Tear Down Walls

A naked man lying on the floor We memoir writers are always questioning ourselves about how we use words and the presentation of believable events. We have a role to play in being midwives to our own and others’ stories. In writing memoirs the struggle with telling our truths, just the pain of doing it, can be like the most intense primal scream. Merely knowing the truth can hurt as much as childbirth, and sharing it? The fear of sharing some things has made me shake to my core. I am not alone, I know. 

It’s a privilege to live in a time and community when being in a writing group encourages us to give voice to parts of ourselves we may have kept protected for decades. We have come out as survivors from abuse, severe emotional challenges, mental illness, failures, traumas, adventures. And this is why we writers have a special duty to speak out now. We know the pain of keeping things hidden and unexamined, the fear of examining them, the relief of writing, sharing, trusting the editing, and finally the incredible thrill of saying our truth artfully and having it received. We take each other seriously. We listen. We think. We question. These processes make us experts at something vitally needed in our cultural moment

For centuries in Europe a special status was reserved for some of the writers and thinkers of the times. Durer, the master German artist, created odes to “Melencholia,” a questioning of the value of life—a whole-hearted, full-throated despair as profound as those Old Testament prophets who proclaimed society’s mistakes and the imminent wrath of God.

The French call a lighter version “ennui,” describing emptiness, a boredom with life. In the 60’s we spoke of “alienation” and the archetypal “angry young man,” which characterized a lot of 20th century male writers and poets.  And now American society is faced with a dilemma. Have we unwittingly allowed the blurring of useful, even precious, questioning, as many writers struggle to like life during challenging times and have anguished throughout history—with darker questioning, even criminal tendencies, or the propensity to commit mass murder? 

I bring this up because our stream-of-consciousness leader has spewed out a notion that might catch on. After years of destigmatizing mental health issues and making them, finally, safe to talk about, he appears to be advocating for more mental health institutions that separate the crazies out—presumably from normal folk, like he sees himself. Normal. So normal. 

While the White House carriers on a dysfunctional love/hate affair with the press, we should remember it isn’t just reporters who bring these truths to light. It is us, fellow writers. We chronicle, tell the truth, and share, with courage, our reality. We must. It is our duty to contribute our kind of experience, the experience of allowing air, sunlight and breath into the wounds of the past—it is part of the cultural solution. We need to show others how to stop walling off painful experiences because we memoir writers have learned to look deeper—behind the Stepford Wives expressions masking our true human selves—to the healing power of airing the struggles that made us who we are. 

Yes, I’m saying it, dear writers. What we do is a revolutionary act. Each act of telling our truth tears down the wall of lies and pretense a little more.  Let’s tell it damn well. Let’s build a monument of our truth. Each piece we write, each book we publish, each poem, each play, each true word is part of that big beautiful whole.

 

photo of K.M. McNeel

K.M. McNeel holds degrees from Vanderbilt University, Trinity University, and Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London.  In the 1990s and 2000s, she was known for her interventionist art collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Oxford, England.  She is currently working on a solo performance, her memoir of her time working as a communications officer traveling for charities, and a mystery novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lead Photo by Žygimantas Dukauskas on Unsplash

Author photo courtesy of K.M. McNeel

Ten Tips for Grooming Drafts, Straight from the Horse’s . . . Hoof

The author poses with a horse on a cold February morning
Smitty, the horse, posing with Lisa, the author, on a chilly February morning.

Why do I do this to myself? I wonder as my alarm jolts me awake on a dark Sunday in February. Its glow seems spitefully cheery combined with its announcement of the temperature for my horseback riding lesson: -14 degrees. Ugh.

Flannel pajamas, a quilt my great-aunt sewed, and a cat’s soft bulk plead with me to stay. But I love to ride, so I roll from my cocoon and don layers.

Once at the barn, I’m glad I ventured out, not only because I’m assigned to ride a favorite horse I haven’t been on for a long time, but also because grooming him sparks insights about grooming my writing.

During the previous two years, I’ve ridden Penny, a horse who spends her winter free-time in a stall because she stirs up trouble when allowed to roam the paddock (the fenced holding area). Preparing an indoor horse for riding is easy: brush her coat, pick her hooves, cinch her saddle, buckle her bridle. No muss, no fuss.

Smitty, the gangly, dark brown gelding I’d ride that February morning, spends his winter free-time in the paddock. A laid back personality makes him easy to catch, but an outdoor life makes him difficult to groom. As soon as he crosses the barn’s threshold, a dull thud replaces the hollow tock his metal shoes usually make on concrete. A look at his feet confirms my suspicion: Ice balls have formed in his hooves’ recessed center, so his shoes float above the ground.

I slide the blanket from Smitty’s body and grab a nail puller (a flat metal bar bent at one end). He lifts a foot, and I cradle his hoof in one hand while I use the puller as a chisel with the other. It’s tough going; the tool glances off the ice instead of carving into it. Just as my back begins to ache and my wrist to throb, an ice chunk falls away. And so do the blinders I’ve been wearing when I revise my writing.

