One of my life intentions is to relish the joy of self-expression. But lately I’ve been reluctant to say what I think, especially on social media and in my blog posts. This is partly because posting anything other than politics these days has felt trivial, and political conversations can easily erupt into flames. Putting out wildfires makes me anxious, and I don’t want to live in hatred and fear. I know from experience that crashes are inevitable when anger and fear take over the steering wheel of my life. Another reason I haven’t been relishing the joy of self-expression lately is that when the shit hits the fan, like it has these past few weeks in our country, I tend to think that the problems of the world are so much bigger than I am that nothing I have to say could possibly matter. Of course this isn’t true. It’s a lie fear tells me. I know there’s plenty all of us can do. Especially writers.
And yet, we each have to navigate our own path. We must decide for ourselves what types of advocacy are best suited to our temperaments, personalities, and resources. I’ve been asking myself, How can I serve? How can I do something positive? How can I love myself and others—especially people with whom I disagree? This last question is the hardest. I won’t pretend I have it answered. I just keep asking the question. Every day. And sometimes I’m surprised by what happens.
A few days before my daughter returned to college after winter break, we went to a wholesale florist and bought four dozen white roses. At home, I wrapped each one individually in cellophane and ribbon while my daughter attached handwritten notes that said, “Wishing you a wonderful day. Spread the love.” We handed the roses out to people on the street. Some folks were reluctant to receive; they couldn’t believe the roses were free. “Why are you doing this?” they asked. “We just want to spread some love,” we said, “and bring a little beauty into your life.” Giving really is receiving. We went home with empty buckets and full hearts because of connections and conversations we’d forged with strangers.
Another thing I’ve been practicing a lot lately is my light meditation. I sit for my regular mediation, but position myself in front of a window blindfolded. After twenty minutes, I remove the blindfold and keep my eyes closed. The darkness on the insides of my eyelids is replaced by golden light. I imagine this light inside me; that it’s the real me. In other words, I identify not with my pain, but with this light. I then try to “locate” my elusive spirit. I sit and listen, poised to receive guidance. I bask in the light until I feel that I am this light, which exists in every person on the planet, not just the people I like or agree with, but everyone. I envision the light radiating from every living thing, consider how we are connected, and I pray for us all.
To some this might seem like a waste of time. But for me it’s an essential practice. While anger and fear have their place, they can also be knee-jerk reactions. They are like smog in Southern California in that it’s everywhere. You’re so surrounded by it that often you don’t even notice it anymore. In our culture love is the radical choice, and during these crazy times, I intend to remain sane. The best way I know how to do this is to up my self-care practices: to back away from the ledge when I become dizzy and feel like I’m about to careen into a pit; to turn inward; to appreciate the larger picture of our humanity; to notice the blessings and light; to connect with my heart; to reach out to friends; and to have faith that things unfold the way they do for a reason.
How are you and your writing faring during these turbulent times? I’d love to hear how you’re coping, as well as ideas for random acts of kindness. How do you spread love?
A few months ago, soon after I’d finished writing my memoir, Raw: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, I had the opportunity to share five minutes of my work at a reading. While combing through my manuscript for excerpts, I found myself thinking, Hmm, maybe this writing isn’t as strong as I thought. The writing felt flabby and slow. I found myself tinkering with passages so they’d read better in a shorter timeframe, and wondered if that was okay. In past readings, I’ve mostly read my poems, complete works, each one featuring a beginning, middle, and end.
But my memoir is different. It took time to develop stories in that longer format—time I wouldn’t have in a five-minute reading. I wanted to give my audience the best bang for their buck, to make my reading worth their while. I wanted them with me from the first word to the last. I have been to too many readings where restless audience members pick cuticles, scrimmage inside purses, check iPhones, or stare out windows, all overt cues that they’re desperate for the reader to just finish already. This sucks for writers, but it also means it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Every time you stand up and read your work, you’re pitching it. If you don’t grab your audience, and keep them with you, they will not buy your book. I’ve given several readings from my memoir since that first one and here’s what I’ve learned: presenting an edited excerpt of your novel or memoir is a gift for your audience as well as your book! In order to most effectively share part of a long-form story in a short-form (time) venue, you will need to compress, collapse, or cut. You may also need to compose transitions, connections, or endings to create a satisfying, standalone experience.
The key is to view a time “constraint” as a container. Make it work for you in the same way specific poetry forms, such as the villanelle, shape a poem. If you honor the requirements of your reading venue and deliver a complete experience, if you craft your work with a particular reading in mind, you have a much better shot of connecting with and entertaining your audience. If you leave them laughing, crying, or nodding their head, they are with you.
I have a three-ring binder with ten edited excerpts from my memoir, along with a list of others I want to develop. At the top of each page I’ve jotted down how long the excerpt takes to read. Please note: read slower than you think you should. Take your time. Plant your feet on the floor. Let your voice rise from your belly.
Edited excerpts will serve you well even if you’re giving a featured reading and have thirty or forty minutes. Remember to consider your audience when choosing passages. Your excerpt filled with sex and “colorful” language, however well edited, might not go over so well at a conservative ladies’ luncheon. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen authors fall into this trap. You may want to share several edited excerpts that feature different flavors of your story, rather than one or two longer selections. Sadly, attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been, and while a passage might be perfectly paced in your book, it might not hold a listener’s attention. Consider crafting ten or twenty excerpts of different lengths before it’s time to promote your book. You will be surprised what you can do with five minutes, or less. Being ready to go with as many great, edited clips as possible will make the reading part of your job successful and fun!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Have you grappled with the problem of reading a passage intended to unfold more slowly in your novel or memoir? Were you resistant, as I was in the beginning, to edit your excerpts? Did you do it anyway? If so, what was the result?