Finding your voice as a writer is the adventure of a lifetime, because your true voice exists on the other side of your ego.
Your true voice has the ability to look past everything you resist and see the most meaning in whatever’s in front of you. That’s how a great novel that can express the beauty of both life and death, pleasure and pain, equally. And it brings up the same experience in the reader through catharsis.
The ego can’t see that, because frankly, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The ego is always scared. It judges everything, sees it as right or wrong, good or bad, good enough and not good enough. Plus, it has no patience for the organic process through which anything meaningful and creative comes into begin.
If your ego was watching a flower, it would probably just keep yelling “Hurry up!” until it drove itself completely mad. Sometimes the creative writing process is like that too. That’s when you know the ego is arising.
That’s where surrender comes in...
Recently while gathering material for my new book on the spiritual craft of writing I went back to my old journals from when I lived in India. It seems like back then I knew how to surrender.
Believe me when I say all the resistance in the world has flared up when I started writing this new book. It took me three weeks to write this excerpt, which at one point amounted to 10 pages. Then, 75% of what I finally kept was just edited from journal entry written fourteen years ago.
It went something like this…
When I began this entry never in a million years could I have imagined the things I was to learn on that journey. And now, 48 hours later I could fill this book with everything I absorbed. I was invited on a University class trip to Kerala from Fatima College in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The adventure began at 1 AM with a knock at the door. I splashed water on my face and pulled on pants.
The night was damp and sweet at Fatima college with jasmine looping throughout the campus. Two students lead me to the front entrance where the group was already gathered. I glanced at someone’s watch and was happy it only took me ten minutes to prepare (everyone must have been waiting). I was introduced to a group of about fifty college students with long hair and sarees, with the ambiguous explanation, “This is Emily, she works for an NGO in the United States and she’s coming with us for an experience.” I said a meek “Hello nice to meet you,” which was returned by about fifty smiles and sideways nods.
Transportation arrived and everyone scattered. I buckled myself into a white van full of boisterous 23-year-old graduate students (I was all of 25). They looked skeptical about welcoming me. These girls were blasting Tamil pop music, giggling and gossiping in a language I still couldn’t grasp, and every now and then heard my own name amidst the cacophony of laughter.
I was so uncomfortable.
My ego would have gotten uppity and probably embarrassed me. Thank God I had my own practice of surrender at the time.
Instead I shyly introduced myself to the girl who seemed the calmest. She had short hair and glasses, and her name was Koliman, but everybody called her Kolsi. I repeated her name to make sure I pronounced it correctly, and then latched onto it as if it were a life preserver in an erratic sea.
One of the bolder girls called out to me in English from the back, “If you’re going to travel with us, you have to know our names.”
I think I said, “Yes, obviously. What’s your name?”
“Paravin,” she said. I repeated it. The other girls continued down the line, Paravin, Sumi, Shomi, Makia, Sangi Saranja, Anju and Shoba.
Paravin instructed me that I should clap to the music with them, and I did, outwardly smiling, inwardly petrified. Then she prodded to join the dancing. I did. Suddenly, I was trained. I did my best to fit in without making a fool of myself. And it worked.
After a while everyone fell asleep, which was nice because it was the only time I could be certain they weren’t talking about me. I stayed awake partly because the music was so loud, partly because riding in that van on those country roads felt like riding a bicycle down a staircase, and partly because I didn’t want to miss even a moment.
When the sun came up, everyone awoke and the van stopped. I had no idea where we were, but I was ready.
A man came to the door and said a few words in Tamil and all the girls rummaged through their bags, pulling out toothbrushes, so I did that too. Not wanting to crowd them, I wandered around a bit until I ran smack into the top of a waterfall. Everyone had been talking about bathing in the falls and I realized that’s what we were about to do.
I followed a student down the long stone cobbled path that wound through a forest, twisting close to and away from the water. Along the way we encountered grey monkeys. This was the first time I’d seen monkeys in the wild. They were springing on the limbs of Kerala trees, watching us travelers, neither afraid nor amused, like we were clouds by.
When we reached the bottom of the falls they were breathtaking. No one needs to teach us to be awestruck by waterfalls. God just decided the land should break and all the water passing through the river would be doomed to tumble, putting an end to what ever it knew at the top of the cliff and giving itself up to whatever it finds at the bottom. If you can’t tell, I really liked that waterfall. Felt a lot of empathy.
