In Part One of my Q&A with writer, soul-community creator, poet, spiritual field guide, and deep soul explorer, Janet Conner, we discussed the techniques she outlined in her book Writing Down Your Soul, including the four steps to activating the Voice within.
In Part Two, Janet Conner shares the primary guides that helped her find her own writing process, then she delves into ways to activate the “theta brain wave state,” and finally, she discusses her Plug In for Writers telecourse, where she helps writers put into practice everything they need to create a successful writing life.
MARGARET DUARTE: What, in your opinion, happens when we write?
JANET CONNER: I think every writer has her own experience of what happens when she picks up a pen or places her hands on a keyboard. There is no one process, no one elixir that works for all. What I have done over twenty years of deep soul writing and ten years of professional writing is find my own process, my own elixir, my own doorway to the sacred river of words.
Two primary guides have helped me find that river: The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, and the 20th century Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Annie Dillard.
Let’s begin with Rumi. Because no matter what we seek to know or feel or discover, it seems Rumi has already explored those fields.
His words pop into our awareness seemingly everywhere. Open a book and invariably the author will have quoted him. Click on social media and someone will have posted an evocative meme with his words.
The wonder is that Rumi’s words appear always at the moment our internal ears—the ears of our heart—are ripe to hear them.
Eleven years ago, this poem of Rumi’s tumbled into my hands. I didn’t understand it at the time, and perhaps I still don’t, but I’m confident it holds the answer to your question:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
(translation by Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi)
The line has been singing out like a bell for me all these many years is: “People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.”
What I hear in that sentence is that there are two worlds: visible and invisible, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious. The sacred river of words is on the other side: the invisible side, the unknown side, the unconscious side. But listen to Rumi’s good news: people are going back and forth between these worlds. So why not me! Why not you? And his even better news: “The door is round and open.” Whew! It can’t be that hard to cross through an open doorway, can it?
The only remaining question is how. How can we step over that threshold and explore the invisible world, and then go back and forth, back and forth, at will?
Pursuing that how has been the love of my life—and not just my professional life. I don’t and can’t segment myself into parts like that. Crossing the threshold between worlds is at the center of my spiritual life, my prayer life, my deep soul writing life, my reading life, my professional writing life, my teaching, and even my relationships. Everything pours through that round open door. All I have to do is recognize and serve the sacred flood.
My second teacher, the greatest writing teacher I know, is Annie Dillard. Or rather, it isn’t Annie herself. Annie is the finger pointing to the moon. The moon is the page, the blank page. Reach this magnificent soliloquy aloud and listen as Annie Dillard calls to the words on the other side of the round open door.
“Who will teach me to write? A reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because action is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)
THAT is the best advice I’ve ever heard about learning to write. Condensed in my blunt hands it sounds a bit like: Show up and write. Show Up, you may recall from part one of this interview is the first of four steps in soul writing. But I think it’s the first step in life. Before anything can happen, we have to show up. Show up to pray. Show up to learn. Show up to love. And show up to write.
DUARTE: Even if there is no one how to stepping over the threshold and exploring the invisible world, would you tell us a bit more about yours?
CONNER: The funny part about my how is that I was living it long before I knew what I was doing. I discovered deep soul writing in the midst of a high conflict divorce complete with road rage, weapons, 911 calls, and restraining orders. One morning, out of sheer desperation, I picked up a pen and wrote a long angry letter to “Dear God.” Nothing dramatic happened but I felt a tad better, so the next day I showed up, wrote “Dear God” across the top of a page, and poured my frightened heart onto the page. After a few days of this, I got tired of listening to myself vent, and I blurted out a question. Not some measly little question, but a big question. And immediately, a wise, loving voice poured through my pen. I knew it wasn’t my voice, because it was loving, warm, and wise. It was so startling that my hand recoiled off the page. I didn’t know it, but in that moment, I had stumbled upon how to activate the theta brain wave state while writing.
I’d never heard anyone talk about a connection between journaling and brain waves—to the best of my knowledge it’s not mentioned in any of the classic journaling books—so it never crossed my mind that that’s what I was doing. It was only when I got the contract to write Writing Down Your Soul, and began poking around in psychology and neurobiology to try to discover how to describe and teach this process to others, that I stumbled (there’s that word again!) into the delicious world of brain waves.
I started with James Pennebaker’s brilliant research on the efficacy of writing by hand in Opening Up. He clearly connects the dots between writing and all the physical, emotional, and mental benefits we typically see in meditation. But in all his books I still didn’t find an answer to my burning question, why. Why does writing have all these benefits? For that, I dove into Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion and there found that all our unexpressed traumas literally constrict the carotid artery, restricting blood flow to the brain, leaving our frontal cortex undernourished. How’s that for a wow! I clearly had some powerful science to explain and support deep soul writing in my book, but I sensed that something was missing. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew how to activate it. On the page, I thanked my divine Voice for all the science that had come my way, and asked that the final piece come—and soon, because we had a deadline.
