New (School) Year’s Resolutions for Writers

Orange maple leaf (due to seasonal change) on green grassFor me, fall ushers in a mourning period. Although I welcome its drier air and kaleidoscope of color, its football season and Minnesota State Fair, loss lingers beneath the breathless bustle of a new school year. Loss of daylight and summer warmth. Loss of long walks with my sister and family time at the lake.

I grieve writing losses, too. Loss of (mostly) undivided attention, absent my full-time teaching job’s preoccupations with lesson plans and committee reports, student struggles and institutional politics. Loss of mental energy to revise a book without brain-draining essays to grade. Loss of early-morning quiet when my mind is fresh and ready to fire. Loss of time due to commuting in traffic and raking leaves.

After half a lifetime as a student and almost 20 years teaching, I’m getting better at managing fall’s losses, but there is a point each year—usually two weeks after school begins—where I sink into a mini-depression before I rebound. In the two-plus years I’ve spent writing and revising my first book, I’ve discovered my mini-depression carries with it resentment that I have to keep in check.

To prevent my negative emotions from leaking out in classrooms and meeting halls, I have begun treating the new school year like the New Year’s holiday. I have developed a New School Year tradition that consists of three parts: assess, acknowledge, select.

The advantages of New School Year Resolutions over their January counterpart include:

  • no holiday complications
  • no pressure to make resolutions public
  • no baggage left by decades of failed calendar-induced resolutions
  • no opposition from nature; it, too, is beginning a time of great change.

Here’s how I implement my tradition:

Assess

Teachers hear a lot about assessment every fall. We assess our teaching, students’ learning, the institution’s development, and yes, we even assess our assessment. Assessment is on already on my mind, so I turn that focus to reflecting on and assessing my writing year:

  • What did I learn about myself as a writer? about my process?
  • What did I do well?
    • How did I spark new ideas? avoid rushing the process? manage time? balance deadlines? let go of projects that didn’t work?
  • What evidence supports my answers to the questions above?
  • What would I like to do better?

Acknowledge

As a Type-A personality, I can get hyper-focused on achieving goals and checking them off lists. Once something is off my list, it’s off my mind, so I forget to savor successes and recognize progress, especially if that progress isn’t attached to a tangible result. To foster health and happiness, I’ve built into my tradition a step for acknowledging and celebrating growth.

Sometimes acknowledgment means sharing a publication on social media—something I used to avoid because it felt like “bragging.” Other times, I reward myself: a visit with my sister, an extra hour of reading, a new helmet for horseback riding lessons.

Select

Reality rarely allows enough time and energy to pursue every goal I can dream up, so from among those goals, I select resolutions that will become my year’s focus. Then I follow nature’s lead by asking:

  • What mindset or habits do I want to let die off this winter?
  • What mindset or habits do I want to cultivate for next spring?
  • What don’t I know that I want to find out?
  • What would I like to gain?
  • How will I mark my progress?
  • Where do I hope to be next year?
    • aspirationally (sky’s the limit)?
    • realistically?
    • minimally?

My answers include short- and long-term resolutions, and they vary widely, from submitting monthly blog posts to The Feisty Writer to finally finishing and sending my book to literary agents. But the best thing about fall resolutions is that, unlike New Year’s resolutions, they don’t come with a built-in expectation to share and then forget them.

For too long, I relied on a lot of stick and very little carrot to keep myself moving forward as a writer. Riding horses has made concrete for me how ineffective that approach can be. Therefore, I’m trading both carrot and stick for an ongoing process of reflection and renewal.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com

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/

 

5 Ways to Balance Your Work Life and Writing Life

a stack of rocks balanced on the beachMost of us find it difficult to find and maintain balance between all the different parts of our lives. I often feel like one of those people spinning plates on every body part, including my nose and forehead. But really, finding the happy place in between everything (along with bourbon on ice) is the best way to stay sane in an increasingly insane world where nothing ever stops and “quiet” is quickly becoming an extinct word. So here are a few things I do to get there, stay there, and be happy:

