Creativity Talks: Suzanne Kingsbury, Discovering the Genius Within

During our MFA residencies at the Bennington Writing Seminars, I often noticed a tall, radiant woman. She was in the fiction cohort, so I didn’t work with her, but I always noticed her because of her aura. I called her “The Siren,” because she seemed blessed with an unflagging, joyous spirit.
After graduation, Suzanne founded Gateless Writing, a national organization based on creative brain science and ancient Zen that supports writers to the point of publication and beyond.
I recently caught up with her to learn more about her inspiration for founding the organization, and about her creative process…
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Turner: It’s so nice to be in touch with you after 13 years. Before I ask you about your writing, let me ask about the Gateless Writing workshops and your coaching. Where did you get the inspiration for setting up the retreats and for coaching writers?
Suzanne: It actually came to me during graduate school. By the time I did my MFA, I had already published two novels with Scribner. They had gotten picked up by one of the biggest agents in New York at the time, translated abroad, and were optioned for film.

But I had never had creative writing class or been in a writing workshop in college. I had written those novels out of my passion for the work, my love of literature and the page, my voracious appetite for craft.

Writing Workshops.MaybornI had not experienced writers’ block until I got into a workshop setting. It was as though I could no longer access the sweet bliss of the creative force flying through me. My writing sounded academic, stilted. I felt like I was trying to imitate someone or something. What was happening to my brain? Why did I feel so stuck?

That’s when I began to do research on the neuroscience of creativity and learned that the typical writing workshop model can interrupt the creative flow in the brain. The typical MFA workshop process can actually send you into a kind of fight or flight state, and when this happens, it is almost impossible for you to access the part of the brain that is associated with imaginative thought, innovation, and new ideas.

I developed the Gateless method from neuroscience studies that reveal positive states our brains need to be in to create mind-blowing work.

Turner: I’ve read that to create the Gateless process, you studied with a psychic medium, and shamanic journeying at a Shamanic studies school. Did you use these teachings in creating the Gateless program?
Suzanne: In order to move writers into “Gateless” writing, I shift them from the critical paradigm of the overarching culture which keeps us almost constantly in a state of fight or flight.

jeff-woodward-retreat-pictureI use several techniques to move them into a very open, relaxed state where a threshold is crossed into the open, “Gateless” landscape of their most potent creativity.

This process puts writers in a state of safety, feeling extremely nurtured. We use the ancient Buddhist meditation techniques I practiced and learned as a Fulbright scholar in Sri Lanka, and I also use other mediums like Reiki and Thai Head massage. These techniques encourage the firing of neurotransmitters in the brain–like serotonin and oxytocin–which assist the writer in moving from the conditioned mind to incredible agency on the page, accessing creative power most didn’t know was available to them. What happens to their writing is astounding.

The “channeling” and shamanic work I do with writers as part of the process is a way to see through the story of who they think they are, to the true essence of their limitless potential both on and off the page and then mirror that for them. Their potential is often much greater than they ever knew.

Turner: Has creating Gateless taken you deep into a study of creativity—how to inspire, unlock, encourage creativity? What are some of the most startling understandings you have gathered in your research?
CreativeBrainSuzanne: One of the most inspiring pieces of research has to do with the neuroscience of feedback. We are under the impression that criticism is essential to teaching and learning. But extensive creative brain science studies at Stanford, Johns Hopkins and the National Institute of Health have shown that when we are getting criticism, the neurocenters in our brain associated with long-term memory, the imagination and intuition, actually shut down. So, if you are blocked creatively, you can almost always trace it back to someone subtly or overtly criticizing you.

Criticism is one of the biggest killers of creativity and yet it is how we are teaching children, artists, writers, employees to learn or perform better, which is oxymoronic! One of the best descriptions of this conundrum was published this spring in the Harvard Business Review, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Buckingham and Goodall refer to this view of teaching as, “The Feedback Fallacy.”

“It’s clear that we learn most in our comfort zones, because that’s where our neural pathways are most concentrated. It’s where we’re most open to possibility, most creative, insightful, and productive. That’s where feedback must meet us—in our moments of flow.” — Marcus Buckingham, Ashley Goodall

Gateless.1Rather than criticizing writers’ work, and in order to create faster and longer lasting success for writers, the Gateless method identifies and builds up their strengths, and gives them the craft, skills and resources they need to move forward with their work.

Turner: What one or two bits of advice would you give to people who are hesitating on the edge of a creative endeavor, unsure if they “are creative,” concerned they will fail, or that they aren’t “artists,” so they shouldn’t even try…
Suzanne: Here’s what I might be curious about when the writer comes to me with this very, very common question: I wonder who in your life told you that you were not creative? Who told you that you might fail at this? Where did that idea that you were not an artist come from? We do not hold those thoughts as children; we are conditioned to believe them.

The thought that you are not creative was baked into you by someone else, or by a system that is not organic to who you are (family system, educational system, religious system and so on…). Trace the thought back to when it began (sometimes it is way, way back in time) and then ask yourself: Is that true? Is that thought that I am carrying with me true? What if I did not have that thought?

The “why bother?” is the Critic. The Critic is the conditioned thought that is trying to keep you static and safe. Lay that negativity aside using a nurturing and inquisitive mind.

