No More Partridges in Pear Trees . . . Priming our Writing Pump During the Holidays

A woman in a Santa hat and beard holding breakfastAs our family stood huddled in sweat pants before a karaoke program as it played synthesized Christmas songs over our home computer, it occurred to me that this was not the family Christmas caroling scene it once might have been.  Before my thoughts launched into despair over the commercialism, glitz and high technology of Christmas in the new millennium, I took heart instead with another thought.

I was thinking of a tradition we started the year we were married. It involves the twelve days before Christmas and a grown-up version of an advent calendar.  Each day, starting on December 12th, my husband and I alternate opening windows labelled one through twelve to discover a secret message bestowing a special gift.  We flip a coin to see who starts first. At the end of the year, we rearrange the order and occasionally replace an idea to keep the surprises fresh and appropriate. It’s true, we get no milking maids, no turtle doves and no partridge in a pear tree, but we think we have improved upon the theme of yore. You be the judge.

Borrowing the tune from The Twelve Days of Christmas, I have summarized our yearly tradition below. Keeping our fast-paced culture in mind, I’ve cut straight to the Twelfth Day. I think you’ll get the picture:

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me:

An early Christmas present

A half hour of pleasure

Two tickets to the movies

A lunch out for sushi

A night out dancing

A bouquet of flowers

Three hours of babysitting

SLAVE     FOR    A     DAY

Champagne and chocolate

Head to toe massage

Gourmet dinner

And breakfast and coffee in bed

 

We have not lost the meaning of Christmas. We have only packaged it differently to suit the times.

And best of all, fellow writers, the process of observing a disturbing trend ended up stimulating a new and endearing holiday writing tradition.  Now, each year when we give gifts, we get to re-write a Christmas song with new words and give that along with the present. It adds great fun to gift giving and keeps my pen moving, even during the busy holiday season.

 

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

The Greatest Writing Opportunity of the Year is Here!

a stack of holiday cardsWriters take heed: The time is upon us.  After a busy year of great excuses for why we haven’t been writing much, at last, the mother lode writing opportunity (including a captive audience) presents itself—clear, unpretentious, a ghost of past, present and future reaching out a scrawny finger, beckoning:  Come. It’s time.

Perhaps you are squirming in your seat right now because you know what is being requested.  And, deep down in your soul, despite the Scrooge-like withholding of writing this year, you know you are up for the task: the thematic weaving of this year’s good and bad, the drawing from events of the past year to arrive at the present, the happy messages of goodwill for the future—in other words: the annual holiday letter.

Yes. That’s right. The dreaded annual holiday letter, my writing friends, is in fact an optimal opportunity to practice your writing skills.

Think of it as a writing prompt that starts with “This was a year of . . .“

And then use it to hone your skills, to search for a theme for the year, to synthesize disparate events, and to show rather than tell your family and friends what your life has been like by including little scenes from the year.  Practice finding your voice.  Is your letter snarky, self-deprecating, or philosophical?

Allow your holiday letter to be the forum by which you communicate what you have discovered this year, what lessons you have learned, and what you wish for others.

So, throw off the chains holding you back.  See that your future writing self is in fact generous with words and loves to use them to reach out and connect—to lift up and inspire the Tiny Tims among us.

Friends, it’s time.  As we end one year and begin another, go forth and cast your writing spells.

I’ll leave you with the opening line of my own holiday letter:

This was a year of climbing up formidable rock walls and leaping off metaphorical cliffs, of ending, beginnings, challenges and some notable peak experiences.

 

Photo Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Holiday Gift Guide for Feisty Writers

Do you ever wonder what to give your favorite feisty writer? It’s that time of year, and some of our awesome contributors have made gift suggestions any scribe is sure to love:

Marni’s Writer Gift Ideas:

the cover of Novel & Short Story Writers Market1. Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2018 is the only resource you need to get your short stories, novellas, and novels published. This edition of NSSWM features hundreds of updated listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, contests, and more, and each listing includes contact information, submission guidelines, and other essential tips.

Inside Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, you’ll find valuable tips for:

  • How to take your readers on a roller-coaster ride by mastering the art of the unexpected
  • Weaving foreshadowing and echoing into your story
  • Discovering the DNA—dialogue, narrative, and action—dwelling inside all memorable characters
  • Gaining insight from best-selling and award-winning authors, including Steve Berry, Liane Moriarty, Junot Díaz, and more

Why I love it:  I love this gift because it answers the age old question, “But where should I send my work?”  This is the gift that keeps your work from ending up in a shoe box.  Buy one for yourself while you’re at it.  Truly worth it.

https://www.writersdigestshop.com/novel-and-short-story-writers-market-2018

2. Inspirational Book

Book Cover for Juicy Pens Thirsty PaperWrite and share what’s in your heart! Let SARK show you how. Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper is your non-judgmental witness, resoundingly supportive friend, and practical guide to the craft of writing and storytelling. For anyone who knows that a writer lives within them but doesn’t know how or where to start; for writers who need new ways to work past their blocks and be reinspired; for anyone who loves SARK’s wise words and art, Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper will help start the ink flowing and keep it going.