  1. Think Ahead. I have a general idea of what my schedule is going to look like from one week to the next. So every week, I make a list of things I want to get done, and then look at when I can do them. Yes, people say ‘write every day’. I call bullshit. Sometimes, that’s just not possible. I already get up before 6am to get to work, which means I’m not getting up any earlier, and I have to be in bed at a decent hour in order to get up for said job, so staying up late isn’t an option either. So I work with my awake time. I know that I’ll be at work during certain hours of the day, so really, I’m just looking for the pockets. Maybe during my lunch break I can close my office door and read or write something. Or maybe when I get home. And yes, there are some days, when I’m planning to have dinner with a friend, or see a movie, that there probably won’t be time to write. So I don’t plan to. That way, I don’t have to beat myself up about it when I don’t. I prefer to think ahead, see where my opportunities are, and use them to my advantage.
  1. Go Easy on Myself. I’m a master at self-loathing. If I can find a reason I did something wrong, I’ll obsess about it without end. I’m still obsessing about that time I got in trouble in middle school science class for mumbling that an assignment was stupid and got yelled at by the teacher. She was a bitch, but still. I beat myself up every time I walk past a homeless person and don’t give them a dollar. Whenever I stick my foot in my mouth (which is often). So if I can beat myself up for not writing and being unproductive, you bet I will. But I’ve learned that there is always tomorrow. Writing is kind of like being an alcoholic. Every day is a struggle to do something (or not do something). Some days you succeed, some days you don’t. But the important part is to start each day anew. Don’t worry about yesterday’s failures.
  1. Keep a Time Journal. When I didn’t know where my time was going, I started to keep track of it. I’d just write down hour by hour what I did. if you did this, you may find that it takes a lot longer to pay bills than you would have thought. I found that Facebook, TV, talking on the phone, and other activities that don’t seem to occupy space actually occupy a lot of space. I learned to see how to move those around, cut them down, or just pay better attention. I’m not decreeing that you kill your TV and delete your Facebook account (let’s not get crazy, now). Just understand what you’re doing so you’re aware.
  1. Celebrate. When I have a good day, or a streak of good days, I celebrate it. Maybe that means a nice refreshing cocktail and a few episodes of whatever I’m binge-watching (my favorite ritual). Maybe it means dinner with someone special. For you, maybe it’s a gold star on an amazing and intricate chart that you made when you probably should have been writing. But celebrate wins! (And if you did make that stupid chart, use it!) It feels good to win, and winning makes us work harder. It becomes a beautiful cycle where you have a routine of work, writing, fun, work, writing, fun. The last two are my favorites.
  1. Step Away. Sometimes, it’s not about balance, but about escape. I’m not afraid to get away from everything once in a while. Take a little vacation, be it a week in Bora Bora or a weekend on your couch doing nothing (it’s the latter for me, since I’m a broke schmuck). I take time to forget about work, writing, and anything else that stresses me out. Give my body, brain, and spirit some time to recharge, refresh, and refill, so I can dive back in with new gusto when the time comes.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Harnessing the Power of Six-Word Memoirs

a lit fire in a fireplace with hearthSix years ago, I lost my job right around the same time I became an empty nester. Adrift without direction and needing inspiration, I decided to sign up for the TedX San Diego conference.  I was surprised to learn there was an application form to be turned in before being accepted as a participant.  Among the thought provoking questions was a requirement to write a six-word memoir. We would use these six-word memoirs as talking points with other participants. That gave me pause. It had been years since I had written and shared my writing with others. Could I even write a six-word memoir?

It turned out to be a powerful exercise, requiring me to discern what had been the most important and interesting theme or themes in my life thus far and pointing to what I knew best.  

After much debate, I settled on this:  Smoking-gun girl cooks from the hearth.

I hoped to stimulate conversation:  Why Smoking-gun girl? What’s important about cooking? Why the word “hearth?”

I had a reputation for being a “finder,” earning me the nickname, “Smoking-gun girl,” and I liked this about myself.  I was inherently tenacious and knew whether I was seeking a critical piece of evidence, the perfect family vacation, or enlightenment, I was going to keep at it, paying attention to patterns and ferreting out the keystone.  

I had also developed a passion for cooking—not gourmet cooking, mind you, but something closer to peasant cooking.  I made endless variations of stone soup and relished the sensual art of hand chopping ingredients and melding them together. To me the hearth was symbolic of gathering together and nourishing each other with good food and good stories.

This six-word memoir pleased me and, in fact, helped me shape the next phase of my life.  Most importantly, it got me writing again. At that TedX conference, as I was sharing my six-word memoir with others, my adrift and unfocused self suddenly saw a simple next step: I would start a cooking and storytelling blog. I wanted to use my favorite recipes as a springboard from which to tell stories.  My blog would be my cyber hearth.  

