Full Title: Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice
Author: Laraine Herring
Publisher: Shambhala Publications (2007)
Number of Pages: 212
How long it took me to read: 9 months, 24 days
Where I bought this book: Local Borders
Like a Moth to a Flame
I was feeling stuck. I wasn’t sure whether I was experiencing my first bout of writer’s block, or writer’s resistance, or writer’s flu. I just knew that I wanted help figuring out how to take my next step. I was actually looking for a different book but this one flew off the shelf and knocked me over the head instead (not literally, of course, but sometimes the metaphysical is much harder to ignore).
Whittling 22 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “Because writing stirs things up, uncovers things, brings us face to face with the unexpected, we can be sure that some discomfort will occur when we sit down to write.” (p.123)
4. “Be willing to amaze yourself. Be willing to stretch in both directions at once. You won’t pull apart; you’ll break open into a rainforest of unexpected, gorgeous, messy life.” (p.180)
3. “Inner work is warrior work…We live in a society that encourages and rewards distractions from this inner journey. We are encouraged to focus on the outward manifestations of who we are…We can’t go deeper on the page than we go off the page. Deep writing comes from deep living.” (p.132)
2. “Work to expand your experiences and your awareness, with the humble knowledge that your lens is clouded in ways you have yet to even recognize.” (p.139)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “Writing is both an act of power and surrender. Passion and discovery. It is a tug at your soul that continues to pull you forward, even as you go kicking and screaming.” (p.18)
Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.
New Word: din (noun)
Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) a loud harsh or strident noise; 2) the act of making a noisy disturbance
Synonyms: 1) blare, blaring, cacophony, clamor; 2) commotion, ruction, ruckus, rumpus, tumult
Origins: Old English ‘dyne’; Sanskrit ‘dhuni’ roaring, a torrent
As in: “When I truly began to listen to my own skin, I could hardly contain the din.” (p.80)
New Word: schism (noun)
Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) division of a group into opposing factions; 2) the formal separation of a church into two churches or the withdrawal of one group over doctrinal differences
Synonyms: 1) split
Origins: circa 1384; from Old French ‘cisme’ a cleft, split; from Late Latin ‘schisma’; from Greek ‘skhisma’ division, cleft; often in reference to the Great Schism (1378-1417) in the Western Church
As in: “When I saw the physical manifestation of the schism between this student’s head and his body, I was reminded of how physically present a writer must be to merge with his or her stories.” (p.81)
New Word: acculturation (noun)
Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) the adoption of the behavior patterns of the surrounding culture; 2) all the knowledge and values shared by a society; 3) the process of assimilating new ideas into an existing cognitive structure
Synonyms: 1) socialization, enculturation; 2) culture; 3) assimilation
Origins: 1880; the adoption and assimilation of an alien culture
As in: “Through acculturation, we tend to hide those very qualities that would sustain us.” (p.105)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“After reading her introduction, I feel like running away from myself. I feel like burrowing under the nearest object big enough to hide me. I feel like disappearing. I wonder how I could have ever agreed to be a writer. I wonder how I’m going to get through this.”
“Herring wants me to breath, to fill myself with the wonder of the world around me. She wants me to acknowledge the trust I have in the universe that it will refill me with new air on my next breath. The thing is, when I breath in deeply, all the invisible pain reveals itself. I want to be numb to it. I want to run away from it. I don’t want to feel it with my whole being. I want it to go away forever and ever. I want it to leave me alone. How am I going to get through this? Help me get through this. Help me stop resisting.”
“After a brief hiatus, I’ve returned to my conversation with Herring. I’m not sure how enjoyable the experience of working through her book will be, but if the past is any indication, it’s going to be an uphill climb through my innards. Perhaps if I’m ever going to get the hang of breathing and writing while breaking my patterns of choking and suffocating throughout, I think it may be time to reevaluate my perspective. I can either choose to see her book as a barbarian, thrashing me with painful truths as my midget self fights with tiny, floppy, plastic weapons trying to avoid going into the place I most want to avoid, or I can just get on with it.”
“I’ve tentatively picked up the book, hoping good intention will lead me to bond with it. (I’m secretly very afraid she’ll make me do a writing exercise.)”
