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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. I love this! Thank you once again for a compelling, inspirational piece. ☺️

  2. Your blog today gave form to something that I have been thinking about a lot lately.
    Thank you!

  3. I’ve come to that delicious moment in time when I realize that my new WIP is a (possibly “the”) story I was meant to tell all along. I actually said it out loud the other day! It arouses passion in me on so many levels. Thanks, Katie, for putting into sentences the thoughts I have every day, the impressions floating on the air, about the writing life.
    I catch myself wondering while doing the most mundane of tasks. I ask myself, “What would she (my Lead character) do, how would she react to this, what would she see if she were here with me now in the flesh?” She’s been with me, I think, my whole life-a composite of experiences, good and bad, formed within me while I was being formed within me. Not sure if that makes any sense at all, but it’s time to introduce her to the world. (Hope my editor agrees-haha!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s an amazing feeling. I don’t know that I’ve found exactly that story yet–so I still have that to look forward to! Treasure this time!

  4. Nehemiah Feliciano says

    This is a truly inspirational piece! I turn 15 today and this post really touched me. I aspire everyday to write “true art”. But I don’t just want to write or read art. I want to live and breath it! For a few months I had lost the inspiration and encouragement, to pick up my pencil and pour my heart out into a story I have been writing. Today I have found that encouragement. Thank you Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Happy birthday! Great to hear you’re starting down a good path early. 🙂

      It can be difficult to find the motivation and inspiration to write consistently when life interferes, for any number of reasons. But sticking with it is never something we’ll regret. After going through a challenging couple years, in which I was tempted several times to put my writing on the back burner at least temporarily, I’m now so happy to have stuck with it, day in and day out, even when it was tough. Those years, which could have been artistically fruitless, gave me a book that turned out to be one of the most personally meaningful I’ve ever written.

      So stick with it! 🙂

  5. Writing is indeed a craft that shapes one’s entire life. Learning to see what others overlook (both literally and figuratively), staying grounded physically, constantly learning — it’s a pursuit of becoming a better person.

  6. Sheila LyonHall says

    This is the “take away” that will transform my life and work in the world: “If you want the mental piece, then you’ve got to support it with sound physical choices.” While there’s no absence of clarity in the thought behind the words, I think I only just now “get it!” Paradigm shift, indeed!” 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s such a simple realization, but it’s a surprisingly easy one for “head people” to overlook. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. Sheila LyonHall says

    Oops … I forgot to thank you, Katie. I’m overawed by the wisdom and instruction in this post. I appreciate you.

  8. Mary George says

    I have to say, though, that the art of writing is seriously negated by the self-discipline of re-writing. BUT. Even though the revision process is technical – as opposed to the free-style, imaginative and luxurious time spent in modes and streams of first and second drafts – the results are, nine times out of ten, a sentence or paragraph or chapter better than what it was. . . . one hopes, at least 😉

    The art of writing, to me anyway, is best found in literary fiction, where people like Styron and Wolfe and Mitchell take the English language and paint the words generously on the canvas. Now, granted, most of us – me included – might never have a literary novel published, but what writers of this caliber do is have us witness the art of writing at its finest, which gives us the inspiration and gumption to do the same, albeit in our own voices, to suit our genre. Thus, our art.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I see the act of creating art as very much an act of transforming order into chaos. I’ve talked about this more in this post, but suffice it that, as we know, we need both the wild abandon of the creative phase *and* the fierce discipline of outlining and/or revising. I equate Creativity with Chaos and Art with Order.

  9. I spend a lot of time looking for inspiration for creative entrepreneurs. As a writer I rely often on your posts, but this one spoke to me as essential insights for all artists and entrepreneurs. Thanks for your wonderful insights!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks! These days, it’s hard to be a writer without also being an entrepreneur in some respects–or an authorpreneur as I like to hear it called. 😉

  10. I think I’m burning out, because this all just sounds exhausting. Despite the advice I hear to “write something every day” and “never stop learning”, I think I might benefit most from taking some time off for a period of rest and unforced reflection. Right now, the little I am able to produce is thin and stretched; perhaps I can become more “grounded” and then return stronger.

