As a young dance student at Juilliard my favorite class was choreography. It was similar to a college writing composition class because it provided the nuts and bolts of creating, and in my case the creation was a dance. I studied ABA form, spatial patterns, musical timing, bodily shapes, and more. Now, decades later, as a writing teacher and coach, I still have great appreciation for the tools of craft. You can’t write a novel or memoir, or create a meaningful dance, without it.
But tools will only take you so far, because the act of creating is also an art. My favorite part about storytelling, whether with the body or on the page, is improvisation: throwing myself into unfamiliar territory, making stuff up, and discovering something new. Having studied the “rules,” I can, in the heat of composition, ignore them and experience something larger. What was once a formless inkling or curiosity is birthed through me into the world of form! In order for this to happen, I have to be willing to enter the unknown. If I’m doing it “right,” fear will be present. I expect it, even welcome it, but I don’t let it stop me. I know nothing, I tell myself, which opens me to receive and learn.
Sometimes my fear is mighty and strong and I have to sink into it slowly, like dipping my toe in the ocean and wading in gradually as I acclimate to the temperature. Other times I’m able to plunge in. Either way, it helps to be gentle and loving with myself as I enter deep, dark water.
A popular technique in comedy improvisation is to say the word “yes” when a new element is introduced into a scene or skit. “Yes!” the comic says, followed by the word “and.” This means, Yes, I accept the situation that’s been given to me, and, Here’s what I’m going to do next. Here’s how I’m going to respond and carry the energy forward. They do not say, “Yes, but,” which is a subtle “no.” Improvisation and life are all about the “yes.”
For years I’ve told my students that saying “yes” to their urge to write is like bathing—it has to be done on a regular basis. But what if we are that yes? What if yes resides at our core and is the permission we seek in our writing and in our lives? What if the reason we are transformed by our creative work is because we have pressed the pause button on our logical thinking minds, which are puny compared to our divine intelligence, in order to activate and engage with our creative essence? This is an artistic and also a healing act that goes way beyond craft.
I write for hours and lose track of time. Same with dance, meditation, hiking. But I sense that I can lose myself like this in my life more often than I do. Like the other day when I sat on my canopied porch swing staring and listening to the pouring rain. I was fully present, awake, and alive!
In her online course, “Life as Spiritual Theater,” Three Principlesteacher Dr. Linda Pettit opened my eyes to the fact that life itself is an improvisation. Sometimes we’re observing it, other times we’re deep in it, but just like facing a blank page, canvas, or empty space, in life we don’t know what will happen next. It’s best if we can roll with the punches, be fluid. Great if we can duck underneath giant waves of negative thinking, let them roll over us rather than fighting the tides.
We live in the feeling of our thinking. This is a liberating understanding. Thoughts and feelings come and go. They are not permanent, unlike our creative essence, which never dies.
The creative process unfolds every day in our lives; it is our lives. We are always improvising. It’s helpful when I’m able to release conditioned patterns of judgment about my experience and refuse to feed fearful thinking. When I flow from fear into love everything opens up. I’m free! What a relief. I lay down doubts and petty grievances and make space to say yes to dancing and writing, but more important than that—I live! Descartes had it wrong. I create, therefore I am!
Improvisation is creation and it’s available to us all, even when we forget and are distracted by rules or get hijacked by doubts. Keep coming back to presence. Simple awareness. Essence. This is the source of inspiration and improvisation. Every time I remember this, I set myself free. Go ahead and study your craft, and keep exploring the unknown and bringing forward your inner “Yes! And . . .” and watch what gets created through you.
When I was a film student in the eighties, my then-boyfriend and now-husband, Jim, and I borrowed a professional ¾-inch video camera from school and spent a long, magical afternoon taping an interview with his beloved grandmother. When we finished we had two-and-a-half hours of raw footage that required editing, but we didn’t have the equipment. One day we’ll get around to this, we thought.
A few years later, after we’d married and after his grandmother had died, we wanted to keep her legacy alive by sharing the footage we took of her with the family. We agreed it would make a great holiday gift for Jim’s siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We had it transferred to VHS, but when we viewed it, we were painfully reminded that it was raw footage. It needed to be cut. But again, we had no editing equipment, nor funds to rent it.
Years later we reached out to John Crane, a talented filmmaker friend who’d created a beautiful video of his own grandmother, and asked if we could hire him to edit ours. He was busy at the time and couldn’t take on our project, but encouraged us to do it ourselves. “You have a problem with the sound,” he said. “Hear that background hiss?” He told us it could be adjusted if we uploaded the footage to our computer. But Jim had to teach himself iMovie, and despite our best intentions, more years passed by.
The subject of the grandmother video often surfaced right after Thanksgiving, which was our busiest time of year. Taking on a project like that at year’s end seemed impossible. It was this past December when Jim mentioned the grandmother video again. I once again cringed and thought, Yeah, right. We’ll whip it out in all our spare time. Impossible.
But then, a few days later, early one Saturday morning, on the eighth of December, I found myself listening to Michael Neill’s new podcast, Creating the Impossible. I’d read and enjoyed his book with the same title. For his podcast Michael interviewed speaker and author Anita Moorjani. Their discussion was lively and inspiring. When I finished listening, a small voice inside said, What if making that video is not impossible? What if you just think it is? What if it doesn’t have to be perfect? What if you can just crank it out? What if there really is enough time and you only think there isn’t?
