Strategies for Beating Summertime Writing Blues

a picture of beach sand with the word success carved into the sandTime for some painful honesty.

I was more fidgety than the students I teach in anticipating summer. I couldn’t wait to revise my memoir without interference from my full-time job as a college professor. Gershwin’s song became an earworm: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . .”

Summer 2017 lingered in memory as an ideal I sought to recreate. It had been my first experience of feeling like a “real” writer. I woke early, dove into revising and suspended in a flow. My enthusiasm often outlasted my body’s willingness to hunker in front of a screen, so I went for an afternoon run, walk, or yoga class. Then I returned to revising, brimming with ideas that exercise and a shower had shaken loose.

By August 1st, I had rewritten my book’s second or third draft (I’d lost track). I felt proud of my rewrite’s unique structure, which I’d arrived at by sticking and unsticking color-coded Post-It Notes to my office door as if playing Tetris. I liked the structure’s resemblance to lattice, its layered imagery and echoing themes. I liked how closely that structure mirrored the content, which describes how learning to ride horses in my late 30s helped me recover from a decades’ long eating disorder and accompanying depression. The book felt like a true representation of who I am as a writer.

With the Dog Days breathing down my neck, I pivoted to prepping classes and hatched a plan: spend the academic year querying agents, entering contests, and building my author platform.

I attended a pitch conference in September, where a senior editor at one of America’s largest publishers requested my manuscript. I was thrilled but realistic, aware that a request was worlds away from an offer to publish. I also held the suspicion that every editor/agent we pitched to requested a few manuscripts regardless of intent to publish so we writers would leave happy and conference organizers would extend more invitations to earn stipends.

Months passed. The senior editor remained mute. Two agents not affiliated with the conference requested my manuscript, but neither wanted to represent it. Rejections trickled into my email inbox.

March 2018’s slog toward Spring, along with feedback from agents, forced me to some conclusions about my memoir:

  1. its premise was interesting
  2. its voice was appealing
  3. its structure was off-putting.

Agents, it seems, want a memoir that adheres to Freytag’s Pyramid, the familiar structure girding nearly every creative work, from ancient Greek plays like Oedipus Rex to 1940s novels like George Orwell’s 1984 to 21st century short stories like George Saunders’ “The 10th of December.”

I’d gambled on a structure and lost, so I stopped submitting. I put plans for a new writing project on hold and resolved to spend summer 2018 restructuring my memoir.

I submitted final grades gleefully in May and then . . . did everything possible to avoid my memoir.

Revising to please others (instead of myself) held no appeal. My book’s content felt stale—far removed from the experiences that had inspired it—and trampled by over-editing. And I couldn’t escape the knowledge that I might spend a precious, too-short Minnesota summer plodding through work I dreaded only to end up without publication to show for it.

June 1 came and went. I had to decide: Do the work or chuck the book. I finally managed to unearth some excitement about revising with help from some essential tools:

  • Self-help books. While looking for texts that would help my students learn time management, I came across Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Her book encourages readers to identify their preferences in order to form good habits. A passage on novelty versus familiarity answered questions I’d puzzled over for years: Why I did tackle some challenges eagerly but avoid others? The answer was my preference for novelty. While some people find familiarity comforting, I find it irritating. I crave discovery. Understanding that preference turned a character flaw into a small solvable problem: Hate the repetitive nature of vacuuming? Listen to a podcast while doing it. Dread revising a memoir? Find some new tools.

 

  • New tools. As a starry-eyed creative writing program graduate in 2003, I bought novel-writing software called Power Structure. Then I left the installation CD untouched. But I broke it out this summer. Learning a new program adds novelty to a familiar process. The software also presents options I’d never considered for experimenting with plot, character, and narrative tension.

 

  • Different environments. I struggle to write in the home office where I create syllabi and grade essays. My two professional roles—writer and teacher—require different mental framework. Simply moving from the office to the dining room table helped my brain shift gears.

 

  • Other writers. At my lowest point, I considered giving up writing altogether. Conversations with other writers lured me back to the keyboard by reminding me that we all sit on an emotional seesaw, that failure is a means rather than an end. A colleague who read my book’s first draft suggested beginning the revision with an event I’d mentioned in passing—something I hadn’t considered writing about. As soon as she suggested it, I could envision how perfectly it would set up the book’s central conflict. Viola! More novelty to fuel my fire.