The next day (the Voice works fast), I hear a radio interview with Robert and Michelle Colt who call themselves “Consciousness Coaches.” They didn’t talk about brain waves but there was something in their voices that led me to ask them to talk with me for Writing Down Your Soul. Right from the get-go, Michelle Colt said, “Writing is the most effective spiritual practice.” Clearly these were my kind of people. As we dove deeper and deeper into what happens when you write by hand, I asked Robert, “What does it mean when the pen seems to have an energy all its own and I couldn’t lift it if I wanted to?” I could tell that Robert was startled by the question and I was scrambling to figure out how to rescind it, when he said, “I don’t know how you’ve done it, Janet, but you’ve trained yourself to enter mystical theta.”
That was my introduction to brain waves. And to think it came a full ten years after I started soul writing! Mystical theta and I have been in a mad love affair ever since. Once Robert gave me a term for what I was experiencing, I began to notice all the other times and ways that I slip into theta. And they are myriad. I’ll bet you experience inspiration, guidance, insight, and that sacred river of words in some or all of these times, too. There is no end to the ways we can slip through that round open door.
Here are some of the times throughout the day that I hover in theta:
- Soul writing, of course
- First thing in the morning in the liminal space between sleep and waking (Morning Theta is so essential, I teach it in all my live courses.)
- In the shower (My editor said I found “the phone booth to God.”)
- Driving (Can’t count all the times I’ve heard the perfect phrase while staring through the world through the windshield.)
- On long silent walks (No electronics.)
- Staring out the window (This is possibly the richest time of all and no one talks about it.)
- While reading something meaty. (Because, of course, words beget words.)
- While praying, chanting, meditating, or other spiritual practice
- In Savasana in yoga (I have so many downloads in Savasana, I bring a yellow pad to yoga.)
- In the middle of the night (I always have a notepad on my nightstand.)
- In the middle of the night. (I am awakened almost every night with something important. I roll over, write it on the notepad in the dark, whisper thank you, and go back to sleep.)
Do you see? We are naturally wired to slip in and out of theta all day long. And thank goodness, because according to the brain scientists, theta is the only brain wave state in which we have access to breakthrough thinking and creativity. And, I would add, mystical experiences.
When you begin to recognize when you are in theta and how you got there, you can repeat the experience—and expand the amount of time in theta. That’s the key. Slipping in and out of that door for a few seconds is nice, but you can’t construct a life or write a book that way. I prefer to step over that threshold every single day and walk around in that other world. That’s what I mean when I say that all my live courses are “deep soul explorations.” We consciously step across that threshold into what I like to call “The Mystic,” and we explore the rich thrilling fields of the soul. And we do it together.
DUARTE: I took your Plug In for Writers tele-course in 2011 and found it both inspirational and helpful in my journey as a writer. How has the class evolved and remained the same since then?
CONNER: Oh, Margaret, you wouldn’t even recognize it. Plug In for Writers keeps evolving and deepening as my own writing life evolves and deepens. When you took Plug In, I had one book, Writing Down Your Soul, and was finishing the manuscript for The Lotus and The Lily. Today, I have four books, two journals, and one cutting edge coloring book, and I have started working on the largest and deepest project of my life, The Unified Field of Prayer. The Soul-Directed Life in 2018 will be 48 live interviews with masters and mystics on prayer. You could say I’m researching the book on air!
To help writers put into practice everything they need to create a successful writing life, Plug In for Writers is now divided into two sections: The Work Before the Work and The Work. In the first six gatherings, which begin in April, we explore all the spiritual practices that support your writing life. Theta, of course is the core, but also creating a sacred writing space, writing your Writing Blessing, removing rocks in your energy field that block theta, partnering with your invisible writing guides, clarifying the “beating heart” of your work (otherwise known as your spiritual brand), finding “your neighborhood” in the publishing world, and finally, learning how to hone in on the agents, publishers, and readers who resonate with your beating heart.
Once you’ve done all that you’re ready to do the work. And to help you do the work, I introduce you to all the magnificent women in “My Village” because, as any writer knows, it takes a large village to bring a book to life. I’ve been blessed to work with superb publishing consultants, publicists, and marketing gurus and the members of Plug In for Writers get to work with them, too.
But in the end, the heart of the course is unchanged. I created Plug In for Writers to share everything I wish someone had taught me about the writing life. Today, there are dozens of graduates whose books have come to life. A couple recent graduates are: Tara Cousineau, The Kindness Cure (New Harbinger Press Feb 2018) and Christine Wheeler, The Tapping Solution for Teenage Girls, (Hay House, 2016).
Thank you Janet Conner. I’m sure you have inspired our readers as you’ve inspired me over the past six years.
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