"Deep Writing: 7 Principles that Bring Ideas to Life," Eric Maisel

Pros: Handy examples; great principles; useful exercises
Cons: One or two chapters get a bit touchy-feely (not necessarily a bad thing)
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 6/10/2002

Recently I reviewed Eric Maisel’s “Living the Writer’s Life.” I was so enchanted with that book that I bought another of Maisel’s books: “Deep Writing: 7 Principles that Bring Ideas to Life.” Where LWF addressed the myriad problems of personality and career that all writers face, DW is aimed at one particular thing: getting your writing projects off the ground and onto paper.

Simplicity and examples

On the one hand, this book does not contain the devastating wealth of information that Writer’s Life held, and so it’s hard not to compare it a little negatively. The book centers around seven specific principles, and much of the text is devoted to explaining or giving examples of those seven principles. In a way, this means the book feels as though it has less to it. If you go by the underlining principle (a self-help book’s helpfulness is in direct relationship to the sheer volume of text that you end up underlining), this book doesn’t hold up so well – I don’t generally underline examples.

On the other hand, sometimes examples are very helpful indeed. They help us to see how general principles apply to actual life experiences – in particular, our own. Maisel is a psychotherapist and “creativity counselor,” and it’s a safe bet (particularly given what I saw of his other book) that his fictional sample characters are based on things he’s seen in his practice. Certainly they resonated with me, and seemed very realistic. They also covered a wide spread of personalities, so you can probably find something relevant to you in one or more of these characters.

Mr. Maisel doesn’t do you the disservice of promising that if you only follow his seven steps everything will be simple and easy, and your writing project will practically write itself. He shows his sample characters stumbling and falling as well as succeeding, and he shows them changing direction, taking their time, and engaging in other realities of the writing process. It is important to him that we understand the realities of the writing process, not that we believe his method is a cure-all.

The 7 principles

#1. Hushing the Mind: Yes, the first step is as easy as quieting your mind and allowing yourself to think. It’s also as difficult as quieting your mind. Simple? Yes. Obvious? Yes. But in my experience, it’s the obvious things we often miss in life. Mr. Maisel provides a couple of exercises to help us through this step, including a “Hushing Exercise” and “The Bedlam Walk.”

#2. Holding the Intention: “Motivation. Intention. Action. ‘Holding the Intention’ is a phrase meant to capture the connectedness of this writer’s trinity. The deep writer has reasons to write, intends to write, and aims himself in the right direction.”

Mr. Maisel talks about reasons and intentions, motivations and preparations. He discusses themes and ideas. He presents an exercise called TIPS (TIPS stands for Themes, Intention, Plan, Steps) that will help you make your first steps toward actually working on your project, and another exercise that will help you connect theme and intention.

#3. Making Choices: This chapter deals with choices pertaining to marketplace and ethical concerns. Maisel presents many of the arguments on both sides of the issues. Do you aim your work at the marketplace in an attempt to make more money? Do you stick to your guns and write what you want regardless of whether anyone will want to buy it? Is there a happy middle ground? In keeping with his lack of desire to force his morality upon us, he refuses to answer this question for us. He simply gives us the tools we need to decide for ourselves which goal is more important to us, and to what extent. I respect him for being willing to stick to this viewpoint. Once again he presents an exercise to help us: “Framing Your Book.”

#4. Honoring the Process: Mr. Maisel speaks of the fact that writing is not generally a simple, easy process; it is fraught with problems and hurdles. You might write something amazing one year, only to follow it up with something awful the next. You might work on your novel for six months, only to find out that you’ve taken it in entirely the wrong direction and need to start over. This is a short chapter, but an important one:

What honoring the process means is that you accept these ups and downs and natural difficulties without too much complaint. You work to influence the process in a positive way. You write. You keep an open heart. You keep an open mind. You reread and revise. You accept that certain pieces will not work, and you rejoice when pieces turn out well.

#5. Befriending the Work: Maisel’s writing is usually moderate on psychobabble; this chapter is the heaviest on touchy-feely psychology. It isn’t a terribly long chapter within the context of the book, however, and it does make a certain amount of sense. The idea is that if you hate the piece of work you’re working on, things probably won’t go well. So as silly as exercises like “Totem Hugs” seem, the basic principles in this chapter make sense.

#6. Evaluating the Work: It is difficult for a writer to evaluate her own work accurately, well, and even halfway objectively. “The deep writer does herself a disservice if she minimizes the place of evaluation in the writing process.” This book isn’t touchy-feely in the sense of encouraging you to just enjoy your writing without judging it. It recognizes that your end-goal may well be publication, and endeavors to help you with that goal. “You can’t do the good writing you want to do if you won’t evaluate your work.”

There’s an exercise called “Funny Mirrors” in this chapter which I’m actually rather looking forward to using with several of my stored-up pieces of writing. Maisel also talks about warning bells – that feeling of anxiety that we get when we make a choice that will have a strong effect on our piece of writing. He discusses the idea that warning bells don’t necessarily mean that your choice is wrong; they might simply mean that you’re worried about the choice.

#7. Doing What’s Required: In order to produce good writing on demand we must wrestle with our demons and adjust our attitudes. This is not an easy process, and it won’t happen if we don’t work at it. Maisel provides a checklist of requirements writers can meet in order to help themselves, and some brief exercises to help with that goal. Not all of the exercises are likely to appeal to you; do the ones that make sense and consider at least trying some of the others. Most of all, try to internalize some of Maisel’s lessons.

The heavyweight reason to feel free to make enormous messes is that no creativity can occur unless we grant ourselves that freedom.

“Deep Writing” isn’t a huge book, but it does pack a pretty good punch. It might not have massive reams of advice to convey, but the simple principles it does present are ones that can make a big difference in your writing. It certainly helped me to see some of the flaws that were keeping me from working on a particular project of my own, and gave me a place to start when trying to correct those flaws. This book does get into a certain amount of touchy-feely psychobabble, but even if you’re a bit skeptical of such things (as I tend to be), you might find it useful. In short, it’s a very helpful book!

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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