 

 

 

 

Why I love it:  Well, truth be told, I love every book by Sark.  She is the queen of giving you permission to loosen up, to play, to love the messy, juicy and joyful process that writing can be.  If you become a fan here are a few more: Eat Mangoes Naked, Succulent Wild Woman and Inspiration Sandwich

3. The Editor’s Tote by Dooney and Bourke

For those who want luxurious toting of their notebooks, papers and laptops…

The Editor's Tote by Dooney & BourkeThe Editor’s Tote by Dooney and Bourke

H 7.5″ x W 4.5″ x L 8.75″ One inside zip pocket. Two inside pockets. Cell phone pocket. Inside key hook. Buckle closure. Handle drop length 4.5″. Detachable strap. Strap drop length 13.5″. Lined.

https://www.dooney.com/pebble-editors-travel-tote-BSHTL0326.html?dwvar_BSHTL0326_color=2LCAPATN#q=editors+&start=1&cgid=dooney-bags-style-tote

 

 

Why I love it:  Well if you know me, you know I can be greatly cheered up with purses and totes.  I don’t know why but when I carry around my notebooks in this it makes me happy.  If you have a writer in your life who is equally delighted by pretty containers with straps, this is a lovely gift.  And guess what, it is ON SALE for the next 4 days!

4. Bonus Gift – Just for Fun

fun wall clock for writers

The Writer’s Clock at Café Press

Why I Love it:  It only allows you an hour to panic, then back to writing.

http://www.cafepress.com/+writers_clock_wall_clock,1160095998

 

 

 

 

 

Melissa’s Writer Gift Idea:

book cover for The Anatomy of Story

 

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

 

This is the most comprehensive and practical how-to book for narrative writing that I’ve ever come across. It explores story from conception through execution, delving into character development, world building, thematic through line, plot, and scene construction. Truby’s concepts build upon one another, helping the writer understand their story from many different perspectives and thus giving them the tools to weave an intricate and cohesive web that will satisfy readers. And the best part is, this isn’t just for fiction writers—it’s useful to anyone who incorporates narrative into their writing, be it journalism, memoir, or non-fiction. While this book could be mulled over from time to time as ideas develop, it also includes a workbook format where the writer can do the work as they progress through each chapter. The writer(s) in your life will be forever indebted to you for this gift and—let’s be honest—there’s no shame in treating yourself to this one too!

https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Story-Becoming-Master-Storyteller/dp/0865479933

Karen’s Writer Gift Idea:

an index card that says the gift of 5 hours for writing

 

The gift of time to write.

That’s all I want in this crazy season. My shelves are full of books on how to write, I have very nice bags to carry 10 copies of my latest, a laptop, pens, three spare unfilled composition books. There’s one thing missing…

 

 

Paula’s Writer Gift Idea:

book cover for Big Magic

 

Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear 

Here’s why I recommend it:

Big Magic grants authors and artists permission to create free of fear (or maybe in concert with it). I especially liked the early sections on the distinction between being a genius and having genius pour through you (the latter reflects the true nature of the artist) and how ideas can get sidetracked and, if they’re set aside too long, lost (been there myself recently). But, Gilbert argues, even if these ideas go away from you, they often appear elsewhere, pursued by others in a concept known as multiple discovery.

Fascinating and liberating, this book celebrates the joy of creating and gifts all authors and artistic types with the knowledge that it’s okay to just do the work, no matter the experience level or eventual outcome. Highly recommended, not just for authors, but for all who yearn to be creative explorers.

Marijke’s Writer Gift Ideas:

an open moleskine journal with drawings and writing in it1. Moleskin Journals

https://www.amazon.com/Moleskine-Cahier-Journal-Large-Ruled/dp/8883704983/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1512416238&sr=8-3&keywords=moleskin+journals+set+of+3

I’ve tried a LOT of journals and finally settled on the plain moleskin journals.  They are the perfect size to carry with me.  I have taken them on all my retreats and now have a collection, one for each retreat I’ve been to.  These are marvelous to mine for content later.

 

2. Watercolor pencils

water color pencils

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000J6EVZK/ref=twister_B076PK1CZC?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1

These are so fun for adding pictures to my journals.  I find that it helps me relax and pay attention to my surroundings when I add a little color to my journal notes

 

 

 

 

 

3. The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language by Natalie Goldberg.

book cover for The True Secret of Writing

 

https://www.amazon.com/True-Secret-Writing-Connecting-Language-ebook/dp/B008J4RQD8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1512417133&sr=8-1&keywords=the+true+secret+of+writing

This book captures what I think are essential components of my own writing practice, which Natalie distills as this: Sit. Write. Walk. It encourages us to dig a little deeper to “mine the rich awareness in your life, and to ground and empower yourself.”

 

 

 

 

Danielle’s Writer Gift Ideas:

  1. Out of print clothing

old t-shirt

https://www.outofprintclothing.com/

I wear a lot of t-shirts. They are part of my personality and feature anything from interesting designs, to bands that I love. Lately I’ve started to add both bookstore and book t-shirts to my collection. This site has a whole host of book-themed gifts, whether it be a t-shirt with Frederick the Mouse or a scarf with Edgar Allen Poe-ka dots.