 

  • Support Networks. Talking to my sister revealed how unreasonable I was in expecting an overnight transition from teaching to writing. Our conversation also reminded me of the two-year creative drought that followed my Ph.D. Every time I sat down to write, I heard my dissertation advisor poking fun at my proposal draft, saying that including transitional phrases was “bad writing,” and declaring I must start every sentence with one of three phrases she dictated. The power imbalance in our relationship convinced me she was right about my writing despite what tutoring graduate students in a university writing center had taught me. A supportive writing group helped me recover then, and it would now, too.

 

  • Value Mindset. Maybe it’s hubris, but I think my book offers value, especially to people battling negative body image, bearing depression’s weight, doubting the power of mind-body-spirit alignment, or seeking to understand what horses teach us about ourselves. I want to share hard-won insights so that others can avoid my mistakes. Believing in my book’s purpose adds meaning to a process that too often seems pointless.

I’m in the exposition phase of revising (again), so this post leaves Freytag’s Pyramid incomplete. Here’s hoping my summer plot thickens . . .  

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1909823/

Listen Play Write: A Writer’s Recipe for Enlivenment.

a heart-shaped moon in the skyHave you heard the voices?

The voices of self-hate in the head I mean.  The ones that judge and analyze, compare and shame. The ones that tell stories of great woe. The ones that cause suffering.

When they arise, I despair. I want there to be a formula that I can turn to in times of distress.  I want someone else to tell me how to do it. Just tell me what to do I silently implore.  I notice, however, that when someone does, I judge and scoff thinking I know better.  

And so the conversation in the head goes on: one voice shameful and despairing, the other a righteously indignant know-it-all.

The voices are well-worn thought patterns that have been sculpted by my cultural surroundings, life experiences, gender, desires, aversions, beliefs. They can be triggered by words or events, and because they are very good at telling stories, they sound just like me.

But they are not.  

How do I know?

Because when I am most alive—when life and creativity flow from me unbidden, when I am playing or writing or making love, when the stillness of a moment fills me up with wonder and awe—those voices are not there and yet I still am.  And that “I” feels enlivened, pulsing with energy. That “I” participates fully in life without the help of the voices.

Not to say that our conditioned thoughts are not helpful. Sure they are. They help me remember names and places, pay bills, plan trips, and acquire skills, but they don’t rightfully belong in the arena of making me happy. And, when they cross over into the direct realm of causing suffering, it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.

Just the other day I stepped into my own private darkroom while collapsing under the weight of self-inflicted suffering. I had taken something someone said the wrong way, and a whole minefield thought storm followed. But today? Well, today, I saw the thoughts still brewing, but instead of revisiting that well-trodden path of despair, I gathered painting tools around me in bright luminescent colors and invite friends to come over for a painting party.

Wow, I thought. Did it last a bit shorter this time? Did I let go of suffering a tad bit faster?

“No!” the voices in my head screamed. “You’re still all screwed up.”

I dipped my toe out of the persistent suffering mind for a moment, testing the waters.

Hmm. Nope. No suffering here: just my chair and my fingers typing, breath in my chest, blue sky out the window, and painting designs swirling in the background.

“Yeah, but . . . remember how you felt just yesterday? How you were all closed down, and there was a big weight on your chest? What, you think that’s not still lurking in the shadows?” the voices taunt.

I consider their mean words and realize I don’t have to listen to them. They are not me. As I ponder this moment of clarity, the words of my good friend, who had heard enough of outward bemoaning one day, drop in:  Are you done yet?  Can we go play now?

So, like the Titanic making a 180-degree course correction, I intentionally move my attention away from them—leaving the tip of their iceberg behind, knowing beneath that tip is a mammoth structure that will take me down.

As I pull my attention away, the voices warn me about repressing my feelings, but I’ve got that number. I remember feelings are physical sensations in the body—energy moving, not voices telling a story about what those sensations mean.

I spend a few moments tuning in to my body. I feel my feet against the floor, the tightness in my back from sitting too long. I close my eyes and draw my attention to where my right hand is.  With my eyes closed, I can’t even be sure that my right hand exists, but I notice a pulsing aliveness there. I let a smile creep into my cheeks, just for the hell of it, and wonder at the warmth that spreads to my chest when I do so.   

I enjoy being still for a moment and genuinely listening to life, listening to everything but the conditioned voices in my head. I hear a bird call, the wind rustling, the sound of my own heartbeat, my husband puttering in the kitchen. A playful thought drops in about hugging my husband and giving him a coy smile of invitation. And then, I return to the computer and write because writing, like meditation, affords me the opportunity to pay attention to all the details of what is.

