“The Secret for Writers”
The Secret for Writers
Cynthia’s Column May 2007
First I’d like to apologize for failing to put a spoiler alert in my Pan’s Labyrinth rant. That was a mistake. (The rant was me.) Sorry to those of you I upset by revealing the ending. Now, it’s only fair to warn you that this column is going to go over to the woo-woo side. The metaphysical side of creating careers as writers. If that’s not your thing, I understand, I respect your point of view and I’ll see you next month.
I’m sure you know that The Secret by Rhonda Byrne has taken America by storm. It has been at the top of the book, DVD and audio book charts for awhile. The displays in book stores are staggering. I just typed it into Amazon.com and today the hardback has fallen to #2. (Harry Potter is #1.) With 909 customer reviews.
The message The Secret contains is an old one that has been published in many forms and is actually far from secret. It’s surprising and I think terrific that it has now become popular in such a huge, mainstream way. If everyone started thinking positively, imagining the best and stopped whining and complaining, this could only be good to my way of thinking.
My sister Laura and I have been reading and re-reading a book with a similar theme for a couple of decades: The Game of Life and How to Play It by Florence Scovel Shinn published in 1925. It’s still in print in several forms. Many other versions of these ideas have been popular over the years. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill published in 1937 covered the same material and a monster best seller in its day. It’s still one of the best selling books in history. (More than 30 million copies sold and still counting.)
How are these concepts useful for us writers? The basic idea is that you decide what you want, ask for it, and visualize the positive outcome. Focus positive, joyful attention on your dream and believe it will come true. The examples of this working are manifold, and I have to say, this has worked for me personally and for Laura as well in fun and magical ways. Sometimes with big and amazing results.
We writers have one terrific advantage over most readers of these books in that we are the world’s experts at visualizing. Imagining in clear, crisp detail. We do this as our life’s work, right? Instead of visualizing that murder mystery scene or literary novel setting, if you spent ten or fifteen minutes every morning visualizing with that same specificity and intensity your own writing career manifesting, it might make a difference in the real world. See that letter, imagine reading that acceptance. Picture that royalty check going into your bank account. Imagine your book jacket. Now see it on stacks of books in the book store. See yourself on that talk show or onstage at Portland Arts and Lectures.
And while you’re seeing these visions, focus on feeling the joy of it. You can create the feeling of joy. You don’t have to wait for it to descend on the wings of a bluebird. They did a facial muscle study that showed that when a person moves the muscles of the face into a smile, the brain registers happiness. Try this. It’s weird, but it works. Don’t you feel instantly happier? Isn’t that a trip? They don’t know whether it’s the muscle-memory sending a “be happy” message to the brain or what causes this, but scientific study proves that it works. Now whenever I notice I’m feeling blue I make myself smile
Many of you know the story about Laura’s photo shoot. Every day while she was working on the novel A Certain Slant of Light she would look at a shelf of her favorite books by her favorite authors and say out loud, “That which God has done for others, He does now for me and more.” She chose this affirmation from Scovel Shinn’s book and it worked for her.
The second part of The Secret is to “act as if.” To prepare for success. Act as if what you are visualizing were going to come true. Prepare for success. If Laura were going to become a successful novelist what would she need? A good photo for the dust jacket. So she called a photographer and made an appointment to have a photo taken. She told him it was for her book and he asked when it was coming out. She confessed that it hadn’t sold yet, but made the appointment for a month later. By the time she arrived to have her picture taken, her book had sold to Houghton Mifflin. This is how the magic works.
I am re-creating myself as a playwright, so I went looking for a visual image I could focus on and found by chance a lobby poster for Angels in America. On a black background, it has an angel with wings and arms outstretched and on each palm a Tony Award. At the top the poster proclaims “The best play of my adult lifetime.” Frank Rich, New York Times. And under the angel “Winner of Seven Tony Awards.” Below that I attached black paper (covering Tony Kushner’s name and title) and on it mounted my own play’s dream words:
The Book of John
By Cynthia Whitcomb
Directed by Mike Nichols
236 W. 45th Street
New York, NY
Now it’s my angel and lives in my house among the other posters of my (actual) successes. And every time I see it I feel happy. I have my own Tony Angel and it reaffirms my vision of my own play in my favorite Broadway house.
Okay, you’re still with me. Are you willing to go farther out still? The other day I found myself at the mall where I almost never go. And I decided to use the mall as an experiment in creation. I asked myself what I might find at the mall that could help create my playwright dream. I was carrying a purse on which the strap was beginning to fray. That wouldn’t do. A successful New York playwright needs a good bag. So I started looking. It had to be leather, big enough to hold a script. Unstructured. Not something that would be carried by a businesswoman, a housewife, grandmother or teenager. It had to be a bag that a dancer, artist or playwright would carry. Or Robin Hood. Or Shakespeare.
I was willing to buy it wherever I found it and whatever it cost. The mall became a treasure hunt. I also started thinking of it as a money bag. A bag that would draw money to itself in large quantities. It was not in Nordstroms. Or at Coach. I looked up and saw at the end of the mall Macy’s. Aha. Macy’s is New York. Miracle on 34th Street. The first time I went to New York at 18 I bought an old fur coat in the basement of Macy’s. My bag had to be at Macy’s. As I walked toward the purse department, I saw ahead of me a sign on top of a rack that said “This Is It.” Hmm. Maybe this was it. I looked at the bags under the sign and there it was. The perfect black leather shoulder bag. Suitable for Robin or Will or Tom Stoppard. I looked inside to see if the brand was “This is it” but the brand was “LUCKY.” Definitely it.
I carried it to the checkout with no idea what it cost, ready to spend whatever it did for a magic money playwright bag. It cost $39. (Yesterday at lunch a well-to-do friend asked me if it cost $400.) I took it home. This was 4:00 pm on a Sunday. Exactly 48 hours later, the mailman brought me 2 unexpected and un-earned checks that totaled more than $11,000. I had to laugh because nothing like that had happened in months and it was obviously the magic working. I told my son Nick on the phone. He’s in Texas and he said, “I want two checks in the mail.” The next day he got two checks in the mail, both un-earned and unexpected that totaled $580. Not bad for a kid. Molly, 21, on her junior year abroad was in Athens when I told her this story. That night she found a wad of cash on the dance floor of a club. 150 Euros. The magic works. I’m just telling you.
I got The Secret in audio book format and I play it in my car all the time now. It costs about $18 at Costco. It doesn’t matter what book you read or even if you read one. But stop saying what you don’t want to manifest. Don’t complain about how the market sucks, or reality TV has ruined television or how all the small publishers and book stores are going under. Speak about the good things. What are you grateful for? What brings you joy? What do you want to create for yourself? Speak it. Write it. Because words have power. And that power belongs first and best to writers.