Find Your Inner Compass: Find Your Own Way

Last week we talked about tuning into our instincts as a way to let go of "The Shoulds" in writing---all those rules we think we're supposed to follow. Letting go of those rules leaves us freer and less confined by limiting beliefs, but it also leaves an important question: if we don't do things the way others do them, how do we know what to do instead? The short answer? We don't need to know. We'll figure it out as we go, and it will work out just fine. Perhaps even better. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When I was thirty years old, I found myself in a place I'd never quite imagined: living with my parents, sharing a bedroom with my mom---bunk beds, no less, but that is another story---and on the verge of what felt like financial collapse. Not too long before that I'd been a well-paid marketing exec and shared a Minneapolis bungalow with my then husband.

(Before I go any further, I feel like I should pause and give you a disclaimer. Embracing your dream of writing does not mean that you, too, will end up sharing bunk beds with your mother. Because even if she is WonderMom, and she bought you velcro shoes in kindergarten, that's not exactly the thing we all aspire to in life. This comes back 'round to writing in a positive way, I promise.)

From the bottom bunk, I watched in dismay as my life fell apart. Much of it was my doing, but I still felt like I was drowning in grief. I was also in grad school, and deadlines didn't care about grief. The only thing I could think to write about was canning tomatoes.

Yep. You heard me. Canning tomatoes.

My rational mind came up with a million reasons it was a stupid idea. B-O-R-I-N-G. Who wants to read about sterilizing jars and skinning tomatoes and stuffing them into said jars? Well, I did. I'd left behind jars of home-canned tomatoes in my bungalow, and I missed them and everything they represented. My garden. My home. My relationship.

So I wrote about them in spite of any misgivings. The response was tremendous. My professor said I had found my voice. Grad school classmates said it was the best thing I'd written. It was the first part of my memoir to get published, making readers cry because they could feel the emotion.

I was flabbergasted. I felt like I'd written it by accident. It was the byproduct of not knowing what else to do.

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In reality, I had followed my intuition. I turned off my hyper-critical brain and wrote about the topic that struck a cord with me---on the surface, tomatoes, but underneath, the grief that comes with feeling like you got adulthood and marriage completely wrong.

This is the first step in any kind of writing success (which can be publication, and can be payment, but starts with fulfillment on an emotional level): listen to the part of yourself that doesn't speak in words. It won't lead you astray.

Time and again, it has led me in the right direction. I saw a frozen lake on a winter afternoon, and realized, "It'd be fun to learn how to drive on ice." That turned into the Ice-carpades in the Wall Street Journal. I got tired of flailing around on my mountain bike, and that led to two pieces on mountain biking (one in The Crested Butte News and one in Dirt Rag Magazine). All because I knew on some instinctual level that there had to be a better way to ride.

It's worked for creative writing, too. I struggled to understand a friend's cancer diagnosis through the lens of climbing, and the resulting essay won an award. I felt struck by the wolf hunt in Minnesota, and now I'm writing my first novel.

Following my intuition always produces better results than forcing a topic that doesn't fit.

Now, The Shoulds still rear their heads. That's their job. That's why I practice listening, and it's why---next week---we'll talk about why things work out with this less... disciplined way of working. But for now, spend a week paying attention. Tune into the moments before your hyper-critical brain kicks in, when your insides light up because a topic or an idea just resonates with you.

Ask yourself, what if I write that? What if success is my only option? What then? Put a pen to paper and find out.

In the final Find Your Inner Compass Post we talk about why you should believe in magic (for real).