My journey to happiness is a moment-by-moment choice to navigate away from suffering back to that which helps me pay attention to now.

And then it comes to me: I do have my very own formula for enlivenment: Listen. Play. Write.

What’s your formula?

 

Photo Credit: https://1164739/

 

How Meditation Can Help When Writing About Emotional Events

a person laying on the ground in sorrowAre you ever apprehensive before writing about a painful emotional scene in your memoir? Taking a deep dive into a difficult memory can often take us right back to that time as if we’re reliving the moment. Although this makes for great descriptive writing, when writing something troubling or traumatic, we can viscerally re-experience our sadness, fear, despair, and rage. Sometimes it leaves us reeling.

It’s important to keep the emotional body safe when diving into a more intense scene. How do we accomplish this task—telling our story, without feeling re-traumatized by the telling?

One of the best ways I’ve found is with meditation. It allows you to center yourself, focus on your breathing and enter a state of calm mind and body. Meditation helps shift the nervous system out of the fight or flight response that gets activated during trauma and stress. By doing a short meditation before and after writing an emotional scene, you create a safe space in which to write.

For an example of a meditation you can use, click the link or read the transcription below.

 

Close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath, the simple rhythm of in and out, in and out. Feel the air entering and exiting your nose. Sense as each inhale and exhale becomes smoother and longer. Rest deeply in the pauses between your in-breath and out-breath. Notice, as your breath slows, your heart beats slower. As your heart softens, your mind becomes quiet and tranquil, like a calm lake on a windless day.

From this relaxed state of body and mind, envision a warm, golden light above the crown of your head. Imagine that light entering your body through the top of your head, bringing softness to your face. Feel the muscles of your forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose and jaw release and let go. Sense the warmth of the golden light moving down your neck and into your shoulders, rolling down your arms to the tips of your fingers. Become aware of the light filling the space in your chest, caressing your heart and creating a safe space to feel. Let the golden illumination shine down, pooling in your lower belly, then gently flowing down your legs, relaxing the muscles of your thighs, shins, and calves. As it reaches your feet, embrace complete relaxation. Float in a sea of comfort and peace.

Rest in this peaceful stillness with your eyes remaining gently closed. Then draw your inner gaze slightly inward and upward to the space just between and slightly above your eyebrows. Invite an image to form in your mind. An image of a place where you’ve felt entirely serene, safe and protected. Remember its colors, hear the sounds, notice the texture of the surface supporting you. Sense the temperature of the air around you, smell the aromas. Touch and feel your environment with your mind. Allow this place of secure refuge to fill you with a sense of protection and peace, knowing deep in your core that you are safe.

Connect this profound level of safety to a place deep in your heart. Allow this calming sense of protection to anchor you in a space of security as you begin to contemplate the emotional scene you’ll be writing. As memories or intense emotions arise, take special care to keep your body comfortable and relaxed, breathing slowly, in, out, in, out. Let this stable state of Being you’ve cultivated through this meditation be your foundation—a safe harbor to rest amidst any stormy emotions that emerge. When you feel ready to transcribe your memories into powerful words on the page, slowly open your eyes and begin to write.

****

After writing your scene, check back in with your body and mind. Notice any sensations or vibrations that may need soothing. If you feel activated in any way, close your eyes and repeat the body scan and meditation. Or you may simply focus on your breath until your mind, body, and heart feel at peace again.

Using these breathwork and meditation techniques can help you maintain a sense of equanimity and peaceful awareness when writing difficult emotional scenes. Once you’ve tried this meditation, please leave your comments and share your experience.

 

A photo of Kimberly JoyKimberly Joy writes to share messages that uplift and inspire. Her pieces encourage and provide new ways of perceiving the world and life’s experiences. Her background as a Physical Therapist, Restorative Yoga Teacher and Guided Meditation Specialist gives her a deep understanding of the mind-body connection. She loves to share this wisdom in hopes of assisting others on their journeys of health, healing, and inner peace. You can find more of her writing at MessagesfromJoy.org

 

Photo Credit: Kimberly Joy and Žygimantas Dukauskas on Unsplash

How to Write While Triggered

a man in a suit reaching toward the red nuclear buttonI’m triggered, and I have good reason to be: the state of our world. Need I say more?

My curled, stiff trigger fingers can’t type, and even if they could, my words are frozen in my brain by my powerlessness. By the fear of what could become of us and the wheels of darkness that are already in motion. By the sadness rising in my throat as I watch it unfold. And the guilt pounding in my temples for not doing more to stop it.

