On Writing and the Source of Our Material

reflection3I return to adage, as so often I do, because adage is what we seem to live by as much as any mythology, and the adage to which I return is something we have all heard many times before: writers must write what they know.

This concept, writing what we know, is as mysterious as it is seemingly obvious. What if the writer doesn’t know much? What do I, as writer, actually know? There is no shortage of reasons and factors to stop a person from writing, and the adages we attempt to live by can be as stifling and emotionally handicapping as any negative voice we’re already hearing.

So what does a person who wishes to be a writer actually know? What is the source of our material?

In his book Soul Mates, author and psychologist Thomas Moore discusses something that answers the question for me, and perhaps exposes a lifetime of source material for any writer willing to do the work not only of discovering this wealth, but also of improving their lives in the process. The concept centers on intimacy with our own soul.

Moore discusses this intimacy as a sincere, deeply contemplative understanding and, more importantly, acceptance of the complexities and “irrationalities” of our own soul. What is important to note here is that this understanding that the soul is irrational, and that many of the questions we have about ourselves and our lives will never be answered – may even be unanswerable – opens us up to life concepts that we may be unconsciously hiding from.

“Life will follow upon reflection, if the reflection is deep and patient enough to touch upon the central issues of the soul,” Moore writes. “We can trust that a genuine shift in imagination will result in a change of life”(40-41).

This is precisely the process for telling stories. What we further gain from reflection on our own soul is insight into the human condition as we perceive it. The rush we feel in inspiration is the current of energy behind truth and meaning. The more we perceive the closer we get to the all-important truth and accuracy of story and the value and meaning of life.

Moore continues with, “we don’t take an attitude of perfection; rather, we draw closer to those things that we feel as imperfect and let them be the openings through which the potentiality of the soul enters into life” (41).

Each of us possess a soul (according to Moore) that is imperfect and irrational. We strive to understand this even as something in us pushes to avoid it. It seems to me that this is the heart of story, the heart of what it is we seek when we write about our characters. The difficulty in writing, therefor, often comes in the resistance to getting at the honesty of our irrational selves. Speaking for myself, it’s scary to contemplate my own secrets, my own heart of darkness. By getting to know these things better, however, we understand ourselves, and our fellow souls, deeply and intimately. And our writing can do nothing but benefit from such a revelation.


Works Cited

Moore, Thomas. Soul Mates. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.


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Before Art, Imagination


Imagination is the innate tool of discovery and invention that our species is reliant on to solve problems, engage meaning, and advance as life forms on our planet. When we speak in terms of the divine, as so often we do in the arts, we are engaging our imagination to see not only god, but all of creation.

As with any tool, imagination can be misused or neglected. To say that one has a “lack of imagination” is not to imply that a person has less quantity of imagination – imagination is not measured in grams nor grains – but it is to say that one has failed to develop or exercise the imagination to any degree of usefulness.

It goes without saying that the artist cannot thrive without imagination, after all in order for art to exist it must first be imagined, but the question might be asked whether each of us nurtures our minds enough to allow imagination to remain fertile.

In the adult world it seems more often than not that we settle into allowing others to imagine for us. Television, the greatest mind-suck invention of all, is filled with stories brought to us by those who work hard using their imaginations to keep the rest of us tuned in. Forget the fact that the act of watching television reduces our intellectual self-determination on many levels and suffice to say that if one is not creating the imaginative experience then likely one is the target of the experience (and in some cases even the victim).

For the writer and artist it is imperative to keep the imagination active at a childlike level; that is, with a newness of perspective and an absence of fear that is similar to a child’s. We must attempt to not know the things we think we know, and consciously choose to see all things anew. The act of practicing this consciousness is naturally political. Our race is wired to compete and to control. We are led by other people who have an agenda, and who want us all to think in certain ways, to accept and believe certain things so that we can be controlled and manipulated for their gain. This is not unlike the goal of the artist, who wishes through her art to influence her audience. We are a species both desirous of having influence and of being influenced. Once the individual becomes aware of this fact the matter is a political one and the conscientious person is naturally drawn to resist authority.

Picasso called the act of painting an “instrument of war.” The declaration of war in this case is against complaisance, tyranny, and sloth, not only of outside individuals and governments, but of the internal laziness and vapidity that our race is at times disposed to.

Without art and meaningful ideas there is only the void. But even the void is merely an excuse to give up. The creative person is tasked with reaffirming life’s aesthetic. In our imagination lies the salvation of our humanity and a connection to our sense of the divine. The artist is not only privileged in his position – he is the messiah.


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