 

 

 

 

 

2. Book darts

book darts

https://www.amazon.com/Book-Darts-Bronze-Line-Markers/dp/B0030J1J30/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1512428855&sr=8-2&keywords=book+darts

I choose to read physical books simply because I spend most of my days and nights in front of a screen. I have also attempted to curb my book spending, so I’ve also been borrowing a lot of books from the library. Book darts are the absolutely perfect way to mark specific passages in books. If you’re reading a book you borrowed for the library for book club, you can “dart” your way though it and remove them all prior to returning the book. Book darts are thin, neat looking, and removable. I’ve already blown through two tins. So worth it.

3. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art book cover

 

 

https://www.amazon.com/War-Art-Through-Creative-Battles/dp/1936891026/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1512428569&sr=1-1&keywords=the+war+of+art

The War of Art is my writing bible. Pressfield tackles one of the greatest nemesis of writers around the world – resistance. When I’m wrestling with the demons of resistance I reread the final paragraph of this book (which is marked with a book dart in case you were wondering) “Creative work is not a selfish act or a need for attention. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us all you’ve got.”

 

 

Lisa’s Writer Gift Ideas:

  1. 1. Book Map

book map

https://laughingsquid.com/street-maps-of-book-and-tv-show-titles-by-dorothy-collective/

These are fun, beautiful pieces of artwork featuring landmarks from literature in a single city map. Fun to stare at during those brainstorming sessions! They also have TV and movie maps, for those who don’t just love books…

 

 

 

 

 

2. Storymatic:

picture of storymatic game

https://thestorymatic.com/collections/frontpage/products/the-storymatic-classic

Literally a box of writing prompts. These have gotten me out of many a writer’s block jam, and there is a booklet of fun group games, too!

 

 

 

 

3. Dragon:

dragon software box

https://www.amazon.com/Dragon-NaturallySpeaking-Home-13-0-English/dp/B00LX4BZAQ/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&qid=1481404642&sr=8-1&keywords=speech+to+text+software&linkCode=sl1&tag=bookfox-20&linkId=989cb992faf4df717d127e4fe36aecd5

This is a software program for taking dictation, which is the fastest way to get words on the page, whether they are notes, prose, blogs, or whatever pops into your brain. It also learns to recognize words and spellings you use often, including proper names. Think of all the brilliance you’ll be able to get out when the words move as quickly as your imagination! (Note: this is the PC version. They have it for Mac as well, but it’s more expensive for some reason.)

Going to the soul spa with bulletproof coffee . . . or mining your dream content

a dreamcatcherThree of us were on our way to play paintball. My husband suggested that instead of playing with paint we play with rubber bullets. We were about to head into a room, which I understood would take us to the paintball field.  Just before entering the room, my husband turned to me and said, “We go to steam.”  I grabbed my yellow water bottle, and we walked into a sauna that held three stationary bikes.  We each climbed aboard and began pedaling furiously, sweating profusely.

 Dreams.

At first we may think of them as being only a mishmash of nonsensical scenes from our daily lives, but in fact, they can be powerful messengers, making sense of things our awakened mind has trouble assimilating.  They can offer teachings and be a bridge to a different state of consciousness, such as in lucid dreaming, where dreamers find themselves fully “awake” within a dream and able to manipulate it.

Fact is, dreams, speaking in a language all their own, are invaluable sources to a deeper understanding of one’s life.

Psychologists and spiritual teachers alike encourage not only paying attention to our dreams but cultivating an active night practice, keeping a dream journal and learning to work with your dreams to find clarity and open doors. Mystics advise awareness practitioners to practice day and night, cultivating the possibility of lucid dreaming and paying close attention to the transition between sleeping and waking. For it is there, they say, that a gap might open, pulling back the veil of ordinary consciousness to allow for “self-realization” or “enlightenment.”

We writers, too, need to pay attention to our dreams and allow them not only to inform our lives but to appear in our writing as well, and, sometimes, to speak for us.

If you have not worked with your dreams before, here are a couple of simple tricks:

  • Set aside a period (perhaps a week or a month) where you actively try to remember your dreams.
  • Keep a dream journal and pen by your bedside. It might help to have a little flashlight or soft light you can turn on to be less jarring in the middle of the night.
  • When you wake from a dream, quickly jot some notes about it in your journal. You can even make a list of the things that appeared rather than trying to write the whole narrative. In the end, the story is less important than the symbolism.
  • Pay attention to objects, colors, numbers, and particular people who show up.
  • Give the dream a title. We writers may appreciate the importance of the title. Somehow giving a dream a title helps lock in the most salient feature of the dream and helps us recall it later.

At a later time, you can mine your dream.  Our dreams have a way of using shortcuts to give us messages.  For each important thing you note, jot down the first things it makes you think of—kind of like an inkblot test.

For colors or numbers, think of them separately from the object. For instance, I once had a dream I titled “100 orange balloons.”  In it, I was in a field and had let go of hundreds of orange helium balloons. I was calmly watching them all float away.  At first glance, I had no idea what this dream symbolized, but I did the work. I wrote down “orange,” and the first thing that came to mind, surprisingly, with the word orange was “Halloween.”  All of a sudden I intuitively understood the meaning of the dream.  I had just decided to give up sugar in my diet.  I wasn’t sure I was ready to give it up, but this dream underscored that I was.  Halloween—the harbinger of sugar indulgence—was calmly floating away.