Jim’s birthday is the week before Christmas. I knew there was no greater gift I could give him than completing this project.
When he woke up, I announced, “We have a busy weekend.”
“Why?” he asked. “What are we doing?”
“We’re going to crank out the grandmother video.”
He was thrilled. He’d been teaching himself iMovie and had the technical, hands-on editing skills I lacked, but what I hadn’t realized until we tackled this project together was that I had big-picture writing and editing skills that he needed. Although he knew how to use the software, he wasn’t sure how to approach the project. I knew we had to organize the material by first logging the footage and then organizing stories by theme.
We worked 10-hour days for four days and ended up with a half-hour tribute we both liked. And it was fun. It turned out we needed each other’s skills to complete the project. But first I needed to believe this project was possible. It wasn’t until I questioned my thinking, until I believed it could be done, that we accomplished this long-held goal.
Writing is like this. It takes time, sometimes years, as well as the acquisition of skills. Sometimes collaboration is necessary. Writers do well in communities, with support from teachers, coaches, and colleagues. And success is definitely swifter when you leave your limiting thinking alone. When, as Caroline Myss says, you don’t invest your “belief dollars” in limiting or self-defeating thoughts.
I leaned this while keeping my eye on the finish line of my memoir. This time last year I was four months away from publication. I still can’t believe it’s behind me. For years it loomed ahead—it was my future—and now that book launch is my past.
It’s nice to get to the other side of creative dreams and goals, whether personal or professional. And our success is directly related to what we believe about our own thinking.
I’ve started outlining my next book about how to Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book. The other day I detected a tiny but insidious thought: Who do you think you are writing a book like this? There are many more experienced and worthy writers who could do it. Why you? As a younger, less experienced writer I may have taken that thought at face value. I might have believed it. It may have temporarily stopped me. But I quickly responded: That may be true, but it’s something I want to do. It’ll be fun. I may not be perfect, but who is? The fact is I’m learning and growing all the time and I have tons to say on this topic. Why not me?
Thoughts arise in the mind all the time. I’ve discovered that I can amplify them with my emotions (energy in motion) and belief or tune them out and let them pass. It’s my choice which thoughts to believe.
People create the impossible every day, but to do so, you must believe that you can—despite the naysaying voices within and without.
What “impossible” venture are you ready to create? If it’s a writing project, or if you just want to start writing again, or for the first time, check out my upcoming online writing classes, which begin this month. I’d love to help you create the “impossible.”
I used to dread the holidays, which I blamed for hijacking me from my writing in order to shop, wrap, ship, correspond, bake, clean, decorate, etc. All bets were off in December when it came to my writing. Projects got put on hold—even my journal entries stopped around the 5th and resumed in January. But once the holidays--daze—began, I was off and running, living what felt like somebody else’s life. It seemed like I had no control. I had to do xyz to “pull off” the season, to do it “right.” And I always felt guilty for not getting my writing done. Every year, around Thanksgiving, I’d wish I could hit a fast forward button, skip the month of December, and resume my life after New Year’s.
Despite wanting to skip a month of my life, I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which I felt constrained by holiday rituals, rules, obligations, habits, and expectations, and that my stress was coming from within me. I didn’t have to do much of what felt nonnegotiable. The fact was I was choosing it. It may have felt like things had to be done a certain way, but that pressure, and the thoughts that created it, came from within. Nothing terrible would happen, for example, if I didn’t write personal messages in each of the 250 cards I was sending. (This was before the advent of the Christmas Letter!) Nor did I have to send cards at all—but that “radical” awareness took years to consider and implement.
What I see now is that I get to do what I want (more or less). The main thing is to allow myself to be guided by my own wisdom. No need to analyze or overthink things.
Some of my most memorable holiday experiences happened spontaneously, like the year my daughter’s preschool teacher, Annie, got into an auto accident. Annie walked away with a few scratches, but her car was totaled. She needed a new one, but had no money. Meanwhile, one of the custodians at the school had been trying to sell her car and had no buyers. I don’t know whose idea it was, but a couple of us parents decided to “work” the carpool line. For a few days I solicited parents dropping their kids off at school.
“Would you like to chip in to buy a car for Annie for Christmas?”
The overwhelming response was “Yes!” and at our school party we presented the custodian with a check and Annie with a set of car keys. They were both moved to tears, and so were the rest of us—parents and children.
One year I challenged my own thought that I couldn’t write in December, and was pleasantly surprised to see that I could and did write. I carved out the time, did less of what I didn’t enjoy and more of what I did. It felt wonderful to realize it was up to me. I had choices.
I’ve also discovered that I enjoy taking a few weeks off at the end of the year, and that’s fine. There’s more to life than work, even for writers.
It’s helpful to know that I don’t have to approach this season like a headless chicken stuck in a shopping mall. There are many ways to celebrate. One year I wrapped gifts at a homeless shelter and was blown away by the generosity of a whole community.
This holiday season, I’m trying to remain fluid. I unpacked holiday boxes and set things up slightly differently than I’ve done in the past. I’m letting go of stuff I don’t like or need, and am trying to live less on autopilot to make room for fresh thinking and new experiences.
It’s been a little over six months since my memoir was published and I’ve been happily outlining my next book. The working title is, Three Principles for Writers: How to Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book. So many writers seem stressed by the many hats they wear. I’ve stumbled upon an understanding of how we innocently create our experiences and am eager to share its relevance for writers.
