On synchronicity in writing

Synchronicity. Serendipity. Answered prayers. Stars aligning. The law of attraction. “Whatever you choose to call it, once you begin your creative recovery you may be startled to find it cropping up everywhere,” writes Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Synchronicity has been a major player in my life lately. I lost my main freelance writing client unexpectedly due to COVID-19. Immediately after that contract ended, I received a new and exciting opportunity.

I needed to rework a major plot point of Escape Artist. The characters took the reigns of that writing session and even added some symbolism to create a stronger plot point than I’d planned.

My husband started applying for a job that was removed in the middle of his application. An hour later, he got an invitation to interview for the same job, posted under a new ad.

Synchronicity. Serendipity. Answered prayers. Stars aligning. The law of attraction.

“All too often, when people talk about creative work, they emphasize strategy. If you ask an artist how he got where he is, he will not describe breaking in but instead will talk of a series of lucky breaks. ‘A thousand helping hands,’ Joseph Campbell calls these breaks. I call them synchronicity.” — Julia Cameron

Cameron likens synchronicity in writing to a divine act. I think it’s something we, as writers, can cultivate. Let’s talk about it.

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Cultivating synchronicity in your writing life

Synchronicity is one of those mysterious phenomena of the universe that I don’t think we humans will ever fully comprehend. That’s why we say God or the universe — according to your religious beliefs or lack thereof — works in mysterious ways.

But there are some things you can do to encounter this enigma. Here are a few of them, sourced from my own experience, of course.

Approach your writing practice with an open mind and heart.

You can plan and plot every minute detail of your narrative, but you’ll still deviate from it. You can study the craft until your eyeballs dry out and shrivel up, but you’ll inevitably break some of the rules.

Uncomfortable truths, to be sure, but truths nonetheless. Working your ass off to craft a structured, believable story, only for discoveries and epiphanies to steer you off-course, is disheartening.

But you should follow those new paths and see where they lead. Playing and exploring is one of the most beautiful, insightful parts of the creative process. Rigidity is creativity’s ultimate enemy.

Stay curious, open-minded, and open-hearted, and synchronicity will come.

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Let your characters take the reigns.

Plot and character co-exist in a beautifully balanced harmony. No characters, no plot. No plot, no characters.

However, I’m a firm believer that character is everything. Yes, your plot shapes your characters — but without characters, there can be no plot.

If you’ve worked to craft robust characters, you must trust them. Follow the trails they blaze. Observe. Discover.

You can still do this even if your characters’ development is only partially complete. In this case, faith is even more important. You have a rough idea of the direction they want to take. So let go and let them lead.

Converse with yourself through journaling and freewriting.

Talking to yourself is one of the best ways to cultivate synchronicity in your writing life. I recommend escaping your inner monologue and writing those thoughts down to see them more clearly. (Or you can actually talk to yourself. Whatever works for you.)

I’ve been a devout believer in the morning pages for over a year. I’ve filled two notebooks with coffee-fueled brainstorming sessions and various ramblings.

Got a plot point that’s bugging you? Morning pages.

Got a stubborn character who you can’t quite figure out? Morning pages.

Got a random idea you’re afraid you’ll forget? Morning pages.

A couple of months ago, I sat down with my morning pages notebook and wrote this:

So I think the most sensible thing for me to do is come to the page and sort out my thoughts. It’s so good to get reacquainted with the muse and structure all my drafts. Here goes!

Sure, that little excerpt won’t win any awards for poetic writing. But what followed — two full A4 pages of me talking myself through my most difficult plot points and character development hangups — transformed my whole book.

As I tackled each problem in the draft itself, I made little notes in the margins: “Yes! Sorted! Done!”

If you read through my morning pages, you’ll see my whole book evolve this way.

When journaling or freewriting, be honest with yourself. Trust your gut. If something’s not working, talk it out until you find a solution.

An example of synchronicity in my writing life

As a wise man — my Humanities professor, don Carlos — once said, “We can only view the world through the lens of our own experience.” So naturally, I’m only able to discuss synchronicity in my own writing life.