Smitty’s hooves remind me that if I allow grooming—whether horse or draft—to become a series of unaltered steps, I lose touch with its purpose. And process without purpose turns futile.

Grooming must be shaped by context, such as weather for horse, audience and intended effect for writing. Here are ten tips Smitty revealed for warming up to revision:

  1. Start slow. Grooming’s first step is the toughest. I chisel away but make little progress. Then, suddenly, a piece falls. That’s all I need to build momentum. The chunk’s absence reveals weaknesses in what remains, so I attack each spot in succession.
  2. Don’t rush. It’s obvious, but when eager to submit my writing for publication, I forget. Forcing grooming’s pace is as fruitless as it is unwise. Hoof-picks dig mud, grass, oats, and manure from recesses, but they aren’t designed to break ice. Similarly, digging into paragraphs before chiseling big ideas into shape leads to wasted effort.
  3. Rest. I don’t have to clear the whole mess on the first attempt. I merely have to chip away enough frozen muck that the hoof or draft rests on solid footing. Once Smitty can stand flat, he’s safe. Body heat will melt the rest, making it easier to pick. Time away from a draft thaws problems that seem intractable, too.
  4. Let nature share the workload. Allowing Smitty’s bodyweight to warm his hooves offers an opportunity to luxuriate in brushing. Instead of going through the motions, I take my time and stay present, which calms Smitty. I’m surprised how often a solution arises when I let a draft’s trouble spots stew as I work on something else.
  5. Switch it up. Not much gets under Smitty’s skin, but other horses (ahem, Penny) don’t like being brushed. If I start with picking her hooves instead of brushing her coat, I give our relationship a better chance of starting off on the right foot. Switching up where I start revising a draft highlights thematic strands I can braid into something special.
  6. Follow the text’s lead. I’m present enough while brushing to address what Smitty’s coat shows me it needs. A curry comb’s zig-zagged metal teeth cull debris that causes saddle sores and inhibits new hair growth. Reverse outlining is the comb’s textual equivalent. I isolate each paragraph’s main idea and decide whether it benefits the whole, detangling knotted logic.
  7. Apply pressure. A stiff-bristled brush lifts to the surface what the curry comb has loosened. It also distributes oil that nourishes Smitty’s coat, but only if I push hard. When revising, I press myself to answer, “Do I really need this?”
  8. Let it go. A soft-bristle brush provides a gentler way to “kill my darlings.” Dust flies from Smitty’s coat with each stroke. Sometimes the grit makes my eyes water, but the effect is worth the discomfort: Smitty’s hair gleams. My draft, too, shines once stripped clean.
  9. Go back to the beginning. With Smitty’s hide ready for saddling, I return to his hooves—those key points on which he stands. A few swipes with the pick is all it takes. Skipping this step would compromise Smitty’s health. Just as hoof problems left untended can escalate to life-threatening crises, proofreading errors left uncorrected can escalate to career-threatening rejections.
  10. Enjoy the ride. The most important lesson Smitty teaches and re-teaches me is to value process as much as product. In both riding and writing, I used rush preparation to get to the best part: stepping into the arena. Over time, however, I’ve seen how crucial grooming is to success. Now, I look forward to grooming’s meditative nature.

When I finish grooming Smitty, I look him in the eye and see my reflection anew. When I apply to revision what he teaches me, my writing gallops toward unexplored territory.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Whalen

 

Letting Go, in Writing and in Life

A buddha statue behind lotus flowersI swore to myself I’d get my manuscript done in 2017. It didn’t happen. I could talk for hours about all the legitimate reasons it didn’t happen. I could talk for even longer about all the ways I procrastinated and avoided it. Does it make logical sense why I chose to avoid something I care about so much? Yes and no. It would take thousands of words and hundreds of dollars in therapist fees to explain it.

Focusing on 2018, I was determined. It helped that I landed a full-time job that starts at the end of February. It also helped that based on some personal circumstances, I realized the manuscript needed to be finished. It was now or never.

My manuscript is a memoir. It’s based on my journey through the fertility process. It details a year and a half of my mid-30’s, where the life I’d imagined for myself faded to black. I had been pregnant with twins. But five days after I became pregnant, I lost my mother to cancer after a lifetime of addiction. The following week, I lost the twins. And nine months later, as I twisted the sterile bed sheets in my hands, I listened to my doctor tell me I would never be able to have children.

It’s a survival story about losing a past and a future at that same time—and learning to carve out a present much different than the one I expected for myself. Those were dark days. The harder I held on to the life I thought I should be leading, the more painful everything else was. But as soon as I pushed off from the ledge, trusting that whatever I fell into was going to be okay, I was free.

It’s about learning to let go.

After such loss, it’s hard not to build up callouses of control again. They start innocently enough with the little things. A set of activities, a diet to follow, a daily routine. But as time passes, it becomes less of a routine and more of a schedule. The control creeps in a bit more, and it morphs your discipline into fear.

Writing is not so different.