So, I’ll probably be writing this December.
But if I don’t, I’ll give myself leeway. I’ll let myself celebrate the end of what has been a banner year (thank you, She Writes Press!), spend time with family and friends, try to take each day moment-by-moment, and trust that I am, indeed, being guided by my own wisdom. I wish the same for you.
Who else will be writing this December? What’s your project? How do you navigate the season?
I come from a long line of creative, capable women. Women who worked outside as well as inside the home. Women who knew how to get things done. My role models were reliable and strong. “You can sleep when you get home,” my grandmother told me while we traveled together through Europe when I was a teenager. Her intention was clear: leave no sightseeing stone unturned.
I’m grateful for my ancestors, who possessed intuition as well as fortitude. But one thing my Type-A loved ones neglected to teach, and perhaps didn’t know enough about, was the importance of slowing down. Granted, their worlds weren’t as fast-paced as ours, and if they understood the advantages of downtime, I didn’t get the message. Not to the extent that was necessary. They seemed always to be doing. Laziness was practically a sin. A lazy person was a “bad” person.
A few weeks ago, returning from my morning walk, I was tempted to skip meditation and journal writing and head straight to work. It was a Monday and I had a lot to do: a writing deadline, a client proposal to get out, a slew of emails to answer, materials to send my writing students. And more. “But I’d like to get in some grounding before my grinding,” I said to my husband. Not that I see my work as a grind, but when I get busy the first things to go are my grounding practices.
Grounding means centering. It means dropping beneath the turbulent waters of activity and thought and connecting with the place inside that is untouched by business or daily drama. It means feeling the place inside that is naturally joyous. This is different from the joy I feel when thinking happy thoughts or having fun. For example, that Monday morning I felt happy anticipating Family Weekend at my daughter’s college. I was also delighted to read an email from a new student who said she was enjoying my class. And I was both surprised and thrilled to hear from a reader who loved my memoir, which was on display at her local library in Okotoks, a province of Alberta, Canada.
Then there are the people in my life who bring me happiness—the fact that I have a loving husband, who patiently guides me through technological wilderness and supports my vision and ideas; that I have a daughter and two sisters I love; and on and on.
But there’s another kind of happiness, too—one that resides deep within--underneath the circumstances of my day or the people in my life. This happiness is inherent; it’s the happiness we were born with; and it’s 100% unconditional. I find it helpful to remind myself that it’s there—especially when the circumstances of my life become difficult. Middle age has brought challenges. At times the joy within has felt extinguished.
Grounding invites me to visit this place, to dwell peacefully there, to slow everything down. And the irony is that I get more done from this place. I’m more productive when I’m grounded.
Grinding energy is completely different. Grinding has to do with cranking out work. In this mode it’s easy to overwork, which leads to burnout. Although grinding can be gratifying, it’s a cheap thrill that doesn’t last. It’s not sustainable. But here’s the thing I find most interesting about grinding: unlike grounding, grinding is fueled by lack and negative thinking, by thoughts such as I don’t have enough time. I’ll never get everything done. If I don’t do this—and do it really well—xyz terrible thing will happen. These are the thoughts that fuel the hectic, perpetual doing that is grinding.
Grounding offers a completely different way to approach work and life. It offers the possibility of being at home in the truest sense of the word: being in touch with your own true nature. Not the you who becomes agitated, worried, and afraid. These are our human frailties. I’m talking about our divine nature. We have a choice: we can live from love or fear. I’m running either fearful or loving thoughts in my head. And which thoughts I’m believing in a given moment determines whether I’m grounding or grinding. When I “attack” my day or my to-do list, my energy tends to be manic and fear-based. I’m learning how to roll up my proverbial sleeves and work from a calm and loving space inside—and it’s amazing how productive and sweet this can be.
So, busy authors, writers, and humans: don’t feel the need to “tackle” your list, or feel that you must do everything all at once. Take a breath. Slow down. Find your own way to ground, to connect with your inherent inner joy. You might be pleasantly surprised to discover easier access to insights and inner wisdom. When you’re less reactive you’re likely to have more energy and be more present. Daily dramas don’t have to suck you into their vortex.
Duck down underneath the turbulent waves of your life and look for that calm feeling. It’s there. We all have it. Spending time in still, eternal waters that run deep will deliver you to your grounding. Save the grinding for your coffee.
Are you grinding or grounding? I’d love to hear from you.
I’ve been teaching creative writing classes for over ten years and last week I finally taught “Write Where You Are: The Art of Being Present on the Page” online via Zoom. It was a thrill to teach people all over the country, and one student in Canada. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I love helping people get out of their own way so that what wants to be expressed through them is free to come, and I enjoy sharing tools that help writers say what they mean with greater clarity, impact, and grace.
The following tips for improving your writing were inspired by an email I received from one of my students the day after our first online class. She outlined what we discussed, which sparked my desire to share more widely.
1. Get Personal. This may be obvious if you’re writing personal essays or memoir, but it’s equally important if you’re writing poetry or fiction, which is informed by your life. Even self-help and blog writers need to know how to get personal in their writing if they want people to relate to their anecdotes. It’s hard to get personal if you’re afraid to share your truth. You have a right to tell your story, to bear witness to your experience. Doing so can be healing and empowering for you as the writer, but also for your readers. But in the beginning, forget about readers. Imagine you’re speaking to your best friend. Trust her and yourself, as well as your urge to write, which is your soul talking. Quiet your mind and share from you heart about what matters most.
