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Taking Your Writing to the Next Level: Whole-Life Art

whole-life artYou are a writer.

If you’re reading this blog because you’re jotting down a story, even if it’s just on a napkin right now, then you get to call yourself a writer.

A writer. An author. A scribbler. A storyteller.

Maybe that’s all you are. Maybe that’s all there is to be.

But maybe not. Maybe there’s more that we, as writers, can aspire to.

A few months ago, I mused on how authors can level up to become “artists.” While that pursuit is one mostly executed from within the trenches of the craft, I think one important aspect is an all-engulfing concept I’ve recently taken to calling “whole-life art.”

Most writers with a true dedication to the craft know being an author is a lot like being an athlete. Weekend warriors don’t cut it. Even showing up at the court or the rink or the track on a regular basis cuts it only if the person in question happens to be unbelievably talented or unbelievably masochistic, or both.

Rather, dedicated athletes work out daily, watch every calorie they put in their mouths, and practice rigorous mental discipline. If someone is truly an athlete, then he or she is never not an athlete.

Authors have exactly the same opportunity. This opportunity isn’t just about taking our art to the next level, although that’s certainly a major benefit. It’s about embracing the beauty and power of our art until it reaches beyond the page to inform every part of our lives.

5 Aspects of Whole-Life Art

I can’t remember a time when stories weren’t intertwined, in some way or another, with every part of my life. When I was young, it was effortless. I breathed stories, lived stories. I romped through them with a delightful lack of control, since I wasn’t yet actually requiring myself to write them. As an emerging adult, I embraced the fierce discipline of the artistic life mostly in a desperate bid to turn those beautiful breathings into stories that were actually readable. When my efforts eventually turned into a vocation, art as a paradigm permeated my life even more.

Now, having graduated from what I suppose might be considered the First Act of my life as a writer, I find that art has become more than just a joyous expression or worthy occupation. It has become my defining template. If I am to continue growing as a person, I see now that I must grow as a writer. And vice versa: if I am to grow as a writer, I must grow as a person.

In thinking about these ideas of late, I’ve also been thinking about the varied aspects of life and how we, as writers, can fully integrate them all in a pursuit of whole-life art.

1. Mental: Never Stop Learning

Most people probably think about writing as primarily a mental exercise. Indeed, writers are often stereotyped as “smart” people, who will read anything they can get their hands on, can ideate on command, and excelled at school (except for math in all its forms and that one mean English teacher who almost crushed our dreams).

If there’s one commandment for writers, it’s never stop learning. However much we may (or may not) naturally enjoy mental pursuits, it’s easy to slip into lazy habits and confine our rigorous thinking only to our stories (and sometimes not even then).

Be disciplined in what and how you learn. A few years ago, I was legitimately depressed to realize that at best I’m only likely to read 3-4,000 more books in my lifetime. That’s not very many when juxtaposed against the massive amount of extant information.

That realization catalyzed my need to triage my reading list. There are so many interesting books—both fiction and non-fiction. Which do I think will be most interesting, influential, and important in my life, both generally and particularly at this moment?

I don’t always choose rightly (the fifteen minutes that just got sucked down the drain of Looper.com could undoubtedly have been better spent on… just about anything). But I want to make a concerted effort to spend my life’s worth of learning credits on the best quality stuff.

2. Physical: Stay Grounded in the Real World

If writers are known for their mental chops, they’re also generally known for being near-sighted klutzes who spend too much time nursing carpal tunnel at the keyboard rather than getting kissed by the sun while sweating their hearts into good shape.

A totally obvious bit of advice that kind of blew my mind was this: your brain is a part of your body.

If you want the mental piece, then you’ve got to support it with sound physical choices.

Cue the “whole-life” part getting a little too real.

Most obviously, this means choosing the scrambled eggs over the hot dogs, as well as the evening walk over the couch and that oh-so-tempting infomercial. More than that, it means staying grounded in our physicality.

Writers live much of our lives in our heads. But if we’re living those imaginary lives at the expense of our real lives something is awry. Not only are we missing out on precious and irreplaceable reality, we’re also risking distancing ourselves and our art from the very truths we’re trying to access.

Balancing the need to live in our heads against the equally vital need to live in the moment is crucial. This is harder than ever in our overwhelmingly teched-out, urban lives. It requires consciousness and intentionality.

One trick I find especially helpful is accessing and appreciating the elemental basics: fire (e.g., lighting a candle), earth (e.g., cultivating plants), air (e.g., walking outside), and water (e.g., taking a shower). I also try to surround myself with fewer artificial substances (plastic) and more natural ones (wooden furniture, woolen or cotton clothing, real books, etc.). I’m continually surprised by how much more grounded and present I feel when I do these things.