Recently my husband and I attended a nine-day silent meditation retreat called “Practicing Emotional Alchemy.”  This was a powerful experience, and as a writer, I am moved to share it.  It’s not easy, however, to capture something otherworldly and transformational, without boring the reader. That’s why I appreciated the synopsis that my dream-self came up with.

The dream happened on the third morning of the retreat before we had gotten into the meat of the practices we would learn on transforming afflicted emotions. It proved prophetic to the impact of the remainder of the retreat.

Before I dive into the dream symbolism, you should be aware of a few things:

First, it is never easy to start a nine-day silent meditation retreat—just before going, the mind will feel desperate to do anything except sit still and quiet. My husband had quipped on our way there, “We’re going to the soul spa!”  That sounded more fun.

Second, we had just started a special “anti-inflammation” diet that included drinking “bulletproof coffee.”  At the retreat, I used my bright yellow hydroflask to contain my bulletproof coffee.

Third, the ultimate goal of a spiritual journey is to be free of suffering.  Our teacher called this path “The Way of Selflessness.” This retreat was going to have us looking at afflicted emotions, such as anger, fear, jealousy, and pride, which are all ultimately fueled by the small self being perpetually motivated by one of three things: desire, aversion and indifference.

Fourth, on the second day of the retreat, I decided that we humans should think of ourselves as “ADVs”—Attention Directing Vehicles.

Finally, bicycles kept recurring on this retreat. I had multiple dreams featuring bicycles, which I referred to as “self-powered vehicles,” and then oddly some random person arrived at the retreat center and donated a whole bunch of bicycles in the middle of the retreat.

On to the dream.

The dream scene: Three of us decided to play paintball. My husband suggested we play with rubber bullets instead. We head into a room that was supposed to take us there, and I heard the words: “We go to steam.” The room appeared to be a sauna at a spa with three stationary bikes. I grabbed my yellow hydroflask water bottle. We climbed on the bikes and began to pedal furiously. I woke up.

When I unpacked all the symbolism, I discovered it was the perfect description of this retreat:

We entered into a warm and nourishing environment designed to both help us relax and release toxins (i.e., afflicted emotions.) We fueled ourselves with bullet-proof precepts (i.e., vows, such as self-discipline and harmlessness, that all the participants take together, so we all feel safe to explore difficult emotions.) We got on three (desire, aversion, indifference) self-powered attention directing stationary vehicles, where we expended significant effort, even though repeatedly warned that on a spiritual journey there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We nonetheless set the goal of arriving at a mental playground where we could dramatize and re-enact battles fought with emotional bullets to release the wisdom energies inherent within them and be free from suffering.

My teacher may have called this retreat “Practicing Emotional Alchemy,” but my dream self nailed it: “Going to the Soul Spa with Bulletproof Coffee.”  I highly recommend it!

And writers, take heed. Pay attention to your dreams. Mine their content. Your dream-self may be a powerful communicator and perhaps even a creative marketing agent for good.

 

Photo by Dyaa Eldin on Unsplash

Fire Woman and Gin & Tonic Man . . . or Letting the Story Find You

campfireA deadline looms, and a voice tells me, once again, that I have nothing to say.

Mostly, I’m tired from helping repair my in-laws’ house, which involved hard physical work tearing down and rebuilding a 44-foot long deck over Labor Day weekend. I spent the weekend grunting and screwing—not the good kind.

Then, back to the office on Tuesday, where I was met with a slew of problems incurred by a new employee who quit suddenly.  The week loomed before me with nary a break in sight. When would I have a chance to think about what to write, let alone write?

That’s when I engaged a writing super power: Listening . . . a.k.a. letting the story find you.

It’s a trick I learned some time ago when I discovered that inspiration doesn’t really come from me so much as to me.

In other words, to be inspired, I don’t necessarily need a good long stretch of structured time to think, or the perfect writing desk, or a ready-made topic. No, I just need to pay attention—to listen with a writer’s ear—to the stories that naturally bump into me in the course of living my busy, sometimes, stressful life.

Which brings me to Fire Woman and Gin & Tonic Man.

During my crazy last week, while I was trying not to stress over what to write, I would periodically get calls from my 78-year-old mother and 83-year-old father, who were on a “little RV trip.” Gulp.  Were they up for that?  I hoped everything would go smoothly for them, but with each of their calls, I came to appreciate they didn’t really care if everything went smoothly.  In fact, each mini-disaster was an integral part of their adventure—they thought it was fun—and they handled these mini-disasters by accepting each as it came along, relaxing anyway, and engaging their ingenuity.

“The first day I was driving,” Mom (a new driver of the old RV) relayed to me, “we suddenly heard a terrific noise.  So I pulled over and instructed your father to take a look around the RV for any problems. He came back saying everything looked fine.”

That’s my dad’s usual response these days—everything is fine.  He doesn’t have quite the critical eye he used to.  So, they started out again, only to discover the noise was much worse and the entire RV was shaking.