I revisit the idea of the six-word memoir from time to time. I still find it to be a powerful focusing exercise for my writing. A few years ago I was a “Zen Tantrika Witch Casting Writing Spells.” These days I am more of a “Devoted Rock-climbing Dakini Cooking Up Stories.”  

I hope you’ll track me down and ask me about it.  And if you do, I’m going to return the favor and ask you:  What is your six-word memoir?  Please, do tell!

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1896745/

 

Journey to the Cottage–A Guided Meditation to Start the New Year

the word, breathe, in a bunch of leavesI’d like you to settle down on the edge of your chair and close your eyes. Begin to consciously relax . . . Relax the muscles of your face. Take a deep breath, in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth. Scan your body for any tension. Are your shoulders hunched?

Pay attention in this moment to the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, to the feeling of your buttocks on the edge of the chair. Take another couple deep breaths, feeling the rise of your belly in and out as you breathe . . .

Now take a moment to bring to mind a word or phrase that evokes within you the feeling of awe. It could be something like Truth or Love or God or Sunsets. The only precaution is to not choose a word that has any negative baggage associated with it.

Mentally see that word resting in the center of your chest, warming you, protecting you, inspiring you as we go on this journey.

And now, I’d like you to imagine that you are standing on the sidewalk of a busy city street. It’s full of shops and businesses, and you can see crowds of people hurrying from one place to another, wearing suits, carrying briefcases. You hear the sounds of high heels and polished boots clicking on the pavement. In the distance a child is crying, a dog barking. Traffic is rushing by. Someone is honking his or her horn. And while you are standing on the street in all of the rush and energy, amidst the cacophony of a busy city, of life, you decide to take a walk away from the hustle and bustle.

You begin walking down a side street and slowly the sounds of the downtown area begin to recede somewhat. You notice for a moment that you feel slightly more relaxed. You feel your shoulders drop and you breathe a little deeper, a little easier.

You keep walking until you reach the edge of town. At the edge of town you notice there is small dirt road to one side, a country lane of sorts, lined with Jacaranda trees. You admire for a moment their beautiful purple flowers.

You set off down this country lane and as the sounds of the city continue to fade, you begin to notice other sights and sounds. You hear birds chirping nearby and trees rustling in the slight breeze; you notice the sound of a river rushing nearby. You see a rabbit scamper across the road and squirrel dash up a tree. A hawk circles overhead.

You keep walking down the lane a little slower now. At the end, the lane opens up into a beautiful grassy field. In the center of the field is small stone cottage. To the left of the cottage is a towering Oak tree offering a bit of shade. And to the right is a trellis covered in climbing fragrant jasmine. Not too far away from the trellis a stream meanders by.  You stop for a moment and look at the cottage. It evokes something deep within you.  A feeling of curiosity, of anticipation creeps in. It looks so enticing sitting there. You wonder what is inside. You wonder what it would be like to live there. You approach the door with some reverence. The wooden door is beautifully carved with intricate floral scrolls, but you notice it doesn’t appear to have a handle or knob. Instead there is an odd contraption that you don’t recognize, and the word “Release” appears on the door. You are not sure what to make of that, but there does not appear to be an obvious way to open that door.

Your attention is drawn to the side where a bench sits next to the little stream. You make your way over to the bench and sit in the warm sun and light breeze, listening for a moment to the sounds of the babbling brook next to you, taking in the scenery all about. You take off your shoes and wriggle your toes in the fresh grass.

At your feet is a basket filled with twigs and leaves. There is a note pinned to the basket. You pick up the note and read, “Release these into the stream; accept all that is, and a Way will open.” You pick up the first leaf and notice it is inscribed with the word “Shoulds.” You think of all the “shoulds” you carry with you daily. “I should be doing the laundry.” “I should be nicer to so and so.” “I should eat less and exercise more.” “I should meditate.” And with a sudden appreciation of the burden of all your shoulds, you toss the leaf into the river and watch it flow away.

You pick up another leaf and on it is written “Shouldn’t.” “I shouldn’t be wasting my day here doing nothing,” you might think. “I shouldn’t put off writing.” But you feel the weight of the shouldn’ts too, and you toss the leaf in. You pick up a twig and on it is written “Worry.” You think about all the different worries that inadvertently consume you. You might be worried there is not enough time to do what you want to do. You might be worried that you have let someone down. You might be worried about hurting somebody. You take a deep breath and toss that twig into the stream too. Right now, in this moment, there is nothing you need to worry about. Worry is only a distraction.