3. Emotional: Seeking, Understanding, and Sharing Catharsis

Many of us come to (and stay with) writing because it is such an intensely emotional experience. There are many reasons for this, but I believe they all eventually boil down to catharsis—relief or “purification” through an intense vicarious experience.

The intensity of these emotions is only ever evoked because they resonate:

  • on an archetypal subconscious level (as with most genre formats)
  • on a conscious personal level (as with any event or person who represents or reminds us of literal experiences in our own lives)
  • on an empathetic level (as with any story situation that causes us to understand a truth about someone else’s experience)

In short, the emotional catharsis that informs powerful stories only arises out of artistic truthfulness.

Sometimes artists tap into this truth without consciously understanding it. When this happens, the artist always feels it. It may be exhilarating, or it may be extremely painful. Either way, these are usually the feelings that drive us to both create and consume stories.

This is where our art has the ability to truly start informing our lives—and, if we are willing to do the work, where we can further that understanding in our lives so that it returns to inform our art. This only happens when we as authors are willing to self-inspect both our work and ourselves.

  • Why have these powerful emotions arisen from these stories (whether our own or someone else’s)?
  • Why are these emotions in our lives?
  • What are they telling us?
  • What are they perhaps hiding?
  • Where are they guiding?

“Self-work” encompasses so much. Above all, it is a discipline of self-reflection and self-honesty. No one is better positioned to accomplished this than a writer—someone who stands poised both on the symbolic cusp of the subconscious and on the stage of articulated self-expression. To some extent, it is work that occurs naturally by the very act of writing. But it is work. We only reap the benefits if we’re willing to grub deep in our inner soil.

4. Social: Seeking the Benefit and Betterment of All

A question I find endlessly interesting is, “Do you write for yourself or for others?” Writers have adamant opinions on both sides of the fence, ranging from “if you’re not writing for yourself, then you’re writing for the wrong reasons” to “if you’re not writing for others, what’s the point?”

Although I personally tend to favor the former response, writing is undeniably an overwhelmingly social pursuit. It is, above all, a form of communication. Although much good can arise simply from the private communication of one’s self with one’s self, you have to wonder if the old adage about “a tree falling in the forest” doesn’t also apply to stories. If no one reads them, do they really matter?

Whole-life art necessarily seeks a balance between the health of the individual (who may gain her primary benefit from writing for herself and who may choose to keep certain writings private for any number of reasons) and the health of the society of which that individual is a part. The two are intertwined. To live whole and healthy lives, people require a purpose. Usually inherent within that is the idea of purposefully and positively impacting society.

Plato empowered writers everywhere (and, if they’re as smart as they think they, scared the pants off them as well) when he blazoned:

He who tells the stories rules the world.

Unless you happen to be that rare writer whose tree falls in a lonely forest, you will impact the world, whether in a small way or a large way. The more you dedicate yourself to whole-life art, the more responsibly you will be able to wield that power.

5. Spiritual: Art as Meditation

There is something about “true art” that stops people in their tracks and, even if just for a moment, takes their breath from them. It can happen with street art or the Venus de Milo, a comic book or War and Peace. These moments of true art are deeply spiritual. They are glimpses of the infinite, a breath of air momentarily too big for our lungs to hold.

True art is unspoken wisdom, unspoken truth. It is a deeply spiritual experience, for both creator and audience. These moments are linked with the kind of emotional catharsis we talked about, above. But the spirituality of art is more as well.

Artists everywhere stumble onto these moments all the time. I used to say I always knew I was onto something good if I experienced the sensation of “my chest collapsing.” Indeed, these moments are often the lodestars that keep us moving through the dark uncertainties of our art.

They don’t, however, always have to be uncertainties we “stumble” over.  The discipline of whole-life art can position you to map the night sky and to start recognizing constellations. I venture that art, like life, will always be a mystery, but the greatest adventure of the artistic life is that we get to spend it on a voyage of endless discovery.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner wrote:

…the main work the writer must do for himself is bring about change in the writer’s basic character, helping to make him that “true Poet,” as Milton said, without whom there can be no true Poem.

For writers, the Poem isn’t just on the page. It’s all around us, waiting to be put on the Page, however best we may.

Your writing doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—stop when your fingers leave the keyboard. Your pursuit of excellence in your craft should inform every aspect of your life—mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Make conscious choices, and let your pursuit of story guide you to the larger Story all around you.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is currently your greatest challenge to living as a “whole-life artist”? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Lance Haley says

    Katie –

    Between my law practice and life, I have found the development of my book has languished in the background this past year. Ironically, I told myself that the 4th of July was going to be a personal declaration of independence. A promise to declare war on wasting time that could be spent working on my book.