“It’s the tire, Rick. I think it’s the tire!” my mom called out.

She pulled over again.  This time she got out to look around and found the left front tire had completely shredded. Whoops.

Never mind.

They called Triple A and found a tire store willing to replace all four tires—which they knew was needed, but had put off in order to get started on their trip.

Eventually, they made it to a campground and went to sleep.

The next day she called again.  I asked how it was going.  She said it was going well, that she had been Googling survival methods. She was calm. I was not.

“Oh? What’s happened now?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “Dad went off to fill the windshield wiper container and check the oil.  When he came back we checked the wipers, and they worked great, but I noticed he was carrying the transmission fluid . . . ”

“Oh no!”

She giggled a little.

“No worries. I just got on Google again, and apparently, people used to use transmission fluid instead of oil all the time.”

I interrupted my riveted listening, to ask, “Mom, are you sure you guys are okay?”

“Oh yes. We are having fun! Every day is a little adventure. Tonight, for instance, we decided to make a big bonfire. We went on a walk to all the deserted campsites and gathered up bits and pieces of firewood and dragged them back to our campsite. It’s our exercise,” she explained and went on, “Now, Dad’s making us a cocktail and we are going to relax by the fire I just built using a cotton ball dipped in Vaseline and a flint fire starter.”

“Did you say you started a fire with a cotton ball covered in Vaseline and a flint starter?” Apparently, she’d read about that in her survival guide.

“Yep,” she said cheerily. “Dad and I have given each other new nicknames. I am Fire Woman, and he is Gin & Tonic Man.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. They were a beautiful example of not only embracing life as it comes, but making it fun and creative too, making the best of whatever bumped into them.

And, lucky for me—daughter of Fire Woman and Gin & Tonic Man—their happy story just bumped into me, reminding me that I don’t have to go out and find a story, the story is very likely to find me, if only I relax, pay attention and listen.

Photo Credit: Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash

Bring on the Taskmaster!

chains wrapped around a woman's anklesI admit it—I am a slave. Sure, I hide it, presenting myself as a fiercely independent woman in control. Often, I resist it, attempting to ignore my fevered fetishes. But in all honesty, there are significant aspects of my life to which I am unquestionably, albeit joyfully, fettered: my morning latté, my husband, and, most especially, my writing.

I‘ve discovered this: embracing my servitude, instead of ignoring it, brings me to a whole new level of happiness—a kind of oneness with and deep appreciation for my aforementioned masters.

Thus, at 6:30 a.m. when the alarm rings, I rarely crawl back under the covers, because the coffee is calling me and I must answer its call. Truth is, my servitude to my morning latté makes me a better person; it makes me willing to face the day. It encourages me to start slowly, to ignore my “to do” lists for a spell, to forego my anxiety, to resist listening to any negative and critical voices in my head—in other words, to “wake up” before I carpé diem.

As for marital bliss, I’m done. I’m done ignoring that when I let go of my fear of being dependent, my fear of appearing weak, my fear of being in servitude to another—and instead, openly bowed in humble devotion to my husband for some spell every day—our connection grew stronger, our loving more passionate, our experience of “oneness” more complete.

I am not alone in discovering this. It was Rumi who poetically captured one married couple’s bliss:

“Their secret was this: That once every day, for an hour, they treated each other as if they were gods and would, with all their heart, do anything, anything their beloved desired.”

Which brings me finally to writing—my most demanding of masters—and you.

Perhaps you, too, (like I used to be) are currently unwitting slaves to your writing. Maybe you hear the call; you feel the pull; you know the sense of completion that comes when you finally put pen to paper, when you sit down and write.

Perhaps then you also know the sick feeling when you fail to write—the loss of connection to a deep yearning within your soul. The failure to write might be spurred by an innocuous but compelling voice in your head saying you are too busy to write, or a judging voice saying that writing is just too hard, or a voice of anxiety projecting a low-level fear that your work won’t be good enough (these certainly all have shown up for me).

In truth, these excuses—these “voices”—are conditioned fearful responses to anything that might awaken something powerful within. I say that because I’ve seen behind the veil. I’ve seen writing for what it truly is in my life: My Guru. I now bow before it and use it to pay attention to life as it unfolds, to practice ruthless honesty, to be courageous before the pen, despite the voices. And to write no matter what.

But it didn’t come easily. I had to work at it. I pussyfooted my way along at first, dipping my toes into the writing waters. Dabbling. Sure, I read the value of adopting a predictable writing practice, but couldn’t quite manage to do it. I “tried” to establish a writing practice instead of committing to one. Frustrated, I carved out time for a writing retreat at some point, but the voices came along. That’s when I discovered the value of having someone else—a friend, a close relative, a writing coach—hold me accountable. Someone who would ask me, “How much writing did you do today?” Someone, who would respond to my squirming resistance that it “just wasn’t happening today,” with a firm, “So?”

In short, I discovered the value of having a Taskmaster.

And sure enough, my Taskmaster primed my writing pumps. My Taskmaster helped hone my servitude to the page. My Taskmaster focused my attention and helped me see that writing does not always flow.