When I am triggered like this, my writing comes screeching to a halt. But I can’t allow this. Because my writing is connected to the wellness of my mind, body, and soul. To stop writing now, when the world desperately needs the power of our words, would be admitting defeat to the evil rising around us. And if our world is a contest, this is not one I am willing to forfeit.

So how do I get back to a place where I can create? Where I can produce work that is not filled with rage or fear or hopelessness? At this juncture, how do I yield writing that is both heartfelt and engaging, while also staying aware of my mission and true to my humanity?

I have scraped together a few tips here. My hope is, when you find yourself blocked due to stressful circumstances, be they in your family, in your body, or in your politics, these tools will help you, too, find a way back to your pen.

  1. Meditation. You’ve heard this a thousand times, but in my opinion, it can not be said enough. Meditation is free, it’s easy, and it works. This guided meditation by Feisty guest blogger Kimberly Joy (also featured today) deals with this very thing—allowing meditation to help you create distance between your trauma and your words so you can write your story. Remember, it can take up to six months to feel the initial effects of meditation so don’t give up. Never give up. On any of this.
  2. Read something that inspires you. Make it a sure thing. Pick a piece highly recommended by a friend in your favorite genre. Or something written by someone you admire. The point is, when all else fails, bury your head in a book that will bring you joy. My guess is your head spent a lot of time bent over pages as a kid, not blinking, tearing the bindings of your favorite series. Being child-like during times of stress is always liberating to the pen.
  3. Go to the place where your best ideas come. Whether you’re on a nature walk or stepping toe to heel in a tight circle in your living room, blowing bubbles in the shower or while surfing, jabberjaw-ing about ideas with a buddy or sitting in silence at your favorite museum, identify the setting where many of your ideas land, and spend time there. My best ideas arrive when I’m driving. I wouldn’t think that would be my place of enlightenment, but alas, it is. On episode 22 of the Masters of Scale podcast, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkdIn, talks to Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, about How to Find Your Big Idea. Turns out her ideas come in the car, too. So although she lives a few minutes from the Spanx headquarters, she wakes up an hour early and does what her friends call a “fake commute,” driving around Atlanta, giving ideas permission to enter. Sara Blakely is an entrepreneur, but I think writers and entrepreneurs depend on a few of the same things—fierce creativity and even more ferocious bravery. To stay inspired for this ferocity, setting matters. So be in your place.
  4. Redirect your thoughts. Meditation helps with this but if you can’t do that, simply do this. Acknowledge that your thoughts are not you and that, in fact, they are both separate and directable by you. In the beginning, this may feel hard. But like most things, it takes practice and more practice. Once you have it down, choose to direct your thoughts toward creative, productive pursuits.
  5. Write cat poems. Maybe this sounds like it doesn’t apply. Give me a sec, and I’ll explain. I have a thing for my cats. They are a bottomless well of cuteness and entertainment to my family and me. You can exchange the word “cat” for “dog” if that fits better. Or “horse.” Or “pig.” Anway, recently, with pen stuck like glue, I was compelled to write a cat poem. Then I posted it on Twitter. Twitter has limited characters and, for me, an even more limited audience. This makes it a perfect place to write publicly about the crazy beasts that make me smile. And it was fun! And easy. Maybe you don’t want to tweet animal poems. My point is less that and more this: push your boundaries. Try something new. Find what brings you joy and write about it somewhere. Publicly, privately, it doesn’t matter. Just write. Whatever, whenever, however you can. Don’t abandon your words. Our world needs your voice to create necessary change, now more than ever.

 

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-3038098/

Read and Critique

emoji scale from angry to happyReading my work aloud, followed by a peppering of critiques, sounded like a college hazing to me. Minus the alcohol. However, I had agreed with my writing coach, published author and ridiculously talented playwright (her most recent work—A Jewish Joke—is moving east, Off Broadway), that my work was ripe for fresh ears. Her group convenes at a California seaside cottage belonging to a creative artist named Barbara.

A First Impression

On that first day—my blind date with this scholarly firing squad—I cradled the introduction of my non-fiction self-help book under my arm as I opened the gate to Barbara’s property. Her garden telegraphed Henri Rousseau—towering birds of paradise, pebbled paths, a lush green backdrop.