2. Voice. Write like you talk. Don’t use big words, fancy language, or try to sound like someone you’re not. There’s poetry and beauty in your own voice. It has its own rhythm, diction, cadence, and intonation. Writing in your natural speaking voice can take practice. Beginners, wanting to put their best foot forward, sometimes fall into the trap of writing to please or impress, and when this happens their writing sounds stilted and unnatural. Finding your voice may take time, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Don’t try to sound like anyone but yourself. It’s okay if you’re not sure what you sound like at first. Give yourself time. Be yourself and know that you are good enough. What you have to say is as important as what anybody else has to say. Avoid comparisons. Finding your voice is like coming home. There’s a deep familiarity, honesty, and comfort in doing this. There’s nothing to prove and nowhere to go. Just settle into your inner knowing and speak from there. We all have wisdom within. While imitation can be a form of flattery, and it’s sometimes a useful exercise to imitate great writers, at the end of the day it’s about you and your distinctive voice.
3. Scene vs. Narration. You’ve likely heard about the importance of showing and not telling in creative writing. Make sure you know which is which. Telling is narration. A narrator describes what’s going on. Or perhaps the narrator is speaking about something that has already happened. This is called exposition. New writers tend to do a lot of telling, but showing is the heart of dramatic writing. Showing involves scene-making. Scenes allow action and dialog to play out in a particular time and place, like in a movie. The characters reveal themselves through what they do and say. Or don’t do and say. You get to watch the drama unfold, rather than have the narrator tell you about it. The trick to writing strong scenes is to engage the senses. I ask my students, “What does the character see? Hear? Taste? Smell? How do they feel in their bodies? Can you describe visceral sensations? Who is speaking? What is being said?” Addressing these kinds of questions in your writing draws the reader in. It’s okay to narrate between scenes, but make sure you show, or “play,” the salient moments of your story through scene rather than just saying what happened. Show it to us. For more on this topic, see Chapter 3, “Scenemaking,” in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.
4. Be Specific. If you’ve studied creative writing you’ve no doubt heard the expression “God is in the details.” Details provide information, texture, and ambiance, as well as specificity. Take a look at these two opening lines from Janet Fitch’s novel, White Oleander: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.” She didn’t say, “The hot winds blew in from the desert.” By specifying that these were Santa Ana winds she established location, as well as the quality of these winds, and her reference to the spring grass tells us it’s summer. We see “whiskers of pale straw,” the oleander’s “delicate poisonous blooms,” and “dagger green leaves.” And it’s worth pointing out that Fitch named the specific plant. The author doesn’t refer to it as “a large bush.” Avoid using general words, such as “bird.” Is the bird in your story a canary, a raven, a hummingbird, an eagle, or something else? Each one has its own nature and quality. Implementing specificity into your writing takes practice. The key with choosing details is to look for ones that feelresonant and meaningful, details that illustrate your message in some way. Don’t be afraid to give the nitty-gritty, to use your full descriptive powers. Let’s see how observant you can be. You can scale back later. A common mistake among new writers, when learning about the importance of details, is that they use too many. It may not, for example, matter if the couch in a scene is blue, but it might be worth mentioning if it is hot pink or flaming orange. A hot pink or flaming orange couch is unusual and may therefore say something about the character that owns it. If you are mindful to include objects in your writing, you’ll see them do their share of heavy lifting in your story. A beautiful example of this is Pablo Neruda’s poetry collection, Odes to Common Things. Paint pictures with your words. Provide images. Describe what you see. From images you can move to moments, events, and finally the whole story.
5. Filtering Language. Filtering language consists of words that distance or remove the reader from the action. Examples include words and phrases like: “I noticed . . . ” “I heard . . .” “I saw . . .” “Suddenly . . .” and “There is/are . . .” Forget your role in the narration and show the action directly. Rather than saying you noticed the carp flailing on the weathered dock, just show us the creature and describe what’s happening. It’s like pointing the lens of a camera at something specific and allowing the image to speak for itself.
6. Transformation Lines. My students work off writing prompts. I tell them to write as fast as they can without thinking so that they can bypass their left brain (thinking mind) and engage their right brain (creative mind). I want them to follow energy, impulses, and images rather than concepts. Sometimes during this process, transformation lines come out. A transformation line contains within it an invitation or opportunity to drop deeper into your story. It has the ability to transform the trajectory you’ve been on and take you somewhere unexpected. Sometimes when these lines come out during freeform writing sessions, the writer doesn’t recognize the opportunity. Or they might become scared and think, I’m not going there. This may be conscious or unconscious. Either way, it’s fine. But later, if the writer recognizes the line for what it is—an invitation to explore something deeper—they can then go back to it and use it as something that has the power to transform their writing. It may emerge as a surprise, sometimes as a metaphor, but always it’s an invitation.
This is some of what we discussed in my first online “Write Where Your Are” class. Remember that writing happens in stages. One word at a time. Let yourself be exactly where you are. The writer’s three P’s—patience, passion, and persistence—have served my students well for a decade, and has supported my own writing practice over thirty years. The main thing is to keep at it. Read. Write. Engage with words on the page. Be curious, and be gentle with yourself while you’re learning. Improved writing happens effortlessly when you come to the page with an open mind and heart and listen—to teachers, yes, but also to fellow writers, and especially to your own wisdom.
