The Shamanic Art of Writing
For awhile, that other world seemed more real than this one, which also happens after particularly lucid and involving dreams. A week should have gone by in the world, while I was absent, but it was still Sunday, only Sunday, leaving me all the rest of future time to inhabit, even though I had just spent a lifetime in another universe. It is a strange sensation of two kinds of time overlapping, a lifetime's experience lived, and yet it wasn't yet tomorrow, as if time in the outer world had flowed much more slowly, had barely advanced. As if you have already lived a full lifetime, yet still have a full lifetime left to live.
(At least this is what happens for me. I've heard from some writers that they can never lose their sense of self when reading, never get wholly immersed in the worldbuilding of what they're reading, never turn off their inner editor and observer, never lose that part of their mind that sits in judgment, that edits, that comments on the writing as they go along. I struggle not to pity that lack of loss of self, because judging others is not a good game, yet I can't help feel sad for some writer who can't allow herself to fall into a book headfirst and inhabit that world, and that world alone, for the duration of the reading.)
Emerging from the other world, as if from a long dream, that sense of doubled time lasts for awhile. You only slowly begin to return to inhabit so-called normative time. Which is consensus time, really. Even so, one of the mysteries of consciousness is that time does change its rate of flow, both subjectively in terms of how we inhabit our lives, and objectively in terms of Einsteinian relativity. Most people think time is steady and constant—but it's not. Time is lumpy and uneven. It clumps. It takes longer to go around some objects in its flow than it does others. Space warps time; a heavy gravity field slows time down relative to its flow elsewhere.
And delightfully, when you lose your sense of self, in reading or in meditation, you lose your sense of time, and inhabit only the present Now. Physicists and experienced meditators agree about this: time is never as fixed as we think it is. Consciousness itself is time-binding; the ability to bind time into linear flow is in fact one definition of consciousness. And as Einstein said, The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. So it's no wonder that time goes away when the sense of self goes away, too. Consciousness is time, in this sense. Self-conscious self-awareness can become hell if we bind ourselves too tightly to time.
Sources tumble onto my table next to my writing desk, sometimes it seems of their own volition. Or I have been slowly gathering them, finding books and articles here and there over a period of time, not really consciously, till of a sudden a pattern emerges. When a pattern reveals itself, or takes shape, or suddenly becomes obvious, I am sometimes tempted to berate myself for not noticing the obvious earlier. But I've learned not to do that; instead, I remind myself that we all are much broader and deeper in mind than we usually realize, or admit to, and once again, the smarter, deeper, silent, unknown, more-tuned-in part of myself has been working behind the scenes until it was ready to dump realization on my doorstep once again, and bring me to my knees. I used to get annoyed, and resist. These days, even if I get annoyed, which is mostly annoyance at the timing, I accept affairs more readily, and just roll with it. That kind of acceptance comes with practice, with experience, with repetition. You learn to understand your own process, and accept its working habits. You learn to give up trying to mold your process into some idea of what you think it should be—"should" is a very coercive concept—and just let it unfold in its own time and manner.
And that's how I most often operate, creatively. I've learned that forcing the process never yields a good outcome: it either ends in a stubborn block, or I produce crap I wouldn't want to share with anyone, anyway. So my job is usually just to be prepared for whenever the process happens.
On the other hand, I've learned that I can coax and cajole, invite and hope. I can encourage that larger, smarter self that's responsible for most of my best work to come forward. I can invite in the wild things. i can leave the door open, and let the wolves wander through. I can open wide the windows inside my own soul, and let the wind and the silence move through, and blow away the accumulating dust.
All I have to work with are metaphors (wolves, windows) and analogies. This is too big and too mysterious a theme to write about definitively, or fully. I keep circling back to it, as part of my own process. I can only dip in and out, and hope each time I contemplate it to learn a little more, go a little deeper.
So here are few small aspects, in unreal order:
1. Because writing creates new worlds to inhabit, because it is worldbuilding, and travel between worlds, it is shamanic. Or at least it has the potential to be. Writing can activate its shamanic potential through content, style, and context of presentation. Traveling between your ordinary world and another one, invented or real, is what a shaman (or wizard) does. This isn't escapism, though; more on that later.
2. Sometimes we write to understand, rather than to describe or explain. Sometimes we don't what we think or fell until we write it out. The process of writing is the process of revelation, of becoming. The creative process is a process of self-discovery, but since we are all One, self-discovery also means discovery for others. The shamanic artist makes art in part to share the fruits of the journey of discovery. Traditionally, the shaman took a journey to the other worlds for the sake of healing the person, or the community: the knowledge brought back for healing was meant to be shared publicly, not kept privately. (Of course there are always confidences and secrets whose privacy one maintains.) If writing is shamanic, then it have that effect on readers.
3. The artist is a shaman in the sense that he or she goes into the other worlds via imagination, intuition, vision, and brings back the archetypal gold of new truth, new beauty. Shamans are divers of the deep waters of the self, who dare to explore the hidden and invisible world of the psyche. What knowledge and wisdom is brought back aids in coping with what is. Thus writing is not escapism, it is completion and conjoining. Context matters.
4. Art, in whatever medium, when it is shamanic in nature and function, can be identified by its liminality and numinosity. Its effects on the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) can be traced by the event of personal transformation, no matter how large or small, either in the moment of art, or later on after contemplation. Art can change lives. One way that we recognize great art is that it does indeed have that kind of effect on people. Shamanic art also disturbs. It can be uncomfortable to confront.
5. In order for writing to become shamanic, the shadow, the darkness, the wolf at the door, must be allowed to enter. You have to let the outside night in. You have to give control over to the unconscious, to the inner forces, to that larger, smarter self. You have to let go of the ego-personality's need to be in charge, in control, to consciously direct art-making. You have to allow for unpredictability and chaos. You have to be willing to tell the hard truthful stories, the difficult ones that most people turn away from because the content disturbs them. You also have to be willing to tell the stories that transcend experience, that are almost impossible to fit into words, short of the exultant poetry of ecstatic praise. Don't stint. And don't censor yourself. Be a prophet. Be a voice crying in the wilderness.
6. Shamanic writing is about process, about change, about reorganizing the kernel of the word into a new, hopefully shape. The contents of the story matter less than that the story is told. The story must be told. The process of telling is essential to your own process of internal change. Don't censor yourself: write whatever it is that you must write.
7. If you assume there is only one reason to write, you kill a million universes in which other reasons are even more essential. Writing can be therapeutic, but the end-product of writing, the written poem or essay, etc., is not itself therapy, it is only the record of therapy, or the product of art therapy. No matter how attached to it you become, because writing it was therapeutic, don't assume it's good art. Making art can be cathartic, to both the maker and the viewer, but art is not inherently a catharsis. Don't confuse the process with the product or the purpose.
8. The archetypal stories are the oldest stories, and have been with us the longest. The narratives of shamanism, or myth, of deep psychological roleplay, all recycle the same stories. So don't fret about originality. If anything, if we write a numinous, evocative story it will evoke the oldest resonances in the psyche, and trigger the archetypes. That feeling you get when the small hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That feeling of standing on the threshold of a brave new world, about to take a first step into the unknown. So don't worry if your story isn't the most modern, the most ironically postmodern, the most original: let the old resonances in, let the oldest echoes ring through. That's how you get at the journey to the other worlds, by remembering you've already been there.