Creative writing teacher Natalie Goldberg calls it ‘The Dead Year’: the time when – at whatever age – a person decides that they want to be a writer so bad that they are prepared to begin. To draw up some sort of regular schedule and attempt it. To a friend who embarked on what she had so many years ago, and was finding it hard, Goldberg writes in Wild Mind:
The dead feeling hits hard and permeates the first year. It comes back to test you often in the following years, but if you get through the first year, then you know about it. It will never have the power to defeat you again.Natalie Goldberg
My dead year came when ill health had me on long sick leave from my job on a beautiful university campus that I had wanted to keep until retirement. Hardly able to sleep or eat or sit from pain, I spent school hours like a ghost in my own life. Making deliberate, daily marks on paper felt like the only way I might give myself material substance at a time when my identity had become so badly shrunk and scattered. So I chose a tiny palm-sized reporter pad – modest as my concentration span – and began.
How hard it was to fill even a page with my invalid life!
And so I decided next that just to make the pen move across the paper every day would be enough – or at least better than nothing – even if all I did was copy out work I admired by hand.
In this way, for the next year, across thirty small notebooks (and then dozens of larger exercise books as my muscles strengthened), I created – by accident almost – a commonplace of writers on the practice of keeping going. And these are passages that retain their value when I look back now. Here is one that proved decisive for me – Ted Hughes to a friend losing faith in writing:
Now you have started, don’t you think that rather than escape into a job for a year you ought to keep writing. You are at an age now as I am where jobs are no longer ‘experience’ – only delay and obstruction, and your best experience – & the only absolutely necessary experience – is now that of your own thinking and writing. If you write nothing but bad nonsense for 3 years you will have done more and be nearer what you want to be than if you had ascended to 2nd mate on the Queen Mary in that time, or travelled along every line of lat and every line of long as marked on the MercatorsTed Hughes
While I wasn’t a free, childless fellow from the 1950s, something of Hughes’ words went in deep, early on. I adapted it to my own, different circumstances. Around the care of small children, tests and treatments, my return to work, domestic duties: what if I gave myself permission to write nothing but bad nonsense for 3 years?
And so I did. What I now call the Wild Patience diaries are close to a half million words written for no audience in that time.
After that I had – quite suddenly it felt – the daily practice and private voice which allowed me to make a big, late leap into my public art undertaking, the Wild Patience mile of writing. It felt like magic, but it was – I see now – only a strange yet quite natural product of such a gentle but determined apprenticeship.
10 thoughts on “Wild Patience Diaries: Beginner’s Mind”
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your practice, I look forward to reading your posts.
And thank you in return for reading, Heather.
Thank you for this. I have made many a tentative start but have disabled myself with constant editing. Since December, however I have just written and written almost like an extended free write and have stashed all of this writing away without rereading so far. Thank you for your continued inspiration.
Thank you for this. I have made many tentative starts but have disabled myself by constant editing. Since December, however, I have just written for a period each day almost a free write and have stashed all of this writing away without rereading it so far. Thanks for your continued inspiration.
That sounds like a good approach, Rosalind. I’m astonished to find how so much of what I wrote and thought about in the first three years of my notebooks, before my first small publication, has since found its way into both my short and long form public work. (This week’s post will be about list-making as a way to tap and store good raw material). Thank you for reading and taking time to comment – what I hoped might happen if I risked a weekly post. Best, Tanya
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I wonder sometimes whether it’s possible to integrate one’s life – a satisfying work life coupled with a creative life, syncopated rather than one having to be sacrificed for the other? So often, it seems an either-or construction. Pondering this personal challenge.
I do believe it is, Stefanie – unless one is dealing with a severe illness or caring for someone who has one. But to have even a few days or a week when one decides to make it a central part of one’s life – if not one’s time (as you did last year I think?) – is important I think. To really look at one’s life and think where even one hour a week can be found, and then keep to it, even all that happens for a lot of those first weekly sessions is nothing except that one sits to it. (Goldberg and many others say this is key and it was true for me too). One a less serious note, here is a silly little link to some famous writers who had jobs beyond their words… https://www.inc.com/glenn-leibowitz/want-to-get-famous-pursuing-your-passion-these-7-people-prove-you-dont-need-to-quit-your-day-job.html
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Thank you for the feedback, both serious & lighter-hearted. It’s always helpful to know how other writers integrated different parts of their lives. Making space for creativity and writing aligns with advice received on meditative practice – make time, sit, repeat. Both my work, as an environmental manager, and my writing are propelled by an internal fire/need/passion. One obviously gets more time than the other, but both are precious to me. It’s only recently that circumstances have freed up time to create ritual. Writing is mostly on weekends, but it’s intentional, with a focused practice. And, it’s informed by reading others’ work, your teachings & stillness. Thank you.