Suddenly a chorus of “Emily, Emily, Emily” clambered toward me from behind. I spun around to see the girls from the van surrounding me. To my surprise, Paravin and Anjou wanted to take pictures together. With me. None of us had cellphones in 2005, instead we used disposable cameras. I wanted to ask them a million things, but instead decided to play it cool. Stay quiet and let the answers reveal themselves. It had worked alright thus far.
We washed up in the stone pools below the falls and, I thought to myself, “I know I came here for a reason, but I don’t know what that is.” Scooping up the water I repeated that phrase several times, it’s now my favorite mantra any time I enter a new creative process.
Much of the day was spent in the van, and after the waterfall, I was laughing and joking with the group as a whole. I got in some much deeper conversations with Kolsi and Paravin. We talked about religion, politics, dating and the opportunities for English grad students in these cool new call centers that were opening up all over India. I was fascinated.
By the time the van stopped again, Paravin and Kolsi had more or less adopted me. And it was a good thing too. We ate lunch in the parking lot and Kolsi helped me distinguish which foods would be too pungent. Pungent is synonymous with spicy in Tamil Nadu.
Weirdly, I’d learned to enjoy eating foods that were too pungent for my palette. It was part of my surrender. While I was in India I gave myself permission to have a whole spectrum of experiences that my personal preferences would have otherwise guarded against. Even the ones that made me want to amputate my own tongue. I just witnessed the sensation, and then I would close my eyes, smoke would blow out of my ears, and I would wait for God to personally introduce herself.
But remaining neutral and just witnessing the taste of food was a pretty good practice in ego death, that could then be used as a metaphor and applied in all other situations.
Maybe ten minuets after we finished our meal, as if to test the food neutrality philosophy that I’d so carefully cultivated, a humongous mass of tropical bird shit slopped into my hair and bled through the braid Anjou had adorned me with in the van. This was not one of the coin-sized pellets you find on your car, it was more like what would happen to kids in Nickelodeon game shows in the 1990s.
I did not move for at least sixty seconds. My consciousness must have leapt out of my body for at least that long in an effort to sustain neutrality, so I can’t actually remember anyone’s reaction. What I do remember is that once that hot minute was up, I had an entire poop emergency squad helping me clean the mess. I was supremely and awkwardly grateful.
After running myself ragged trying new foods, meeting new people, absorbing gorgeous vistas, and being eagerly tugged by the hand all over the place, I was exhausted. It was also dawning on me how blessed I was and how much I had changed in less than a day.
At about 10 PM it was finally time to sleep. We arrived at a large marriage hall with a black stone floor where all the students began laying out bed sheets. I fruitlessly tried to muffle my facial expressions, which was immediately noticed and responded to with a high-pitched echoes of “What’s wrong?”
I hadn’t brought a bed sheet.
The words had barely even crossed my lips, when Paravin interrupted me, “If one of us has a bed sheet, we all have a bed sheet, so don’t worry about that.”
At that moment if I could have fallen to my knees, I would have. My mind reeled with gratitude for this sense of connection.
If I would have sided with my ego, I would have resisted the van, I would have resisted the music in the van, as well as the dancing, the bumpiness, and lost sleep. Then I definitely would have resisted the pungent food and getting pooped on. As a result I would have ended the night a hungry angry girl with no friends sleeping alone on a stone floor, probably with bird shit still in her hair.
But it didn’t happen that way. Instead I felt like a world had been opened to me.
At first glance that might seem like a lot to go through just to have that sense of adventure in a new country, but let me ask you, in any given month hasn’t your life, money, family, work, health, cars, kids, birds, or dogs challenged you even more than that?
That’s where writing comes in. Through stories the entire spectrum of human experience has beauty and meaning. Often when we’re writing we’re taking those experiences, leaving behind who we were before and becoming who we’ll be next, in more ways than just writing the book itself.
This is scary to the ego and it happens whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction or memoir.
On the other side of all the resistance resides your true voice and your next great evolution as an author. That’s why the more you surrender, the more magical life becomes.
When you’re crossing the border to your more creative self, don’t be surprised resistance, criticism, excuses, and even anger will flare up with reckless abandon. And nobody can tell you what’s going to happen.
When you ask the Universe, “Will this turn out the way I want it to?” and the Universe only responds, “If you do this you will be forever changed.”
That’s why if a story calls you, you have to follow up. I’m here for you. Let’s follow that white rabbit or get buckled in that white van.