Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mark David's Musings on Creativity

This is an updated version of the interview on creativity, the Muse and the creative process that originally appeared a while back ago on author Bill Jones, Jr.'s blog, This Page Is Intentionally Blank

An Interview with Mark David Gerson

The Blank Blog: It’s hard to pigeon-hole you with just one label. You’re author, motivational speaker, screenwriter, mentor, photographer. … How do you see yourself? Is one of these titles more “you” than another?

Mark David Gerson: I’m so glad you’re finding it hard to pigeon-hole me. I hate being slotted into categories and file folders! Seriously, whatever else I have done in my life, it all and always seems to come back to writing. As for the form (author v. screenwriter), I’m not sure that matters so much as the storytelling aspect of the enterprise.

In fact, now that I think about it as I write this (I do some of my best thinking while writing!), perhaps “storyteller” is the common factor in each of those labels. The bottom line is, whether I’m writing, speaking, coaching, mentoring, drawing or photographing, what I’m really doing is telling stories. From that perspective, the death of storytelling that figures so prominently in The MoonQuest, the first book of my Q'ntana Trilogy of fantasy novels, takes on an even more significant and personal dimension.

TBB: For those who haven’t yet read The MoonQuest, can you tell us a little about the story?

MDG: Imagine a land where storytelling is banned, where storytellers have been put to death, where dreams and visions are outlawed, where imagination has been stripped from the land and its people. This is the Q’ntana of The MoonQuest, a land where, as Toshar, the main character, puts it, “‘once upon a time’ is a forbidden phrase and fact is the only legal tender.” In this land, legend has it, the moon has been so saddened by the silence and tyranny, that she has cried tears that have extinguished her light. As a result, the moon has not been seen for many generations. The MoonQuest, then, is the journey undertaken by a reluctant Toshar and his three companions to restore story and vision to the land and to rekindle the light of the moon.

TBB: The MoonQuest has won awards and accolades. Now, I see it is part of a trilogy, which can be both exciting and challenging. How do you balance ensuring you have new stories to tell, with keeping the tone and quality of the original book?

MDG: Yes, The MoonQuest has won five awards, including an Independent Publishers Award Gold Medal IPPY and a New Mexico Book Award. And while no one writes for the awards, they are still wonderfully gratifying and validating.

Fortunately, that balance you asked about is not part of my job description. My job is to listen for the stories that already exist in the airwaves through which my Muse broadcasts and then to put them into words to the best of my imperfect ability. Or put another way, my job is to write the book my story wants written — the way it wants it written.

While I knew from the outset that The MoonQuest would launch a trilogy, and even knew the titles of the sequels early on, I had no idea what The StarQuest and The SunQuest would be about or how they would work with The MoonQuest story. Now that I have completed the two sequels — in other words, now that I finally know the story! — I’m amazed and in awe. My mind could never have worked those puzzle pieces together on its own. Which is why, when it comes to writing, my credos are “the story is smarter than I am” and “the story knows best”!

TBB: Can you tell us about your venture into screenwriting and filmmaking? How was the transition from book to film?

MDG: I’m finding the whole process of working with the same story in multiple forms (novel, screenplay and, now, stage musical) fascinating and illuminating.

I wrote the first draft of The MoonQuest novel in the third person. But all subsequent drafts, as well as The StarQuest and SunQuest novels, are in the first person. Writing screenplay adaptations offers me the rare privilege of telling the same story twice, each from a different point of view: first person in the novel, third person in the screenplay. Adapting the stories a third time, for the stage as a musical, offers new storytelling opportunities and challenges.

As well, each version has fed the others. I wrote the first draft of The MoonQuest screenplay when I thought I already had a completed, publication-ready draft of the novel. But some of the changes I made in the story for the screenplay were so compelling that I went back and retrofitted them into the manuscript. I had similar experiences going back and forth between the The StarQuest and SunQuest novel manuscripts and screenplays. With The SunQuest, I wrote the screenplay first – so that was an adaptation in reverse!

I had never adapted a novel for film when I began The MoonQuest script, let alone tackled any kind of screenplay. And although I read some great books and received some terrific and inspiring instruction at The Screenwriters Conference in Santa Fe (where I was, a few years later, gratifyingly back as an instructor), I approached the adaptation the way I approach all my writing: by trusting that the story itself would guide me. Which it did…well enough that a production company is seeking to produce my screenplay. (I write more about that process in Organic Screenwriting: Writing for Film, Naturally.)

TBB: You must be pretty busy with all your interests. How do you balance your time?