Another twig bears the words “wants and needs” and you think about all the things you want or think you need to do or have in order to be content and you realize that you can be content right here, right now with no further embellishment. So you toss that into the creek too.  At the bottom of the basket is a small forked branch bearing on one limb the word “Fear” and on the other the word “Shame.” You understand that fear and shame also hold you back. Maybe you fear that you are not good enough, or that you are unworthy or incapable or inadequate.  Maybe you fear failure or perhaps success. Perhaps you carry some inescapable feeling of shame. Whatever you feel ashamed about, whatever you feel, in this moment with a touch of childlike abandon, you take a chance and release the last branch into the river.

As you let it go and watch it drift down the moving water, you feel a kind of lightness in your being. You are free for the moment of the voices of self-hate and self-doubt.  You feel a hint of curiosity—what’s next? You wonder. Then a sound captures your attention, and you turn to see that the contraption on the door of the cottage is swirling.  The door swings open. A warm light glows from inside. A hint of a smile crosses your face. You get up from the bench and step inside the cottage.

The cottage is a beautiful little candlelit library with soft chairs to each side and a writing desk in the middle. On the desk is a steaming mug of tea. As you move toward the desk you see a book lying there as well. A sense of anticipation and happiness spreads from within, and you smile as you see it is your favorite kind of book. There is something just right about it. The kind of book you can curl up with. Is it by my favorite author you wonder? I like that writer. I trust that writer. You pick it up feeling for a moment the weight of it in your hands, caressing it a little. You open up the book and you find all the pages are blank except for one word on the top of the first page.  That word is your word—your awe word. In the stillness of that cottage, all shoulds and shouldn’ts, worries, needs, fear and shame released, book in hand, you experience a profound feeling of appreciation and acceptance of your own life, your own journey. You feel your own essence alive in that space and in a moment of brilliant clarity reflect: I am a writer. I have something to say that no one else can say in quite the same way. My voice is unique.

I am inherently perfect just the way I am, you realize.

You sit for a moment in gratitude, feeling your breath move easily through your body. In through your nose, down your throat, filling your belly and out again. Breathe in . . . breathe out.  You place your hands on your chest and breathe in again deeply and then exhale, and with the exhale you feel your awe word; you feel your own unencumbered Self resonate in the center of your chest.

 

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

The Unporridging

a whisk mixing porridgeI’m working on a newish project. I’ve got characters, most of a plot, and a few dozen thousand words down. It’s enough to hang onto and wrestle with, and oh God is it better than the blankness of waiting for a new idea.

But it’s not fully there. I want to fall in love with this book, and I haven’t yet, not the way I loved my last project. This one has been sticky, lumpy, and gray.

Porridgy.

This month I’ve sorted out a lot of that. I could be wildly wrong (I’ve been wrong about this before), but I think I’ve found tweaks to make this a book I’m excited about.

In case you too are facing porridge where you hoped for transcendence, I will list some things helping me find the spark.

Characters I Love

Here’s what makes a character pop: A desire and a goal. Unacknowledged needs at odds with that goal. A default strategy for dealing with the world. A lesson and an arc. Vulnerabilities. And at least one pretty impressive skill.

I’d been missing the skill and I knew it, but I’ve finally (hopefully) pinned it down. That and a haziness of goal (isn’t it always a haziness of goal?) were making my protagonist lumpish.

A Vision of Plot

I found this list of novel plots online, and, guys, oh my gosh. Lists of plots are almost never as inspiring as I want them to be, but this was amazing. Picking my story off that list reminded me where I needed to focus my conflict. It reminded me why I’m writing the damned thing.

Stakes and Scale

As a writer and reader, I like intimate stakes and close relationships. I’m drawn to situations that arise when characters know each other well.

That’s a wonderful element in a story. It is not a whole story.

Think of it this way. You know the musical Hamilton? It has a really great love triangle. Really great. Sympathetic, nuanced, interesting, with a deft use of I-understand-you moments I haven’t seen elsewhere.

If you kept the Hamilton love triangle but removed the politics, the music, the cultural context, the commentary on race, the American Revolution, the building a new government, the deaths, the rivalry, and the duel, you would get the mushy porridge I keep ending up with.

