What makes writers happy, besides working on their craft, of course, is connecting with other writers to delve into the unknown and explore one another’s minds for fresh ideas.
Add to that a team of experts and inspirational speakers and you kick up the happiness factor a notch or two.
You can imagine my reaction when in 2011, I read about Plug in for Writers, a twenty-week, eleven class tele-series inspired and led by Janet Conner, author of Writing Down Your Soul.
Janet, a nonfiction writer I had “friended” on Facebook, posted a notice about her Plug-In series on my news feed. I followed the link to her website and saw that her course was due to start in February.
Wouldn’t it be awesome to participate? I thought and then moved on to other things. Little did I know that I would end up taking the course (thanks to a scholarship from Janet) and thereby step into the “Intersection, where new and powerful spiritual practices merge with craft.”
After taking Janet’s course, I sensed a deep connection between what Janet called “soul writing” and visionary fiction, though pinpointing exactly how they connected wasn’t easy to clarify or put into words.
The best way to accomplish this, I decided, was to ask Janet to join me at the VFA, where I would ask her about ways for writers to activate their inner wisdom and recognize the miraculous power of words, as she so beautifully puts it in Writing Down Your Soul and in her Plug In for Writers Course.
I am amazed at Janet’s ability to express what goes into deep writing—be it nonfiction, fiction, or soul writing. It all comes from the same place and asks for a certain surrender, a descent into what Robert Olen Butler in From Where You Dream calls “the dreamspace of the unconscious.” He says, “Art comes from the place where you dream, the ‘white-hot center’ of you.” Psychologists call it the “flow state.” Athletes call it being “in the zone.” I call it “entering the between.”
So, let me introduce you to Janet Conner and her work via her own words in Part One of a two-part interview.
MARGARET DUARTE: The techniques you outline in your book, Writing Down Your Soul, strike me as similar to those used by fiction writers in their first drafts. How is soul writing similar and how is it different than first-draft writing in fiction?
JANET CONNER: Having not written fiction, I can’t compare a personal experience of writing a story with the personal experience of soul writing, but I sense there are great similarities because both well up from the same source—the vast invisible.
Paul Applebaum describes it perfectly in Notes on Water: “Where meaning pours forth from the ever-fertile ground—anywhere I strike with my pen—there a story waits.”
“Anywhere I strike my pen…” I love this phrase. I can just see that dot on the page where my pen touches down. And suddenly it’s no longer a dot on a page; it’s the opening of a very deep well.
I strike my pen onto the paper of my journal every morning to dip into that bottomless well and up flows wisdom, guidance, grace, inquiries—ideas that are nowhere to be found in my conscious mind. Maybe it’s a surprising connection or a “duh!” realization. Maybe it’s a cosmic revelation buried deep in paradox. Maybe it’s a memory I’d forgotten or a question I’ve failed to ask. The key is that I do not—cannot—control or manipulate what flows up out of that well. If I do, I’m not soul writing.
Doesn’t a fiction writer do the same thing? She strikes the pen onto paper or the keys on the keyboard and dips into an invisible well of ideas, words, situations, emotions, possibilities. She does not—cannot—make the characters do what she wants them to do nor can she force the story to bend the way she thinks it should bend. Well, she can. She can do that, but the end result will be boring, trite, repetitive. And the reader, if there should ever be one, will put the book down.
In order to write something fresh, something exciting, something pulsing with life, the story has to surprise the writer first, so it can surprise the reader later.
So, the similarity, as I see it, is the state of surrender. A soul writer has no idea what’s coming out of the pen. She surrenders to the process and follows the ink where it leads. A visionary fiction writer may have an overall idea of the arc of her book, but in that moment of sitting down to write she does not know exactly what’s going to happen next. She has to follow the story where the story wants to go.
DUARTE: In Writing Down Your Soul, you also mention four steps to activating the Voice within. Again, these steps bring to mind the steps fiction writers (especially visionary fiction writers) use to access their muse. Do these four steps apply equally to the creation of fiction and nonfiction?
CONNER: Well, let’s see. The four steps are: Show Up, Open Up, Listen Up, and Follow Up. Show Up is the foundation brick in the process. You have to sit in your sacred writing chair, every day if possible, pick up a pen, say hello, and begin.
Show Up isn’t unique to soul writing; it’s true of any spiritual practice. Meditation works when you show up to meditate. Prayer works when you show up to pray. For that matter, Show Up works for everything, doesn’t it? Relationships work when you show up in the relationship. Yoga works when you show up on the mat. And surely, we writers know this: writing a book can only happen when you show up in the chair—every day if possible. In my course for writers, I call it getting your AIC degree: Ass In Chair.
The second step is Open Up. In soul writing, you begin a conversation. But it’s got to be a real conversation. If you write about superficial things, skirting over what’s really on your heart, you will receive a superficial response if you get one at all. But when you show up naked, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the divine mystery opens up in turn and wisdom beyond your wildest imagining comes through.
Is there a parallel to writing books? As a non-fiction writer, I absolutely know that Open Up is the key to writing a powerful book. You might think that non-fiction is based on research and adheres to the detailed outline in the book proposal—and it does. But to find the true heart of your book, the part that changes readers’ lives, I have to open my heart, my mind, my body, my hands, and my soul and write from within a tender, even frightened, exposed place.
