The most important thing you can do.
I used to live on Cortes Island, one of the more wild and remote islands off the coast of British Columbia. It's difficult to visit Cortes - you have to take not one, but two ferries to get there. It's perfect for a writer. It's also home to Hollyhock, a retreat centre that invites renowned teachers from all kinds of disciplines to lead workshops and retreats.
In 2001, Natalie Goldberg was coming to Hollyhock to teach a class on writing and meditation. I'd read Writing Down the Bones as a teenager and carried it with me like a prayer book: I always knew I was a writer, but her book was the one that actually taught me how to write. The cost of the workshop was, for me at the time, astronomical. Plus, it was a silent retreat. (I didn't understand that part. Would Natalie even be speaking to us?)
I learned that I could attend for a reduced rate, because Hollyhock had scholarships for Cortes Island residents. I arranged to stay at the house of a friend who lived ten minutes from the centre, to save the accommodation fee. Miraculously (it felt like a miracle to me), I could afford to go.
The start date was Tuesday, September 11th.
When the phone rang that morning I heard about the impossible thing. I turned the television on and watched the second impossible thing. I called Hollyhock.
Natalie's here, the receptionist said. She wants to go ahead with the class.
Most of the participants were Americans, and they weren't allowed back across the border, anyway. A few people were still caught on the ferries between countries, but the US wasn't letting any boats back, so they would probably arrive soon as well. I was to show up at the usual time, 4pm.
That afternoon, fifty whacked-out people sat together on the floor of a big round room. It was a brilliantly beautiful day. We were in shock. Natalie told us: The best thing for us to do right now is to sit and write. It is the most useful thing we can do.
For the next seven days, we sat and wrote in silence. We did some walking meditation - also in silence. It wasn't easy. We were freaked out, distracted and scared. It helped to have Natalie in the room with us, dropping prompts into the air, keeping track of time, and telling us when to stretch our hands and take deep breaths. It also helped to be with each other - we were fifty strangers in a round room, but because of what we were doing, we weren't strangers for long.
Every twenty minutes Natalie would ask us to read some of our work out loud, without looking at anyone, without commenting in any way. In this way, we became a community.
At night I'd walk back to my friend's house. On Cortes there aren't any streetlights, and I'd find my way by looking up to see where the tree line parted for the road. I felt exhausted every night, but also strangely calm, after eight hours of deep writing with fifty other souls who were writing as honestly and intensely as I was.
When we were sitting in that quiet room writing our responses to Natalie's weird, random prompts ("write everything you know about lemons; now write about ice cubes") we weren't writing about anything that was happening in the news. We were writing about our childhoods, our parents, our grandparents, people we'd loved, people we'd lost, people we hadn't let ourselves think about for years because it had been too painful to remember them up to that point. It had everything to do with New York, and nothing to do with it. We weren't escaping the trauma, we were relating to it from the other side.
It was as though we'd wordlessly made a pact: if writing was the most useful thing that we could do that week, then my god, we were going to do it. We wrote as if our lives depended on it.
Now, eleven years later, I realize: our lives still depend on it. They always have.
The bravery in that room still impresses me today. We didn't look all that brave. We walked slowly around the room in a crowded circle with our hands behind our back. We avoided meeting each other's eyes. We sat on the floor with ballpoint pens and spiral notebooks on our laps, sometimes feeling vulnerable and alone, sometimes feeling powerful and supported, often writing while laughing or crying. That's all we did, day after day. But it was bravery, all the same.
If you're a writer who avoids writing a lot of the time, you know why I say this was bravery. Because isn't doing that kind of writing exactly what you're afraid of, most of the time?
I would like to remind you, then, that when you're writing - really writing, which means going into it bravely - it is always useful. It can seem pointless, especially when the rest of the world feels anxious, sick, or hurtling toward a scary and unforeseeable future. But your writing is actually good for the world. I don't just mean writing as a noun (the stories you print out and publish). I mean it as a verb: you, writing.
That’s why you show up at your desk whether you're inspired or not. You show up so that you can learn how to drop into it more regularly. Knowing that this is useful and important for the world should help with the fear.
So, please learn how to put yourself into a receptive state of mind. It is always productive to go deep. It's where you find insight. It's how you calm anxiety. It's how you create humour, inspiration, shared experiences and understanding. It is one of the most useful and loving things you can do for the world. It is never a waste of time.