I opened the cottage door to a cozy living room. Women of all ages greeted me with smiles and welcoming noises. Their chorus of “Hi, come on in!” did nothing to calm my nerves. These writers looked harmless, but I feared the worst. After all, my flimsy introduction made no sense. My writing lacked clarity, relevance, and imagery. The perfect expression of my work had eluded me despite my years of on-again, off-again attempts.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my writing coach and my years of indentured servitude to my own determination, I held the semblance of a rough draft. Despite my misgivings, in the recesses of my soul, I held onto the faint hope that my writing was pretty darned good. That I was “almost finished.” I imagined the group’s hints about grammar or sequence. But the realistic part of me suspected that I had “miles to go before I would sleep.”

As we mingled, I wandered through Barbara’s home. I admired the colorful mugs on her kitchen counter, the tangerines, and almonds offered as snacks, the bold oil paintings on her dining room walls.

Shaking the hands of my fellow creatives, I warmed to the idea that reading might be fun.

Then we convened. Our leader, my beloved writing coach, began with her hilarious and warm introduction. Personal stories were shared, reports on projects bandied about. Then the invitation, would I like to read? I cleared my throat, and read in my best professional voice.

Having conducted workshops for my counselor peers, having taught for decades, having counseled belligerent parents whose violence required a police presence, NONE of these experiences prepared me for the sharing of my written words. Feeling equal parts faint and nauseated, I read my introduction to the listening audience.

Later That Night

Arriving home after that first dive, I told my husband, “Maybe I’m not ready for this read and critique challenge.” He asked me to elaborate.

“They’re all very encouraging. Lots of ‘this process will help people’ and ‘your message is good,’ but I could feel my words dying as they left my mouth. Each sentence felt like torture. I HATED my own work.”

I explained that the group did offer editing nuggets: structural advice, conceptual criticism, grammar tips. But all this help would force  me back to the page in a way that made my head spin. I had SO hoped to be nearing the finish line. Instead, I was just hearing a starting gun.

Of course, other members had arrived with their hot-off-the-press prose. I’d acted as a beta-reader for one of the authors. The sharing of her hilarious romp through China had us hooting with laughter. Pitch perfect comedy. Her work is destined for the big screen.

Then the amazing memoirists—their ability to lift their personal plights to compelling narrative—brilliance. And a travel writer who had us salivating for our next adventure. Every single writer at the top of her game. Oh, and the witty journalist whose intelligence shines through her every muscular sentence. Not fair!

One of our authors is a playwright. Our collective jaws dropped when she re-enacted one woman’s experience of the Nuremberg trials, props and flawless German accent included. Dazzling talent, destined for greatness.

I reminded myself that I was not competing. It was an honor to be among these creative creatures.

I cried on my husband’s shoulder for a few more moments, but then I HAD to make an attempt. Bitten by the bug of creative compulsion, I locked myself in the study. I cut, tore and soldered words onto the page. Every day for a week, I entered
that study with grim determination. Then a return performance.

Nevertheless, I Persisted

Back to the garden of verses, my revised introduction in my sweaty hands. I began. My words flowed easily. The body and fender work had paid off. They laughed; they applauded; I blushed.

Now, months later, I still feel a frisson of excitement each time I open the gate to Barbara’s garden. I live for Thursday mornings.

I can hardly wait for the unfolding of each writer’s next chapter. And, of course, for their responses to whatever I managed to whittle into a block of writing for my next reading.

 

Phyllis Olins headshotPhyllis Olins holds a master’s degree in counseling and has trained extensively

in conflict mediation. She has had over 20 years of experience in applying conflict-mediation

strategies to dilemmas in all walks of life.

 

Phyllis’ book, The Conflict Crunch, will be released in the spring of 2019.

 

Back to the Source of Feistiness

Feistiness, a woman leaping into the airWhen I was a child, the greatest accolade my mother could give someone was to say they were “feisty.”  Of all other qualities, feistiness was most revered.

Those who others might describe as difficult, she termed “feisty,” an admirable quality that might allow one to forgive the snarky manner in which they expressed an action or opinion.

Feisty Origins

Perhaps her appreciation for feistiness stems from her childhood when she lived in occupied Holland during World World II. Her family hid Jews, and her mother worked for the underground. Survival itself took a particular brand of plucky courage in the face of despair and oppression. Or maybe it was because one of the Jews they hid ended up becoming her stepfather—a man who regularly tormented her. As she grew up, she daily faced the choice: be feisty in his face or wither on his overbearing unkind vine.

Whatever the reason, as I grew up I regularly witnessed an appreciation for “feistiness.” My mom and dad (who’ve been together over fifty years) were noisy arguers. My Dad, a brilliant engineer, would attempt to bowl my mother over with infallible logic.  But she would get feisty and hold her own.

