Ditch “The Rules”

As a newbie to Twitter in late 2017 (see my essay, “Would Shakespeare Tweet? #Maybe”), I followed writers, agents, editors, and publishers, hoping to squirrel away bits of wisdom. Initially, many of the Tweets I saw were quotes, quips, tips, and clichés that reinforced three rules.

The “Three” Rules

  1. Real Writers write every day.
  2. Real Writers don’t wait for inspiration; they write to find it.
  3. Real Writers have a published book.

Oh, I thought, shoulders dropping. None of those rules apply to me. Does that mean I’m not a Real Writer?

Did I Have It?

I listed excuses, the most valid being a full-time job teaching writing, where classroom interactions—as rewarding as they usually are—drain my mental energy and grading buries my voice in students’ Franken-sentences.

In truth, however, my excuses hid a shameful secret: I don’t always have “It.”

My Writing Brain

I’m not entirely sure what It is, except for a presence or absence of what I recognize as my Writing Brain, which is different from the brain I use for the other parts of my life, including—ironically—teaching and grading writing. When I have It, I can write. Words may or may not flow easily, but I make progress. When I don’t have It, trying to write is wasted effort.

My Writing Brain is sensitive and, well, flighty. It can turn and burn words for ten hours straight, but it can also disappear for weeks at a time. It demands a clear head and a tidy workspace. It prefers mornings and solitude. It goes on strike if not fed and exercised regularly. Some days I provide all that, but It still decides to play hooky.

So I wasn’t a Real Writer, according to Twitter’s Rules.

Looking Beyond Twitter’s Rules

But then I noticed something: The quotes and clichés I saw on Twitter cycled. They were generated by an app that spit out collected notions on a set schedule to make the account appear prolific. Tweets composed by working writers—amateurs and professionals, beginners and old hands, poets and essayists—reflected experiences I could relate to. And they did not reflect Twitter’s Rules.

What Working Writers Do

Working writers celebrated breakthroughs and awards, but they also grappled with self-doubt, fatigue, burnout, deadlines, and inspiration drought. The longer I followed their journeys, the more I questioned Twitter’s Rules.

Questioning the rules ushered in new freedom. I stopped caring whose definition of a writer I did or didn’t fit, including my own. I just wrote when It cooperated and washed windows or defrosted the freezer when It didn’t. The biggest and most pleasant surprise that cropped up was that the less restrictively I treated It, the more willing It was to cooperate.

Twitter is a helpful resource when I use it for my own purposes and on my own terms.

I’d like to broaden the conversation, to hear about other writers’ fears and successes. How does your It work? What diva-worthy riders appear in your contract with your It? What gifts has your It bestowed? What does your It mean to you, and does that change with time or circumstances?

Hit me up on Twitter or comment below to get the conversation rolling.

The Lost Art of Writing a Love Letter

A Notebook with roses sprinkled around it, perfect for a love letterI want to talk about the lost art of writing a love letter—not only the kind we might write to our beloved partner, but also the type we might write to our mother, our friend, our dying neighbor, or our own self.

These days we are trained to write either methodically and intentionally through structured essays designed to educate or inform (like this one) or informally through sound-bites or emojis—pithy one to ten-word phrases that we use liberally on social media or through texting. (You go girl! J) Also, popular these days, is a hybrid, the how-to or list essay: “Ten best hikes in San Diego” or “How to start a blog in 2019.”

Each of these is valuable. We need cogent well-ordered arguments to help us share new ideas. We also like simple sound-bite words of encouragement, especially when we are facing a big challenge.  And who isn’t drawn to a simplified list of the top ways to do something or the best places to go written by someone who has been there and done that before?

But, I want to talk about another method—one that has gotten a little lost in the hustle and bustle of life these days—one that is less “ordered thinking,” less “pithy response” and more unstructured flow.

This kind of writing comes from a different source.  It comes from slowing down and tuning in to our still center—from feeling our emotional connection to an issue, to a person, to our own self.  It comes from a place of vulnerability and flow.  Love letters escape the boundaries of the thinking mind, avoid the academic culture of structure and the word-limit boundaries of social media to meander through heartfelt territory fearlessly.

Writing a love letter is as much for the writer as it is for the reader. When we allow words from the heart to flow, we escape the inner critic who constantly compares and judges our writing.  We let go of perfection to write from the heart. A love letter is more than just stream of consciousness writing in our journal, though. A love letter has an intended recipient with whom we hope to communicate and connect.

All of this became apparent to me last Fall. I sat down to write one day and realized that I didn’t need to instruct or educate. I didn’t need to quip. I needed to tune in to a deeper place—to be awash with emotion without being swept away. I needed my words to both honor and connect and to serve as the long embrace that I could not give physically. In short, I needed to write two very different love letters:  one to my mother and the other to a neighbor.

My mother lives in another state and has had an increasingly difficult year taking on more and more responsibilities in caring for my mentally ailing father.  Also, she was facing the milestone of turning 80. I wanted to show her I saw how difficult this past year was, that I was proud of her, and that she still seemed so young and lively.

To my mother, a woman who lived in occupied Holland during World War II, who grew up to be passionate about reading survival stories, I wrote a letter that talked about her love of survival stories as a metaphor for her current difficulties.  Her mainsail husband was torn, and the ship of their life together was foundering.  She faced an endless sea with no guarantee they would find a safe shore together. She now relied on strict anti-Alzheimer’s protocols and supplements the way a lost sailor used bare hook lines-hoping for a nibble of hope. Her doldrum days were similarly marked by fatigue and despair. Like that lost sailor appreciating the company of dolphins, she too often managed to find something precious to focus on—a new recipe, a cup of tea, a simple walk. I told her in my love letter what I saw: that the stories of survival she so loved were a pure reflection of her own heart. She harbored little self-pity and instead drew from a feisty reservoir of inner strength and a deep conviction that could and would help her manage whatever was placed before her. She was not only a survivor but a lover of life, and I wanted her to know that I saw that in her. It was the most important thing I wrote last year.

