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/

Happy Anniversary to The Feisty Writer

The Feisty Writer logo and the words Feisty Turns TwoIt is the two-year anniversary of The Feisty Writer. Yay, us! I’m prone to forgetting anniversaries (ask my husband, he will sigh and nod), but I will forever remember this one because we launched our wonderful site the day after election day, 2016. Did you just hear a balloon pop and deflate? Yeah, so did we.

Had we known or even hazarded a long-shot guess on the election outcome or the resulting ripple felt across the world, we would have chosen another day to magically appear on the interwebs, but alas, our wordy spacecraft lifted off as scheduled. As our planet stood in shock and disbelief, we scraped our jaws off the ground and stammered, Yay us, I think?

We had less conviction in our commencement celebration than we have today, two years in.

Today, we celebrate our Feisty-versary wholeheartedly, in large part due to what we have witnessed in these past two years. Suffice it to say, our world has changed and continues to change rapidly. Some of this is disheartening and terrifying and feels surreal and unnecessary and why, why, why? Much of what we’ve seen here at The Feisty Writer is good though, great even. But before I go into that, let me remind you of this.

Who We Are

Writers are keen observers; this is why we are the storytellers of our tribes. Without trying, we absorb our surroundings like human-shaped heart sponges. We may sometimes wish we absorbed less as we watch events unfold and notice the reactions that follow suit. As we imagine the causes and effects. As we play out how things could have unfolded differently. As we search for answers and solutions and apply our words and our creativity to make sense of the unfathomable. But no. We were built to mop up life, and writing is how we wring ourselves dry, or at least less wet, again.

Writers are also sensitive. We feel more deeply than the average bear. Being sensitive is not always fun, but imagine if we, our world’s chroniclers, shrugged off our emotions. What if we didn’t care? What if every story could end in some rendition of this: ”Then she yawned and walked away because it wasn’t a big deal. She posted #whatev on Instagram and forgot about the whole mess ten seconds later. THE END.” We care because we have to. As writers, it’s our job to be both keen and sensitive.

What We’ve Seen

Here are a few of the amazing things I have witnessed as a Feisty Writer in the past two years:

  1. We build Community. Writers need community, now more than ever, and we have a vibrant one. Maybe because the world has become less predictable, in the past two years we have shown up more than ever before. Whether it’s for book launches, movie premieres, workshops, classes, stage readings or showcases, our community of writers comes together, supports each other, participates and perseveres. We make time for each other. We create opportunities for others to thrive because we recognize there is enough room for all of us to succeed. We show up.
  2. Our talent grows. Because we show up, the talent in our community continues to strengthen. When we surround ourselves with greatness and become a part of something bigger than ourselves, magical things happen. We perform at higher levels. We exceed expectations.
  3. We embrace a challenge. This is what makes us Feisty Writers. Our world is a tough place to survive and thrive right now, but we persevere. We embrace difficult topics. We unveil our most vulnerable truths through our stories. We still fear the rejection that is part of being a published author. We fear it, yet we submit anyway. We find ways to make ourselves heard.

What Comes Next

Thank you for being a part of The Feisty Writer. We are here for you, and we want to hear from you. Please follow these guidelines and submit your posts to us. Also, save this date: April 13, 2019. This is the date of our first annual San Diego Writers Festival, held in partnership with the San Diego Central Library. This will be where we will finally meet to celebrate every corner of our feisty and fabulous writing community. Yay, us!

 

Photo Courtesy of Marni Freedman

The Sacred Truth

A self portrait of the son of Guest Blogger, ELizabeth Eshoo as he looks for truthI cracked open. I was sprawled out on the oblong yoga cushion like Jesus on the cross—arms wide and chest towards the heavens—as my yoga instructor’s guided meditation took me back to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I saw the yolky sunrise break through the ink-black sky, remembering the night I spent so close to the summit. I felt the frigid numbness in my toes, fingers, and eyeballs. I felt the power of that moment, standing on the roof of Africa more than twenty-five years ago like I was back there fully.  

Our instructor, Kimberly Joy, said something like, “Go to your sacred place,” and it took all of a second for me to be there. Whatever she said next, maybe “What’s sacred to you?” broke me wide open.  I was sobbing, convulsing with emotion, my spine still pinned to the yoga cushion, my heart on full display, and raw emotion spilling out into the unfamiliar yoga studio. 

The Truth

My brain had connected the sacred moment atop Kilimanjaro to my most sacred self—being a Mother. The weeks of stress and strain I’d been carrying around with me in the form of impatience with my 17-year-old son, Alex, transformed. Right there, in the little yoga room, I fell into deep belly sobbing that illuminated the reason behind my terrible mood.