Enjoy the journey!
Most writers I know (myself included) take their work very seriously. A good writing day lifts our spirits. Missing a writing day can create guilt. Rejection may plummet us to the depths of despair. We judge ourselves based on what we accomplish—or don’t accomplish. When the writing is going well, we think highly of ourselves. When it’s not, we question whether we should write at all—and, when it’s really bad, we doubt our worth as human beings.
We are writers, yes, but we are human beings first. Many of us are also mothers and daughters, wives and lovers, friends and professionals in a wide variety of fields.
The other day, feeling challenged at my desk, I decided to go for a walk while listening to a recorded webinar with Elsie Spittle, a teacher of the Three Principles of Mind, Consciousness, and Thought. Elsie spoke about the importance of listening not only to words, but also to the energy behind them. She got me thinking about my own use of language and energy. And true to what she shared, it wasn’t only what she said, but how she said it that resonated. She was extremely grounded, calm, and quiet—yet strong and clear in her communication, which reflected a deep knowing.
The quality of my walk changed. I went from feeling lethargic and dull to sensing the brightness of life around me. Trees, bushes, flowers—even the sky—felt alive. I stopped to look at the mountains and the air itself seemed to pulsate with life. I’ve written about similar experiences in my memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy. What I experienced was presence, being open and available to life in the moment without being consumed by thought. Though it’s often a distraction. I can walk for an hour and not see anything around me. Or I can see it, but not feel it. Not feel life! I can do life—cross things off a list, accomplish goals, have a good or bad writing day, prepare food or go out to eat, do chores, read books, watch TV—completely unaware of the miracle of life. Sadly, it’s sometimes easier (a default setting for many of us) to focus on petty grievances, which is an unfortunate distraction from the limitless potential that resides within.
Maybe it’s unrealistic to think that I can live with this awareness and the feeling it creates all the time, but I’m certain I can experience it more often than I do. My intention is to keep opening the channel to my spiritual self and inner well-being, to lead from this place. Follow this understanding—in service to my own happiness and the happiness of those around me: family, friends, students, clients, and anyone I come in contact with, which includes grocery checkout clerks, bank tellers, neighbors walking their dogs, fellow dancers and yogis, and countless others I interact with every day.
Elsie spittle says happiness is inherent. The only thing that keeps us from it is our own thinking. She says that the peace and joy we’re seeking resides within. Look there.
When I came home from my walk, I meditated. Without thinking, I placed my right hand over my heart while wrapping my left arm around my belly. Eyes closed, I held myself and breathed into my own arms. It was easy to feel my breath this way. I felt it inside and outside—with my arms. My mind wandered, as minds do, and when I realized I’d been distracted by thought, I returned my attention to my breath. Holding myself this way sparked compassion. A deep love welled up inside me, and as I held myself it was as if I were holding a loved one. Judgment dropped away. I saw myself as a loving mother sees her child.
And from this honest and connected place, I returned to my office, where my writing winked at me and whispered, Sometimes you have to step away. Sometimes you need to remember who you really are. Sometimes you need to engage life without filters, open yourself to the miracle.
Some people will tell you that book tours aren’t worth the effort. They’ll say the cost is prohibitive, people won’t show up; you’d be lucky to address an audience of two, and you can reach many more readers online. Social media is cheaper, easier, and a bigger bang for your buck. This may be true, but there’s nothing like real-life face time, connecting with people in person.
Since my memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy, was released in May, I’ve had successful events in Los Angeles, San Diego, Northern California, New York, Virginia, and elsewhere. My three primary criteria for success include (1) Event Attendance, which ranged from 20-60; (2) Audience Interest and Engagement During the Event; and (3) My Enjoyment and Satisfaction. Let’s look at these more closely, along with a few other factors.
Event Attendance. Make no mistake about it: you (the author) are responsible for bringing people through the door. Even if you were reading at a bookstore that has a mailing list of ten thousand people, you’d be lucky to get one or two people from a mass mailing. The people who attend book signings of unknown authors come because they know the author or someone connected to the author. They come to show support. They come because you’ve appeared on their radar. They come because of personal connections. One or two might show up because your online platform and book description resonated with them. So the questions to consider when planning a book tour are: Who do I know? Where are my friends? Who might be willing to lobby on my behalf? How can I get people into the bookstore or other venue? If you’d like to visit a city where your contacts are few, consider planning an event with another author who lives in that city and whose following is larger than yours. Or invite two or three authors to join you. Or create a panel of authors to discuss a particular theme.
Venues. Five of my eight events were bookstores. One was held in a Marriott conference room, the weekend I attended my 40th high school reunion there. One was held in a private home, and one at Scripps College, my alma mater, where I was invited to speak about my book to my classmates at our 35th reunion. (This was a more intimate group of about fifteen women and I turned it into a workshop, which was spontaneous, effective, and fun.) Don’t limit yourself to bookstores. There are many venues to choose from. I’ve known authors who have held events in clothing stores, health food markets, and restaurants. Be creative. Think outside the box. If you’re a She Writes Press or SparkPress author, you keep 100% of your proceeds from your book sales if you choose a nontraditional venue, though you may need to pay a small fee to use the space. Many bookstores don’t charge a fee, but they sell your book for you—and therefore you don’t pocket any direct profits. (Note that bookstores automatically buy your books from your distributor for 50%, or if you’re a self-published author and you opt to sell your books on consignment, bookstores take 40%-50%.) Ask yourself what kind of experience you’d like to create and think about your audience. It’s like hosting a party. Consider what your guests would enjoy, then deliver the goods. For me, in many but not all cases, this meant: Feed them. Give them a glass of wine. Inspire their minds and nourish their souls.