Recently, after yet another long break from Escape Artist, I sat down to write. I chose to “eat the frog” and rework a difficult scene I’d been avoiding for months: the story behind the mysterious death of Ruth and Louise McCullough’s mother, Alette. Louise believes their father killed her in a fit of drunken rage when Ruth was a baby.

This plot point is based on a true story (or rumor, rather) that the man who inspired Frank McCullough, the girls’ father, poisoned his wife’s supper to be with his mistress.

To fully understand the role of synchronicity in that writing session, I gotta give a little background.

Louise McCullough’s character is inspired by a woman in our family named Aunt Mollie, who was accused of being a witch by Ruth’s husband.

(The reason? Because she lived in Louisiana. Seriously. The ignorance is astounding. Keeping in mind that Aunt Mollie died in 1959, so this is fairly recent history.)

Anyway, Aunt Mollie has long intrigued me and my two closest cousins. Something about her doesn’t quite sit right with us. Seems like she has some unfinished business. 

I’ve easily found historical records for every family member who inspired Escape Artist’s characters — except Mollie. I’ve only found two: a death certificate with lots of “unknowns”, and a single census record from 1930. Our family only has one photo of her that we know of.

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Aunt Mollie, left; Granny Estelle, right

She also doesn’t have a headstone, just a small plaque with a birth year. No name, no flowers, no ornaments. Her name was misspelled as “Millie” in the three-line funeral announcement in the local paper. It’s heartbreaking.

Sub rosa

A few years ago, one of my cousins — we’ll call her Anna — cleaned up Aunt Mollie’s grave and placed an angel ornament there. Tiny ceramic roses embellished the angel’s crown. 

Months later, the other cousin in our little trio, Jane, went to visit again to find the angel utterly destroyed. 

The only intact remnants were three roses from the angel’s crown, “facing up out of the gravel like they grew there,” remarked Jane.

synchronicity in writing aunt mollie

The most likely explanation is that someone smashed it. But that story didn’t satisfy me. I had to use this eerie occurrence in my book somehow.

So I researched the symbolism of roses and discovered the concept of sub rosa. Anything that happens “beneath the roses” must remain secret.

Roses symbolize secrecy in Catholicism and Christianity. Confessionals are carved with roses, indicating that the sins divulged there will remain secret.

One rose for each of the cousins, facing up out of the gravel like they grew there: a message that Aunt Mollie’s secrets will stay buried with her.

Letting Louise take the reigns

Okay, back to the writing session. Louise, who ran away when Ruth was a baby and never looked back, comes back home in 1942 to care for their dying father. 

Ruth doesn’t know the truth of how their mother died. (Granted, neither does Louise — she only has suspicions based on what she saw.)

The sisters visit their father for Easter lunch, and Louise reveals what she knows about her mother’s death. Alette tried to leave their alcoholic father and got caught. They got into a nasty fight; Louise ran away to her friend’s house. The next morning, she returned and Alette was dead. Frank claimed she had a stroke. But some things didn’t quite add up.

Completely forgetting about the three roses from Aunt Mollie’s grave, I followed Louise’s lead and let her take the reigns as I wrote this scene:

They didn’t speak as [Louise] led them deeper into the woods. They must’ve walked a mile before they reached their destination: a moss-covered tree stump at the far edge of a clearing with a cross carved deep into its weathered rings. At its base bloomed a rosebush.

I stopped in my tracks upon typing the word “rosebush.” It was that high we writers relish: when the lightbulb clicks, when the long-awaited revelation comes, when another piece of the puzzle is complete.

Louise could’ve planted anything there. But she planted roses.

Synchronicity. Serendipity. Answered prayers. Stars aligning. The law of attraction.

Sub rosa,” I muttered to myself, awed. Anything under the roses must remain secret. And the sisters never discover the truth about their mother’s murder.

Synchronicity in writing: final thoughts

Sure, synchronicity works in mysterious ways. That’s why it’s so inspiring. But that doesn’t mean we can’t cultivate synchronicity in our writing lives.

Stay curious, writer. And when all else fails, go back to the drawing board. (Or, in our case, the notebook.)

Have you experienced synchronicity in your writing life? I’d love to hear all about it. Let’s celebrate and attract this enigma together.

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