Let’s say you’re starting a new project and you’re not quite sure what it is yet. If you’re not a “pantser” then you want to start with a rough outline. Just a general overview of what you want to write.

It’s easier to write around things. You can write extraordinarily detailed outlines with plot points and character arcs and detailed scenery. You can research and read for hours about how other writers have worked through their pieces, look at maps on structure and complete case studies of manuscripts that you love.

You can build the most beautiful scaffolding to support the building of your dream word house. All of this to try and control your fear of sitting down in front of a project with zero words written.  But at one point, you need rip down the scaffolding. You need to hang by your fingertips, in all the discomfort, in all of the pain, in all of the not knowing and write just what you see right in front of your face. You need to let go.

Writing does not like to be controlled. So despite your disciplined character sketches and your sweeping vistas of scene setting, your outline that you’ve so carefully crafted, it does what it wants.

When your writing is shoved into a narrow hallway, it will read that way. Your characters will seem like they’re tight and brittle and they’ll move through your carefully constructed scenes as if they were made out of matchsticks.

If you’re working on memoir or non-fiction, your readers will see right through your efforts of control. To quote Natalie Goldberg’s Rules of Writing, “Go for the real stuff. If you don’t, your writing will be tiptoeing nervously around whatever your real stuff is. You won’t believe it and neither will your readers.”

Whether you’re writing a first draft, editing, or putting on the final touches, it’s important to let go. Get words on a page, kill your darlings, do whatever you need to do to move your writing forward.

I realized that to finish the manuscript, the lesson for me is no different than it was in my mid-30’s—I need to let go. As Buddha once said, “You only lose what you cling to.”

Photo by Sarah Ball on Unsplash

 

Would Shakespeare Tweet? #Maybe, Part 2, by Guest Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Bubba the cat hiding under a bookshelfLast month, I wrote about how my cat, Bubba, inspires me. Eighteen months after I adopted him from the Animal Humane Society, he continues overcoming fear and learning to trust despite past trauma. In fact, his playful batting of a stuffed mouse beneath a bookcase, as pictured, prompted me to overcome fear and learn to Tweet despite past (and present) introversion.

I discovered that Twitter doesn’t embody Othello’s famous line, “Chaos is come again.” It even provides benefits I hadn’t imagined. Here’s what I learned:  

  • Lurk. The same cacophony I dreaded allowed me to sit on Twitter’s banks and observe unnoticed while I figured out how its currents flowed and its rapids broke. I didn’t have to dive in unless and until I was ready. #soundandfury   #introvert

 

  • Make Twitter work for you. It is a tool, after all. Follow people you can learn from: writers, artists, editors, publishers. Check in on organizations that interest you, like nonprofits and hobbyist associations. #AWPW2W

 

  • Do you. If you don’t want to tweet, don’t. I started by thinking of Twitter as a device for professional development. Following writers and publishers exposed me to titles I could add to my reading list, writing tips I could apply, and associations I could join. Before I knew it, I was bobbing along on Twitter’s surface, making my way happily downstream.

 

  • Experiment. My low profile meant I didn’t have to get a tweet right the first time, as the perfectionist in me often demands. I could let go of the reserved professional I play at work. I could test out new personas and voices. Since I’m not Taylor Swift, no one would notice. And if, by random chance, someone does, well, then, I’ve accomplished what publishing industry insiders tell me I should. #TaylorSwift   #lookwhatyoumademedo

 

  • Accept help. Even if it’s inanimate (and grammatically incorrect). Twitter composed and offered to publish my first tweet, so I let it: “Hello Twitter! #myfirstTweet.” Silly? Yes. Unoriginal? Totally. Uninformative? Absolutely. But having someone (or somebot) launch me into the deep made releasing my grip on the shoreline easier.

 

  • Keep calm and carry on. The impulse to sprout feathers and squawk dire warnings faded when the sky remained intact after I composed my first tweet. Unless I land a network talk show like Ellen DeGeneres (highly unlikely) or run for political office (even less likely), nothing sky-shattering will result from what I tweet. Just like that, the pressure’s off. #chickenlittle    

 

  • Appreciate the benefits. Being confined to 140 characters has helped me work toward long-held goals: (1) write shorter, punchier sentences, (2) create catchier titles. Twitter’s push to rely on images also reconfigured my approach to other writing and teaching tasks.

 

  • Set limits. Twitter can be a time suck. It’s especially compelling when I want an excuse not to write: I’m building my platform. I’m learning how to promote my work. After 30 minutes? No. I’m procrastinating. I’ve decided I can only login when I can articulate a specific goal, such as finding and following an agent I want to query.Promote. Your writing, your causes, yourself. Everyone else is doing it; you might as well, too. Though uncomfortable at first, it gets easier. If you really squirm when typing a soliloquy, generate one tweet (or retweet) for a charitable cause to match every tweet you write for your own benefit.