MDG: I take the same intuitive approach to my life as I do to my writing. While other coaches and instructors recommend applying a regular routine to creative production, that never works for me for very long. Rather, I remain as in-the-moment as I can and follow wherever the inspiration leads me — in my life as well as in my writing. That way of living and writing is both exhilarating and, at times, terrifying. But it does keep things in an organic balance!

TBB: In your book, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, you have a chapter entitled, “Thirteen Rules for Birthing Your Book.” I won’t list them all here, because folks need to buy the book. My favorite is “Your book is older than you think.” Can you expound on that a little here?

MDG: My point with this so-called rule (“so-called” because my Rule #1 for everything is that, truly, there are none!) is a version of what I said here earlier, that our stories exist in the airwaves around us. More often than not, they’ve been hovering there for a long time, patiently waiting for us first to take notice, then to take action…“to allow the ideas of your heart,” as I put it in The Voice of the Muse “to find expression through your mind.” That allowing is important. As I suggested in answer to your previous question, creation (like life) is not about forcing things to happen. Creation is about listening for those timeless stories and then letting them sift through us onto the page. Like the God of Genesis, our job is to let creation happen.

By the way, the response to those 13 rules for book-birthing has been so encouraging that I am now working on a new book for writers, Birthing Your Book...Even If You Don't Know What It's About. It will be out this fall.

TBB: I love to ask writers this one. What book(s) do you wish you’d written? Why?

MDG: I could say that I wish I had already written and completed my next novel, a period piece set in my native Montreal. But that wouldn't really answer you. Seriously, though, that’s a question I’ve never considered. And while there are many, many authors I admire and many, many books I have loved over the years, I’m not sure that there any I wish I’d written, because that would mean I would have to have been someone other than myself with a voice other than my own to have accomplished it. With that disclaimer out of the way, the one book — or series of books — that leaps to mind are the Narnia books, probably for their engaging blend of adventure and subtle spirituality.

TBB: For those of us with very shy muses, how would you suggest we coax ours to cooperate more readily?

MDG: You may not like this answer… Muses are never shy. It’s writers who are deaf or, rather, choose not to listen. Muses are never uncooperative. It’s writers who refuse to cooperate. Muses never hold back. Writers hold back all the time!

In those moments when you believe your Muse is not working with you, it’s important to look within. What are we not willing to hear? Which story are we refusing to write? What are we reluctant to face within ourselves that would emerge in a story we are doing our best to ignore? Which belief or way of life is our Muse challenging? Where are we not surrendering unconditionally to our Muse, and to the story it has for us?

Answer those questions, move forward in your writing from those answers, and I’m fairly certain you’ll never encounter a shy, uncooperative Muse again!

TBB: Being a photographer as well as a writer, like you, I take a lot of inspiration from photographs. In effect, the camera is my muse. How did you create the world in The Q’ntana Trilogy?

MDG: I’m not sure I can answer the question, for reasons that may have already become apparent from my previous answers. I didn’t consciously create the Q’ntana worlds. I allowed them to spill through me onto the page. I didn’t plan, plot or prepare. I simply wrote and the worlds created themselves through the words that found their way through me.

In fact, I had no plans to write a MoonQuest, nor did I have a conscious desire to write a fantasy novel, let alone a trilogy. The MoonQuest birthed itself during a writing workshop I was facilitating when, in an unprecedented in-the-moment inspiration, I did the same exercise I had presented to participants. What I wrote that evening became the opening scene of the first draft of a novel I knew nothing about. From there, I just kept writing, discovering the story as I went along, until I was done. The StarQuest and SunQuest stories emerged similarly. (I write about that magical MoonQuest experience in my memoir, Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir.)

TBB: What do you like most about your work? What do you want people to take from it?

MDG: In The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, I encourage readers to abandon control, because trying to control the creative process is, at worst, a sure ticket to writer’s block. At best, it produces unimaginative, formulaic results. The same applies in our lives. The more control and rigidity we apply, the fewer miracles we experience.

I love that my work is about inspiring people to open to that kind of freedom, the freedom to live and create from the deepest heart of our being, the freedom to be in the moment — in our lives as much as in our creativity. For isn’t life the ultimate creative act?

If you take one thing from my work, I would hope it would be to see the possibility of that freedom and to discover some first steps toward achieving it.

TBB: You are granted one wish, and are allowed to choose any writer, living or dead, as your mentor? Whom do you choose?

MDG: I’d probably choose Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t discover A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels until I was an adult, when I also discovered, through her nonfiction writings, L’Engle’s deep spirituality, one that informed her creativity and her life. While L’Engle’s spirituality found its expression through the Episcopal Church and mine is largely unstructured, she was a profound influence on my writing and my life. In a sense, she already was a mentor without knowing it. Now, if she were still alive, I’d just like to thank her for that.

