Discovering Your Purpose Through Writing.
Mary Oliver’s line “Tell me, what are you planning to do with your one wild and precious life?” always inspires me to grab my pen. I enjoy reflecting on paper with loose morning pages or, best of all, writing from a poetry prompt, a single juicy line of poetry, in community.
To be honest, throughout my “middlescence,” my writing practice has sustained me. After sweating over soul-crushing papers of literary criticism for my doctoral work in literature, I dropped writing for a long time. But at midlife, I took a Discovery Writing class and suddenly my ink flowed with abandon. Writing messily and quickly with empathetic others to witness my thoughts helped me confront the harder questions of life at a time of transition. It enabled me to reflect out loud on my identity, purpose and passion. It honed my ability to wrangle language while listening to the subtle whisperings of my heart, mind and soul.
Free writing in community is a powerful tool to push forward goals, process old hurts and picture the future. I’ve also begun essays, short stories and a novel over the past decade with this open, free-wheeling method. And I’ve made enduring friendships with those who dared to travel this Discovery Writing path with me.
Does writing your thoughts and dreams in a circle of like-minded seekers appeal to you? I’ll tell you a secret. What I like best is sharing this practice with others and inspiring those who either don’t make the time to write or are a bit inhibited by writing to get down to it and express personal epiphanies and triumphs in a sloppy, forgiving way. You have to begin somewhere, right? I love finding just the right lines from just the right poets to help others embrace their best writer-selves.
It was a delight to work with my MEA compadres this past March during Sabbatical Sessions. Barefeet dug into a plush carpet, pens cracking, we wrote together with gusto, beauty, humor and vulnerability. Most importantly, we wrote whatever we wanted to. I select prompts that allow for a lot of permission, and I encourage people to detour from the assignment.
If you don’t want to write off the line “listen to your own heart . . .” then keep writing until you find something else to say, go back to that thought you had in the sand dunes when you felt a personal breakthrough bubbling to the surface. Articulate the thing that grabs your gut and sparks your intellect, the thing that is top of mind and tip of pen. That way, the writing never goes south…or maybe it does go south which is why you come to Baja to write.
Good free writing in community is a lot like good improv. It can be highly charged, fun, gritty, sad, or silly. Some in the circle counted the many ways they loved their work with fierceness and passion. Some lamented failed relationships, lost relatives or dead-end jobs. Others waxed nostalgic about a youthful romance, a place they’ve moved from or a career they’ve nailed or questioned. Others expressed their passion for key causes, their family, food, travel or natural beauty. The circle listened for language and insights that sang on the page, and the room buzzed with connection and admiration. There was an appreciative rubbing of palms, croaks of satisfaction, knowing smiles of recognition, even a few happy/sad tears: ahh, the joy of being vulnerable and “humaning” together on the page.
For me, it’s easy to picture the late Mary Oliver at MEA. Her poems ask difficult questions about the human condition, but they also express humor, hope and reverence for nature, love, redemption and all the biggest mysteries of life. Definitely an awe and wonder gal, she expresses her delight in the small and extraordinary and her astonishment at the vast and miraculous. You see her, don’t you -- just over there, writing very quickly with sandy feet on the tile patio, bougainvillea at her back, surf crashing in the distance, hummingbirds whizzing above, fingers black with ink, urging us all to engage more fully in our one wild and precious life?
Oh, wait! No, it’s you there joining me and co-founder Jeff Hamaoui for “Write for Your Life: Discovering Yourself and Your Purpose” at MEA Baja October 30 - November 6.
Mollie McNeil is an award-winning teacher who has taught writing at Mills College, the University of Wisconsin, Madison and De Anza College, as well as the Esalen Institute. She has published many short stories in literary journals and is just finishing up her first novel, a work of historical fiction set in Northern California.