    Also, I wonder how much time you spend writing blog posts and nonfiction, compared to writing fiction. I only have so much energy at the best of times, so I wonder if it’s okay to just write the stories instead of all the attendant notes? In this age of platform building, is it possible to succeed without as much self-promotion? Should I just be content to “write for myself” if I have no desire to “go social”? Is it possible any more for an author to make it solely based on the merits of his/her craft?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are many ways to live an artistic life–and not all of them actually involve art. Sometimes just being a good spouse or parent can be the most meaningful and beautiful artistic contribution any of us can make.

      That said, it sounds to me like you might benefit from taking some time to concentrate on input rather than output. You can’t contribute to the flow of art if you’re in a stagnant pool.

      This is a challenge I’ve had to work on myself in the last year or so. In struggling with some major artistic blocks, I realized it was largely because I wasn’t taking in enough new information and experiences.

      The business end of writing takes up probably as much, if not a little more, of my time as the fiction. But I do this full-time, so it’s my job.

      As for whether or not you would happy just writing for yourself, I suggest really examining what *you* view as success. You might find this post helpful: How to Tell if Your Book Is a Success.

  11. I’m definitely still in the learning stages of #3 and #5 aspects. It hasn’t quite “clicked” yet, if you know what I mean.

    Btw, you mentioned being bad at math and a mean English teacher. Were those YOUR experiences?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Being bad at math, yes. :p

      I was homeschooled, so didn’t actually have an English teacher. But it’s a story I hear with disturbing frequency from other writers.

      • That’s funny, I was terrible at math, too. Although I’d like to put some of the onus on the teacher(s)!

  12. Terrance Niedziela Jr. says

    Thanks for the insights. I used to be a voracious writer when I was in my early 20’s and had no life other than going to work and coming home to an empty apartment. Now that I’m nigh on 40 and married with a teaching career, it has been very different. I’ve burned with a desire to finally get the books and stories I’ve finished ready for publishing. I’ve noticed that I will push creating aside to do other things, especially time wasters like watching TV. But those things have lost much of their appeal.

    I’ve noticed that when I’m not creating, my whole personality changes. I get down, depressed, and aimless. In my prayer times I constantly hear the Lord telling me, “Create! You MUST create!” My creative process begins with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to write through me. So when I create it’s extremely spiritual and I connect with God in a way that doesn’t happen in other parts of my life. I’ve found that when I pray and then write, things will flow out of me that I’ll look back at later and go, “Oh, WOW! That was so awesome! So totally not me! Lord you’re amazing! Thank you for writing that through me!!” I know I was created to write and so for me, I’ve come to the realization that not creating and writing is a form of disobedience. Even as I write this, the image of God nodding His head popped in my head.

    Thanks for the encouragement and reminding me, once again, that writing is not just something I do. It’s something that’s integral to my existence.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you better get to it. 🙂

      But, yes, in all seriousness, I agree. Life can be very confusing–and distracting. But the one thing that has always been clearest to me (and, indeed, the one action in which life itself is always clearest) is that I must write.

  13. Diane Werckle says

    Katie, this is an excellent article and a convicting one. Taking care of the physical me has always been my nemesis–get out and take a walk? No thanks, lots of things I’d rather be doing. I needed this reminder. Love your books, I use your writer’s helps books a lot in my own writing. Thanks, and keep striving toward your highest self. We are all beneficiaries of your wisdom.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve been focusing very heavily lately on the link between physical and emotional health. I’ve cut out wheat and sugar (not forever, but for the time being) and tried to eat only “real” foods (mostly the Mediterranean diet). I think it’s made a big difference not just in how I feel, but in how well I’m sleeping and how positive I’m able to be. It’s not as fun as gummy bears before bed, but, hey, you can’t have everything. :p

      • Mary George says

        Good for you!! I think you’re already doing the chocolate. So adding almonds, walnuts, matcha, berries and roasted veggies will kick your positive mood into yet another level. . . sometimes I wish I could bottle my sprite and bubbly mornings for the days that I plunder along. Eating well and sleeping soundly are SO important. If only everyone would take the crap out of their diet, huh? What a world we could be.Cheers! (With pomegranate juice, no alcohol.)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I do want to incorporate more nuts in my diet, but I’m not a nut person. Just a nut, I guess. 😉