Having just completed Open, master tennis player, André Agassi’s memoir, I appreciate that just as he had bad tennis days (years even) and still kept practicing tennis, so too must I continue to practice my writing. And, just as his fitness coach, Gil, helped him, my Taskmaster helps me. In remaining committed to my writing practice, I have forged a trustworthy connection with that deep yearning within my soul to write. I honor the unwritten contract.

These days, I make a reachable commitment and then bow humbly before my Guru and do its bidding. I write. (And if I don’t, my Taskmaster calls me to the table.)

So if you find yourself faltering, I say, “Bring on the Taskmaster!” It is time to get serious.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/chains-feet-sand-bondage-prison-19176/

Wabi Sabi Writer, Wabi Sabi Life

A meme that says A beautiful thing is never perfectIn college, I was a straight A student who once took a class “pass/fail” to give myself a break. Turns out I didn’t know how to relax my effort and ended up getting an A anyway—though that only showed up as “pass” and I suffered in the process. At the time, though, I thought perfection was an admirable goal. I patted myself on the back for it.  

Then I lived more of my life and learned something valuable.

Although still conditioned to strive for perfection, I’ve come to appreciate the haphazard, the imperfect, and the uncontrollable.  I see that at the untidy edges of life, passion escapes its shackles and truth is revealed. Messy, incomplete, and broken are beautiful, too.

The other day, I was cleaning my office, trying to create order once again. The recycling bin had overflowed, and the piles, stacked everywhere—comprised of random bills, things to remember, upcoming events, and business notes—no longer made sense. I sighed, thinking it was a disaster.

However, as I sorted the papers into keep and throw away piles, I came across all kinds of random thoughts jotted down and forgotten. My writings were on scraps of paper, half-written spiral notebooks, and yellow note pads, interspersed among “to do” lists, travel itineraries, and business documents. These random introspective thoughts perfectly reflected my experience of late—haphazard, messy, and unfocused, but unexpectedly poignant. It was as if, in the periphery of my hectic life, there was a part of me reading between the lines, noticing the beauty, enlivened by life and appreciating it.

On one scrap of paper I had written:

“Out of the corner of my eye, I see the truth . . . that life is good, that existence itself is a miracle. I sense the glory often—but too often I see life face on. I see the content of life. I see suffering. And suffering comes from the weaving of sad stories—stories that weave webs of fear and loneliness.

Just today a friend of mine was struggling, unable to see anything but a broken arm and a broken car. She said she’d been up all night, stuck in the loneliness of the wee hours in a blackness that felt bleak, not deep. I know that place too.

 I want to enfold her in my arms—to tell her everything is okay; nothing is wrong. That life is a rich tapestry and that she is an integral part of that.

Soften your gaze I want to say. This too shall pass. And, while I may not have arms big enough to enfold all of suffering, Life does.

Just out of the corner of my eye, I can see the truth, can you?

Another note said:

My life—all of it: spiritual worldview, material worldview, being happy, being stuck—is my practice. There is no part of my life that is not an opportunity. Of course, I have known this intellectually, but it hit me viscerally this morning on my walk.

Another, referencing a Japanese worldview centered on the art of imperfection, said more simply,

I am Wabi Sabi, and that’s okay.”

Life itself, I reflect, now—like my office, like my random thoughts, like the tree growing crookedly between other trees—is Wabi Sabi perfect, just as it is.

As a writer, this understanding has freed me. I’ve gently let go of the student constantly striving for an ‘A’ in a pass/fail setting—the perfectionist holding my writing hostage. I now throw all kinds of ideas down on bits and scraps of paper.  I capture random moments and insights. Some I use, others I don’t. Sometimes, wildly disparate ideas from different times and places and different scraps of paper find themselves together in an article.  

Truthfully, I am never sure where the inspiration comes from, but I appreciate that it is the messy edges of life that pulse with vitality—and that is what I want to write about.

I am a Wabi Sabi writer writing about Wabi Sabi life.

Photo Credit: pics.onsizzle.com, 6593552.png

Enlivenment Along the Way

White Jasmine Blossoms in San Diego
White Jasmine Blossoms in My Yard

When the jasmine plant comes into bloom, first two or three tiny petals open, whispering the hint of what is to come.  Soon another and another burst forth.  Others die off, but the tempo increases until enough have bloomed that a symphony of scent reaches its climax.

Sometimes, whole climbing arms die off, leaving the plant looking a bit withered and worn, but a little water and warmth revitalize it.

Before long, the tempo increases and the plant comes back again into full bloom, delighting me with its sweet, faintly musky, sensuous and intoxicating scent.

It is a delicate scent, however, that dissipates quickly in the night breeze. Hopefully the trace left lingering invites me to seek more—to stop and sit awhile in the bounty, like a child with a pole at a great fishing hole, enjoying one of life’s prolific, if fleeting, offerings.

Enlivenment is like the night blooming jasmine.

When I became an empty nester, it was as if one entire arm of my inner jasmine bush withered and died. Being a mom lit me up. Sure, cooking and cleaning, dealing with tantrums and making sure they did their homework exhausted me, but I relished it. Every day offered a whiff of something precious—a moment to notice, a memory to cherish. When the kids were little we’d dive into spontaneous crafts together, make homemade pasta noodles, and grow vegetable soup. We’d read books, play games and laugh—a lot—well, almost as much as we cried, anyway, but even that was enlivening.  

