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/

 

From Honeymoon to Falling Pianos: Recover Your Writing Self by Lisa Whalen, Feisty Guest Blogger

Two grey kittens on a pianoAhh, home. I dump my purse, laptop bag, and suitcase on the kitchen tile, then pause to take it in: the soft light, the absence of strangers invading my personal space, the quiet—well, except for Bubba meowing a lecture about never leaving him again.

Bliss.

Then a piano lands on me.

OK, not really. But that’s how it felt returning from a writing conference that coincided with my first visit to New York City.

I’d spent four days discussing a shared passion with writers so talented I should have been intimidated but found myself spellbound instead. Our Midtown Manhattan location sprinkled fairy dust, too. Dancers sprawled on hallway rugs and stretched as they waited to audition for Hamilton. Children with rouged faces grasped headshots in their sweaty palms. A woman with a clipboard ushered TV sitcom hopefuls into an alcove, where they paced, mumbled lines, and eyeballed the 15-foot ceiling in search of cues. Vocal scales and instrumental arpeggios crept from neighboring rooms to accompany our workshops. The very air inspired. Not even a missed connection on the flight home dampened my enthusiasm. I filled a notebook with poetic phrases. I jotted to-do lists for submitting completed essays. I brimmed with ideas. I buzzed with ambition.

Then I crashed. A single glance from inside the back door was all it took. My husband’s breakfast dishes lay in the sink, a remnant of his rush to leave for work. Bubba’s litterbox needed scooping. Ungraded student essays beckoned from a desktop. The bedside clock blinked a reminder that tomorrow’s classes, mere hours away, required preparation. And the suitcase beside me bulged with dirty laundry. Oh, yeah. Real life.

When would I write? How would I clear my head enough to formulate pitches or compose query letters? What of my submission to-do list? My shoulders sagged. Resentment flared. Despair howled in my chest. I wanted to snarl “Bah Humbug,” to close my eyes and let the ghost of New York past lead me back. But I couldn’t. So now what?

Perhaps you’ve been there, too: sling-shot from a honeymoon with your writer self into the brick wall of bigamous reality. How do you crawl from beneath the piano, brush its ivory dust from your sleeves, and dive back into a complicated writer-life relationship?

I managed, though not without struggles. Here’s what I learned:

  • Grieve the honeymoon’s end. Really. Let yourself be disappointed and resentful. Wallow in self-pity. Compare life’s drear to the conference’s crystalline sparkle. But set a timer. And when it dings, kiss the pity goodbye.
  • Confide it. Just hearing from two like-minded people who experienced similar culture shock upon reentry helped immensely. It reminded me, “This, too, shall pass.”
  • Pet your cat. Or dog. Go for a walk. Do something tactile or physical. After sitting at the computer, then in a car, train, or airplane for days, your body is screaming for an outlet. (Plus, no creature on earth is happier to see you than your pet. The ego boost does wonders.) Moving is good for the body, sure, but also for the brain and mood.
  • Drink coffee. Enough said.
  • Start with the easy stuff. Whether it’s washing clothes sweaty and smelling of diesel from New York streets or turning in the required post-travel HR form at work, complete a few quick tasks right away. It’s amazing how much less daunting catch-up appears when you can point to a few items that are already fait accompli.
  • Triage. Conference enthusiasm is invaluable but not infinite. Capitalize on it. Do only the critical life tasks, then set aside everything else and write for as long as you can get away with it—or until that unique brand of rocket fuel peters out. You can catch up on vacuuming and grocery shopping later.
  • Channel the muse. When I couldn’t shake post-conference blahs as quickly I wanted, I wrote about them (as you can see). Turning unproductive whining into a (potentially) productive publishing credit also turned around my mood.
  • Get reconnected. Text your sibling or best friend, even if just to say you’re bummed. Reestablishing your roots reminds you of why you chose to settle where you did (instead of in New York) and why that’s a good thing. Because it is. There’s something good about every place. Ask, what makes home, home? Then write about it.
  • Practice gratitude. I charge myself with finding one new thing to be grateful for every day. As hokey as it sounds, it helps, especially when I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself. Remembering the window washer dangling from 42nd-floor scaffolding in New York made me grateful to have a job that allowed my feet to remain planted firmly on the ground. Fall color turning the I-694 corridor into an impressionist canvas changed my perception of a dreaded commute.
  • Dive in. At some point, the conference high will ebb, and writing will become difficult again. There’s nothing to do but cowgirl up and get to work.
  • Reward yourself. Writing is difficult after all, so congratulate yourself for doing it. Pour a glass of wine for every 1000 words. Watch an hour of Netflix for each complete essay submitted.

