls and heavy schedules. During the week with us, Cheryl’s young children wanted cheeseburgers and their Mom’s attention, and an out-of-control forest fire raged within a mile of Pam’s beloved ranch in southern Colorado. In fact, Pam had evacuated her home only a few hours before she flew to California to be with us. Neither of them uttered one syllable of victimy complaint. They shared their knowledge, passion, energy and showed up smiling and present, every session.
–Moving towards their dreams, improving their skills and doing their creative work is part of the tapestry of their lives. Notwithstanding packed schedules, they regularly develop their skills and move forward with their visions. Cheryl reads works by great writers daily, paying careful attention to details like how the writer moves them from place to place in physical space. Pam regularly reads poetry to improve her impressive precision with words. She gathered ideas for stories during class breaks and shared them with us. Pam turned her personal disaster into a creative exercise and had us write about what we would rescue if we had to evacuate our homes in four hours, like she had.
–They don’t know the path before they take the journey. They don’t expect to know it either. While some writers may know exactly where they’re going and have it all figured out, these two definitely don’t. Pam describes her starting point as The Forest of Not Knowing. She likes it there and explained the many advantages of not-knowing. Cheryl likewise has no idea where her writing will take her—the path arises organically as she writes. Wild was originally intended as an exploration of her grueling Pacific Crest Trail hike and, after she began, it veered into the deepest waters of human experience. If “not-knowing-where-it’s-going” worked for Wild, which is being hailed as one of the great masterpieces of our times, it might just work for our challenges.
In other words, when we have a project ahead of us, we don’t need to know where we’re going or where we will end up. That’s okay. We just need to start. In personal development, this approach is extraordinarily successful. I encourage my coaching students not to worry about having a plan for their clients and to proceed a step at a time. Our clients’ attention, awareness, and insights will light the trail, bit by bit.
For me, hearing that even accomplished artists cope with the same things I do and the same things my clients do gave me great reassurance. Whether we want to create great art in our lives or whether we want to master the art of living, we can expect bouts of inner resistance and fear, a variety of obstacles and losses, and lots of time in The Forest of Not Knowing.
This is all part of the experience of creating anything, as well as the experience of being human. If we’re willing to then dive in notwithstanding the inner and outer forest fires, and keep moving towards our dreams and desires, we can express what yearns for expression. We can create our own masterpieces.
And sometimes, if we’re very, very lucky, we can sit with our bared souls and our bared butts in the company of understanding friends, and contemplate the mystery, the wonder, and the everyday magic of it all.