When the kids grew older we went on adventures: hiking and backpacking, rock hounding, swimming with dolphins . . .

For me, motherhood was naturally enlivening. Sure, there was a subtle underlying goal to help the kids grow confident enough to fly on their own from the nest, but it was never a goal I focused on. Never a goal I worried about. I didn’t set out with the intention to reach that goal as efficiently and quickly as possible. No. I caught the sweet scent of life in each moment on the breeze and happily lingered, like the child with a fishing pole, abuzz with contentment.

Of course, the kids did grow up and fly from the nest I built, and I—withered  jasmine vine that I’d become—had to regroup. I had to find new enlivenment.

I set out with gusto.  But without the kids’ blossoms lingering on the breeze enticing me to stop and play, to be content, I was left with only my adult conditioning, which seemed to alternate between running desperately toward society driven goals (make and spend lots of money) and collapsing into distraction (wine and movies.)  

I thought I was doing right for myself, actively going after my new enlivenment—a loftier title, a sexier product, a bucket load of more money, the respect of my peers. I thought when I caught that golden ring, I’d be enlivened again.  Someday.

Meanwhile more arms of my jasmine bush wilted and died.

It took a while to remember how to care for myself, how to offer my dry roots water and how to wrap myself up in my own warmth and inner encouragement.

Then the company I worked for went bankrupt and I lost my job.  All the goals I’d been reaching for disappeared.

But in their absence, I remembered: enlivenment is not something you go after—something you can grab on to. It’s more delicate than that. It’s the faint scent on a light breeze that tickles something inside and makes you smile. It’s a field of yellow flowers, a rainbow, a moment with a friend, an afternoon in bed with your beloved. Enlivenment grows by paying attention to this moment. This one.

I got out a pen and paper and started writing personal essays again, capturing moments. I took myself out of the “to do” list arena—out of the “make a deadline” or “meet a goal” mindset—and back into something that encouraged me to slow down and pay attention—to mull things gently over in my mind. To let things be.

One day a little blossom burst forth tentatively telling me I was on the right path, so I joined a writing group. It made me happy to be compelled to write regularly for no reason at all. When the juices got flowing, I found it easy to start a cooking and storytelling blog. Another blossom opened.  My world unfolded with potential writing fodder—so long as I paid attention to the nuances of each moment.  How would I capture that mood? How would I describe that setting or that moment with the hummingbird?

By and by, my jasmine bush came into full bloom again.

Enlivenment, I saw, is not something to go after with gusto, but rather something present along the way—a mindful essence, a sweetness that emanates from within. It comes forth naturally when I stop and listen, when I play—and, for me, when I write.

Maybe writing holds this potential for you too.

If you find yourself withering on the vine, try this: get out a pen and paper and write. Write what is before you right now. Write about the thoughts and feelings swirling. Write about what it feels like to be withering. Then get quiet and write about what you love, what you notice lights you up, what brings you to your knees in a simple moment of awe. Write about what enlivens you.

Photo Credit: Marijke McCandless

Write to Reveal

An almost naked woman laying provocatively on a white tableI cleared away the used Roy’s Coffee House paper cups I had collected over the week, then painstakingly sorted through multiple yellow pads filled with “To Do” lists related to my new job program managing for a startup telecommunications company. By and by I revealed my desk, which had become messy over the last few days. Ahhh. That felt nice. I had spent the week collecting things on my desk haphazardly, knowing I would need them at some point. Now, just the right things were left: one yellow pad with an updated action items list, one pen, a water bottle, and a neat stack of purchase orders.

Unwittingly, a thought popped into my head that good writing was like this too: carefully choreographed scenes revealing essential ingredients needed to create a setting and push a story forward.

Then I thought about the semantics we use to describe this process and noted therein was the problem. Instead of thinking from the perspective of “building a scene,” we might become better writers if we imagine we are unveiling a scene to our reader.

There you are, facing a blank page to which you must add words. Stop. Rearrange your thinking. See the scene in your mind’s eye. Now imagine, as you write, that each word or phrase you put on the page is designed to reveal more of that scene to your reader, slowly disclosing bits and pieces of critical content. Some words will show teasers of a physical description (not too much at once), others will lay bare the thoughts and feelings motivating a character.

Ultimately, we writers are not scene builders at all, but rather striptease artists, using our words to reveal the very essence—the naked truth—of what we want our readers to take away, and, perhaps in the process, baring a bit of ourselves as well.

PHOTO CREDIT:

Seeking the Super Bloom

California Super Bloom WIldflowers in Purple and YelloWe drove back from Las Vegas the other day, intentionally going three hours out of our way to drive through the Anza Borrego Desert to see the Super Bloom. I had envisioned fields of bright flowers carpeting the desert floor, so I was underwhelmed by the scattering of pale flowering weeds that I could see from the car window as we drove through.  Was this the Super Bloom?

Sure, patches of flowers were scattered throughout the desert, and the patches I could see did seem to be different colors: purple, white, pink, yellow. But I was tired. And there was a lot of traffic. I was slightly depressed and didn’t feel like getting out and walking through the desert for a closer look.