Last, but definitely not least, register for another conference. If you can’t find or afford one that meets your needs, create your own. Gather friends, type an agenda, pack some snacks, wear comfortable clothes, and hole up in a space unassociated with Real Life: a public library conference room, a tent in the woods, a lakeside gazebo. The conference helped you develop mental muscle memory; you just have to reactivate it.

And remember, wherever you hold your conference, you’ll always have the most effective writing tool: you.

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

Photo Credit: pixabay.com/1845787 and Lisa Whalen

Shhh, It’s Flowing…

As writers, we read a lot about those times when we’re all froze up. Writer’s block, brain cement, inner or outer critic sabotage.  In an earlier post, I called it Backstroking Through Peanut Butter. Call it what you will, the struggle is real. With all the obstacles we writers face, it’s amazing we can progress at all.

Until recently, I was in a writing slump for over a year. Any progress I made during that time was the result of Herculean effort. Square marbles were clunking around in my brain. Nothing was rolling anywhere.

But this post isn’t about that. It’s about those times when it’s all working. A tail wind is speeding you toward your destination. You’re hitting green lights all the way. The only hindrance to project completion is how fast you can type, the number of hours in a day, eating and other distracting bodily requirements.

Don’t you love it when this happens? A wide open road. The spigot is cranked as far left as it will go and the plot is spraying out of you. Awkward moments transform to smooth. Sure, you’ll still need to revise later, but what you’re creating feels like it won’t require 75 rewrites because, in moments like these, you’re spinning gold.

Sometimes these flashes are fleeting or few and far between. But when they land, mmm, savor every moment. I’m in one right now, and I find myself thinking, what did I eat, drink, hear, and/or experience that dropped me into this perfect frame of mind to get this done? Was it the eclipse? Was it that dinner with my aunt? Did a (wonky, half-baked) headstand in yoga class jog something loose? What granted me the freedom to move ahead, to leap frog toward project completion? And how do I recreate this exact space the next time inspiration abandons me, as it undoubtedly will?

Don’t project, I tell myself. Sit. Type! Phone, down. News, off. Eat fast, sleep less. Capitalize on this rare instant when it feels like it’s writing itself. Don’t distract it! Keep the laptop charged. Save all work to the cloud. This is the magic hour. Don’t self-sabotage. Stay in it.

Shhh, it’s flowing…

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/fire-hydrant-children-water-summer-1972971/

Procrasti-baking and the Art of Focused Writing — By Vincentia Schroeter, Guest Blogger for The Feisty Writer

Sign that reads Procrasti-bakingI turn on my computer and tell myself to start writing at 2 pm. The clock says 1:51 pm. OOH, I have nine whole minutes to myself. I am chief editor of an international journal and my task today is to view two new papers. I have a wave of fear and dread, worrying that these new papers (one from Argentina and one from French-Canada) may require endless hours of painstakingly detailed and ant-like grammar fixes to be smoothly readable by an English-speaking audience.

I am one of those grammar girls who actually like to don the ant cape and examine every blade of grass, but it takes a while to get into the groove each time. So, for my nine minutes, I go to the kitchen and decide to bake banana bread, which ends up taking more than nine minutes, of course.

