I’m proud to share that my publisher, She Writes Press, was recently selected by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards as the 2019 Indie Publisher of the Year. This is a huge honor and I’m proud to be a She Writes Press author.
If your search for a traditional publisher isn’t panning out the way you’d hoped, you might want to consider independent publishing.
Some authors today don’t even shop their manuscripts to traditional publishers. This was my choice for my award-winning memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy. I discuss my reasons in my January 22, 2017, post, “She Writes Press, Yes!”
Many authors today choose independent publishing for a variety of reasons: to maintain ownership of their work, to earn higher royalties, to have greater creative control over their projects, to be part of a community of writers, to engage in a collaborative process, or to expedite their publishing process.
At the end of the day, what’s important is producing a professionally published book. Most readers don’t know or care how a book is published, unless they stumble over unedited text, typos, amateurish design work, and other common pitfalls of self-publishing.
One viable option is to go with a hybrid press, such as She Writes Press.
Hybrid publishing is a model in which authors pay up-front costs in exchange for a significantly higher percentage of royalties. It’s called partnership publishing because the publisher brings their professional experience to the table, while the author retains “authority” and ownership over his or her work.
Hybrid presses are different from hybrid authors. A hybrid author may have one or more books published traditionally, and others published independently, either self-published or with a hybrid press.
Not all hybrid presses are created equal. Some companies claiming to be hybrid publishers are, in fact, just printers, offering zero editorial guidance, quality control, or distribution.
In February 2018, the Independent Book Publisher’s Association (IBPA)published a list of nine criteria defining what it means to be a professional hybrid publisher. The criteria requires that hybrid publishers behave just like traditional publishers except when it comes to business model. IBPA says, “although hybrid publishing companies are author-subsidized, they are different from other author-subsidized models in that hybrid publishers adhere to professional publishing standards. Regardless of who pays for editorial, design, and production fees, it is always the publisher that bears responsibility for producing, distributing, and ultimately selling professional-quality books.” Here is IBPA’s Hybrid Publisher Criteria:
• Define a mission and vision for its publishing program.
• Vet submissions.
• Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs.
• Publish to industry standards
• Ensure editorial, design, and production quality.
• Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights.
• Provide distribution services.
• Demonstrate respectable sales.
• Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty.
If you’re considering a hybrid publisher, look at their body of work. If possible, hold their books in your hands. How do they feel? Do their books look and feel like you’d want yours to look and feel? Speak to authors who have published on that press. Ask questions about their experience. Did they receive everything their publisher promised? Was it a satisfying partnership? What did their publisher bring to the collaboration? Did they provide distribution? Many don’t. If that’s the case, did the author have a plan in place for how to sell books? It’s good to think about this even if you have a traditional publishing deal, because these days, unless you’re a big-name author, the brunt of the sales work will fall on your shoulders.
Whichever publishing path you choose, you will learn a lot along the way. It helps to understand, especially if you’re a first-time author, that you’ll be on a huge learning curve, and although you may feel pressure to go fast, it can help to slow down. Most agents will tell you their best advice is “don’t rush.” Your work needs to be polished to stand out. The same is true for publishing. Put your best foot forward no matter how you publish.
Another indie path to publication is to self-publish. Since you don’t know what you don’t know, learn as much as you can about what it takes to create a book. There’s more to it than meets the eye. Start with the writing. Hire a great editor. I can’t tell you how many self-published books I pick up that are written by earnest, hardworking people with compelling stories to tell, or important information to impart, but their books are filled with verbal clutter, redundancies, narrative inconsistencies, spelling errors, and typos. I’ll slog through a chapter or two if I know the author, and then give up. It’s too much work. So hire a developmental editor to help you with your story, a copyeditor to correct grammar, and a proofreader to catch small errors or typos. After you’ve done that you can give your manuscript to fellow author or English teacher friends to comb through one last time to catch any lingering typos. Many sets of eyes are needed for this.
Book design is also essential. Don’t believe that old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. You can, and readers do. Book and cover design is an art. And your cover is what gets your book into readers’ hands. It’ll be worth your while to hire a designer for the cover and interior of your book. Together you can make decisions about paper, fonts, spacing, gutters, artwork and photos, and more.
You’ll also write descriptive copy and cover copy, solicit blurbs, obtain permissions, apply for an ISBN number, and a lot more.
Self-publishing can be costly. Many authors today are launching crowd-funding campaigns to support their writing projects. Artists in other fields have been producing independent work for decades. Your project is worth investing in. Give your publishing process the same care and attention you gave your writing. Your manuscript will benefit and so will you—not to mention your readers.
Indie authors: what say you? What have you gotten out of independent publishing?
What author, at one time or another, hasn’t imagined the following scenario, or some version of it: You finish writing your manuscript and send it off to a handful of literary agents. You’re offered representation. Your agent loves your book and can’t wait to sell it. He or she has great connections and promptly sells your book to a New York publishing house. You sign a contract, receive a generous advance, and make minor tweaks under the tutelage of your brilliant editor who totally gets you and your work. You adore the cover the publisher comes up with, which perfectly captures your book’s essence. You start writing your next book while your publisher’s robust and energetic publicity team plans your book tour and places your excerpts and articles in glossy magazines. Your publisher’s PR team arranges interviews for you on national media. All you have to do is show up. Your book is received with praise. You are a successful author. You have arrived. All is well. Now you can relax, sit back, collect royalty checks, and keep writing in silent, solitary bliss while your book becomes an international bestseller.
