Monday, September 30, 2013

Reflections from the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

By Alexander Slagg

Writing As a Spiritual Practice

We human beings spend a great deal of our time differentiating ourselves from others. Some of us rock a mohawk, others a mullet. Some of us dress for uptown, others for downtown. We will drink and carouse in certain neighborhoods, but wouldn’t be caught dead in others. Each of these choices helps us identify ourselves as unique individuals, different from all others. I’m sure there are sociological theories that explain away why humans have this intense need to individuate.

This dynamic even plays out in our lives as writers. The choices we make in our craft, this word instead of that word, this turn of phrase rather than another, reveal this same tendency to do things in our own particular way. Individual expression is the beauty of art—each is its own singular object, unique to the world. And I think that is the underlying motivation for many artists: creating something that the world has never experienced before. But it can offer so much more.

The craft of writing has not only allowed me to express my individual creative vision, it has revealed to me how similar I am to others. Writing has become an avenue for spiritual practice. It teaches me how to relate to others.

If I am writing fiction, I use a narrative voice. That voice may be me (the author) speaking directly through the narrator, or it may be a completely different person. If that narrator is someone else, I have to think through who that someone else is. What are the narrator’s likes and dislikes, weaknesses and strengths? Why does he or she reveal this detail but ignore that one? As the author, I have to find a way to embody and understand that narrator.

The same process takes place, only to a greater degree, with characters. For characters to pop out beyond a two-dimensional functional role in the story, I have to imbue them with details, thoughts, behavior tics, actions—background that’s brought them to their current state and future goals to strive toward. In order to do this, I have to imagine what it is like to be these characters, get to know them on an intimate level. I have to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

What are the motivations of a poor boy growing up in the streets of Peshwar, Pakistan? What is the thought process behind why a woman dresses the way she does? Can a canary bird have feelings of love for its human companion? From a writer’s perspective, for me to be able to answer any of these questions about these characters, I must put myself in their shoes. That is a powerful spiritual practice.

When we can imagine what motivates others, understand their frustrations and joys, we become closer to them. They are no longer ciphers, unrelateable others. They become like ourselves, knowable to a certain degree. We start to notice the similarities between ourselves and others, as well as the differences. We develop a more nuanced, more accurate understanding of people, and of reality itself.

And it is really a small step—though it may feel like a leap at first—to take that practice of walking in another’s shoes from the world of our writing and pull it into the real everyday world that we inhabit, full of awkward workplace encounters and jerks that cut us off on the freeway.

But we writers are magicians, at heart. We create stories out of thin air, out of nothing. This is another truth gleaned from the craft, truth being another word for magic, that we can take back to our everyday lives to enrich the world around us.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at