 

  • Have fun. Once I got acclimated, I surfed bigger waves. Now I follow favorite entertainers and my celebrity crush, Stephen Colbert. Maybe one day I’ll grow brave enough to tweet @StephenAtHome. #stephencolbert  #colbertlateshow   #LSSC   #colbertnation

Take it from a reluctant social media swimmer: Come on in, the water’s fine! And if you follow me @LisaIrishWhalen, I can even show you the ropes.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/2430933/

Naropa, Coming Out, by Guest Blogger Lois Sunrich

A picture of a woman near water with red hearts near herI was sitting in a classroom, mid-afternoon, in one of those desks with a place to write attached to it. We were all in rows. It was Naropa. I was there for their Summer Writing Program. Where did I ever get the nerve to sign up, drive myself to Boulder and check into the big ‘ole Victorian house where we all lived together for a month?

THE Beat poets. We had all come to be there with them, to study with them. Everyone had a camera and was constantly taking their pictures, oohing and awing. Beyond Ginsberg, I had no idea who they all were. It was me in my southern California colors, everyone else in black motorcycle leather. Me wine. Them drugs. Me life. Them, yep, death, literally, since their star, Burroughs, did accidentally shoot his wife at a party one night.

My first night there, a staff person took me upstairs to show me my room, and as we looked into the room, she casually told me the woman who had slept there just the night before had been raped. Then she walked out and went back downstairs.

At the very first class, the next day, sitting there in my desk waiting for introductions, I was somewhere in the middle of the room—not here or there, not front or back, not left or right. Hiding. Waiting. Watching. Finally, instead of introductions, they gave us our first assignment: “Open your notebooks and draw the person sitting next to you.”

How DID I ever get myself there?

And of course, the program ended with a student reading. The great ones held their readings too, all through the month. People flew in from all over the US to be there for them. While the poets told us how they hated reading their poetry in front of audiences, banners went up all along the boulevard downtown promoting their readings. But the finale of the entire month was a staged evening of students reading their work. Us. Me.

These guys, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cruso, etc. had read their darkest, grittiest, shadow-filled poetry, all month long, leaving their audiences and the students entranced. I was to write something to read there, also? I was to go up front, with hundreds of people in the auditorium, at the month’s grand finale, and read a poem I’d written too? All twenty of us, each student, were all on the program. There was no place to hide.

And yet, it was why I came. I had to learn to make my statement, to speak up, to be someone. Mike and the boys and I were in the middle of our last summer. The marriage was over, and they were all leaving home. I had to step out. Now!

All I remember was a huge hall, softly lit, with solemn faces. It was standing room only. I ‘acted as if’ as I walked to the lit podium in all this intensity with a dominant force of bold, blatant verse, stark and cold coming before me. I knew I was about to expose myself and horrify all of them with my gentle poetry, my soft voice, my kindness even.

Sure enough, right in the middle of me reading my poem to an auditorium full with people, one of THE Beats (Phillip Whalen, the Zen Buddhist of “garbage-in-garbage-out” fame) standing in the back where I could see him when I looked up, let out an uncontrollably loud, “OH NO!” He could not believe it either. How DID she get here? It was sudden and forgotten, instantly, by everyone in that entire universe, except me.

In the end, as I drove slowly home through the canyon country of the Southwest and on to San Diego and a new life ahead of me, it was clear that because of his cynical outburst I now knew for sure I had done what I had come to do. I had faced my fears, and I had not left hidden. I had even been heard. My statement, as different from these poets as could be, had been made, loud and clear. I had given myself a voice.

photo of Lois SunrichLois Sunrich is the founder of Storymakers, an open community of thirty women who developed a ten-year commitment in January 1990. Storymakers still meets monthly to either share personal stories or present the larger story of women in our time.

In October 2000, Lois founded StoryArts, Inc., a nonprofit community-based arts organization, celebrating life’s stories. Since its inception, StoryArts has published 33 high-quality, custom life-story publications and produced five city-wide, year-long projects honoring the rich stories of residents. Since 1988, Lois has taught life story writing to individuals, and in ongoing monthly groups or annual community workshops in San Diego, Colorado, and Japan, as a way to inspire and maintain creativity in women’s lives. Lois has a B.A. in Humanistic Psychology from UCSD and studied the Intensive Journal with Ira Progoff and poetics at Naropa a Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com/3092999/

Writing with Fierce Self-Compassion, by Guest Blogger, Gina Simmons, PhD

A wonder woman dollAs a psychotherapist and coach, I’m accustomed to helping others work through psychological blocks and emotional struggles. When it comes to my writing life, I struggle with my own share of worries, insecurities and inner conflicts. My running inner monologue while writing goes something like this:

Who are you kidding with that cliché? Stop it with the freaking psychobabble! Don’t you remember anything about subject verb agreement? Okay, you’re onto something now, but remember when you thought you had something before and when you looked at it the next day you wanted to puke it was so bad and you doubted your judgment because you really thought it held promise when it really truly stank?

It takes courage to write. The brutal inner critic, (I call mine Gerta, a cross between a shaming church lady and a crack whore) does a number on my creativity and flow. This beat, beat, beat of a pulsing need to write, comes into direct conflict with Gerta the church lady crack whore, making me feel wicked and jittery and audacious for even trying to write.

