Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rachelle Benveniste's "Writing from the Inner Self" #writing

To honor my friend and teacher, Rachelle Benveniste, who passed away recently, I am reprinting one of her numerous publications. 

She was a fine writer, teacher and friend. Rest in peace, Rachelle.

Writing from the Inner Self
Rachelle Benveniste
Reprinted from Contemplative Journal

Take a gentle deep breath, and as you exhale, relax, letting go of the activities and concerns previous to this moment so we may relax in the present moment, the only moment that is.  You might want to take another gentle deep breath, and as you exhale, relax even more. Now, we will rest in the stillness, for just a moment or two, and if thoughts intrude, as they often do, don’t scold yourself, just allow them without becoming engaged in them. Just let them drift on by, like drifting clouds, and come back to your breath, breathing you. 

We remember that we come here together to uplift and support each other in our creativity, in our very lives, welcoming the entire creative process, the stillness from which all inspiration, all ideas and all words emerge.  We welcome every word we write, knowing we need not defend what we’ve written or judge it because there are so many more words waiting to birth themselves through us. And, we remember that what we have to say, no one else can say.  What we have to say is important and valuable.  And really let that reach you on a deep level.

Take another gentle deep breath, and as you exhale, you might want to wiggle your toes and fingers, and when you’re ready, just gently open your eyes to this moment, still retaining the stillness within.

This is how I begin my class, Writing from the Inner Self, which I created while teaching through UCLA’s Writers’ Program. When students walk in the door, they have most likely been sitting in heavy traffic on the freeway, have come from work, or have been fulfilling life obligations. So, I begin each class with a contemplative practice to remind us why we are here: to connect with our creative spirit, with ourselves, and with each other.

Before meditation, we place the chairs in a circle so we can all share the creative experience in a more intimate setting where we can see each other’s faces as we listen to each other’s words.  I find that sitting in a circle invites a more honest and open connection among students, and in rearranging the space we write in, we invite the sacred. The contemplative spirit in each of us is honored in this space and contributes to the inspiration, support, and encouragement—creating the essential atmosphere for a course called Writing from the Inner Self. In class, we write freely, letting our intuition move through us, setting aside any judgment and welcoming every word we write. Whether one has just begun to write or is a seasoned writer, this type of writing requires vulnerability.                                                  
Before creating Writing from the Inner Self, I was teaching a creative writing class at a junior college, while concurrently taking a fiction writing class through the UCLA Writers’ Program.  At the end of the quarter, the instructor pulled me aside and invited me to teach her course while she took a sabbatical. I taught Autobiography into Fiction the following term and followed her curriculum: giving assignments, discussing the elements of fiction, and offering feedback with keen eyes, ears, and compassion.
It was a good class, but I felt something was missing. Something was missing from most writing classes I’d ever taken. The class descriptions I saw in most catalogs went something like: Basic FictionFiction 1Fiction 2IntermediateAdvanced, etc.  In these classes, instructors spoke of character development, dialogue, plot, point of view—all valuable elements of writing. But one question continued to ring in my consciousness:  Where does the story come from? How is it birthed?  All of the information on structure and elements of fiction seemed like a skeleton. How did one find the heart of the story? The flesh and blood? How did that happen? I’d been writing for many years and, more and more, I had come to trust what I realize now was my intuition.

Writing the Organic Way
Writing from the Inner Self is not about “Writing a Book in Seven Days” or “Seven Ways to Capture Your Reader’s  Attention.” To tell you the truth, when I read writing class descriptions like that, everything in my body tightens. I don’t want to write a book in seven days! I don’t want a recipe that doesn’t honor what I honor most: my inner self. Only my intuition allows the mysterious process of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and not knowing what will emerge. This is where revelations and insights are born. This is where we discover what we did not know before.  And this is where we feel most alive and experience the deep fulfillment of creativity. To say “Here are the seven steps, this is the way to do it,” feels like someone or something is ripping the inner child out of me.
Albert Einstein said “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Children experiment in their play. They allow themselves entry into the unknown, which opens way to the wonder and awe that awaken curiosity.  Children are our teachers.  I think of a poem I wrote when I was experiencing a dry spell (which is the title of the poem.) I wrote and wrote and wrote and then this arrived:
                               Some question persists,
                               A curious urge
                               To reach the secret
                               I still keep from myself
This same spirit invites and allows us to ask, “How did the Universe come into being?  What exists in the mystery of its vastness?”  In watching images of the Hubble Telescope, I am humbled and amazed. Sometimes I watch videos of NASA astronomers in the lab: they have discovered something new. I see them filled with joy. Laughing. They are not working just to accomplish a goal. They are wildly curious. Of course, they are also extremely knowledgeable, but knowledge alone isn’t enough. They are curious enough to want to grasp the greatest mysteries of who we are, why we are here, how the universe came into being.
What does this have to do with writing, with facilitating writing workshops? Everything. Each of us is a mystery. Yes, we can talk about and write about the facts of our lives, the events of our history and how we respond to them and how they integrate into the tapestry of our being. And that can be absolutely fascinating in itself. But Writing from the Inner Self takes us beyond external facts and history to the heart of mystery.