Still as Feisty Today

This fiery spunk serves my mom well these days.  Somehow, at age 78, she has an abundance of determination, courage, and energy.  She has pulled from internal resources we never knew she had to take over everything in the household—things that for the previous 58 years of their marriage my father did—from finances to decision-making, to driving—while still maintaining all her other household duties, such as cooking and cleaning.  

She cheerfully (with periodic tearful albeit feisty breakdowns) does all this, while simultaneously taking on and putting them both on a rigorous anti-Alzheimer’s protocol, which includes following a completely new diet, ordering and keeping track of an abundance of brain supplements, dedication to regular exercise and a host of other guidelines.  

Her plucky determination is paying off. Instead of watching my dad steadily decline as is the wont with Alzheimer’s patients, in the five months since she started the Bredesen protocol, we have noticed a gradual improvement in my father with only occasional glitches, like when he tried to make toast in the Nespresso machine.

“Rick,” she’ll call out relentlessly. “Get up! Sitting is the new smoking. You must stay active!”  

My dad, despite their propensity to bicker, has always loved her spunk. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her all the time these days.

Etymology of Feisty

My feisty mom might quiver in her boots if she ever looked up the origin of “feisty.” Ironically, etymologically, feisty is related to the German word fyst or fist, which means breaking wind—i.e., farting, something she considers to be the most grievous social faux pas.

Some, like my brother and sister-in-law, laugh and bond over farting, but not my mom.  If she ever inadvertently does so, she quickly sucks in her breath with an audible “oh!” and, eyebrows raised, brings a dainty hand to her mouth, as a look of utter horror and embarrassment crosses her face.  

Feistiness, in her book, is within her personal control, in no way related to an involuntary breaking of wind.

I am not so sure.

I agree, however, that feistiness, like farting in public, has the potential to be offensive.  

For while being feisty can show an enviable courageous, independent spirit that inspires others, it can also come off as touchy or quarrelsome and evolve to a propensity to be overly opinionated and aggressive; in short, it can be empty posturing. These qualities can aggravate instead of alleviating suffering.

Awareness

As an awareness practitioner (with a propensity for feistiness) in the polarizing climate of today’s culture, I have been trained to pay attention to my thoughts, words, and actions. I have been encouraged to consider my own conditioning and to ask myself from time to time whether my positively conditioned “go-getting sass” has inadvertently led me to become judgmental, close-minded and thin-skinned.  Have I staked out a position based on a presumption that I know something better than someone else? Have I left myself unwilling to see things from a different perspective—to hold my own line—rather than open my heart to someone else’s point of view? Have I failed to see that I am projecting what I fear most about myself onto others?

In other words, has my feistiness become nothing more than a series of unconscious and conditioned fear-based responses?

A Healthy Feistiness?

Checking in from time to time like this brings me back to the heart of feistiness. It makes me appreciate that feistiness at its best (and I think my mother would agree) is not calculated positioning. It is much less controlled and more alive than that. It’s a bold but natural and healthy response to the world—a kind of explosion of determined energy belying the efforts of others or circumstances to squash our spirit. It is, in fact (much to my mother’s chagrin) probably closer to farting than we might hope—an expression of something indomitable from within us that escapes outside of our control.  

Healthy feistiness is less like spouting hot air and more like breaking wind.

So, Feisty ones, do be mindful and check in with yourself from time to time to make sure your feistiness has not morphed into something empty or static and inflexible, but otherwise:

Go Forth. Be courageous and spunky in the face of oppression. And, if you inadvertently fart in public—if your words make a silent unpopular stink—take heart. That can’t always be helped and, in fact, is the very source of feistiness.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/achieve-fluent-adventure-barrier-1822503/

Three Reasons to Write About Things We Don’t Talk About

The logo for the San Diego Memoir ShowcaseWhen we were brainstorming ideas for themes for this year’s San Diego Memoir Showcase, one theme kept circling back: Things We Don’t Talk About. People loved the idea, except for one cranky writer who came up to me and asked, “I don’t get it, why in the world would we want to write about things we don’t talk about?”

The question made me think. I didn’t have an answer at that moment, so I let it percolate until I realized that for me, there are three reasons:

 

  1. It feels like setting a big bag of rocks down that you have been unknowingly lugging around for years.

    I have to admit; I am sort of addicted to the feeling now. I love to “let go” of rocks before they pile up and become too heavy. One writer described her experience to me a few weeks ago as a weight off her chest—as if she could more fully take an in breath, and more fully exhale—for no other reason than she put down in words what she thought she would never share.