Sometimes I have to hold my precious little writing heart in compassionate hands, and let it safely beat away surrounded by love and Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies. I comfort my exposed writing heart with these self-compassionate phrases:

  • May you be peaceful.
  • May you write with ease.
  • May you trust your own voice.
  • May you find joy in the work.

You see, my inner critic is a clever gal. She won’t believe it if I tell myself, “it’s really great! You’re really great! You’re so special! Oprah’s going to love this!” All those attempts to defibrillate my self-esteem just make my insecurity grow like a horror movie blob. I can’t trust all that grandiosity. But self-compassion isn’t about self-esteem, or telling myself taradiddles, or pretty lies. Self-compassion lets me recognize the pain in my struggle to write, and it lets me live in love (and cookies) till I can get something written.

But sometimes that self-compassion has to have some teeth to it, some fierceness, to break through all of the inner and outer obstacles blocking creative work. I’m reminded of the fierce compassion of Wonder Woman, as directed by Patty Jenkins in the recent story of Diana’s origin. Wonder Woman moves with fierce determination, unapologetic, unwavering, devoid of self-consciousness, focused only on her objective, to help humanity. Diana does not equivocate. She filters out, as irrelevant noise, the sexist judgements, stares, glares and clothing criticisms of her onlookers. What remains is her compassionate commitment to a cause greater than self. That focused fierceness, when I can channel it, allows me to prioritize my writing. I can get out of my ego and remember I’m writing this book to help people. So if my sentences aren’t beautiful enough to walk the red carpet of awards season, who cares? It’s irrelevant. What matters is getting those ideas in good enough shape to communicate something meaningful and helpful. Coddling my little precious writing heart with self-compassion, beats out self-esteem and the critic every time. Well most of the time. When I remember to do it.

 

a photo of Gina Simmons, PhD

Gina sings, plays guitar, ukulele and bass (not all at once), with her husband. She has a private psychotherapy practice, providing corporate training, executive coaching and career guidance services. She and her husband raised three kids who, sadly, decided to grow up and move out. Now she gets to babysit her grand dog Rocky, a rat terrier pup found abandoned in the trash, who fought off two coyotes, and whose life story would make a great memoir.  

She’s blogged for Forbes, Women in Crime ink, and pens her own blog, Manage Anger Daily.

Quote: “Life is a near death experience.” George Carlin

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/wonder-woman-superhero-strong-1016324/

Would Shakespeare Tweet? #Maybe, by Guest Blogger, Lisa Whalen

PART I.

Bubba the cat hiding under a bookshelf“Bubba embodies my Thursday mindset,” I posted to Facebook a few weeks ago, along with this picture.

But I lied.

I should have posted, “Bubba embodies my social media mindset.” Even as I giggled at my cat’s antics—batting a toy mouse beneath the bookcase and then contorting to dig it out—I, too, wrestled with a pest: Twitter.

To Tweet, or not to Tweet, that was the question. Every time it arose, I wanted to crawl in beside Bubba and stay there. I batted at the question and then contorted to dig out the answer I desired. Twitter, it seemed to me, was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It popped into my head every time my students and I discussed Othello’s famous line: “Chaos is come again.”

Facebook caters to an introvert’s craving for a cocoon. Its privacy settings insulate against scrutiny’s glare and trolls’ vitriol. I can tuck my online community’s edges tight as a drum around my form. But Twitter throws open the blankets. It lays out a feast of introvert fears: brief exchanges with strangers, a worldwide audience, a continuous feed. Character limits. Hashtags.

So, there it was. I didn’t want to join Twitter. Then I shouldn’t. Right?

Wrong.

  I want to be a published author. I’d like to see the memoir I spent more than two years writing and revising on a shelf next to frothing cappuccino machines at Barnes & Noble and suggested as a “you might also like . . .” by Amazon. Then I want to write another book. And another.

A memoirist hunting publication stalks skittish prey. Everyone in the industry advises crafting a name-brand and constructing a social media platform upon which to hoist it. Then, maybe, an agent will consent to reading a few manuscript pages.

Platform? I’m no Taylor Swift. I can’t draw a fraction of the interest she generates by tweeting a single snake GIF.

I vacillated. I asked a mentor for advice. Then I channeled Bubba.

When I adopted Bubba from the Animal Humane Society, he was a literal fraidy-cat. If I lifted my hand to pet him, he flinched. If I unstuck a Post-It Note from its pad, he ducked beneath the couch. If I opened a grocery bag to collect our recyclables, he bounded upstairs to hide in my closet. But shown the patience to adjust on his own terms, Bubba evolved to become the stuffed-mouse-hunting predator I know today.

So I followed Bubba’s example. I wriggled out from under the bookcase and joined Twitter.

Stay tuned to discover what I learned next month . . .