Alex is leaving the nest. My nest, our nest, the one I’ve so joyfully built and tended these past seventeen years. My firstborn child is months away from flying the coop, albeit to a wondrous place, no doubt. But my truth spilled out of my heart as I laid it all on the floor of this unfamiliar place.

I tried to stop crying and couldn’t. Kim placed her warm hands on my head, massaging my scalp, pouring her tenderness over me. At the end of the session, when I was finally able to stop bawling and articulate what had happened, I was taken aback. I realized this struggle I’d been having with Alex, with his lack of urgency over college essay writing and looming application deadlines, was really more about the impending, inevitable moment when he leaves for college. Ah-ha. Clarity. Truth. Relief.

The Enlightenment

I surprised myself in this unexpected moment. I thought I’d be having a relaxing hour of stretching and breathing during a restorative yoga session. Instead, I had a life-changing moment of enlightenment that brought much-needed awareness to me. Thankfully, Alex and I are on better soil now, working together on his writing, making progress and, surprisingly, I have been able to empower him to become his own storyteller—to use his authentic voice and to actually enjoy the process. So much so, in fact, that now he is helping his friends find their stories, tossing aside the canned, predictable tales of teenagers for the deeper, more reflective ones that often sprout from solitary moments. Teaching Alex to become a thoughtful storyteller feels like one of the most important lessons I’ve passed along to him.

Storytelling is what makes us human. It seems like it has never been more essential. I feel like all of the sudden, I am submerged in all things story. I’ve been inspired by the courage of others telling their powerful and heart-wrenching stories of the #MeToo Movement, the Parkland stories of terror and survival, and Dr. Ford’s stunning testimony to the Senate about a night she will never forget, and now, we won’t either.

The Empowerment

I find that I am drawn to reading memoir again with a new sense of urgency. I am motivated to finish my own ten years in the making memoir, while my daily dog walks serve as brainstorming sessions for my next book or two. A fellow writer asked me to help her sift through her life stories to pluck the gems out and find the scaffolding to display her valuable life in the most authentic way. Even the support group I’ve attended for years to help me manage my daughter’s epilepsy is now using storytelling as a tool to cope with the unpredictable nature of the disease. I am swimming in words and stories, and I feel Powerful.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had a book signing—a book launch party and a reading from an anthology of stories with 29 other writers. Sharing my story, the “Maasai in the Mirror,” allowed me for one evening to step inside the skin of a published author and feel what it is like to be exposed and adored. Sharing this magical evening with my fellow authors, I had no fear, surprisingly. I felt joyful, delighted, happy, thrilled, energized, surprised, nurtured, welcomed and yes…Empowered. Moments before I stood before the group of incredibly enthusiastic readers, book buyers, friends, family and total strangers who were so happy to be there, the butterflies flitted for a few moments. Then I was up and being introduced by the MC who happened to be my editor. Her kind words boosted my confidence. I took hold of the microphone and began.

Let me back up a moment; I left out a crucial part of the yoga story. Kim, our yoga teacher, told me that when she saw me crying, or rather, before she saw me break down, she felt my guides surrounding me—lots of them—those were her words. It was a powerful presence—nurturing, protecting and swarming around me, providing loving energy to me at that moment. Later, I asked her what they looked like, and she had to think about it. “Definitely beings, but amorphous bundles of energy and light.” Sounds woo-woo, but honestly, I’ve always felt surrounded by something protective, and so I wasn’t surprised, just stunned that someone else saw them, too.

The Wrap-up

Back to the book reading. I stood at the front of the crowded room with the microphone in my hand and the “cluster of beads” the Maasai Warrior had given to me in my pocket for good luck—tangible evidence, even to myself that I had, in fact, come face to face with a warrior on that trip to climb Kilimanjaro. I began to read. The silence became loud as the noisy room settled into a low hum. I was transported back to Joe’s safari camp somewhere in the middle of the East African bush. I could feel the weight of my leather Raichle hiking boots on my feet, the sharp pain in my injured knee. I could smell the smoky scent of the campfire. And I could feel my guides surrounding me as I continued to read, remembering my fellow climbers: Catherine, NN, Dennis, Ribby, Eric, Bill, Mandy, and Laura. They were there with me, always, as is the sacredness of my peak moment on Kilimanjaro.

As is Mark, my loving husband, and my daughter Emily, my heart and soul. As is my incredible son Alex, who, no matter where he goes or however the rest of his story unfolds, will be with me in my heart, deeply embedded forever.

We need our stories. We need our sacred moments. We need our guides surrounding us so that we can feel empowered at this moment in history when the only thing that seems to matter is telling our sacred truths.

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

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.