  1. The fear of people knowing your deep, dark secret—of judging you, and blaming you—it all sort of dissipates.

    The truth is, yeah, others may know, and so what?  We all have stuff we think no one will understand. Either they will or they won’t, but by facing the faceless monster, you are taking away the monster’s power. It’s empowering as you realize you don’t need to run anymore, you can stand in the light of your truth.

  1. You are speaking for those who feel they have no voice. 

    I can’t tell you how many times when a writer has taken a risk and shared his or her truth that someone comes up to them and thanks them. I hear sentiments like, “Thank you for putting my experience into words,” or “I had something just like that happen to me—I thought it was just me,” or “I feel less alone after hearing what you wrote.”

These moments are such full circle moments—we hide because we think we are the only ones with that kind of pain, then we share it—to realize just how many have experienced a similar kind of pain. By sharing what we are most afraid to share, we create community, spark healing in others while we heal ourselves.

For submission guidelines, click here. I if you have any questions, please contact me at Marnifreedman18@gmail.com. Please put Memoir Showcase 2018 in the subject line. I can’t wait to hear your stories about writing what you thought you could not.

Photo Courtesy of San Diego Memoir Showcase

First Draft Postpartum

an empty boat near a tiny island with crystal blue waterFinishing up a first draft? Here’s how to prep yourself for your emotional responses.

You would think that completing a first draft of your book or play or screenplay would make you feel giddy. And it might. And it should. I mean, you have likely been working on this project for months or years. You have poured out your heart and soul, struggled with the characters, scenes, dialogue, setting (etc.), and fretted over this word or that word. And finally, finally, you have a concrete stack of papers that have a beginning, middle, and end. You should want to throw a party.

But don’t be surprised if finishing up that first draft comes with a host of other emotional responses.

Let’s look at a few of the possible responses I have both witnessed and experienced within myself:

  • Unexplainable nervousness or anxiety
  • A desire to quit
  • A sense of emptiness or purposelessness
  • A wave of anger
  • An inexplicable depression

Why? Why? Why?

Many writers ask me if it is normal to have these types of reactions, then they wonder why they are experiencing them in the first place.

Normal—yes.  Why? Here are my thoughts:

Fear of Exposure

You are shifting from a very internal space, where you have existed for quite some time, to a more exposed, public space.  The thought of sharing your work might bring on unexpected fear or panic. You may be nervous about reactions you will receive.  You may wonder, is it good enough?  Did I just waste years of my life?  The imposter syndrome may even start to take over your brain.  Know that this is very normal. Try journaling all your fears to get them out of your body.  And don’t believe everything you think.

Exhaustion

Yes, you are most likely very, very tired. Take a nap.

Confusion About What Happens Next

It can be scary because in the first draft writing stage you had most, if not all, of the control.  Now you may not know what happens next, and that can be terrifying. Don’t worry; there are many Book Sherpas out there that can guide you; you are not alone.

So, what can help?

  • Allow Your Emotions

Be aware that you may tumble through a series of emotions and know that there is another, much shinier, side.  If you need to cry, do it. If you need to yell into a pillow, do it. If you just need to dance, I say dance. Get it out.

  • Pat Yourself on the Back

Force yourself to celebrate.  Don’t just pass through this marker. You did a ton of work. You deserve to sip a little champagne, do a little retail celebrating, or take that long bath you have been wanting to take. Snap a picture of yourself holding your first draft and post it on Facebook—allow your community to celebrate with you! Whatever helps you to mark the occasion, do it. (In our writing group we even came up with a first draft song to sing when members complete their first drafts).  Pat yourself on the back. It is a big deal.

  • Do No Harm

Depressive or anxiety-riddled thinking can lie to you. It may tell you that you are not good enough or worthy enough—or that you should just toss it all and start over.  Don’t believe everything you think during this period of mini-tumult. Don’t quit writing or stuff the manuscript in a drawer. The angst is temporary.

  • Get it Out of Your Hands

Give the manuscript to a beta reader, content editor, writing coach, or writing group member that you trust, then let it go for four to six weeks. Allow the reader(s) to do the read, and take your mind off it.

  • Look at Shiny Stuff or Bathe in Some Trees

Distract yourself. While your manuscript is in someone else’s hands, you may experience a loss of purpose or even more anxiety. It’s a great time to focus on your social media platform, create your website, open a twitter account, or start on a brand-new project—one that is very different from the one you have just completed. Or, better yet, get outta dodge. Go on a trip. Drive into the country. Nap, a lot. A sure-fire way to regain excitement and balance is to get out into nature for at least two days. You will see how much your myopic perspective changes by washing your brain with ocean breezes, swaying trees, and sunsets.

