by John Terlazzo

(This essay first appeared in Wordhouse, a publication of the Baltimore Writers Alliance)

Somebody once said that if you want to give off light you have to be willing to burn. Clearly this must apply to writing - otherwise what's the point? If we think of our writing as a hobby, or a job, or because we feel good when people lust after our literary biceps - then all of our efforts won't amount to much more than a big pile of manure.

But write as if you've suddenly been immolated - drenched in gasoline & set on fire - and you will say something.
I often meet people who say, "Poetry? Oh, yeah, I only write when I'm inspired." They act like they have all the time in the world. This is a big mistake. This is why people write only two good poems & discover on their deathbed that they spent the rest of the time at the mall. Inspiration is the goddess in charge & your job is to praise, coax, flatter, cajole, seduce, weep, rant, cry out - do everything in your power to beg her to appear at all times. Keep her name on your lips at all times - not only when writing - but when you're swimming, eating, cursing your boss, walking the dog, making macaroni, driving your car, crashing your car. Keep your desire for her presence foremost in your every experience & she'll like you for it - she'll show up.
But if you think that you've felt her demure tap-tap on your shoulder & that "one of these days" you just might grace her with a few profound lines - Look out! Let me say you'd be getting off "very easy" if she ate your children or drove a big truck over your head.
When I lived in Manhattan, the Roshi at the zendo where I'd go to sit, was always being questioned for advice. People would say, "What about my boyfriend?" & he'd say "Sit". Or they'd say, "I think I'm in trouble with the law", & he'd say, "Go sit some more". It's the same with the writing workshops - the best response to everything is "Go write some more".

I approach Contemplative Writing just as I approach sitting meditation, & it's this that I teach in the intensives - go to it relentlessly. Through a series of experiments, discussions, & attentions paid to some fairly universal archetypes, we learn how to return to our own inner labor on a daily basis.
Also, in The Secret Tells Itself, we do a lot of work with images. Images are the food of Imagination & we need that nourishment desperately now in our society. Despite the fact that Einstein repeatedly stated that "Imagination is more important than Knowledge", in many schools now, the word "Imagination" is considered taboo - dubbed "evil" by the fundamentalist schools & "superfluous" by those schools whose primary mandate is to turn children into an efficient workforce. This is not acceptable.

So we work, in a big way, with images. Instead of saying, "She has a nice smile," we might say, "When her opened lips brushed my sleeve this morning on the train, all the planets rolled from the sky. I was struck mute & an army half-way around the world fell stunned & senseless on the battlefield. As for me, I wanted to crawl inside her mouth & stay there for all eternity." So we learn something about her smile.
The modern world is in trouble now because everything has been reduced to a "commodity." We have to rise above that damage, & realize that we are not products; that what we know inside us is bigger & more beautiful than all of that. In old Italy, if a child showed a glow of creative energy, he'd be sent off to apprentice under a great painter or poet. Today, if a child manages to show that same glow, his guidance councilors advise him to go into advertising. Then we whine & wonder that there's "no more Van Goghs or Whitmans".
This life is precious. We can't afford to waste it. We have to live in such a way that we constantly tempt the Essence to manifest. We have to write as if we are burning every minute of every day - because we are.