You may begin by talking back to the Critic: “I am creative because…” Defend yourself against it. Or you may write from the point of view that believes you are not creative. See where it comes from and what it is saying.

Or, just begin with self-talk, “I am creative. Why not just begin?”

If an idea has come to you and the thoughts arrive to interrupt it, you want to be genuinely curious about who gave you the thought. Then separate yourself from the thought.

Remember that the thing that gets in our way of creating is the mere thought that we are not creative. We are creative beings. It is in our DNA. Our bodies and brains are constantly creating. We arrived here out of an act of creation, and we create every time we engage in a fantasy, a “what if.” Raising children is creative, planning an event, choosing an outfit, making a meal, having sex, planting a garden…

13237813_10209747623111901_2394188556627815901_nThe best way is to think of creativity as fun. And, since it raises immune levels, lowers blood pressure, cures insomnia, why not allow yourself to create?

That is what we train writers to do on retreat, and the results are miraculous.

Turner: Turning to you and your writing, which has resulted in a published and acclaimed novels (The Gospel According to Gracey: A Novel, and The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me: A Novel as well as and numerous published essays and short stories. You’ve won numerous awards for your work, and praise from big-time authors and outlets such as Publishers’ Weekly and The Independent.
My first question is HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU FIND TIME TO WRITE when you are running the Gateless program?
Suzanne: I actually started those novels before Gateless began. I started them while I was working full time. I simply loved to write and so I wrote every chance I got, before work, playing hooky from work, after work, weekends, vacations. I would enter the world, make scenes, build character, arc to plot and meaning just for the hell of it and wow! A novel was born. I gave it to myself whole cloth.

I now teach writers how to do this even when they have a family, even when they have full time jobs and a huge amount of obligation. It is possible. One of the secrets is that a book is just a series of sentences. If we can get you to write a sentence or two or five, we can move you toward the book. I once wrote a full draft of a novel in a year using just an hour a week.

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow
until the faucet is turned on.”
— Louis L’Amour

Turner: Are you writing a new novel? Can you tell us a bit about your writing process; do you write at specific times? Do you write on a computer? Do you work with trusted readers?
Suzanne: I am writing a book called The Gateless Writer: Discovering the Genius Within in order to move writers to their most open creative landscape within.

Parts of the book have been seen Gatelessly (in our private Gateless groups) so that I can observe how the prose is alchemizing them past blocks and into their true genius. The bulk of the work is done through deep meditation and the Gateless process. It is going quite quickly, but I try not to tell myself when it will be finished. It can be hard to deadline yourself and stay in deep creative process, especially in beginning drafts.

I write both longhand and also on the computer. I do not work with trusted readers, though when I recommend them to other writers I encourage them to use editors who were trained in Gateless so they are building the work up rather than deconstructing it, which can hurt the initial genius of a work. I like to work on other things simultaneously. I do know that at the end, Enso (my little white shitzu) and I will be going on the road to meet with writers all over the country so that we can luxuriate in Gateless Writing Salons, using the material in the book as prompts.

Turner: Finally, an odd question given that you are so productive and creative, but can you tell us one, particular thing you are super excited about?
Suzanne: I am most excited about The Gateless Writers Academy in the fall, a 10- month Academy for a select group of writers working on their books. The program is online, it’s both an alternative to the MFA and a post-grad program for writers who have done the MFA. And perhaps it was designed for my former self, the one blocked by criticism in my own masters program.

62208111_10219699785509741_1202112181659762688_nThese writers form such an incredible bond with one another, sharing their work and moving their books from the rough draft stage, all the way to the sale. They are also resourced with over a 100 hours of craft (according to Malcolm Gladwell, after 100 hours, you are a master).

Each week we have intense sessions together about craft, the sale, and also about moving through those wild blocks that come for writers as they are working on their books.
The program has some incredible faculty (we call them “Luminaries”) who meet with the small group of Academy students to share coveted secrets of the sale. They answer questions about hitting bestselling lists, how they managed to move into major media, how they fit the work into being mothers and so on… These faculty are award-winning authors and platform builders, television producers, top New York agents and so on…

The program starts in the fall, and every summer I look forward to it because of how close we get and the incredible change I see in the writers from one end to the other. The day we do our showcases (where we showcase a writer and her work) are my favorite days of the year.

Writers often say it was the best thing they ever did for their work and completely life-changing, and I would say the same about me!

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind,
is written large in his works.”
— Virginia Woolf


Brief bio: Suzanne Kingsbury, Founder of Gateless Writing, Inc.
Suzanne Kingsbury is the founder of Gateless Writing, Inc, an internationally-acclaimed organization based on brain science, ancient Zen technique and radical nurturing that moves new and established writers of any genre into a vast creative landscape within. Alumni of Suzanne’s Gateless Writing Retreats, her year-long Gateless Writing Academy and the internationally-acclaimed Gateless Teacher Training program have signed with top agents, had their work optioned for film, shared the stage with some of the world’s brightest luminaries and been profiled in the nation’s leading media outlets.
Named the “book shaman” by her writers, Suzanne is considered one of the most sought-after development editors in the country. Her own books have hit the bestseller list, been optioned for film, and are translated widely abroad.
To find out more about Suzanne and Gateless visit: www.gatelesswriting.com
Discover the Genius Within: http://suzannekingsbury.net/

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