Congratulations! The Feisty Writer wants to celebrate along with you!  Send us your pictures of you holding your first draft to marnifreedman18@gmail.com.

Imposter Syndrome, by Danielle Baldwin

A sign that says "fraud."Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? Scientific American describes it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

It’s most commonly associated with the workplace, but as writers, I’d argue it’s just as prevalent, if not more so, in the arts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer and thought to myself, “Who am I kidding? I’m not a writer,” while I squished around in my self-doubt.

Valerie Young, an expert on the subject of imposter syndrome, identified five imposter subgroups. She created them to apply to the work persona, but I think each of these rings true for writers. I’ve created the writer version of each subgroup below. Which one of these do you associate with?

The Perfectionist

You can never complete a piece because you can’t decide whether or not to keep a comma in the third sentence. Comma in. Comma out. Comma in. Comma out. Taps fingers on desk. Looks up comma usage for the fourth time online. Comma in. Comma out.

We all want our work to be the best it can be. If you’re on your 9th draft, go ahead and fight with that comma. If in you’re in your first few, here’s what you should imagine: a loud voice coming from the Universe who says, “No one f*&^ing cares about your comma. Finish the damn piece and get on with it. And by the way, I think you’re amazing. Clooney would have totally married you if he hadn’t meet Amal.” Your Universe voice may close that conversation differently than mine, but you get the idea.

Superwoman/man

Convinced you’re a phony among your writing peers? You decide to overcome it by sheer grit. You spend hours grinding out content and leave claw marks on your desk whenever anyone tries to pull you away for anything other the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Will Smith tells a story about persistence, But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”

No one wants to pry your cold, dead hands from your keyboard. While writing is important, so are your family and friends. Your pets. Life outside of the screen and keyboard. Your book will be there when you get back. It won’t run away. So chill out. Do something fun. Your life away from the page will make the lives you create on the page that much richer.

The Natural Genius

The natural genius, according to Young, bases their success on their abilities and not on their efforts. It’s the opposite of Superwoman. So let’s say you go to your read and critique group. There’s one member who always brings beautiful work, week after week. You look at her work. You look at your own. The doubt creeps in. You look down at your first draft and picture the flies circling it because it suddenly looks like a pile of shit.

I’ve written before about the fact that first drafts are always crappy—but crappy with a cape. Too often we look around at beautiful pieces of work and compare our writing, negatively, to the talent we see on the page. In some cases, it’s because we haven’t been behind that writer’s curtain to watch them wrestle with their words. Or to see them completely overhaul four different drafts of the same piece before we see it in group. Other writers simply have more mastery. I read “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs and was so awed, I almost hucked my manuscript in the trash. Better to use other people’s writing as a guide and a learning tool, not as a way to discredit your own work.

Rugged Individualist

You have no idea how to fix your character arc that isn’t quite arcing, but you just sit at your desk by the hour. Staring at the screen. At your dog. At the squirrel outside your window. You’re past the point of working it out on your own, because you’re too close to it. But there you sit. Not asking for help. Because then people would know that you’re not a “real writer” because a “real writer” would know how to fix the issue.

I have three words of advice. Get. Over. Yourself. There is not one person on this planet with all the answers. Not one. And yes, there is glory and valor and satisfaction in working stuff out on your own, but sometimes you’re just wasting your own valuable writing time. Ask a writer friend. Post in a forum. Do anything, but know you don’t have to go it alone.

The Expert

You feel like you’ve tricked your read and critique group leader into accepting you. You think your story won an award based on sheer luck. You obsess about the fact you don’t have an MFA, or that you started writing later in life, or that you haven’t ever taken a formal writing class. You wonder if everyone can tell you don’t have all the writing credentials you “should” have.

Yes, more experience is always helpful. We should all aspire to be lifetime learners.  But you know who changed the course of history without having all the fancy titles and degrees? Abe Lincoln. Anne Frank. Susan B. Anthony. Bill Gates. Plenty of famous writers who never studied writing. Harper Lee. Kurt Vonnegut. JK Rowling. Barbara Kingsolver.

All of us feel like imposters some time. Even writers who have been at this for most of their lives. So the next time you hear that voice in your mind, your inner critic telling you you’re not good enough, that you really are an imposter, take a deep breath. Settle into your writing chair. Tell your critic to shut his or her pie hole. And write.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/2695269/

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