Living a Creative Life:

An Interview with Ali Lanzetta

September 6, 2023

Ali Lanzetta is interested in in bringing light, music, and invention to her writing and the writing of her students. This approach to creativity is influenced by her multi-faceted background as a musician, artist, practitioner of Yoga and Zen Buddhism, and Positive Psychology coach. Here, Lanzetta talks about her SDWI classes, her debut book, her inspiration for writing, and more.



Lily Damron:  We’re so excited to host your class: Zen in the Art of Invention: Revitalizing Your Creative Process at San Diego Writers, Ink, and according to your website it’s your signature course. What’s your favorite part of teaching it?


Ali Lanzetta: I’ve always felt that creativity itself–what’s meaningful to us about our creative lives; how to get and stay creatively motivated; habits that facilitate or gum up the creative process, etc– are unfortunately missing from a lot of arts education. Because we can’t and won’t always be inspired to create, we need strategies and contingency plans to stay engaged and excited about our work. That’s what this class is about! I love helping people make better friends with their creative processes and projects and find ways to infuse more light and friendliness into that relationship. To let creativity become a lifestyle and a way of being in the world rather than a separate thing they do and struggle to prioritize. I love the idea of more people walking around with art on the brain. I think we’re all better off for it!


LD: Your second course is Nimble-Winged in Thickets: The Power and How of Sound in Writing. How did this class come to be, and who might benefit from it?


AL: Nimble-Winged in Thickets is a class focused on exploring writing on a more granular level than we usually do. At its most basic, language is sound: combinations of consonants and vowels, strung together in various arrangements that coalesce into different cadences dependent on the nature of the stringing. We tend to think meaning comes immediately when we hear or read words, but, just as music does, all language actually comes to us first as sound. Understanding comes second. It happens in a flash, but we always experience language before we understand it. Our bodies must make their own “sense” of it before our minds can. The physical and tonal influence of sound in writing can be obvious at times, such as in a deliberately sound-driven poem, but it often flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness (especially in prose!) because we’re preoccupied with the process of conceptual understanding. But the more sound mimics and illustrates content (intimate, soothing sounds for a tender moment; dynamic, active sounds for an exciting one, for example) the more our readers will “get” the emotional ring of our writing intuitively, even before they’ve pieced things together intellectually. This makes sound a uniquely powerful tool to manipulate and enhance our reader’s experience of anything and everything we write.


I noticed, in grad school, that we were widely taught about sound being an essential component of powerful writing, but we weren’t really taught why it’s so essential or how to manipulate it to different effect in our work. I’ve been a musician and music-lover my whole life and have always been sensitive to and interested in the musicality of language. So when I started teaching, I set out to explore sound with students in a creative but workable, craft-based way. Nimble Winged in Thickets is the result of many years spent doing just that. Anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with our extraordinary medium–language–and/or offer readers a more dynamic and persuasive experience of their content will enjoy and benefit from this class.


LD: Congratulations on your debut book, marmalade, which came out in August. What ideas did that book come out of? What was the writing process like?


AL: marmalade blossomed out of an ongoing love affair with literary experimentation, and a devotion to exploring the possibilities of alternative structures, linguistic surprise, emotional authenticity, prose poetry, flash narrative, braiding play and comedy together with heartbreak and gravity, challenging the normal boundaries we impose on genre, rumpling the line between fiction and nonfiction, and calling attention to the very porous distinction between the “real” and the “imagined” in both life and writing. My guiding light in including much of what’s in the book was a desire to infuse light and humor and hope and delight into what I’ve observed to be an increasingly grim popular attitude about things and the predominance of fatalistic narrative media in contemporary culture. That’s a mouthful! But put simply, I want my work to be a weird, bright little lantern. To throw some new little lights on (that stay on!) in my reader’s (and my own!) heart rather than tricking that finicky old one off and off and off again.


LD: On your blog, Star in the Margin, you write articles about how to pair positive psychology with creativity and writing. How did you get interested in applying behavioral science to your writing?