I have a note on my refrigerator that says “procrasti-baking.” It means baking as a way to procrastinate. I enjoyed making my bread, putting it in the oven for an hour and then getting back to writing.

In the spirit of true confessions, I have other delay tactics, and you probably do too. I check my phone way more than I need to and end up either dealing with some side issue, getting news updates, or looking at something entertaining. And then there are external distractions, like other people and their needs. One I recall with some guilt is writing an article on the importance of staying in tune with your baby, while my baby was in a carrier at my feet and began to cry. “Just let me finish this one paragraph,” I was thinking!

Tips for staying focused on writing:

  1. Turn off your phone
  2. Set a timer, 10 minutes if you really feel resistant, and those ten can expand once you get started.
  3. Set up and start: “A job half started is half done” (as my mother used to say)
  4. Work in a quiet environment, like the library. (Libraries do not have kitchens to procrasti-bake banana bread).
  5. Write about or express your resistance aloud.
  6. Join a writing support group or get coached by Marni Freedman, as she will fill you with confidence and keep you on track!

I have to go now. The timer went off, and I smell my banana bread with toasted almonds on top. At least this avoidance tactic has an upside: yummy food.

The author (a blond woman) with her banana bread

Vincentia Schroeter writes a weekly blog on communication tips at  vincentiaschroeterphd.com. Her upcoming book: Breaking Through: Communication Tools for Being Heard and Getting What You Want, is based on up-to-date neuroscience and modern-body psychotherapy. She was a practicing psychotherapist for 40 years.

Photo Credit: Vincentia Schroeter

Bring the Lover to the Bedroom

An old-fashioned typewriter sitting on a deskA Buddhist teacher once said, “If you want to make wild passionate love, bring the lover to bed.”

Sounds obvious. But is it? This teacher was pointing out that each of us is comprised of many different sub-personalities and in learning to be compassionate and kind to ourselves, we must allow each of them their time to shine. There can be a tendency for one aspect of the personality to dominate—to demand all our time. When that happens, our life gets out of balance.

Take me, for instance. I have many sub-personalities: nurturing mother, playful little girl, competent program manager, passionate lover, storytelling cook, feisty writer, awareness practitioner . . . I’ve learned it’s important for me to schedule time for each of these aspects of myself because if I don’t, life feels stressful and out of whack.

If the nurturing mother demands too much attention, the passionate lover dries up, leaving life less than juicy. Meanwhile, if too much time is devoted to program managing while home and family still demand attention, the nurturing mother begins to feel overburdened and resentful. And, if the writer never gets a voice and the awareness practitioner never sits in silence, I forget to step back and pay attention to life. I forget to notice the beauty of any particular moment and instead get swept away in the “busyness” of life.

As I become more familiar with the aspects of myself that legitimately require time and attention (note: NOT the voices of self-hate and self-criticism, mind you), I begin to appreciate the importance of scheduling time to work, time to nurture, time to be juicy, time to stop and pay attention, or as I like to think of It now, time to “Listen, Play, Write.” I begin to see this approach as a commitment to my whole self—to supporting each of my sub-personalities.

That being said, it still requires focus. If I have made a date to make love with my husband, then I better be darned sure the passionate lover shows up! I need to intentionally let the “to do” items of program managing and the worries of the nurturing mother recede to the background before climbing into bed. I need to bring the juicy playful lover to the fore. And, coincidentally, when I do it brings plenty of fodder to my writing table later.

I say all this because it is a particularly important reminder for us writers—we must schedule time to write. Our other sub-personalities will be vying for attention: devoted spouse, soccer parent, competent office worker, and we must give them time, too. But, during the writer’s time, give them all a break and bring the writer to the writing table. You’ll be glad you did.

Try this:

The next time you sit down to write, check in with yourself. Did the writer show up? Or, is the “corporate executive” still planning tomorrow’s meeting—the parent still worrying about the child’s homework? If so, then stop. Take a breath. Let everything else go. Turn your attention back to the page and set the writer free.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/collections/159602/the-writers-collection