Third step is Listen Up. The image of the Mobius Strip conveys how this step flows from the others. When you show up and put your pen down on paper and write from your heart, the divine Voice within begins to rise from the invisible unconscious realm and flow onto the page. The simplest and richest way I know to activate that extraordinary Voice is to ask questions. Deep questions. Big questions. Questions you didn’t even know were inside you. Ask a question like that, then open your inner ears, the ears of your heart, and hear what wants to be heard.
The final step is Follow Up. Why would you show up, open your heart, ask big questions, and then ignore the wisdom you receive. Is it scary to follow up, to actually make changes in your thinking, your language, the choices you make? Maybe. But after a few weeks of deep soul writing, your level of trust in that eternal divine Voice grows to such an extent, that you know you are loved and supported as you take the first tentative steps to bring the wisdom of the ink to life. I started deep soul writing in 1997 in the midst of a terrifying divorce. I did not relish the guidance to change the way I was living. I didn’t. But I finally gave up and gave in and began to implement the guidance. And from the beginning, the world around me began to shift and change in response to the shifts and changes within. As within so without is true!
Now, your question is: Do these four steps apply to fiction writing. I think we get the answer by simply substituted your word Muse for my word divine Voice. And we end up in the same place. Showing up to write, opening your hands and heart, asking the invisible Muse for guidance, and then following where she leads. It’s always a surprise. And it’s always better than whatever your conscious logical left-brain could have planned.
DUARTE: In Writing Down Your Soul, you talk about connecting with the Voice. Who or what is the Voice?
CONNER: This is the great mystery of soul writing. You are in communion with something very real, very present, very loving. And yet, you can’t define it. You can’t put it in a box. My editor struggled with the chapter called “Who or what is listening?” In her edit notes she asked if the Voice is a divine being or angel or higher form of consciousness or perhaps a future, wiser, more evolved you.
I wrote this paragraph for her:
“[T]he Voice is all that and more. I don’t mean to be glib. The Voice, you see, is a paradox. It is the largest consciousness, yet it squeezes itself through the tiniest tip of your pen. It’s the massive noise of creation, yet you hear it as the faintest sound deep within your soul. It is cosmically profound, yet it speaks with you about very ordinary things.
“Does that paradox frustrate you? Don’t worry. The Voice will reveal itself to you over time. Your understanding will evolve and your trust and intimacy will grow. In the end, the Voice is who you believe it to be, where you perceive it to be, what you know it to be. Be at peace with that and enjoy the conversation.” (Writing Down Your Soul p 56)
Isn’t it the same in fiction writing? Do you know—really know—who your muse is? Even if you give her a name—which I highly recommend—can you define her? Can you get her to show up when you want in the way you want? Can you predict what she’ll say or do? Of course not. And so, it is with all relationships with the invisible.
DUARTE: One of the things that distinguishes writing down the soul from typical journaling is what you call intention and purpose. At the VFA, our intention and purpose, besides telling a good story, is to help readers expand their awareness of greater possibilities. How do you define intention and purpose?
CONNER: I’ve wrestled with this concept of intention for several years. I use it in Writing Down Your Soul and in my second book, The Lotus and The Lily, but there was something about that word that had a few rough edges. It was only when I did the research for my newest book, Find Your Soul’s Purpose, that I realized a clearer term for intention is sacred desire. Desire comes from the old French desir, from sidus, meaning star. The Latin verb desiderare means to gaze at the star.
“Desire is a constantly refilling well of longing for deeper and deeper intimacy with the mysterious star and its miraculous light. It may sound like a subtle difference, but if you explore the difference between the straight line of intention from wanting to getting and the streaming spiral of ever-deepening exploration as you follow your desires where they lead, I think you’ll find yourself gravitating to the more expansive wing of desire.” (Find Your Soul’s Purpose p 10)
I now use the term sacred desire rather than intention. And it does seem more expansive to me. It somehow opens me to something greater than I could have ever intended.
And purpose! I wrote an entire book about that! That is a rich and very sacred word. I wish I had a more expansive word for purpose, but in the end, I discovered that I don’t have a new word, but it’s imperative to add the adjective soul or divine. The big ah-ha in Find Your Soul’s Purpose is that your purpose isn’t yours. It’s a divine purpose expressed the only way it can be: in and through and as you.
I hope you come to enjoy a creative connection with Janet Conner, as I have over the years.
Creative connections with like-minded people create a positive mental atmosphere in which we can grow. They offer support, confidence in our abilities, and assistance where we need help.
Part Two of my interview with Janet will be posted next month, so stand by.
Janet Conner is a writer, spiritual field guide, and radio host—but first and always a deep soul explorer. Ever since she discovered how to activate the theta brain wave state while writing, Janet has dedicated herself to teaching others how to activate their own internal voice of wisdom, creativity, and grace. She is the author of seven books including the bestselling Writing Down Your Soul, The Lotus and the Lily, Soul Vows, and her newest, Find Your Soul’s Purpose. In addition to writing and teaching, Janet hosts rich conversations with spiritual leaders on her weekly radio show, The Soul-Directed Life
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