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  • Writer's pictureLissa Cowan

How to Write in the Buff

In the summer evenings my brother, sister, and I would nip the backsides off fireflies** with our Swiss army knives, and smear their jelly bits on our jiggly bits. The result was war paint that glowed, and a light show of squiggly lines and circles as we scampered through the trees. Looking back on the child I was, it makes perfect sense to me that I became someone who spends a lot of her time in the dark, searching, probing, waiting for a sign. I've learned that magic happens in the places I’ve yet to explore. And that to access that magic I need to—in spite of my fear—go naked through the nighttime forest. Metaphorically speaking of course. What does it mean to write in the buff? When I write naked I’m exposing my (or my character’s) vulnerability. If I build a wall and write what I think I should or what’s in fashion, or what I think people want to hear, then I lose a golden opportunity to be real. And when I lose this opportunity I don’t truly connect to others through my stories. I may be entertaining and I may get some laughs, yet I won’t necessarily be taken seriously and I won’t make a difference to anybody’s lives, especially my own. Obviously there are certain stories we can’t always tell or don’t feel ready to tell, and of course we shouldn’t share them if we don’t feel comfortable. It can even be dangerous for us to tell stories that we’re not ready to tell, because perhaps we still need to heal some wounds around these stories, and exposing them too soon may make us feel unsafe. Also, if we haven’t quite worked out what the story means for us then we may not truly see the story we need to tell. We may also look for certain reactions from our readers and feel wounded when we’re misunderstood. Yet when we’ve healed that part of ourselves, then no matter what people say about our stories or us, we’ll be ready. Of course if we’re writing a story involving others, say a family member, then we have to make that call about whether to write about them while they’re still living. Is it worth the risk? Perhaps no matter what we need to tell it whether the person is alive or dead, as it will allow us to get on with our lives. That’s a call we have to make when telling stories that involve others. The answers to these questions lay within us. Sometimes in my writing workshops I ask students to bring their awareness down to the base of their spine and write from that place. What does the spine have to do with telling stories? Doing this allows us to bring our consciousness into our bodies instead of residing solely in our heads. When we bring our thoughts and ideas down, and into our bodies, then we can also fully inhabit our stories and we stand a greater chance of telling real ones instead of whatever our heads want us to tell. Many use Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages as a way to get out of our own way. If you’ve never heard or done these before, Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing that you do in the morning. In a recent blog post Cameron explains why Morning Pages need to happen before we start our day: We are aiming to catch ourselves before our ego is awake, before its defenses are in place. We want to be vulnerable. If we wait to do pages late in the day, we find ourselves reviewing the day we have had and are powerless to change. Writing first thing in the morning, we lay down the track for the day that looms ahead of us. Each time I sit down to write naked I experience the true meaning of being alive in the world. I’m running out into the woods, turning over rocks, finding stuff I didn’t know existed. If I actually turn off my phone and stop obsessively checking Facebook and Twitter (and goodness knows what else...) and kindly tell people to leave me be, then I enter a state of flow where, not to get all woo woo, but I feel at one with everything around me. Here are a few things you can do to ‘get naked’ with your writing:

  1. Experiment first. When you first start a project, experiment a little before nailing down what it is you want to write.

  2. Be a sponge. Some artists and writers don’t like to read or see stuff for fear of being influenced. This makes me laugh inwardly because I feel that we’re always being influenced (mostly without our even knowing it) so we might as well be exposed to the best art and best writing to see where we fit. Before you dig into a project, see what’s out there. If you’re writing memoir then check out the new, hot stuff coming down the pike!

  3. Embrace your imperfections. We all have aspects of ourselves we don’t like. Like the Japanese art of wabi sabi, imperfection is where it’s at. Don’t try to smooth yourself over or be someone you’re not, as your writing will suffer for it.

  4. Murder your darlings. Phrases have to work. If they don’t then no matter how much you love them, you need to get rid of them.

  5. Tell the truth. The American poet Emily Dickenson said, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Not sure exactly what she meant, though I think it’s related to telling your version of how you see things.

  6. Dig deep. Dig deeper. Just when you think you’ve dug enough, there’s probably still some more digging to do. Give yourself time to discover your story or to allow it to discover you.

  7. Create a safe space to be naked. Where do you feel comfortable writing? I like to write in my home office, in a cafe, or on a train or boat. Find a quiet spot where you feel you can write and be yourself.

  8. We were born with our naked bodies and our stories. I’m not sure exactly what this means, but I think about how we came into the world naked and then we grew up and developed all sorts of ways to behave in order to be accepted. Writing naked is about peeling off those layers of clothing (or armour) to see what resides underneath.

  9. Pay attention. Look at the world around you. Take in everything: The sidewalks, the buildings, trees, dogs, and people. Notice the little things such as the way a woman brushes her hair back or how a man taps his shoe on the street. God is in the detail!

  10. Make everything count. If you write about a lost ring or a cut on someone's chin, or if you're writing copy for your business website and mention your love of butterflies or fancy pens, make it count! Everything means something to the reader, so think about what details you should add and what you want them to tweak in the reader's mind.

**It makes me sad that we did this to fireflies, especially given that they're disappearing due to light pollution and the disappearance of open fields and forests. Photo credit: Naletu

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