Trusting the Process
Coming to what wants to be written with child-like wonder requires letting go of the linear methods that restrict the creative landscape within us.  This means losing control of our minds, in the best sense, and instead, paying attention to our intuition. In Einstein’s words, “The intellect has little to do with the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness; call it intuition and the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why.”
Perhaps it is our intuition that draws us to a particular book and we don’t know why. And then reading it, we see that it responds to the very questions and concerns we’ve been asking about.  Often when I browse through books when I’m in middle of a writing project, I find words that respond to what I’ve been writing—and in just a moment an insight arrives and places itself within me. This experience, for me, is exultation. It’s one of the reasons I write. But, of course I don’t always listen to the prompts from my intuition. Perhaps because I’m too tired, or my consciousness is asleep. But we need not worry. Our intuition is always available when we are receptive and ready to trust.
What is the actual definition of intuition? Though it is indeed a mystery, the word intuition comes from the Latin verb, inturi, which is usually translated as to look inside or tocontemplate. Intuition is thus often conceived as a kind of inner perception, sometimes regarded as real lucidity or understanding.
To be receptive to the wonder of your intuition requires a quiet mind. We live busy lives with many distractions. The continual technical progress of our day, including the onslaught of information from the media, the Internet, Facebook, and on and on, can be overwhelming. So, what a gift it is not to be bound by these external stimuli, but to make choices that serve us and our creativity? We give ourselves permission to do nothing, whether for an hour, an afternoon, or a weekend. We must take time for ourselves.
What is it that brings you that peace, that inner silence? Perhaps going to a neighborhood park where you can sit by a pond with ducks, a stream where the water tumbles over rocks creating a sound that soothes your mind and soul, or you lie down on a bench beneath Japanese elm trees, enchanted by their long, lacy leaves that sway in the breeze above you. This is time for yourself, not a time to push your intuition to gift you with images and insights, but to relax and daydream, letting your mind wander and bring calm to your very being. In this place the muse will visit you. Not necessarily every time, but your creativity will bubble up within you as it will.

Writing Books and Intuition
Seventeen of my students have published books.  Of those students, approximately twelve of them wrote their books from start to finish while enrolled in my class. None of them came into my class to write a book.  Had that even been suggested, they probably would have walked out the door. I’ve been privileged to witness these people delve deeply into themselves and the creative process, becoming dedicated to completing their books.  In this process, I’ve witnessed transformations, spiritual breakthroughs, emotional healing. (As well as writing that knocks your socks off!) I have seen the deepest despair transcend into joy. I have seen students reluctant to write the truth out of fear rise up triumphantly to their calling.
At first, they might have been concerned about what others would think—
crippled by fear of not being good enough, fear of doing it “wrong,” fear of being made a fool of, of being embarrassed, of revealing themselves.  This is one of the reasons my intention is to provide a safe and sacred space for my students. And in this space, they open their hearts, hone their craft, and discover continually how deeply their stories, memoirs, and informative nonfiction books affect others. In overcoming their fear of being vulnerable, they have forged deep connections with others by articulating their readers’ own hidden thoughts.
As psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, “That which is most personal and unique in each of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others. This is what has helped me to understand artists and poets who have dared to express the unique in themselves.” Writing our truths becomes the golden thread that stretches from the ancient past to the present, where we realize that we are not alone, that we hold a shimmering strand in the web that connects us all.
I don’t teach my author/students to write books. I had no idea this was going to happen—I just do what I always do. After our meditation, we begin each class with spontaneous writing that is ignited by a prompt that I provide. Sometimes it’s a handful of marbles, other times it might be an envelope holding a single leaf. I sometimes show an image of someone expressing troubling emotions, or a variety of faces that portray a wide range of feelings. Or I place on the table images of vast and rugged landscapes and seascapes: glaciers rising like cathedrals of ice shimmering  with aqua marine, a banyan tree with its extravagant roots spread across the earth. Sometimes it’s a bowl of sliced oranges and a small box of Sunmaid raisins for each student. I emphasize to the students that there are no expectations for these spontaneous writings—there’s no right or wrong way to write them.  And if something in them rebels against what I have provided, then I say, “Go with that rebellion! Write from your authentic self.”
“What are we to write?” Someone asks. “A story? A poem?”
“Don’t worry about form,” I say, “Just write. In time the form will find you.”
How does that grow into a story, a novel, a memoir? Here is an example. I recall the day one of my students announced to members of the class that her third spontaneous writing was on the same theme as her two previous writings. “I’m boring everyone,” she announced.  I assured her she was not boring anyone, but more important than that was that it seemed a particular theme wanted her attention. That freed her and week after week her story rolled out of her.  And so it was with other students as well. They may not have written on the same theme week after week, demonstrating that writing is more like walking up a spiral staircase than a straight “climb to the top” ladder.
Writing is the practice of paying attention, of being in the here and now, being aware of what we are feeling: despair, loneliness, fear, joy, delight, How do we feel emotionally and how do our emotions express themselves in our bodies. Does our neck feel tight or relaxed? Shoulders, head, arms, legs, and feet?
The poet May Sarton wrote, “Absolute attention is prayer.” Is this not the reponse we feel when we are face to face with a thing of beauty?   Our worries and concerns dissolve and our minds become still. Our ego has become quiet and we become nameless in the face of the lavish jacaranda tree, its petals strewn on the grass like tears turned into lavender blossoms. Or what you see may break your heart, causing tears to break from your eyes and your pen finally hits the page. In the words that splatter on the page, something rises in you that you did not expect. It may be after hours of throwing word against word that this deep sadness has awakened   something from long ago, something that you did not remember until this very minute, a sadness that has etched itself inside of your skin. And now at last it is freed and flowing from your pen. Soon you will read it again and again, holding in your hand a word that wants to join the other words that are being written through you. You place this word where you feel it belongs and it trembles on the page.
And this is how that golden thread pulls you into higher realms of consciousness. 

Tags: Rachelle Benveniste, creative writing, literature, poet, writer, writing teacher
This is all for now,

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