I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“In the midst of my own tiny personal troubles, I turned to the thing I knew how to do and I made songs out of it, and in the making of those songs, much of the pain was dissolved. That is one of the things that art does, is that it heals.”
— Leonard Cohen (from an interview with Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone*)
This is one of the mysteries of any art form, provided of course that the creating of it has meaning for you (if it doesn’t, find a form that does) and that you show up to do it. On the other hand, you can simply love art itself, and actively. That can heal as well, but it’s not what St. Leonard is talking about here.
He’s talking about the work. He’s talking about serving and service. And the great thing (on top of many other great things) about the work, is that it comes from your examination of your life and the world around you. It comes from outside you, but it also comes from within. It comes from looking deeply at those things that matter the most to you, what has given you the most meaning and joy. And yes, it comes from pain and anger and woundedness. And—importantly—at least at a certain point in the process, taking that material and turning it into (or allowing it to become) something bigger and separate from simply one’s pain. Not just a mouthpiece for complaints (no matter how well deserved), but a creation that could actually reach and affect another person, because in that slight separation from the autobiographical that the artistic eye finds, the emotion becomes both universal and particular, and the work comes to life.
How do you do this? Well, first you write, of course. And as far as starting points, one’s pain, one’s anger, one’s outrage, one’s desires, serve well as far as propulsion and direction. But here’s the catch, and an idea I keep landing on over and over in various way when I’m thinking about the mystery of the writing process: the point (again) when you realize your story has some element in it that is independent from your personal pain, or even your original idea, as if some other voice, some other intention, is asking to be noticed. Like the moment when you realize your child who you had great designs and dreams for has her own designs and dreams.
This is when you want to pay attention. This is when you want to follow what the story is asking of you instead of what you are asking of it. And though your concerns will still be present (how could they not be; this story came from you), you will be released from your own insistency and able to see the story for what it is trying to become, and serve that.
And magically, this is when I find, looking back after I’m done, that much of the pain that led me to this…creation, dream, hope, wish, compulsion…has dissipated. Or changed into a form more separate from me, more defined and tactile, and easier to manage. Something, if I may go farther, that is a source of energy, of power. Something no longer quite as dark as it was, or threatening, who now journeys beside you.
And on top of that you’ve created a story. One that is both yours, as well as its own individual thing. As if by magic. Or better yet…alchemy.
How lucky we are to have this work.
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.