          • Mary George says

            They are so healthy! Your brain needs the fats – your writing needs the fats – …so every night I have about 60 roasted, salted almonds, covered in caramel sauce and topped with a little whipped cream. With a glass of milk it’s sometimes my dinner…yum.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            You’re making them sound very appealing! 😉

  14. Another powerful post, Katie! I have been seeking this whole-life art view recently, and I think the hardest part for me is 1. mental: never stop learning, because though I know it’s important and want to keep learning, I find reading for me often falls to the wayside of my priorities. Thanks for reminding me to fiercely protect it as a priority!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s easy to stop seeing reading as priority. Even just today, I was thinking about whether or not my morning (spent reading) was “productive.” I had to remind myself that, yes, it totally was even though it was also relaxing and enjoyable. I have seen first-hand how my inspiration, for both art and life, dries up when I am not feeding my mind regularly through intentional reading.

  15. This resonates so much with me right now, as I am finally becoming comfortable with answering the question, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer,” instead of, “I work three jobs and I have a blog and am working on a novel.” As I’m working to transition from having three part-time jobs (and writing) into being a full-time writer, it’s so important to me to remember that it isn’t just about “writing,” but that being a writer encompasses participation in life!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good for you! Honestly, even though I’ve long championed the idea that “if you write, you’re a writer,” it’s only within the last five or so years that I’ve become increasingly comfortable voicing that statement myself.

  16. Michelle says

    Thanks for this inspiring post. I always enjoy your blog, but this really resonated with me. I plan to take it to heart.

  17. I believe that you are completely right! After writing a couple paragraphs I always am curious how I would showcase my work through an image. Thank you so much for your help and generosity with the tips.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Stories are intensely visual. I did a post on this a couple years ago. If you think back on your favorite books, usually what you remember is a mind-picture more than anything else.

  18. This year, I am learning to embrace my slowness. I need to let things sink in, think about it, sometimes wrestle with it and then come up with my answer. I tell you this, because most of the time your writing makes me think long and by the time I know what my answer is, it is weeks (or months) later ;P. So, I don’t kmow yet what I think about all you mention here, but I want to thank you. Thank you for this kind of posts! It shapes me as a writer and a person, just like my own writing does.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, you sound like me. :p I can take a very long time to process new ideas and experiences before I’m able to seamlessly integrate them in my life.

  19. Sora-kun says

    I really needed this. I tend to completely disregard my body and live in my head way too much. I’ve followed this amazing blog for a long time and this post is among the most important to me. I’ll be coming back to read it often when I start opting for fantasy over health.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s so easy for humans to get stuck in their primary mode of strength, be it mental, emotional, or physical. We all need to be reminded from time to time to seek out balance.

  20. JOHN G CRYAR says

    My mom taught me everything I would need for life before I began school. Bless you for reminding me of those things. This post is spot-on. Let those with eyes to see, read, and hear what you posted.

  21. Mark A Villalpando Jr says

    Artistic Tree That Falls and No One Hears: “Mayyyybe I’m falling when no one can hear it cause I’m trying to get really good at it, so when there is an audience it will sound ridiculously good. Mayyyybe I have stage fright and one art inspires other art i create. Ever think of that?” lol

  22. Carl Kjellberg says

    Truly thought provoking insights. It pushes me to see how writing is more than just something one does, isolated from the rest of one’s life but life itself. I think that to miss seeing this is to fall into the danger of a ‘McDonald’s’ style of authorship- much volume but little sustenance value.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I absolutely feel the empty calories when I read “junk food” books.

  23. This is so great. I want to share it with all my artist friends….writers or other. And, I want to re-read it again and again. You’ve touched on basics truths that I too embrace. Thanks for articulating so succinctly.

  24. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks for stopping by! Onward and upwards for all of us! 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] story we write we hope will take our work up a notch. K.M. Weiland shows us how to take our writing to the next level, Terry Odell asks: are your words pulling their weight?, and Mary Ann de Stefano advises on how to […]

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