Truthfully, my attitude to life at this moment was dulled from an argument I’d had with my husband. We’d just returned from a somewhat stressful trip to Las Vegas—where all the individual pieces were fun—seeing old friends, helping our daughter move into a new house, climbing at Red Rocks. But the overall accumulation of activity had drained us—had overwhelmed our nervous systems.

It had been a crazy mess of activity while we were there, hooking up appliances, making dinner for big groups, walking “the strip,” watching Cirque d’ Soleil, driving around looking for houses with our friends, and rock climbing.  I had gotten scared on one of the climbs and snapped at my husband.

I had also gotten a sudden bee in my bonnet to look at houses—maybe Las Vegas was a place our family could live together again, I dreamed. But the sea of Stepford-wives in planned communities deterred me.  I tried to find something off the beaten track closer to the canyon lands. When a beautiful house showed up in Zillow in a tiny community near the Red Rock Canyon a half hour drive away, I called the real estate agent to see if we could see it.  That was a mistake. I was just chasing a fantasy dream—something I wasn’t even sure I wanted—and dragging my husband along for the ride. He wasn’t expecting a real estate agent to be there and was embarrassed since he had no intention of moving.

“We wasted her time,” he said later. I hadn’t seen it that way, but perhaps I should have. Anyway, the house was great, but I didn’t like the area—too far from necessities, like a grocery store.

Then we drove home, planning to go out of our way to see the Super Bloom in the Anza Borrego Desert.  A forbidding silence—not the good kind—filled the car.  I began practicing what I had been taught in awareness training—to simply notice what was going on. I noticed I felt bad. I felt bad for snapping at him. I felt bad for looking at the house. I felt bad for taking extra time to drive home. I felt bad that the Super Bloom he and I had recently experienced in our relationship appeared to be waning.

I noticed that these negative thoughts filled my mind as we drove through the desert, coloring my appreciation. What was so great about this “Super Bloom” anyway?  Where are the carpets of flowers? Where is the abundance?

We drove home, never getting out of the car. The minute we got back to Alpine, a proliferation of rich, vibrant flowers greeted us—right in our own backyard.  Great swaths of dark orange-y yellow flowers lined the freeway. In our neighborhood, the bright magenta succulents were in full color, “carpeting” the road near our house. Our own orchard had burst into bloom, too.

Later, I talked with others who had driven out to the Anza Borrego Desert to see the Super Bloom, curious about their experience. Some were underwhelmed, as I had been, but others were overwhelmed with the abundance they found.  My hairdresser described the most magical day out there in the desert with her husband.  They had gotten out of their car and hiked into the palm oasis, where the flowers showed themselves readily amongst the cacti.  She said it was one of the best moments she and her husband had experienced together.  They wandered in the beauty, appreciated each other, found a secret watering hole. They themselves bloomed out there in the desert.

As I mulled over these observations in the weeks following, odd thoughts and comparisons came to mind.  I thought about 9/11.  I thought about the photos I saw in those initial days of the destruction, chaos, and terrorism.  I remembered that, despite the fear and sadness, I felt something else blooming within me as I saw at ground level people helping people—forgoing past prejudices, ignoring race and gender, overlooking economic status. I saw people reaching out to one another. I saw and felt a Super Bloom of compassion in those days following 9/11.

And today, in the wasteland of our current political climate, I feel something of the same thing. On the one hand, I look out and see a barren desert threatening to lay waste to things dear to me. I feel fear and negative thoughts reigning. But when I stop and look closer—when I get out of the car to walk into a palm oasis, when I notice the proliferation in my own backyard, when I override the feeling of being overwhelmed and the dull attitude taking hold of my heart—I see a Super Bloom unfolding.  Again, I see people supporting each other, rising up among the thorny cacti to offer love and compassion despite the climate—despite the polarity of views. I see people engaging with the “other” political side, asking questions of one another, striving to understand one another. I see people wildly increasing their donations to organizations they appreciate, people finding the time to volunteer, people speaking out against oppression, people holding the light.

I see myself pausing and wondering how I too can contribute—wondering what I, as a writer and awareness practitioner, can offer.

I think, too, of the conditions that lead to a Super Bloom—a long drought followed by a generous rain that encourages the long dormant seeds to shed their protective covering.

I see that as a writer and an awareness practitioner I have a choice. I have a choice of what to write about, what to notice, what to draw attention to.  I see that my first glance at something—out of a car window while harboring a dull attitude—may not be the juiciest one, the truest one. It might not be the message I want to share or the feeling I want to cultivate. It might take a little more perseverance. It might be something simple, like noticing what’s going on in my own mind instead of being consumed by it, or appreciating what’s in my own backyard instead of seeking it elsewhere. It might take wandering deeper into the desert for a closer look.  It might be remembering good things not bad, and appreciating the great patches of flowers popping up everywhere, despite everything.

And, if I am truly dried up, overwhelmed, and encased in a protective coating unable to flower, I can trust that abundance will flow again. I can remember that even the dormant stage is part of the process, and I can always notice and write about that.

Photo Credit: Marijke McCandless