    Although the ideas keep coming for scenes, characters, dialogues, etc, I haven’t worked on the structure and plotting in a long time. I want to have a complete outline finished by the end of February 2020.

    Lo and behold, your post appears. You really are clairvoyant, girl. So I created an icon on my desktop for the link to this post. But, I intentionally transposed the title.

    WHOLE-LIFE ART: Take your writing and music to the next level.

    I wanted the emphasis on the concept. Front and center. Creating a complete life which embraces all my artistic bents. Writing, as well as playing my guitar and composing (writing) songs. Taking care of Lance. Not just tending to my clients and the rest of the world that tugs away at my time.

    Thanks Katie. You seem to intuit when we need something other than instructional advice on how to write a book. A little kick in the rearend. Your timing is uncanny.

    The revolution has just begun…

    P.S. I am taking out two hours away from the revolution on Sunday to watch the U.S. Womens Soccer Team bring home the World Cup.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You go! And it’s great you have multiple artistic mediums to pursue. I’m sure they complement each other vastly.

  2. Gabriella L Garlock says

    I really do remember living my art. I remember balance. But right now, a year and a half after my big brother died, I am still struggling to board a hopelessly capsized boat. Can’t/won’t accept the new normal, so I’ve been existing at the expense of living. And I can’t write.
    But I am working on it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So sorry about your brother. Give yourself grace during this difficult period. Your art will be waiting for you when it’s time.

  3. David Snyder says

    Katie,

    This is great. Timely for me. I have been doing lots of writer meditations lately.

    Also, I have been reading much about this lately too, in your works and the works of others.

    It seems human beings really only have four or five things they are truly interested in:

    1.) How did I get here? [Opening of life]
    2.) Why am I here? [Act One and Two A of life itself, or childhood, as a “life within a life”]
    3.) What am I supposed to be doing with my life? [midpoint, crisis, midlife, mid-career crisis]
    4.) Why does that even matter? [Two B into Three, the Intense Fight for Meaning in a Life Stage]
    5.) Where do I go next, and to do what? [Just Before Climax to End]

    Those are also the things most readers are interested in.

    Readers ask: Has anyone else figured this out? How did THEY make it to the promised land? Any uplifting story tips to guide my own way? Those self-help books are leaving me cold.

    These are also the things every character thinks about, even antagonists.

    People have been carving these questions and related stories into stone, clay and paper for at least 10,000 years.

    It is also what writers need to be pondering in their own lives in their writerly meditations by candlelight, I guess. Every adventure in Oz is written by a Dorothy who has been there and back in her own soul and lived to tell the tale. Every if Dorothy’s name is Frank.

    So, keep these coming!

    By the way, I have an idea for a “spiritual analysis” of Dreamlander that might be cool one day if you would ever like to hear my idea. I won’t clog the post though.

    Great column.

    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is great! Love your comparison of story structure to life structure.

      And I’d love to hear your analysis of Dreamlander. You can email me if you’d rather.

      • David Snyder says

        I just emailed my magnum opus spiritual analysis of Dreamlander and the collected works and metapsychology of K.M. Weiland with astute references to Zoroastrian demonology. Have fun.

        🙂

        Check your inbox and don’t blow a fuse.

  4. Maria Kinnersley says

    Great post. I am left with a lot to consider in my own writing experience:-)

  5. Hi! I love reading your articles so much (they speak to me deeply…I think our minds must work in similar ways) but this is the first time I’ve ever commented.

    I just finished reading Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen. It’s an amazingly deep and insightful look into how modern cultural and educational trends are crushing the artist’s soul in children (and in each of us), reducing us to nothing more than cogs in the machine of society. This article (and the one entitiled Helping Authors Become Artists) very nicely dovetails with all of the things I’ve been thinking of since I finished the book.

    One point the book makes is that young artists nowadays are often taught to eschew all rules of artistry in favor of “self-expression.” But this mindset rarely results in true, soul-stirring art. True art comes not from loudly proclaiming our small, insignificant selves to the world in all our hubris, but from striving for a Truth greater than ourselves, to never stop moving onward and upward. Like you point out, we don’t create the story, the story (aka the Truth) already exists all around us.

  6. This is a wonderful post, making me think of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and also the mindfulness that, personally, has been helpful to me in recent years – connecting this with growth as a writer is very powerful. Inspirational – thank you.

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