Guest Blogger Tamara Belinfanti writes about a new beginning.
A few years ago, I found myself called to write exuberant, colorful stories with riotous characters that defied rational thinking and did not fit the mold of legal academia, which was my background. At first, like so many, I ignored the inner whisper to explore new territory. But the thing about callings is that they get louder when you get really still or something shakes your world. For me, the latter forced the former: my closest mentor in the law field passed suddenly, and alongside intense grief, a new beginning emerged.
In academia, I had a built-in community of mentors and colleagues, plus the academic publishing path was fairly straightforward. My tenure process was not a walk in the park, but overall it was relatively hitch-free and went according to plan.
Creative writing was a whole new terrain. I had to learn its contours, how its paths meandered and connected, and how to navigate its deep woods. I had to become familiar with the inhabitants of a rich, complex, and interconnected ecosystem of coaches, agents, editors, sensitivity readers and publishers; and, above all else, how to look for the sun when there are times that you cannot see beyond the impenetrable thicket. For tenure, the guiding principle was publish or perish. For creative writing, it can feel as though we are perishing on our way to being published.
My writing coach tells me I am in what they call the murky middle. Too far from the shore I’ve left to swim back; yet the other shore still feels well beyond the horizon. I’m not quite sure I am equipped for this, or if I can call myself a writer without having a publisher. Over these past four years on this journey, I have come to learn that these external resources and the usual recommendations of craft books, workshops, seminars, writing community, etc. are important, especially to get started, but they will only get you so far. To truly stay the course with composure, one must cultivate one’s own internal compass—an inner wisdom that can cut through the noise of the landscape and guide you to the place where only you know, where you are called.
Since venturing off the strictly academic path, a shift has emerged. Before, my days were primarily driven by external demands and conventions. Now I try to attend to, and orient towards, my internal north star. Thankfully, some of my shorter pieces and personal essays have found the right publishing homes, and it’s always a surprise (mostly pleasant) to see how my writing lands with others. I am also lucky to have a wise writing coach and an astute agent.
I am far from having this figured out, but five things help me stay oriented:
Actually writing, which sounds so terribly trite and tautological, but it’s true. I try to write at least five days a week, early in the morning, before the sun is awake and when my household is still quiet. I always begin with an acknowledgement of the space and grace to write, and then I start whatever is on tap for that day’s writing session.
How we live around our writing. What I eat affects not only my mood but also my creativity. Whole foods, minimal to no dairy, omega-rich foods like flax or chia seeds, and bitter greens seem to be a winning formula for me in providing sustenance and clarity. That foggy head feeling is a doozy when you’re trying to find the right words or your through-line. In the legal field, I was better able to muscle through the fog, but creative writing is less forgiving. I need to clearly see, hear, and feel the world of my characters, with minimal static. I do, however, tend to daydream and spend a lot of time with my head in the clouds, and I need to counterbalance my skyward-looking tendency with things that help me feel grounded—like running, yoga, contemplative practice, or sitting with my back against a tree. I am not sure how the latter works, but somehow it does.
Preparing for creativity. I have always used to-do lists, but these can feel too utilitarian for wooing creativity. Now, I sketch out at night my writing beats for the next day. This allows me to tune in to where I am in my writing, how I’m feeling about it, and ask myself what needs to be done tomorrow? In the morning, I have a road map for how to proceed.
Detach. At the end of each day, no matter how productive or not I have been, I try to detach from what the day has brought and gently let it be. What’s done is done, and there will be more paths to traverse tomorrow.
I have come to believe that writing is a microcosmic reflection of the greater life journey. As we travel, may we heed the call, step lightly, pay attention to our inner wisdom, and cultivate the rich interior landscape from whence the urge to write originates.
Tamara Belinfanti is an emerging Caribbean writer whose work explores themes of identity, belonging, and transition. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, The New York Times, and PREE, a magazine of contemporary Caribbean writing. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she is a professor of law at New York Law School.
Originally posted as “On Guides and Journeys” October 3, 2023 on the Brevity Blog.