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Whalen

The Life Saving Properties of the Hallmark Christmas Movie

A coulle ice skating while holding handsI met my first Hallmark Christmas movie in November of last year. It was far from love at first sight. I was staying with my friend Laurie in Atlanta. Back then, I was traveling every other week for work and she was kind enough to host me for most of my visits. We’d settled into our nightly routine, after dinner, climbing the stairs to the TV room with either a large glass of red wine or a mug of decaf in hand.

It had been a rough month. The elections had just passed. Work was absolutely insane. My family was going through a lot. My body and my brain were exhausted from the constant travel, the stress, and the drama.

We each settled into our overstuffed armchairs, propped our feet up on ottomons and turned on the TV. We made a full pass through our usual stations, HGTV, the Food Network, DIY, BBC, and the major networks and found nothing of interest. I watched as Laurie stopped on the Hallmark Channel on the channel guide.

I looked over my shoulder at her with one eyebrow up.

“Seriously?”

“You’ve never seen a Hallmark Christmas movie?” Her North Carolina drawl made her sound even more incredulous.

“You say that like I’ve committed some sort of Christmas crime.”

“I’m just surprised. Are you up for trying it?”

“I’d like to insert the ‘cheesy exit clause.’ If this gets ridiculous, we’ll change it, right?”

“Deal. I’ll warn you, we’re definitely not going to get any smarter watching one of these, but oh my word, they are fun!”

We settled on Christmas Incorporated, a story about an attractive, perpetual bachelor, William, who lives in New York city and inherits his father’s toy factory in a small town in New Hampshire. He is tasked with shutting it down. Riley, the female lead, enters the story when she lands a job as a personal assistant to the rich, bad boy, possible-factory-closer in a case of mistaken identity.

The movie had just started and I’d already rolled my eyes so many times, it was like I was trying to do some sort of yoga eye-therapy.  After I was done rolling my eyes at the possibility of a toy factory existing in rural New Hampshire, I rolled my eyes again at the circumstances under which Riley is hired. Even the most mediocre of HR departments wouldn’t offer a job to the wrong “Riley” (because there are a ton of female Rileys running around applying to be personal assistants—insert third eye roll).

The Hallmark Christmas movie was not making a good impression so far, but with few other options, I hunkered down, took a swig of wine, and half watched while I attempted to answer the emails my boss loved to send after his fourth bourbon every night after 8 p.m.

In the movie, Riley convinces Will to visit the town prior to shutting down the factory. There are lots of red plaids, twinkling white lights, and fresh baked cookies. Riley falls into her boss’ arms as they ice skate. They decide to decorate Christmas trees together as a very G-rated sexual tension builds between them. All of the townspeople are very kind and offer lots of unsolicited relationship advice.

I stopped answering work emails on my phone and watched as Riley and Will went with Santa to deliver toys.  I almost cheered when Will decides not to shut down the toy factory and my eyes watered when Riley and Will kiss for the first time just before the movie ends.

“So, what’d you think?”

“Oh my god, I loved it.”

“Wanna watch another one?”

“Hell yes.”

It was almost identical to the first one. Girl meets boy. They have the hots for each other (in a very Disney kind of way). They visit a small town in which everyone wears perfectly matching hats, mittens and scarves. The couple does some sort of Christmas decorating interspersed with an ice skating scene or a flirtatious snowball fight where the girl “accidentally” lands in the boy’s arms. The couple is delirously swooning over one another until they have a miscommunication and all is lost. Enter elderly person who drops a wisdom bomb. The clouds part and the couple then has a conversation no dating couple has ever had in the history of dating about how much they love each other and then they kiss as the snow falls and the camera zooms out. I love them. I watch one movie, after the next, after the next.

The beauty of these movies is in their predictable happy endings. And sometimes, I need a little happy. The stress of the holidays. The sadness of missing my mom, Captain Christmas. Something to escape from the politics, the violence, and the fear that seems to have become so pervasive.

If you need a little pick me up this holiday season, might I suggest a very innocent rendezvous with a Hallmark Christmas movie?

 

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/575095/

Big Canvas by Elizabeth Eshoo, Feisty Guest Blogger

I stood back from the massive white canvas hanging on the wall before me and began to weep. I wondered, which is more intimidating: a blank canvas or the blank page? I was struggling with both. Where do I begin to paint the picture of my life?

I was about to start the fourth painting of this daylong workshop. Just before I began weeping, I’d felt rejuvenated by each picture I painted. I thought I was ready to tackle a bigger canvas since the first three paintings were on smaller, manageable pieces of paper. But now, as I stood before this massive wall of white, I welled up with emotion, my gut tightened, and tears flowed down my cheeks like raindrops during a mountain downpour. I motioned to my best friend, Pam, to come over for guidance. She was my instructor for this intuitive painting workshop in Boulder, Colorado. I’d flown here from San Diego for exactly this moment. I knew this was coming, this pain, and this blockage, this feeling of fear, uncertainty, and incompetence. Vulnerability draped over me like a lead apron, weighing me down and rendering my arms useless.

