Writer as Shaman: 7 Ways Stories Will Change Your Life and Heal the World

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels

Twenty-five years ago, I started writing a novel, and the process of developing the main character and her story world created a crack in my psyche and changed my life forever. I was taken through my own dark night of the soul, which led – gratefully – to my spiritual transformation. Since then, I have been on a spiritual path, have viewed my creative writing practice as a spiritual practice, and have devoted myself and my life to embracing the power of story.

While writers have probably always had an innate sense that stories heal, science has proven the benefits of story in our lives – in both the writing and reading of fiction and non-fiction. Stories are a human need. We crave them. We tell them. Every day. Stories are not only healing to the writer. They carry the power to heal readers and the world at large, as well.

For the Writer

1 – Evoking your imagination while writing a story can lead to improved brain capacity and ease of being in the world.

  • Using your imagination can improve your problem-solving skills. By troubleshooting a character’s obstacles as she attempts to attain her primary desire, you can become more creative in troubleshooting and solving your own.
  • Using your imagination can improve your memory. Engaging your imagination creates more neurons in your brain, which leads to better brain function and retaining information.
  • Using your imagination can improve your relationships and social interactions. By empathizing with your characters’ problems, you’ll become more aware of the day-to-day struggles of your fellow humans, thus allowing you to be more empathetic in general.

2 – Using the process of amalgamation, which is the act of consciously or unconsciously blending real-life people and events with imaginary people and events for the sake of storytelling, allows us to resolve events from the past.

  • Recounting stories from our personal past can help us make meaning of what was. By remembering a past event from an older, more experienced – or simply different – perspective can give us a sense of personal power.
  • Creating a re-telling of a past event and imagining what could have been can also give us a sense of personal power. This is not about denying reality or naively wishing a situation had been different, but more about reframing the story to achieve a sense of redemption or inner harmony.
  • Using creative license to write about anything from a past personal event to a current cultural phenomenon and creating a fictional story with a positive outcome can give us hope. There is something immensely powerful in being able to imagine a world where change and growth are possible. Believing in a better world and doing what we can to create it helps us find peace in the moment while continuing to put one foot in front of the other with a sense of personal agency toward the project of human evolution.

3 – Through the process of deep character development, we come to understand ourselves on a much deeper level. By creating characters who come off the page and behave like real people rather than flat, cardboard caricatures or stereotypes and getting beneath their skins to examine their true motivations, pains, and fears, we can’t help but do this better for ourselves. Thus, writing stories leads to greater self-awareness and advances us along our paths of personal evolution.

For the Reader

4 – Reading stories gives us a healthy escape from everyday life. Whether we read a memoir about someone’s experience growing up in a small rural community or a fantasy novel about a young woman with superpowers, the descriptions that build the story world evoke our imaginations and bring us the same benefits realized by the writer mentioned above. As Stephen King once wrote, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Reading stories quiets our minds, much the same way meditation does.

5 – Reading stories – in particular, literature – leads to greater levels of empathy. By riding along beside a character through the ups and downs of his quest to achieve his goal and through the mistakes he makes along the way, we become softened to the struggle of what it means to be human, which allows us to more readily accept and embrace struggle and imperfection in others.

6 – Reading stories can lead to greater human connection. When a reader witnesses an experience like their own, they know they’re not alone in the world, that their life isn’t as taboo as they may think or feel, and through this, they can experience validation, and ultimately, a feeling of connection.

For the World

7 – When writers and readers experience the benefits of story, it up-levels their positive presence in the world. Writing and reading both bring numerous benefits, probably the most far-reaching of which is a greater understanding of the human condition. This understanding can elicit more compassion, more empathy, and ultimately, more peace in the world.

English writer, Alan Moore, known for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among many others, believes writers are modern day shamans. He describes the magic they work as the alchemical process of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to create story worlds into which readers can enter and experience changes in consciousness.

This journey into story worlds – ours and others’ – allow us to clear our minds. It serves as a salve to our hearts and an elixir to our spirits and souls. If you’re looking for creative ways to further your evolution as a human on earth in this lifetime, embrace the power of story. Write your stories. Share them. And read the stories of others.

We all have stories to tell. What’s yours?

Your Life as Fodder – Or How to Grow a Story

So often I hear people say they want to write but they struggle coming up with ideas. That they feel compelled to write at all tells me they already have ideas. It could be that they just don’t know how to get them outside themselves (remember the jar full of frenzied bees?). Or maybe they don’t know how to transform their ideas into a story and execute it. Or maybe they don’t believe anyone would care to read what they have to say. To all of that, I say this…

First of all, believe in yourself. (You can do it!) Second of all, you’d be surprised at the difference sharing your story can make for another person. (Really.) And third of all, if you really believe you’re out of ideas, simply look to your own life and go from there. (Your life is magical, mystical source of fodder.)