Approaching Venues. Reach out (or have your publicist do it) to event coordinators at bookstores. You can send an email or go in person, but be prepared to provide written info if you choose the latter. The info should include your book description, bio, and your connection to that venue or city. In other words, your plan for bringing in an audience. Offer the venue a complimentary copy of your book, or an Advanced Reader Copy.
Get the Word Out. Be personal. Facebook events are a good start, but private Facebook messages are better. A Paperless Post invitation is elegant and inviting, but maintaining communication with the people on your list is good form, and also feels wonderful. Old-fashioned phone calls can also be effective. They key is to reach out. Connect. And keep following up. Post about your events on social media and ask friends and family to share your posts. Ask your publicist (if you have one) to pitch local media in conjunction with your event. Have memes, posters, invitations, and flyers designed and printed. If you design them yourself, make sure they look professional (and if you don’t know, get an opinion from a professional).
Audience Interest and Engagement. When they’re nodding their heads as you speak, jotting down notes, and asking questions, when they flock to you after your presentation, you know you’ve engaged your audience. I used to be afraid of public speaking. Years ago, during a residency at Scripps College, I had to give a talk to an audience that included some of my old college professors. I was totally intimidated and worked on that talk for months, writing and rewriting. I thought I had to show up a certain way and was scared I’d blow it. I’ve since learned that it’s perfectly fine to be myself—warts and all— and there’s not much to prepare for when it comes to talking about my book and my life’s journey. All I have to do is show up and speak from my heart. Spontaneous speaking is its own art form, and as powerful as spontaneous (journal) writing. Speaking this way challenges me to be open, honest, vulnerable, and available, which allows for something larger to come through than what I might have planned. I’m more attuned to the moment. More relaxed. When I trust myself in this way, wisdom surfaces in surprising ways.
If your audience appears sleepy, fidgety, or otherwise unengaged, change your plan. Try something different. Walk out from behind the podium. Tell a personal story. Imagine you’re talking to your best friend(s). And be gentle with yourself. Your presentations will improve with practice. Most authors are enthusiastic about their books and enthusiasm is contagious. The root of the word enthusiasm means “with God.” I like to think of it as sharing the loving energy of the universe within me with others. As the Sanskrit greeting “Namaste” suggests, I see the light in every audience member, and perhaps they see mine, too. We are all the same. All sacred beings looking for love and connection. If you come from your heart, rather than your head, you will succeed.
My Level of Enjoyment and Satisfaction. What struck me most about my book events was how much love I felt. The people who showed up were there to support me or another author. For my solo events they were there for me. In Virginia many came to support my sister, who took on the task of planning that event and inviting all her friends. She was tenacious and devoted in her approach to this event, as if she were throwing me a party. Giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin. Both feel wonderful when the offering is authentic and heartfelt. I am grateful for my sister’s support and also for the support of my extended family and friends. And for all the people who showed up and bought my book. And for those who wanted to come but couldn’t make it. While it may have been fine to do a virtual book tour, the gifts I gave and received by being present with readers in person were absolutely worth my time, money, and energy. These “gifts” are in no way limited to book sales. For me it’s about getting out there, overcoming fears, trusting that the universe has my back, challenging myself, nudging myself toward the edges of my comfort zone, and reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.
Are you planning a book tour? Do you have questions or concerns? Or anything you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you.
Book Tour Video and Photos
The other night I dreamed a friend told me to “stop talking!” The directive pertained to my memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy, and it stung because, as a newly published author, it’s my job to talk about my book.
Over the past few weeks I’ve done ten radio and podcast interviews, attended four in-person book-related events (eight more to go between now and November), and had eleven articles and/or interviewspublished (or soon-to-be published).
I’m thrilled to be having conversations with like-minded people about subjects I care about deeply: creativity, consciousness, health and healing. My media involvement has connected me with readers, helped me sell books, and boosted my platform as well as my business because readers have reached out to me for coaching. It’s the connections I make with others I find most gratifying. My tribe is forming.
Still, my dream roused old negative thoughts that harkened back to childhood admonitions such as, “Don’t call attention to yourself,” “Keep quiet,” and “Who cares?”
“Just shut up already!” a pest of an inner voice said, echoing my friend’s chastisement, which felt like an ominous warning.
Luckily, before the dream ended, another friend appeared. “Really?” she countered. “You’re going to fall for that again? Why even engagewith a voice that tells you to ‘just shut up’! When was the last time you said that to somebody other than yourself?”
“Never,” I acknowledged. When I woke up and had a minute to contemplate my dream, I could see how untrustworthy—and definitely not “friendly”—that message was. So I dismissed it. I let it go.
That “shut-up-already” voice is related to the ambition that drove me hard for decades. Last summer I went into overdrive researching publicists. I spoke to fifteen (and their references). Looking back, my conscientious due diligence stemmed from caring a little too deeply about being seen. I felt a quiet, desperate need for my book to be successful—as if it were linked to my worth. It’s not. What we do isn’t who we are. And our value is inherent.