 

Why Write?

a man on a mountaini holding his arm up while the sun is settingWhen struggling with a first draft, rewrite, edit, or final polish, do you ever ask yourself, why do I write? Why must I put myself through this excruciating exercise that I don’t have the time or energy for? I do. Sometimes writing feels Sisyphean, the interminable project-boulder keeps rolling back, nearly squishing me, and the moment I’m confirmed un-dead commands me in a Simon Cowell voice to DO IT BETTER.

How easily I forget the joy writing brings, the satisfaction, the peace. Which is why, during times like these, I must remind myself to ask this ever-important follow-up question: why did I start writing? This teases out the truth—it untangles the act of writing from the web of “things that make me busy” and reclaims its position at the forefront of “things that make me sane,” also known as, “self-care.”

Five Reasons We Write

If you, too, ask yourself why you started writing, I bet you’ll come back to one of these five reasons:

  • To make sense of something. Writing is one of the few ways to work out the tests we face and the choices we make, hopefully landing us on the positives in a sea of negatives.
  • To heal. Some of us heal by sharing our burden in hopes that people facing similar battles will feel less alone. We yearn to provide a balm for the next person in this struggle, in hopes their pain can be mitigated. In this way, writing is generous. And generosity heals both the writer and the reader.
  • To share a unique perspective. Maybe you saw a side of something that no one else had the opportunity to see. And maybe it bugs you that people are drawing conclusions without having the full story. This type of writing, though it may feel like a duty, also provides healing.
  • To provide a legacy. I wish my grandparents had written their stories; I’m so curious about their lives. I for one want to leave at least part of my history behind, from my perspective, for future curious progeny.
  • Because you don’t have a choice. Your story communicates to you in clear ways that it must be told, and you are the teller. Physical symptoms make it impossible not to write and tell you with certainty—your calling is not optional.

These reasons are distinct but also connected by their healing power, whether it be the healing of ourselves, our loved ones, our community, or humanity. And the best side-effect of the reasons our craft has hold of us—they force us to honor ourselves. Writing is our form of self-care, how we keep ourselves sane and show ourselves love. And when we do this, when we grant stories life, we also bestow an immense favor upon our world. We show, by example, that self-love comes first and then, with the energy that writing our truth breathes into us, our words have the opportunity to create change, soothe, heal, and share our love for humanity.

 

 Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

5 Ways Authors Can Pay It Forward

a person pulling another person up a mountainWe all know that nobody gets to where they are alone. There are a number of unsung heroes along the way that have given us a leg up so we can be who we are. In that spirit, it’s only appropriate that we help others on their way up.

How to Pay It Forward

Here are five mostly easy ways to pay it forward to other authors:

  1. Be a beta reader. Every author needs beta readers to help them identify the trouble spots in their manuscript at some point in their writing process. And you can help by reading their work and giving honest, true blue feedback. Not the “It was interesting” kind of bullshit, but the real stuff—you have a plot hole that needs patching, your stakes need to be higher, or “I was confused by that road trip.” Help fellow authors on their way to finishing. Bonus: You may also get to read an awesome story.
  2. Buy a copy of a finished book. Let’s face it: we writers buy a metric ton of books all the time. Why not spend $15 on someone you want to help? Heck, even just $5 for a Kindle version helps. And sometimes it’s not about the money their book brings in, but the warm fuzzy feeling that someone cares enough to buy their book is enough to keep them going on those tough days when writing feels impossible. Help someone keep writing.
  3. Write a review. For all that is good in the world, please write a damn review. Yes, it matters. It matters for every other person who lands on that book’s page with their finger hovering over the mouse key to take them to the next thing. Your review could be the difference between someone buying the book or buying socks instead. So it’s a win-win. The author sells a book, and you help someone make the right choice.
  4. Recommend the book. Did you just finish the most amazing book about a mystical book wizard living in Denver? And you happen to know someone who lives in Denver and loves wizards? Tell them! Books don’t recommend themselves. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of advertising, so use it! It’s free for you to recommend a book that you loved, so why wouldn’t you? The bonus is that you’ll look like a smarty pants in the process, so by all means, push those glasses up the bridge of your nose and own it, brainiac.
  5. Teach someone. Yes, it’s labor intensive. Teaching any sort of class, whether it’s at the community center or a university, is hard work. It takes commitment, preparation, and know-how. But guess what? You already have the know-how, because you already fucking wrote something! And trust me, there are scores of writers out there dying to know how they can write better and finish what they’re working on. Sometimes, those classes are the difference between forging ahead and giving up. And YOU could be the person that helps them over those rough spots! While this is the most demanding way to pay it forward, it’s also the most rewarding and memorable. Plus, you can help multiple people at once, so now you’ve really paid it forward and deserve extra writer kudos.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1807524/

Imposter Syndrome, by Danielle Baldwin

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

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

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

The Perfectionist

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

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

Superwoman/man

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

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

The Natural Genius

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

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

Rugged Individualist

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

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

The Expert

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

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

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

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