I’m not saying that you ought to write personal essay (unless that’s what you want to do) but that you can take snippets from your life and turn them into fictional stories. Treat those snippets like seeds that you can plant (put them on the page – just get them out of your head – and see what starts to sprout), water (stay with it, tend it, and add what’s needed – trust yourself to know), and prune (edit, cut, and relocate). When you commit to the growth of a story, it will grow.

Here are a few examples of events, phases, facets of my life that I can use to create fictional stories…

  • I had always wanted to experience living in an apartment building and managing it for the benefit of free rent. My personal story didn’t quite go that way – I managed SEVEN buildings (while working two other jobs), and I got a measly $250/month credit on my rent. My romantic fantasy became a horrible reality – the worst job I’ve ever had. (And that’s saying something.)

    Upper management was difficult to work with due to systemic dysfunction and a total lack of awareness that change was needed. One person, in particular – the Assistant General Manager with a bull-in-a-china-shop presence who perpetually, even angrily, chomped on a big wad of gum – was consistently rude and dismissive – even cruel. To me. I worked non-stop with no one to give me a break (even though they “sold” the job as one with TONS of flexibility – they lied). Some residents were demanding and rude. Some were lovely. The building was a “charming” old one in downtown and fraught with problems. I also got up close and personal with the homeless problem in ways I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I saw the underbelly of humanity.

    I moved into the apartment of the previous, beloved maintenance man who had died just a few months before. Management neglected to tell me he died in the apartment (until I asked). But it all worked out because he left a calming presence in the space. And the maintenance and painting crews were fun guys and treated me well. They were, by far, the best part of the job. Think a Raymond Carver-esque short story.

  • Just before taking the manager job at the apartments, I lived in an artists’ community. Sounds cool, right? It wasn’t. Rampant disregard for authority by residents who were underdeveloped emotionally and mentally, partially due to the enabling of the manager who was a lovely person as a person I’d want to know outside that context. You can bet that, someday, the people I met there will wind up in a screenplay, as will the four sane people I also met there. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with art and lots of weed and alcohol.

  • When I was 11, I came home from school one day. My grandma was there, as usual, and I could tell she had been crying. When I asked her why, she stalled, but I eventually learned that when she arrived at our house that day, she found a note on the kitchen table – It was a narrow sliver of torn, lined paper, just wide enough to accommodate two sentences – from my dad saying he was leaving us. I remember immediately going to my parents’ bedroom closet to find his half of the closet empty except for the several naked dangling hangers. The image of that emptiness was seared into my brain and serves as a metaphor for the emptiness his decision made in my life. While I long ago came to terms with that period of my life, it’s an image I can use to tell a story about family, selfishness, grief, infidelity, insanity, growing up too soon, strength, and more. Think a Joyce Carol Oates-esque short story.

So, if you’re compelled to write a story but can’t think of what to write, take some time to scan through your life and all the experiences you’ve had. You’ll find more ideas than you can handle. To start, make three lists:

  • Events/phases – like my working as a manager or living in an artists’ community
  • People – like the brutal Assistant General Manager or the uplifting maintenance crew and painters at the management company, or the enabling but very likeable Manager and “crazy” residents at the artists’ community
  • Images/objects – like the image of my parents’ half-empty closet and all those meager empty hangers

If you’d rather not write about yourself and your life, spin off from one small thing from your life and see what happens. The truth is… we can tell more truths about humanity through fiction than we can through writing from our life experience, anyway. So free yourself up. Draw from your life, then let your imagination take over. Not only will it free you up, but you also won’t have to concern yourself with being called out on “the facts.”

Give it a try and let me know what you come up with in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

The reason you aren’t writing #4

image from honeybeehaven.com

Imagine a bunch of bumble bees in a jar. The lid’s closed tight, and they want OUT. Frenzied, ricocheting, banging off the sides of the glass, slamming into each other. Getting more and more agitated.

This is your brain when you have TOO MANY ideas and thoughts. This is what happens when you hang on to those thoughts and ideas, thinking you can write it out in your mind, thinking you can figure it all out and have it all in order when you “have time” to get it all on the page.

The truth is, you won’t figure it out UNTIL you get what’s in there onto the page. So set the angry bees free, and do a word dump.

This may very well be my favorite phase of writing. It’s when I get to take all those crazy, frenzied, non-stop, LOUD thoughts in my head and purge them. Word dumping is similar to freewriting, but word dumping is more conscious.

Unload onto the page or screen (keyboard is a-okay for this process) every thought that comes to you about your character, story, scene, or plot without worrying that it makes sense, connects in any meaningful way, or has anything to do with your current plot or character trajectory.

Just get it all out. You can shape it later, much like a potter or a sculptor would. (I know, I’m mixing my metaphors… But you get what I’m getting at. Set the bees free, then throw the clay. All right?!) When a potter sits down at her wheel to start a new piece, she knows that a bowl or a vase or a cup won’t magically appear. She must first throw the clay to have something to work with.

