Writing: The Outer, Inner & Secret Practice

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One of my favourite podcasts is The Eleventh Hour. In each episode a writer shares their thoughts on a particular topic. In the 79th episode, Diana Goetsch talks about the outer, inner and secret aspects of the writing process.

The Outer Practice

According to Diana, the outer practice begins with first answering the question, “Why do I write?”

Do you write because you are driven by inspiration or by ego? Whatever your reason is, there must be enough passion behind it to sustain the writing practice because writing is difficult. Your urge to write must come from a genuine source that can sustain you through all obstacles.

For me, writing is a way of orientation. I started writing when I found myself for the first time completely in the dark. I had just left an abusive marriage, my life was in pieces and I had many aching questions of myself . I wrote in order to find the answers and to collect the pieces of what had happened to me and rebuild the version of the story I knew was true. Through this process I learned the power of naming things and the importance of story. I also understood that language held then same power when it was shaped by ignorance and how dangerous and damaging that can be.

Because of this, it is important for a writer to give herself time to learn how to use her instruments – herself, her thoughts, her questions, her words – to shape meaning. She is the meaning-maker. There is no meaning to be found outside of ourselves.

We make writing more difficult by coming to it expecting it to be easy and with the end already in mind.

Diana Goetsch

We don’t give ourselves the space to grow into being a writer. We don’t realise, as Diana says, that writing only wants one thing – everything.

What writing requires is more training and not learning. The outer practice is to train ourselves to write without expectations and without the need for inspiration. Instead, developing the discipline of a writer will lay the ground for things to happen.

The Inner Practice

Cultivating our approach to the bank page is the inner practice. Diana gives the poet William Stafford’s writing process as the ultimate guide to the inner practice.

Stafford’s greatest gift to poetry (and in my opinion, to writing) is his theme of the golden thread. Influenced by William Blake, Stafford took every detail that came to him as the end of a golden thread and if followed, had the potential to reveal amazing riches.

Any thread is golden as long as you don’t pull it too hard. Just follow it. Roll it into a ball. You may not get anywhere with it but you have to be ready to accept where you do get.

William Stafford

For example, if you are going about your work and a something small happens, you bring it into your work and follow it. Every detail has the potential to bring you somewhere new as long as you submit to it. All details, if followed have the potential of showing you a new perspective, a deeper analogy or a simpler comparison. Not all details lead you somewhere useful but the practice of noticing and following can spark new connections and inspiration.

The Secret Practice

One way that Diana labels the secret practice is by comparing it to Richard Hugo’s idea of the second subject. The poet Richard Hugo believed that each poem has two subjects – the initiating subject which triggers you to write and the second subject that is discovered during the process of writing. Writers tend to cling to the initiating subject and most of the time we are not aware of what the second subject is.

The secret practice lies in balancing what you want to say and what wants to be said. Moving between both and finding the balance is the secret practice. By doing so we are calling on reality to be our muse – the reality most people avoid. The reality that isn’t interested in our plans because it has something far deeper in mind and that it would like to use us for. According to Diane, the way we achieve escape velocity from the initiating subject is the key to a writer’s uniqueness.


The Eleventh Hour is created by The Writing University

Episode 79 Actually Writing: The Outer, Inner & Secret Practice w/ Diana Goetsch

Diana Goetsch is an American poet, author of eight collections, including In America (a 2017 Rattle Chapbook Prize selection), Nameless Boy (2015, Orchises Press) and The Job of Being Everybody, which won the 2004 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition. You can find out more about her on her website.


* Gif curtesy of Sarah Bee Well, Tumblr

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