TBB: How can readers find your work?

MDG: You'll find all my books  – my three Q'ntana novels, my four books for writers and my two memoirs – on most Amazon sites, from select other online booksellers and in all major ebook stores. And my recording, The Voice of the Muse Companion: Guided Meditations for Writers, is on CD on Amazon (and on my website) and as an MP3 download from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and other online music sellers.

Finally, you can find/contact me through my website and blog and through Facebook and Google+.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Specters in the Steam Room

An improbable, otherworldly experience in a hotel steam room heals the emotional abandonment I have felt from my father for as far back as I can remember. I tell the story in Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir, from which the following is excerpted... 

It's August 11, 1997. After nearly two months of full-time road travel, Roxy (my cocker spaniel) and I check into the Shilo Inn in Boise, Idaho. Once I get Roxy situated, I change into my bathing suit and settle into the white-tiled steam room that is a fixture in many of the chain’s properties.

I have no plans, other than to shut my eyes and relax into the steam. But after a few minutes, I feel another presence in the room. I open my eyes and peer through the clouds of steam. I see no one.


No answer.

I close my eyes again. Immediately, I sense a white-robed man staring at me from across the room. He is tall, dark-haired, with a trim beard and mustache and a muscular build. A gold coronet rests on his head.

“Who are you?” I ask silently.

“My name is Arctur,” I sense rather than hear.

“Right,” I think dismissively. My mind is playing tricks on me.

“This is no trick. I am Arctur,” he repeats.

A silent conversation ensues, but for how long I cannot say. Time has no meaning among the mystical swirls of steam.

“There is someone here who wants to speak with you,” Arctur says after a while.

I wait.

“Because this is so close to the anniversary of your father’s death...”

Suddenly I sense my father’s presence. My heart starts to race.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be the father you wanted me to be,” I hear my father say. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you in all the ways you deserved.”

I begin to sob.

“But I loved you and still love you,” he continues. “And I’m so proud of what you are doing and who you are becoming. I couldn’t be a role model for you, but you are now a role model for me. I’m watching you. I’m with you. I’m learning from you. Thank you.”

Moments later, still crying, I sense that Arctur and my father have left. I open my eyes. The steam room is empty. I wipe my face, collect myself and return to my room.

How close to the anniversary is it? I fire up my laptop and open my file of significant dates.

As close as it can be. My father died 29 years ago — on this day.

Adapted from Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir
© Mark David Gerson

Get Acts of Surrender today
– along with my other books – 
on most Amazon sites, from select other online booksellers, from my website
 or from your favorite ebook store

Photo: A Gerson family gathering long before I was born. My father is in the left foreground. Today, August 11, 2014, is the 46th anniversary of his death and the 17th anniversary of our Shilo Inn reconciliation.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Encounters with My Wisest Self

Just over a month ago, a UK fan of my Acts of Surrender memoir sent me a note on Facebook: “You mention Dialogues with the Divine in your memoir,” she wrote, “but I can’t find it anywhere. Where can I get a copy?”

“Unpublished,” I wrote back, “and likely to remain so.” Even as I hit SEND, though, I began to suspect that this reader had been channeling my Muse and that it might finally be time to dust off Dialogues with the Divine. To be honest, I wasn’t initially keen on resuscitating a manuscript that was even more personally raw than Acts of Surrender had been. Then I reread my original Foreword, and I was hooked. Several intense weeks of editing later, Dialogues with the Divine: Encounters with My Wisest Self is out! Here's an excerpt from that Foreword, altered little since I wrote it in 2000.

The “dialogues” that make up my newest book — which is also one of my oldest — emerged from the silence and solitude of a fiery autumn and frozen winter. It was October 1, 1996 and I had just moved a hundred miles north from Toronto to Penetanguishene, a summer-resort town on the shores of Lake Huron. For the fifth time in two years, I had packed my few belongings and followed my heart along the asphalt road of my soul’s journey.

Why was I there? If I needed a reason for the world, it was to work on The MoonQuest. Whatever else materialized, I hoped that a fourth draft would. After all, my novel's earlier drafts had been largely written during just such a time of retreat.

Although The MoonQuest was a constant theme during those five months, I made little progress on it. Instead, even as I struggled to move the novel forward, other words came, and I soon found myself being propelled on an unexpected journey of healing through writing.

Mine was a heart-sickness — neither physical- nor life-threatening. But it was soul- and spirit-threatening. For without trusting that it was safe to let the world more fully into my heart and my heart more fully into my words, I could never take my writing and life to deeper levels, never fully live the precepts I taught in my seminars and workshops.

