| On Writing
Turning Points What Nourishes Your Writing Ecosystem?
On the value of understanding the kind of ecosystem that will support and sustain the flourishing of our lives, on and off the page.
Recently on Instagram I spotted a photograph of a former writing mentor, now dear friend, posing in the Catskill Mountains. The surrounding trees dwarfed her; she was a small face, a tiny smile, bundled up and beaming from within the cathedral of a forest. It seemed a sacred habitat, and there was something so right about seeing her there—as if the roots, trunks, and branches were aware of her very breath and the weight of her petite frame in their midst. It reminded me of a time nearly a decade ago when I was in my family’s homeland, the island of Borikén. Deep in the mangroves, near an inlet of river where we’d pulled off the swirling road to rest and stretch, was a sign that read: “Tú eres naturaleza.” You are nature . Not you come from nature , or you are related to nature , or once you were nature , but rather: You are nature .
This declaration followed me through my MFA program years later, when in a low-residency program I began to notice what helped and supported my writing versus what hindered it and made me forget who exactly I was. The low-residency model is intentionally spacious, allowing a writer/student to work at the craft while maintaining their life (a much more realistic and empowering approach, in my opinion). Studio time and community time dovetail, obligations to family and friends are negotiated as the days allow, and work is a necessity that also has to be navigated all while prioritizing the dream—the manuscript. In my last semester, on a long afternoon walk, on a hill overlooking a neighborhood of adobe homes and towering cottonwoods, it struck me that as artists, as writers, our lives are whole ecosystems.
I considered my life at that moment, quiet and whittled down of the drama I’d entered the program with—a toxic romantic relationship that was exceptional at bringing out my very worst; codependent family members who had my cell on speed dial; friendships that mirrored those same difficult patterns of relating; a debilitating commitment to pleasing everyone, especially those who didn’t really care for me; and a self-care routine that centered around repairing choices that left me numb, weak, and further disassociated. What I began to realize that day is that my life as a writer is its own ecosystem of sorts. When the elements of the ecosystem are healthy and thriving, creation is occurring—with me, through me—and no matter how difficult the material I’m wrestling with on the page, I feel a deep sense of grounding, of strength. I am nourished not only by the act of writing, but by all that supports the writing, both directly or indirectly. It’s an inner atmosphere affected by outer elements.
This realization has stayed with me in the seven years since its seeding. And it has grown.
My life as a writer is its own ecosystem. When the elements of the ecosystem are healthy and thriving, creation is occurring.
As a woman of color coming of age in the late 1990s, there were plenty of times when both success and self-care felt like kingdoms ruled by the privileged. As a writer struggling to find mentors in the literary canon, the examples from white men, primarily, were of drunken exploits, deviant behavior transformed into hard-fought sentences that festered into books. MFA programs, writers’ colonies, and residencies I came across seemed to not only condone but support this, to view it as expected. I felt lost and only became more lost the more I tried to mimic this kind of writing life. Making sense of this territory and my place in it was not driven by a need to condemn others. Some family members were struggling with their mental health, and it was a particularly difficult time for my sister. I wasn’t sure how long the rope of my sanity was, and I wasn’t interested in it watching it fray due to my own choices and behaviors.
Audre Lorde is quoted as saying, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Leaning into this orientation and the similar teachings of Gloria Anzaldúa, Maya Angelou, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, bell hooks, and other women of color who engaged writing and creativity as ceremony and healing further fortified this new, rooting idea within me of the writer’s life as an ecosystem. It also honored and dignified my ancestors who suffered and struggled (and danced, and laughed, and made raucous, wild calls of joy), whose lives were severely impacted by active, systemic oppression. Harming myself, not listening to my own needs or my own writing voice, meant I was harming them. And hadn’t we all suffered enough? A few years ago, when I began to study with Toby Herzlich, founder of Biomimicry for Social Innovation, my theory started to get specific. Herzlich teaches from Janine Benyus, who wrote the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature . One of Benyus’s principles, “Life creates conditions conducive to life,” gave me the confidence to not only start talking about this idea of my writing ecosystem, but to share it with my students as well.
When considering your own ecosystem, dear writer, you need to be aware of the elements that make up your life as well as the elements you’d like to make up your life. While many ecosystems have similarities, there are just as many differences, and so these specific worlds we inhabit are incredibly personal. Remember that you need to be thinking about you at your best and your writing at its best. When you are calm and easefully connected and your creativity is flowing—when your head and heart are in harmony and your breath and body feel spacious and expansive—what else is happening in your life? When you feel like you’ve hit your stride and could go miles without even becoming winded, what is your internal state? Pay attention. Make a list of these details. These are the elements of your ecosystem. When you strengthen these elements, when they are healthy and thriving, Herzlich says “these conducive conditions lead to more discovery and creativity, to an emergent expression.” I imagine all-knowing mycelium, plump wild rosehips, the morning report delivered through birdsong—how each of these can be transformed into a symbol and replicated as support and celebration of our own inner wild.
The list of elements for my ecosystem include breathwork and stretching; long, regular walks; forest and moon bathing, as well as skin on the earth and in the sun; loving, affirming, reciprocal relationships with boundaries; time to daydream and talk aloud (babble) with the trusted companion I’ve come to be with myself; time to get lost, found, and lost again in my notebook; water, herbal teas, nourishing whole foods, and, on occasion, exquisitely prepared, decadent desserts; soul-stirring films, music, and art that leave me altered; acknowledgement and discussions of the unseen mystical realms; poetry and prose that I put in my pockets, in my purse, and take with me to sleep for the comfort they offer; sleep!; stubborn curiosity; a regular practice of gratitude and appreciation; and a climate that is deeply considerate of not only caring for my sensitivity as a person and as a writer, but enhancing it.
When this ecosystem is pulsing with aliveness, the flowering and fruiting of creativity happens—it simply cannot not happen—and stories of all kinds seem to fall, heavy and ripe, into my hand.
I am nourished not only by the act of writing, but by all that supports the writing.
Now, dear writer, please know that I fully understand how difficult it can be to make the choices needed to end behaviors and relationships that drain us or, even worse, put us in harm’s way. New patterns take time to establish and can feel awkward as we train ourselves. And like any natural expression, there is no static state of perfection in one’s writing ecosystem. Balance will come in and out.
What is important to remember is that all these elements of your ideal writer’s ecosystem are in relationship with one another, as you are in relationship with them and with your writing. Relationships wax and wane; they need attention and energy. As anyone in the long haul of a partnership can attest, or as anyone who parents a child knows, when you shine the light of your love on what and who you are relating with, that connection grows stronger.
Our lives change. We suffer politics and pandemics. We gain and lose those we hold dear. We gain and lose employment. We gain and lose the memory of what it feels like to be in right alignment with our lives and with our writing. There are natural disasters, both literal and symbolic. We can’t always make sure every single element is set up to fare its best.
Still, what is true for trees is true for humans too: We are heliocentric. No matter how we are bent into shapes that do not serve us, our living cells know to move toward the light of the sun, and this enables us to survive. When we return to nature, to ourselves, and are receptive, listening with our inner ear—the same inner ear that listens for the lines of the essay trying to germinate, or the character whispering to us, or the rhythm of the poem fluttering—what awaits is our own unique knowing of the habitat, of our own ecosystem, that supports and sustains the flourishing of our lives both on and off the page.