“There are elements of this book that speak directly to students who’ve formally studied how to be writers and relied on teachers and textbooks to form their identification to the role of being ‘real writers’. There are also parts of this book that speak directly to writers who’ve somehow stumbled unknowingly into the role and who find themselves trying to break through the invisible barrier that separates them from those who’ve confidently been calling themselves writers since their first high school creative writing class. Whatever voice the book is using, it’s difficult for me not to hear its messages, no matter how hard I try not to listen.”
“I’m starting to understand how to identify my strengths as a writer. I’m a reflector, a ‘free-flowing’ writer. A blank page doesn’t scare me. It’s the completion of a piece, whether it fills pages or margins, that makes me shake in my over-sized boots. It’s the nearing of a complete manuscript that propels me in the opposite direction. Then again, I suppose that if I have to show up each day, I might as well make it worth my muse’s time.”
“Herring writes about the importance of identifying distractions/desires, and working with them to create a writing process that really allows the writer’s relationship with writing to develop. She’s learned that the best way to trick herself is to work on a laptop that isn’t connected to the Internet – that way, she dismantles her temptation to shop online.
“I’ve learned how to trick myself, too. I close all the programs on my computer that don’t directly relate to my writing (God help me if Firefox isn’t one of those programs), I start the timer on my iPhone, and I remember to breath. That last bit is quite important because if I don’t consciously invite breath into my awareness, my compulsive tendencies come out to play. My mind begins to wander to the many other things I could be doing – to the gloppy cheeses I could be slathering onto crunchy baguettes, or to the messy mounds of clothing I could be trying on while feeding my fantasy of playing dress-up all day.
“I think that the most difficult part of the writing process for me is not the moment I ‘force’ myself into my desk chair, but rather the moment that comes right after when I have to disengage from everything but my writer Self. Only when I connect to the vast emptiness of silence do I begin to commune with my muse and all her helpers. Only when I slip through that crack, and fully dowse myself in the pain of resistance, can my work really begin. What I haven’t figured out yet is how to avoid going through this process each time the words call me to action.”
“When I’m in the flow of my writing, it’s as if I were swimming in a shimmering body of water, enjoying the silvery liquid soaking into my porous flesh as I drink in the radiance of this magical pool of inspiration. When I’m not in the flow of my writing, I’m sulkily squatting in the stream of my resistance or sometimes even wallowing further away in my pitiful puddle of unconscious denial.
“What comforts me most is that regardless of whether I’m swept away in the free flow of a determined current or fighting to ignore the tenacious trickle of my suppressed chimera, the context doesn’t change. It’s always me and the water – the nature and form of our relationship may change, but its presence remains constant.”
“I think one of my challenges is to learn how to let go of signs when new ones enter the scene. Perhaps the more I produce, the more words I join together, the easier it will be to leave some behind.”
“The more determined I become to return to my manuscript, the easier it is to work through this book. Perhaps I see my conversation with Herring as an extension of my relationship with my book.”
“Herring has so accurately depicted the raw honesty of the writing process, that I can honestly say that I’m rethinking this whole ‘being a writer’ business. Why would anyone in their right mind choose to excavate the darkest crevices of their insides? The only answer I can come up with, assuming that clinical insanity isn’t an option, is that the spirit of writing is doing the choosing. It’s the writer who’s the instrument.
“I wonder what a violin would say if you asked her how she felt after months of rehearsals, yards of horse hairs, and enough blistery fingers tickling her torso to fill the whole glove department at Macy’s just before the holidays. I wonder what I’ll say in a few years, perhaps a few drafts from now, when you ask me how the writing is going. Perhaps it’s better to say nothing to avoid strangling myself with my own words, unless, of course, they were never mine to begin with, in which case, I might as well keep going to see what happens next.”
“I’ve never read a book that rang so true. There is no way this author could have written it without first passing through the Valley of Shadows herself. I wouldn’t dare discredit anything she wrote within these pages because I’ve either personally dragged myself through the stages of the process already, or I have the subtle sense that I soon will.
“This has been the most difficult book I’ve ever experienced – like watching a car crash and not being able to look away. There were times when I was screaming inside with resistance, hating the truths she was smacking me in the face with, and she knew! She knew exactly when I was about to throw the book in the kitchen sink and douse it with dish-washing liquid before cutting it up with fork and knife. She knew because just before those moments came, she would slam on her brakes and remind me that I’m not the first to go through this, that I’m not the last, and most importantly, that if I so choose, I will be able to find my way to the other side. Inhale. Exhale. And so the breath returns.”