If you have followed my words here and elsewhere, you know that I have always believed that creative writing is a metaphor for creative living, that the principles that work for one unfailingly work for the other: faith, trust, surrender and openheartedness; vulnerability, truthfulness and flow. And, of course, being in the moment.

Opposing all of these is fear.

If fear no longer paralyzes me, as it once did, it still occasionally slows me down. It’s the core issue of our time, triggering everything from writer’s block to war. It’s the only barrier to flow — of words, of abundance, of life, of love.

Many layers of fear had dissolved for me by the time I installed myself at 296 Champlain Road two days before my 42nd birthday. But more healing awaited, as it always does.

Opportunities for growth arise out of every breath when we are open to them. Often they arise most clearly when we step into the stillness. For me, this place of stillness was a sparsely furnished one-bedroom flat across the road from the spirit-filled waters of Georgian Bay. Sharing my rear wall was a larger house, home to Angela and Jim Emery and their nine-year-old son, Jeremy. Jeremy instantly adopted me, and and his outpouring of unconditional love was among the first challenges — and opportunities — of this journey. Others followed in rapid succession, relating as much to my life as to my writing.

Meditative or inner dialogue is a technique I have often taught in my workshops. Once in a meditative state, you ask a question and then allow the answers to emerge through what I call “writing on the Muse Stream” — letting the words flow through you onto the page, without stopping for judgment, censorship, editing, correction or second thoughts. Whether you believe the answers come from God, your Muse or a deeper part of yourself, they do come…when you let them.

My first written words of that five-month retreat came as inner dialogue, though not one that my conscious mind had initiated. Instead, as I sat in meditation one morning, I heard the words, “I just want to say something.” It was an echo of a recent nightmare and when I engaged it in conversation, I discovered a part of me that I had unwittingly denied.

By mid-January, these occasional dialogues were surging out of me, sometimes two or three times a day, and “dialogue with the divine” had replaced “inner dialogue” as the heading in my journal.

Generally, the first words of dialogue came the moment I closed my eyes. When that happened, I reached for my pad and, eyes still shut, recorded what I heard, sensed, experienced. More often than not, the power of the words evaded me. At times I resented them. In that respect, I was no different from my writing-workshop participants who, when writing for the first time from a place of heart and truth, often reject their work as meaningless or pedestrian. It wasn’t until later, as I typed and read over the day’s writing, that I began to sense its transformative power.

Through this ongoing dialogue and the experiences that sparked it, I began to open my heart wider and wider still, to trust deeply and more deeply still, to surrender more and more completely to a wisdom and divinity I had never before acknowledged. Through them I began to embrace more fully my vision, my power, my strength and my truth. Through them I began to discover new ways to write, new ways to teach, new ways to live, new ways to be.

I had set out to write a different book. I tried to write that other book. Instead, Dialogues with the Divine appeared — not initially as a book, but simply as an outlet for all that floated into consciousness.

Who is the Divine? What was the presence I engaged when this book spilled out of me? It is the presence that resides in all of us…the light that shines in and through each of us…the presence that infuses everything and everyone at all times and in all ways. There are many names for it: Muse, God/Goddess, Infinite Mind, Great Spirit, Higher Self or, as I put it in this book’s subtitle, Wisest Self. In short, it is the Divine, part each of us and all of us, yet, at the same time, something of which we are all part.

Who was I speaking to? Who was speaking to me? That still small voice that is not really small at all. It is the largest, deepest, truest part of ourselves, if we but open to it. It is the divinity we all share, the divinity we can all touch as we write and live.

My dialogues with the Divine began out of need — not the need to write a book, but the need to reconnect with my heart. I share them with you now, knowing that my words are your words, my fears are your fears, my strength and courage are yours, as is my love and wisdom. For we are all one beneath the skin of individuality. We are all one in the divinity and divine presence of love.

Who is the Divine? It is you, me, God, the flowers in your garden, the trees in your yard, the kitten that cuddles on your lap as you read these words. It is the very words themselves. May they move, guide and inspire you as they did and still do me. And may you move from them to your own direct links with your own divinity.

Adapted from Dialogues with the Divine: Encounters with My Wisest Self 
© 2014 Mark David Gerson

– along with Acts of Surrender
The MoonQuest and my other books – 
on most Amazon sites and in all major ebook-stores

Photo: The house at 296 Champlain Road in Penetanguishene, Ontario where Dialogues with the Divine was born. I lived in the front granny flat, which was originally built as a country store.