According to my publisher, Brooke Warner, a “successful” book earns back its costs over three years. The measurement she’s referring to is in book sales earnings, but for me, as a teacher and coach, my book has already been successful because it has expanded my practice. I’ve added anxiety coaching to my offerings. And I’ve loved working with new clients in this arena. It’s an incredible feeling when someone reaches out wanting to work with me because they’ve read my book. One new client bought Raw because she resonated with the raw food component, and, like me, had no idea she suffered with anxiety—until she read my book. Another new client has a powerful urge to tell her own story, after having read mine. She’s determined to speak up on her own behalf, to send her own pests packing. Another client started working with me because of midlife anxiety issues, which have now settled, allowing us to move on to conversations about what’s next.
Living full out takes courage. I love that word: courage. Its root, “cour” means heart in Latin. Living with heart is what I want most. I’ll be “successful” if I practice living with more heart, and less fear.
Here’s what I’ve learned from book publicity (and from life) over these six weeks of being a published memoirist: When I’m grateful for what shows up, more goodies materialize. When I focus on what I don’t have, I suffer. Gratitude or scarcity. It’s up to me. I get to choose how to interpret my experience.
Also, outcomes are not my job. It’s enough to show up and do my best—whether that’s in writing or promoting my book.
When I speak to writers, students, and clients who desperately want their books to be successful—and this looks different for each person—I invite them to consider what’s fueling their ambition. Does wanting their book to be on the New York Times bestseller list come from a genuine desire to share what’s in their heart for the good of something greater than themselves? Or does it stem from something less noble? Does it come from a craving for recognition or legitimacy? Is it emanating from the heart or from unconscious, fearful thinking?
No amount of external validation will create lasting satisfaction or peace if you believe negative inner voices that tell you you’re not good enough. Accolades and achievement may create moments of joy, but they’ll be short-lived. Soon you’ll be onto your next goal—striving hard as ever, pushing and forcing your way through life and work, fighting, perhaps grumbling—and this is exhausting. And unnecessary. When you realize you’re fine the way you are—that you don’t need to achieve anything or be anything more than you are—you can let out a deep breath. You can trust your experience, release worry and fear, and enjoy the ride.
It’s been two weeks since the publication of my memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy, which has created a whirlwind of activity, not the least of which was attending a literary event hosted by Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles. I’ll confess: I didn’t want to go. I was swamped with book business, my launch was two days away, my sister was coming into town, and I’d been working pedal to the metal. I was beat. It seemed like rest would be a saner Sunday night option. But I pushed self-care concerns aside because I wanted to honor one of my writing mentors, Jack Grapes, who was receiving the Distinguished Service Award. A writer I’d never heard of before, Kamau Daáood, was receiving the Outstanding Achievement in Poetry Award. I knew Jack’s reading would be great, but had no idea what to expect from Daáood. Turns out he’s a true bard. As he read with his eyes closed, deeply connected to his muse, I was transported into the depths of my own soul. I managed to scribble the following lines (direct quotes) from Daáood’s poems, and am delighted to share them with you here.
“I want to stand in my own brand of beauty and truth.” This sounds like a prayer. And it’s as good as any intention I’ve heard, especially in the hubbub of publication and beyond. It helps me focus on what’s important and not get lured and distracted by hoopla and hullaballoo. This intention helps me detach from thinking that the success or lack of success of my book defines me. As much as I care about media attention, recognition, and praise, it doesn’t mean anything about who I am or my value. If I don’t allow criticism to take me down, I can’t allow praise to inflate my ego. Have you heard the expression, “The ego is a hungry ghost”? It’s hungry most of the time and will eat anything. And it’s a ghost because it haunts and looms, but doesn’t exist in the world of form. Maintaining clarity, focus, and equilibrium feels important right now.
“The shackles that bind are the ones we accept.” Monsoons of circumstances and thoughts constrain us every day—when we believe and allow them. When we accept—or worse, argue—for our limitations, whether imposed upon us from outside or within, we’re trapped. Going after and achieving a heartfelt dream, such as writing a book, creates freedom. It’s the classic hero’s journey. You have a goal, you encounter obstacles and as you navigate your treacherous path, you grow and learn. You come face-to-face with your fears, your shiny armor tarnishes, and then it gets yanked off, and you are naked, but strong, because, as Jack Grapes used to tell me, “Your strengths are your weaknesses and your weaknesses are your strengths.”
“Find a safe place to examine your heart.” This is a sweet and private matter. We all do this in our own way. I have found it helpful to take a step back and become a neutral observer of my thoughts. When I peer into the misty cauldron of my own thinking it’s helpful to observe with the clear and loving eyes of compassion. With these tools, I am able to shift my perspective from fear to love. I ask, What would love do if it were driving this vehicle that is my life? Love would dismiss the myth of needing to “be special.” It understands that we are all special. Or, put another way, love reminds me to appreciate ordinary, everyday people and events. Love says, All you have to do is show up in service. What you do isn’t about you. It’s about the message that wants to be expressed through you.