You don’t literally need a war. But you need a wider world, even if it’s background. You need institutional forces, social upheavals, cataclysmic events, or just the eternal uncertainty of huge things shifting beyond our control. Otherwise, your stakes will be things like “if Jane doesn’t get what she wants, Jane will be unhappy.”

Porridge.

Villainy and Power

I’ve got this thing about evil villains. I find them desperately boring.

Just like with the stakes stuff, this causes trouble. I keep writing conflicts between equals who are basically nice people. Nothing escalates.

So this month, I re-read Harry Potter. (Bonus unporridging advice: read books that do well at things you do poorly.) I find Voldemort fine, if a little generic, but the terror he sows opens up room for a huge cast of more interesting characters to scramble to survive. Everything great about those books happens in the drama-charged space Voldemort creates.

Here’s my theory: I suspect the essence of a good villain isn’t evil, it’s power.

Remember: power is what turns a doddering, racist, raging, incompetent old man from somebody’s obnoxious uncle into an object of terror for (I suspect) most people currently reading this. Even with a villain a lot (a lot) more sympathetic than our forty-fifth president, a goal contrary to your protagonist’s needs combined with the power to hurt your protagonist will make them terrifying. Suddenly the world has structure, and the conflict has stakes.

Use that.

*

Implementing solutions is always way harder than brainstorming them, and I may come back next month still with a book full of porridge. Hopefully not. I’m hoping some of these revelations help me, and maybe help you too.

Good luck!

 

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

 

The Problem with Rushing

people rushing on a crosswalkI moved to Los Angeles when I was barely eighteen after living in a town where my high school was within walking distance. This, of course, meant that I didn’t have much driving experience before I arrived in a city infamous for its traffic, road rage, and expansive grid system which tapers off into narrow, winding, steep hills. Needless to say, that first year wasn’t pretty. While I surprisingly managed to avoid any accidents, I did not avoid adopting the following habits:

  1. Tailing cars on the freeway, whether the traffic is moving or not.
  2. Changing lanes without a blinker since using it only signals to the car behind you to speed up so you can’t get over.
  3. Speeding up whenever there’s a pocket of traffic-less road, and,
  4. Since clear roads are about as common as flying pigs, how to rush.

I’ve become that person I was warned about. The one who everyone makes fun of at parties when they say, “she’s fashionably late.” But guess what? I can tell you from many years of experience, that there’s nothing fashionable about being late. My version of fashionably late is not a laissez-faire, get-there-when-I-get-there affair. It is an oh-no-I’m-late-get-me-there-now ordeal that spins me into a fight-or-flight, grip the steering wheel, and internalize road rage state of being.

I no longer live in Los Angeles. And yet, yesterday I was in the car—white-knuckle grip on the wheel, perched forward as if ready to pounce on the car in front of me, which I was inching closer and closer to by the second—and it occurred to me that I was rushing for absolutely no reason. I had plenty of time to get where I was going, but the mere action of driving was sending me off into that fight-or-flight, post-apocalyptic, every-woman-for-herself mode.

Why? I asked myself. Why are you stressing out when you know you’re going to get where you need to go eventually?

And while the answer was, I don’t know, it did spark an epiphany: that driving was not the only time I do this. I also do it when I write.

I’m very goal-oriented, which means I’m also a little deadline obsessed. I love setting deadlines for finishing outlines, chapters, drafts—you name it. It feels great to meet them and also gives me a sense of purpose when writing, but, as I mentioned in a previous blog post (Play to Your Edge: Maintaining a Writing Routine), it can also deflate me. When I get busy or when I get writer’s block, my deadlines come and go, and I’m left scrambling to make new ones. Or, worse, I rush the words out just to meet the deadline, which ends up setting me further back because I write myself into a hole or I’m not fully entrenching myself into the scene where I discover all sorts of lovely world-building and character moments.

To be clear, no writing is a waste of time. But rushing affects the quality of my words and also the quality of my life. So while I still think deadlines are important—as well as being punctual—no deadline or event or job interview is worth the cost of rushing.

I am still working on this one myself, being mindful of how I drive, write, and move through my day. But once you’re aware, you will notice those small cues—increased heart rate, constricting chest, clenched teeth—which mean you need to step on the brakes. Because once you do, everything you want to accomplish will be waiting there, ready to be worked on, ready to be finished—within a reasonable timeframe, of course.

Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

The Greatest Writing Opportunity of the Year is Here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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

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

 Dreams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to the dream.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Dyaa Eldin on Unsplash