Likewise, Taoists believe that a sculpture already exists in a block of marble and it’s the sculptor’s job to remove what isn’t needed. Get your thoughts outside yourself; then and only then will you be able to know what you’re working with and what you don’t need.

Set the timer for 10 minutes, and go.

Begin your writing exercise with the following phrase.

The thing I love most about my main character is _________________.

Let me know how it goes in the comments!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Reason You Aren’t Writing #3

In my last post about why you might not be writing, I talked about the benefits of freewriting and how it can kickstart us on stuck days so we can get going or get into the flow of writing.

And sometimes, even when we’ve been able to write pages and pages, we know that something’s missing… we know that we’ve sidestepped something important that could deepen the story or character, but we can’t quite locate it.

Writing with our opposing hand can help.

Much like freewriting, it “tricks” our brain into working differently, and in this case, it’s about more than just helping us get into the flow state. It’s about accessing parts of our brain that have gone quiet and that likely hold some wisdom our story needs.

If you do this enough, fascinating information will bubble up from your subconscious, flow down your arm, through your hand, into your pen, and onto the page. And don’t be surprised if those neuropeptides scientist and pharmacologist, Candace Pert, wrote about come into play. That is, you’ll probably feel some feelings…

If you’re thinking I don’t want to spend my precious time scrawling nonsense in child-like penmanship, think again. Give it a shot. Chances are, you would have wasted more time agonizing over the fact that the thing you want is eluding you. When we write with our opposing hand, we light up dormant synapses in our brain. And again… magic.

When you do this exercise, do what Tony, my yoga teachers says: Notice what you notice, and feel what you feel.

And here’s your writing prompt: When [your protagonist’s name] was a girl/boy, the thing she/he wanted more than anything else was _________________.

Set a timer for 10 minutes, pick up your favorite writing utensil, and go.

Then…

Head over to the Writing Through the Body™ Writers Group on Facebook and let us know how it went. What was the process like? Did you unearth something unexpected? Did you get a new idea or gain an insight that will help you move some aspect of your current writing project forward or more deeply? I look forward to hearing.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

The Reason You Aren’t Writing #2

In a recent post, I talked about the #1 reason I hear people give for not writing. In this post, we’re looking at another common reason for not writing: not being able to stay with the writing and go deep with an idea, character, or scene. Some people call the ability to do this FLOW.

It’s not uncommon for people to carve out the time, then sit down at their desk or go to a coffee shop with the best of intentions, only to find themselves unable to locate the next nugget they can use to move their story forward.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that being in flow means “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

We’ve all experienced flow, and it feels amazing, right? And because we’ve felt it at times makes it even more frustrating when we can’t get there again. The truth is, we won’t float off into flow state every single time we sit down to write. Or at least, we ought not count on it.

There’s a trick to help with this, and most – if not all – of us know about it, yet we rarely do it.

Freewriting.

The next time you’re sitting, staring at a blank page or screen, uncertain about where to begin, do this freewriting exercise, and use the prompt at the end of this post.

With this in mind, let’s have a go at it.

If you’ve forgotten the rules of freewriting, here they are.

  • Set your timer for 10 minutes.
  • Write non-stop. Don’t let the pencil or pen leave the page until the timer goes off (and yes… you have to do this the old-fashioned way with pencil/pen and paper and not at the keyboard. Don’t ask me to explain because I can’t, but when we write by hand, something different happens in our brains).
  • Give yourself permission to not know. If you get stuck, simply write something like “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write.” Eventually, something new and unexpected will replace it. (It’s only 10 minutes. Try it!) Again… magic.
  • Don’t worry about perfection. Just let it all out. Spelling and punctuation be damned!
  • Envision a garden hose. Think about the first time you turn on the hose in the Spring. It’s full of dirt, webs, and bugs that have made the hose their home. Turning on the water flushes out all the “stuff,” and eventually, clear, clean water flows. That’s what free writing does for your writer’s brain. Flushes, cleans, and primes the creative pump. Think of this as a mini version of flow.
  • Dry, rinse, and repeat as needed throughout the day, week, month, year… the rest of your writing life.

Before you get to work on the short story, novel, script, memoir, or whatever gem you’ve got going, do some freewriting. Even if you aren’t stuck, freewriting is a great warm-up for your regular writing practice. Think of it as priming the creative pump to enable flow. Words you didn’t know were knocking around in your brain will flow right out your hand and onto the page. Really. It’s magic.

Here’s your prompt: As soon as she turned the corner and saw it, she remembered why she had come.

After you’ve completed the writing exercise… head over to the Writing Through the Body™ Writers Group on Facebook and let us know how it went. You don’t have to share what you wrote (unless you want to, of course!), but let us know what the process was like. Tell us what poured out onto the page that allowed you to create something new or add to your in-progress work. (AFTER you’ve written it, of course…) 🙂

I can’t wait to hear how it went!

Sending you mad writing mojo…