“…decorated prisons…” This has happened to me: I found myself stuck in a pit of anxiety and terror. Since I didn’t know how to make my way out of the pit, I accepted it. I even start decorating my pit in an effort to make it more tolerable. We all do this at one time or another, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We decorate self-imposed prisons. I say this without judgment. I point it out because once you see this phenomenon it shifts. The jig is up. The negative thinking that creates painful emotions no longer dupes you into taking things so seriously. I recently read an article about the writing life that focused on how hard it is. I get it. But also, how we respond to any given issue is the issue and we always have the choice to frame things in ways that lift us up or tear us down. It’s up to us. We don’t have to decorate our prisons. We can let ourselves out.
“Humble yourself at the shrine of each moment.” The other day, coming home from running errands, I was about to climb the stairs up to my front door when sunlight lit the leaves of a spindly gardenia plant at the bottom of the stairs. I’ve lived in this house over twenty years. I’m sure this wasn’t the first time the sunlight hit that plant that way, but it was the first time I saw it. I paused. Took it in. It felt like a gift. I let myself bask in the beauty of that moment. The more I do this, the richer my life experience. Life doesn’t pass us by when we’re fully present and paying attention. And there’s an exquisite humility to this because you realize how vast and magnificent our world is—even when we forget.
“Come with your holy water and flame.” Bring it all. Everything you’ve got. Go for it! You will be deterred. You may be frightened. You may think you’re not up to a particular task. You might hear that who-do-you-think-you-are voice creep in. Keep going. Showing up is the best we can do. It’s enough. Let go of trying to “be someone.” You are already someone. We all are. The rest is theater—the jockeying for position and recognition. This is a form of chasing after something you already have. Your treasure is within. Trust that and let yourself be guided by it. It’s easy to ignore your inner wisdom. Easier to look to others for approval, guidance, and direction. But the world is full of distractions and you’ve got that holy water and flame, so bring it!
It turned out that attending this event was the perfect thing to do on the Sunday night before my Tuesday book launch. Who knew I’d be fed a delicious literary feast? Who knew I’d be uplifted and inspired? Who knew a grey-haired, African American poet from Watts would glow from that stage and set the room ablaze with all our beauty. What a send-off into my launch week! And talk about self-care: this brand of nourishment doesn’t happen every day. Daáood’s desire to stand in his own brand of beauty and truth reminded me that as I approach the work of bringing my book into the world, I need to keep things honest, avoid drama, and stay connected with what really matters: my own beauty and truth.
Yesterday, while writing in my journal, I sobbed with gratitude! Seeing my memoir Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy published is a long-held dream come true. I’ve travelled a labyrinthine road to get here.
During these months leading up to my book launch I’ve been surrounded by to-do lists. I’ve tried to wrangle each “must-do” item to the ground, but many have slipped away! I’ve learned this: it doesn’t matter. I’ve done my best. And I have a confession to make: I have habitually fallen into the trap of believing I must do xyz (insert a long list of author to-dos, including social media, newsletters, book tour planning, speaking gigs, article writing and placement, blog posts, graphic design, interviews, launch party details, editing excerpts, email announcements, and more).
On top of these author-related tasks, I have been convinced that I needed to engage in a host of personal practices such as meditation, yoga, dance, journal writing, walks, healthy eating, and getting a good night’s sleep. All of these are great, as are my work-related tasks, but they’ve been fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding that my well-being depended upon them. This is not true. My well-being does not depend upon my doing anything, personally or professionally. Contrary to how it often appears, the outside world need not look a certain way for me to be essentially (spiritually) okay.
Sometimes I forget this and think that if I could just achieve or accomplish xyz, I’d be good, safe, valued, or loveable (fill in whatever blank). But I’m discovering that my well-being resides within. The only thing that keeps me from it is my own thinking. This is liberating because it means I’m not a victim of outside circumstances I can’t control.
The other day I was driving in my car and I suddenly felt a wave of joy. For no reason. I realized my fearful, negative thinking fell away for a moment and I was left with the real me—my essence, which is filled with love. This is how I want to live my life and this is how I want to launch my book—from this understanding.
I’d like to be a successful author, but it’s good to know that neither my identity nor my well-being depend upon it. I recognize the anxious yacking of my insatiable ego, choose not to take it seriously, and focus on what matters most: showing up, doing the work, connecting with others, and being of service. I finally get that I’m good enough, no matter what.
I get to play this game called life in which I’m taking on the role of an author right now. But I don’t have to do all the things I’m doing; I get to do them. And it’s fun. My intention is to proceed with joy. That’s my barometer for what to do next. I ask myself, Does this feel good? Will it bring joy? Does it feel light and spacious or heavy and dark? Does it make me feel like a headless chicken running all over the place? If so, my answer is, No thank you. I’ll pass.
After decades of writing I finally get that I don’t have to strive or worry; I can turn to my inner compass instead. A friend recently reminded me, “You’re a shower-upper. You’ve already won.” And that’s exactly how it feels. My book is a shining moment, but my life is my ongoing project. The journey continues.
Putting my memoir into the world provides countless opportunities for me to grow, learn, and love. This is my practice and my pleasure.
I’m hosting two launch events in Los Angeles: Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, where I’ll appear in conversation with author Clarie Bidwell Smith and The Mystic Journey Bookstore in Venice, where I’ll read edited excerpts. Manny Velazquez will play flamenco guitar before and after my reading. I’ll also be doing events in San Diego, Corte Madera and Larkspur (Northern California), Long Island (near where I grew up), Northern Virginia, and Portland. I’d love to see you at any of these gatherings! I hope to connect with old friends and make new ones as I celebrate this milestone!