The phrase, ”big canvas” popped into my head as I recalled the words my writing instructor uttered one night after reading the second draft of my memoir during a manuscript critique session. My story deals with big places: New York City, Africa, People magazine, and Costa Rica as well as broad themes like personal transformation, self-discovery, courage, risk-taking, inner strength, and finding fulfillment. Now on the third draft, I am still struggling with how to distill the largeness of my story into manageable bite-sized morsels that my readers will be able to digest and hopefully, to savor without being overwhelmed.

The writing of my story requires telling secrets, not just mine but also my family’s. Growing up as the good girl in a conventional, upper-middle-class suburban family, I was groomed to have polite manners from the womb. So telling secrets is not in my nature. We didn’t talk about my mother’s drunken behavior. We lived in denial and by a code of silence. We never even questioned my mother during the sober light of day about why, when the clock struck five, she was magnetically drawn to her nightly elixir, instead of to us, her three little girls.

Facing the blank page requires remembering the pain and processing it, feeling emotions I thought I’d left behind. Reliving awful childhood memories and realizing, nothing much has changed since then. My mother drank a lot back then, and fifty years later, she’s still at it.

The largeness of the canvas before me made me feel small and overwhelmed. The empty pages of my childhood chapters keep me silent and powerless.

“Where do you feel the hurt?” Pam asked me as I stared forward, avoiding eye contact with her.

“My stomach. No, my heart, right here,” I said as I pointed to the middle of my chest.

“Start there,” she said.

I walked over to the table in the middle of the art studio and stared at a colorful collection of tempera paints. I shut down my thinking brain and let my intuition take over as I poured an array of colors onto my palette: blood red, Pepto-Bismol pink, a fiery orange, and one that looked like melted gold. I surveyed the assortment of painting tools stuffed into glass jars and plastic yogurt containers; brushes of every size and dimension, sponges, scrapers, even toilet bowl brushes with plastic handles. I chose a smooth handled wide brush and walked back to the long white horizontal canvas. It was at least nine feet in length and about three feet high. I stared it down while attempting to take a deep, nourishing breath, but my chest was tight, so a shallow inhale was all I could manage.

I began in the middle of the canvas with a big broad stroke and painted a blood red heart. I used repetitive motions, switching up paints, layering color, and creating zigzag textures with the scraper. When I felt done I moved to the right side of the paper and laid down more paint, again playing with texture and color. The painting felt lopsided to me as I stared at the empty left side of the canvas, but I continued laying down red, pink, and orange paint on the right side, using a robotic motion with my brush, over and over again. The layers of color were like drafts of my story, each layer of paint felt like a rewrite of that troublesome first chapter. I moved the brush and the paint over and around, up and down, round and round, each stroke feeling like it still wasn’t right.
Judgment. This was a judgment-free workshop, but there it was, my inner critic, rearing its ugly head, telling me it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t perfect, not yet. I put a big black “X” through it all. There…take that, manuscript!

I walked back to the paint table and squirted more blood red paint onto my palette. I grabbed the toilet brush and dipped it into the paint and with a big violent motion, threw it across the canvas–a pitching motion that splattered the red paint across the canvas and onto the wall and floor and nearby bookshelves as well. Most of it landed on the blank left side of the canvas. Splashes of red paint stained the glimmering white paper. I dipped a new brush into the gold paint and threw it like a baseball at the wall. It landed straight through the heart in the middle of the painting, just like an arrow. I stepped back from the canvas and gasped, as though the sharp tip of an arrow pierced my own heart, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor. I felt the wounds of so much buried pain.

I looked up at the golden arrow on the painting, and I couldn’t help but think it was magically guided there. My chest expanded, and I was able to take a deeper breath. I got up from the floor and walked closer to the wall. For the first time all day, I looked at the canvas with compassion. I liked it and smiled. I chose another brush and painted over the black “X” with pink. It wasn’t to cover up the big black “x” as though hiding a mistake. It felt more like a healing gesture. Like I was taking back the reins, steering this masterpiece back on course.

I put my paints and tools down, wiped the rainbow of colors off my hands and onto my smock and scrutinized the canvas. The red heart centered the painting; the golden arrow sparkled; the heavy layers of color on the right side drew my attention but so did the sparseness of the left with its dramatic spattering of blood-red paint.

I realized I’d painted my manuscript. The right side of the painting was heavy with effort–so many revisions of the African adventure part of my story. The middle panel held the heart with the golden arrow slung through the middle–the romance at the center of my tale. And the left side of the canvas was the beginning of my manuscript–still empty save for the hint of the blood-letting of secrets yet to come.

Pam appeared by my side and asked, “Are you done?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then sign it.”

I picked up a slender, long-handled wooden paintbrush, dipped the bristles into the paint and proudly signed it with big, gold letters. I stood back to admire my creation. I felt like I had overcome something by facing this big blank canvas and attacking it, then making peace with it. Replacing the sting of my own harsh judgment with self-acceptance.

It’s been a few years since that workshop. The blank page looms large before now.

Big canvas.

How do I begin to write the story of my life?

Where does it hurt?

My heart.