AL: I’ve been a student and practitioner of Yoga and Zen Buddhism for years, and both have enhanced my life, relationships, and perspectives in really meaningful, lasting ways. When I discovered and started learning about Positive Psychology I registered immediately that this branch of behavioral science is largely based on principles that are also well-established, ancient, founding principles of both Buddhism and Yoga. Focusing on what works, identifying problems but leaning toward solutions, embracing and being open to all experiences, radical compassion both inward and outward, nonviolence in thought and action (including and especially toward oneself), celebrating and being open to the present moment, and many others. In my Positive Psychology training, I also learned about all the research that shows us that happiness facilitates creativity and possibilities-thinking, which was a major “A-ha!” moment for me. That kind of thinking is vitally important to all creative work and development. It’s all very symbiotic for me, and all of it foundational, I’ve found, to living a truly creative life. I’ve found so much value in each field of study–arts, Zen Buddhism, Yoga, and Positive Psychology–and continue to enjoy and delight in their overlapping frameworks and ideologies as each works to support the others in my life and work.


LD: What moves you to write?


AL: Delight in language! Inspiring wonder and surprise in myself and others! Expression! Connection. Writing, for me, is a richer way of being in and experiencing both my inner world and the world around me. I truly enjoy finding inventive ways of using language to startle, amuse, and invigorate both myself and other people. Writing is a way to do all the creative things I love best: music-making, visual invention, linguistic articulation and play. The extraordinary game and challenge of wrangling and wrestling with words, zooming around with them, painting with them, getting to be the architect of imagined landscapes and people and moments with them, and exploring and articulating the nebulous stuff of my memories, feelings, experiences, and imagination with them: there’s no better place to be, in my feeling. Writing is the place.


LD: What’s your go-to advice for writers?


AL: Follow the weird, experiment and play, and then (lastly) think, but not too much, not too hard, and not for too long at once. And the thinking part is mostly for reworking and revising, not writing. (Revision is a different creative process that can be just as fun, exciting, and interesting as the initial creation part!) And, speaking of fun, DON’T FORGET TO HAVE SOME! As much, in fact, as possible. Most of us create stuff because, in our hearts, we truly enjoy the process of creating, but it’s not uncommon for the joy to get crowded out by other feelings (fear, or some version of it, is a big one). Lean into the pleasure you get from making things–from the act of creating itself. Start there.


Another creative principle I live by and try to teach is WRITE ANYWAY. Holiday? Write anyway. Unmotivated? Write anyway. Only have five minutes? Write anyway. Scared? Distracted? Busy? Bored? Write, write, write anyway. The most important advice for anyone who wants to be a writer is: WRITE. Just as “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, as Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu famously wrote, the journey of writing a 300-page novel begins with writing a single word. You can’t write without writing, and you can’t revise a blank page. No matter what, WRITE. There can be no flow without first turning on the faucet.


As far as practices go, the two most important ones are connected: READ and PAY ATTENTION. Read actively, carefully, creatively, and intentionally. Let your reading school, soothe, inform, energize, and inspire you, and PAY ATTENTION to it. Work to learn from every single thing you read. What to do, what to try, what not to do. What do you love? What works? What doesn’t? Figure out why–what the writer is doing to facilitate or interfere with the experience you want to have–then apply what you discover to make your own work and experimentations better.


And whatever else you’re doing, PAY ATTENTION. It’s the writer’s job to pay attention not only to what we read, but to everything in the worlds both inside of and around us. (Zen elbows in nicely here!) We have to be present in our lives and aspire to keep our creativity and imaginations switched ON all the time so that we can notice and sweep up anything/everything that we might be able to use in our work. Everything goes in the pot! Words, images, phrases, feelings, names, structures, lines of dialogue, idea-seeds, story-shapes. The more we add to the pot, the richer our pool of possibilities becomes. The imagination is like a muscle; it gets stronger, bigger, and more reliable and resilient the more you use it. The pot becomes a bottomless treasure chest we can always spring the latch on to infuse our work (and our lives!) with gems.



Be sure to check out Ali’s two upcoming courses: Zen in the Art of Invention (September 10) & Nimble-Winged in Thickets (September 24)!

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