Giving this letter to her that expressed my love and gratitude while acknowledging her difficult journey, also fulfilled me. I felt like I had shown up for her birthday, notwithstanding the distance.  Words bridged the gap. Later, she told me receiving the letter meant everything to her and was a turning point in being my dad’s caregiver.  She relaxed.  She was in the middle of a survival story, and she was doing a helluva job.

My neighbor was facing her own life passages.  Her husband had died earlier in the year.  Shortly after, she embarked on round-the-world travels, then arrived back home to our neighborhood feeling a little unwell to learn she had inoperable Stage IV pancreatic cancer with only months to live.

In the case of my neighbor, I felt helpless. Imminent death is hard—not something we, as a culture, are comfortable with.  I didn’t know what to do or say—even casseroles were not an option.  I ran headlong into not being able to “fix” this problem.  In facing these truths, I got to see that connecting and communicating with someone during difficult times must not require me to fix the problem.  Instead, it invited me to radically accept what was in front of me while staying kind, curious, open and loving. It required me to do my best to connect anyway. To simply try.

To my neighbor—a woman I did not know well—I sat down one day and gave all my attention to the space she had carved in my heart. I wrote to her about meeting her at yoga and what a deep comfort it was to know that a like-minded soul lived just across the street. I wrote that I appreciated her enthusiastic and engaged approach to life and loved the connection she had with the community and her extended family.  I thanked her for the time she went with our daughter to a Zen, Buddha and the Brain class, even though she was a Christian and the class was far away. I told her I saw her as someone who fit everywhere and made bridges as she went. I mailed it, even though she lived across the street, because her family had indicated she was not accepting visitors, and I appreciated they needed uninterrupted time with her. I wrote it by hand, and in writing it, I felt intimate and connected with her.

To write these letters, I needed to draw from a different writing strength. My usual methods of communicating through structured essay or three-word lines of encouragement were inadequate. I needed to sit quietly, to let the words find me, to allow my writing to flow uninhibited and unstructured—awash in love, while mired in uncertainty.  These important moments were asking me—a writer—to write not about them so much as from them—to wade deep in acceptance of the profound difficulties that life sometimes offers.

Life is full and often sweet, but also precarious and fragile.  At any given moment it might be happy or sad, messy or clean, perfect or imperfect.  As writers we might not be sure how to capture it all—Novel? Memoir?  Non-fiction?

My advice: Practice by writing a love letter and let the word tears flow.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3397135/

A Story of Heroes

Book cover for Disturbed in Their NestsI just read a new book that touched my heart, and I’d like to recommend it to you. Disturbed in Their Nests: A Journey From Sudan’s Dinkaland to San Diego’s City Heights by Alphonsion Deng and Judy A. Bernstein (Black Stone Publishing, 2018) is an important and amazing story.

Alphonsion—who goes by the name Alepho—was one of over 3000 Sudan Lost Boys who came to the United States in 2001. Along with thousands of other children, he had literally walked across the African continent. He couldn’t go back home to Sudan because a vicious ethnic war still raged there. Alepho considered himself lucky when he and his brother and cousin were chosen to go to San Diego. They had no idea where San Diego was or what life would be like for them. But anything would be better than life in the refugee camp in Kenya where conditions were worse than harsh with barely enough food to survive.

Judy Bernstein was a writer and homemaker, volunteering with the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. When she was asked to help three young refugees, she thought her task would be to give them a tour of the city—take them to McDonald’s, Sea World and maybe the zoo. She had no idea that for the next twenty years, her life would be tied to theirs, and she would be immersed in helping these young refugees.

Disturbed in Their Nests is, in part, a story about the confrontation between different cultures. Beautifully written in two voices—Alepho’s and Judy’s—the story unfolds from their different perspectives—and their different misunderstandings of the other’s culture. Alepho and his friends had nearly starved on their trek across Africa. But in San Diego, no one had told them what to do with sticks of spaghetti. How were they supposed to eat something like that?

Disturbed in Their Nests is a double adventure story. With flashbacks to their time in Africa, Alepho tells a harrowing tale of their walk and precarious survival. But their adventure in San Diego, with Judy’s mentoring, hard work, and diligent efforts, is also a story of survival—negotiating a new culture, living in a cheap apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, and seeking real jobs for their livelihood.

This book is a follow-up to their award-winning and best-selling earlier book, They Poured Fire On Us: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. Alepho and Judy have given workshops all over the country to educate Americans about the tragedy and travesty of the Sudan war. Their new book is another important contribution to the literature on refugees. Alepho Deng and Judy Bernstein are true heroes.

At a time when America is cruelly turning its back on refugees, their story shows poignantly why that policy is so very wrong.

A photo of author, Lucy Rose Fischer

 

Lucy Rose Fischer is an author and artist living in Minnesota.  Her most recent book is a whimsical picture book, I’m New at Being Old, which received a Midwest Book Award and an Independent Publishers Gold Award.

Alephonsion Deng is a featured speaker at the San Diego Writers Festival on Saturday, April 13, 2019. For the Festival event schedule, register here.

 

Photos Courtesy of Lucy Rose Fischer

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