Start there…

 

a photo of author, Elizabeth EshooElizabeth is currently working on behalf of the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County as an advocate, speaker, and fundraiser. Formerly an award-winning advertising executive with Sports Illustrated, People and Life magazines, a life-changing climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro steered her towards a new path, working in conservation and education in Costa Rica, Baja, and the Galapagos Islands. Along the way, she discovered writing and is currently finalizing her memoir, Beyond the Peak with Marni Freedman’s Thursday group. An excerpt from her memoir, Masai in the Mirror was performed on stage as part of the 2016 San Diego Writers’ Ink Memoir Showcase and will be published in the upcoming San Diego Memoir Writers Association anthology.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Eshoo and Amaury Salas on Unsplash

 

 

The Ups and Downs of NaNoWriMo by Danielle Baldwin

an archery target with grass in the backgroundNovember is National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. During November, participants are encouraged to write an entire 50,000-word novel in thirty days. With just shy of 400,000 people participating last year, it’s become more and more popular.

November, as described by most writing coaches, is also every writer’s favorite freak out month. Inevitably, writers that participate in NaNoWriMo feel the pressure to churn out word count. This often leads to a crappy first draft. Not normal crappy first drafts that all of us write. Like super crappy—think crappy but with a cape. On December 1st, writers sit down to look at their 50,000-word novel and experience a NaNoWriMo hangover. The late-night caffeine-infused writing sessions that fueled their 50,000-word bender felt good at the time. But then they open their draft to find it isn’t organized. It’s full of character inconsistencies, odd word choices, and flat writing. The prospect of fixing these 50,000 words is overwhelming, but the thought of tossing it is equally inconceivable. Depression sets in and writing coaches spend weeks trying to shake their writers out of a funk.

Despite all of this, NaNoWriMo is still a great idea. That’s right, despite your lasting mental image of NaNoWriMo as a flying poop emoji, there are a lot of benefits to participation. Here are a few good reasons:

Discipline and Focus

We’ve all heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit.  As it turns out, it actually takes 60+ days. Considering I can be weaker willed when it comes to writing, I still hang on to that 21-day myth.

While scientifically speaking I may not be building a new habit (or breaking one for that matter), I am making a routine, and once I build a routine, I’m far more likely to stick to it.

Everyone has different writing habits that work for them. There is no magical key to success. With that said, the majority of “successful” writers will tell you that you need to write every day. I’ll share an example:

A few years ago, I heard Salman Rushdie speak. As often happens during the Q&A session, someone stood up and warbled the question, “What advice do you have for budding writers?”

Rushdie tented his eyes with his hands so he could see the young man standing with the microphone in the audience of 800 people from his spot on the stage.

“Well,” he said, “being a writer is all about your time in the chair.”
The young man nodded vigorously.

“So the more time you spend in the chair, the more writing you’ll get done.”

More bobblehead nodding action from the man at the microphone. He continued to stare at Rushdie, not yet satisfied.

Rushdie realized the young man was still standing. He sighed and reached over to sip water from his glass on the stool next to him. The room was quiet. He cleared his throat and leaned into the microphone.

“So my best advice to you, young man, is to sit the f@#$ down.”

And there you have it. Why participate in Nanowrimo? Because it gets you in the habit of sitting the f@#$ down every day.

SMART Goals

I know the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in a month. I’d encourage you to start by throwing that goal right out the window.

A SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. To craft a smart goal, the key is in the “r” for realistic. Setting a word count goal does NOT need to be based on the 50,000 goal for NaNoWriMo. Figure out what your average word count is per hour and set your goals accordingly.

I prefer weekly goals. This gives me some flexibility. So instead of saying “I’m going to write 1,000 words per day,” you can set your goal at 7,000 words for the week (or whatever works for you). Some days you’re going to come home after a long day of work to a broken refrigerator, dog puke on the carpet, and your longest-winded neighbor trapping you at your mailbox with a diatribe about people speeding in the neighborhood. When you’ve extracted yourself thirty minutes later, sitting down for an hour or two to write feels impossible. So don’t. Sit down for 45 minutes. Maybe half an hour. Fifteen minutes if you’re dying, but you know what? It’s 100 more words than you would have gotten normally. Or 200, or 500. And you can still make it up on another day when you’ve got more time and energy to put towards your writing.

Build Your Writing Tribe

NaNoWriMo is well organized. In addition to a website to track your progress and earn badges, there are pop up groups across town you can join to write in solidarity. I’ve even been a part of virtual groups where we wrote via Google Hangouts.

NaNoWriMo meet-ups, both in person and virtual, are a great way to build your writing tribe. If you haven’t had the opportunity to sit in a room with a bunch of other writers and write, I highly recommend it. These are your people. They understand the pain of sitting down and getting words on the page. Their encouragement feels real because they know the pitfalls. You’re also less likely to jack around on social media. You’re part of a writing collective, and it feels amazing.

So don’t give up on NaNoWriMo just yet. While you may not write a 50,000-word novel, you may finish the one that you’ve been working on, bang out some great short stories, or even try your hand at poetry. Good luck and happy writing.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/472932/