If any part of this scenario has happened for you, bravo and congratulations! That’s amazing. I’d love to hear your story. But I don’t know anyone who’s experienced this fantasy. Instead, I’ve heard way too many nightmares. And I’ve experienced my share of disappointment and rejection.
Ironically, for many authors, and especially for aspiring authors, waking up from unrealistic publishing dreams, and then confidently laying them down, may be the best strategy for becoming a successful published author. It’s fine to hope for great things, and it’s fabulous to dream, but if you cling to your fantasies—which is more common than you might think—you may miss out on real-life opportunities.
The outcome of your efforts is not in your hands, but here’s what is: showing up; doing what you love and loving what you do; allowing yourself to be guided by your own wisdom; having humility—and a willingness to learn and grow every step of the way. Even if you are offered what seems like a perfect deal, publishing, regardless what path you take, is about what you make of your experience.
If you’re thinking about publishing a book, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the current state of publishing. The best book I’ve read on this subject is Brooke Warner’s Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing. Brooke breaks down complex ideas. Her book is both comprehensive and comprehensible. Even so, I suggest reading it more than once. I buy them in bulk and give them to my students and clients.
Like I said, it’s okay to dream. I encourage it. You need to dream to have a vision to stretch into. I dream all the time. But if your dream doesn’t show up the way you expected—if it doesn’t look the way you imagined—consider alternative options that keep you moving in the direction of your dream or goal. The last thing you want to do is hang your freedom and peace of mind on the vagaries of the publishing industry!
On a recent episode of her podcast, “Write-minded,” Brooke compared landing a traditional publishing deal to attending an Ivy League college. It’s competitive. Students who walk those hallowed halls aren’t guaranteed success, joy, or anything else—even among the small percentage of the population that gets in. In today’s publishing landscape, “admission” criteria often has less to do with your intelligence, creativity, or even the value of your project, and more to do with your author platform. Author platform is the size of your audience. Who you know still matters, but who knows you matters more. Traditional publishers need to sign authors who can sell books. But Brooke’s point is that there are plenty of stellar schools out there beyond the Ivy Leagues, and being denied entry wouldn’t cause you to give up on your education. You’d go somewhere else. You’d keep learning and growing.
The same is true in publishing. Don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. Publishing is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are more opportunities to publish now than ever before. The key is to do what works for you. If something isn’t working on your path to publication, step off the trail. Find another.
Rumi, the great Persian poet, reminds us, “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there’s a field. I’ll meet you there.” Release whatever blame or shame may be bubbling beneath your social media façade.
There’s no “right” way to publish a book any more than there’s a “right” way to live a life—except to do it your way.
*My forthcoming book, Where Do You Hang Your Hammock? How to Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book, is divided into five parts: Dream, Nourish, Write, Publish, and Promote. This post is an excerpt from the “Publish” section.
I just returned home from Chicago where my memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy, won silver in the Body, Mind & Spirit category of the Benjamin Franklin Awards, sponsored by the Independent Book Publishers Association. It was a wonderful event, especially since I got to hang out with fellow She Writes Press authors and meet new people. It was also fun to visit a city I’d never been to before, and to feel celebrated by my family, friends, and communities. Thank you if you’re among those who congratulated me and wished me well, or if you were a librarian, bookseller, or industry professional who voted for Raw.
I’d never won an award for my writing before. I’ve experienced much more rejection as a writer than accolades. My writing career didn’t unfold in the way I dreamed it would. Eighteen years ago, unable to find a publisher for another memoir I’d spent years writing, and devastated by the shock and fear of 9-11, I didn’t think anything I had to say mattered. My professional expectations crashed and I told myself I was a failure—not only with my writing, but also in my life. The one exception and the thing that kept me going was being a mom.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had lived decades searching for a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, unconsciously jockeying to achieve things in the hopes that my accomplishments would somehow prove I was okay.
But as soon as I attained one goal, it was never good enough, so I’d set my sights on another. I became like a performing monkey jumping through hoops, trying to please or impress “people,” which boiled down to trying to please and impress my insatiable inner critic. I was imprisoned by my own innocent, but misguided, thinking.
It took me a long time to understand that there never was a bar I needed to reach. No one was judging me as strongly as I was judging myself. And here’s the kicker: the judgments were illusions—ideas I enlivened and empowered with my belief.
I still remember the day, in grad school, when one of my spiritual psychology teachers said, “There’s no such thing as failure, only opportunities for growth.” What if that’s true? I wondered, amazed. Caroline Myss, New York Times bestselling author and medical intuitive, asks, “What thoughts will you invest your belief dollars in?”
I knew it was in my best interest to “invest” wisely, so I stepped back, observed my thinking, and saw that just because I had a thought didn’t make it true. This was my get-out-of-jail-free card!
I realized that I could choose to adopt a learning orientation toward life, and from that point forward started to consider my time here on “Earth School” as a chance to simply live, love, and learn. Where in the past I’d had to dig deep to validate myself, and my work—often in the face of menacing doubts and despair—“Earth School” me understood I was fine the way I was. We all are. I realized that in grasping or clinging to things and people I thought would save, liberate, approve of, or validate me, I was ignoring and inadvertently pushing away my inherent goodness.
Joy is our natural state. I didn’t have to conquer life to make it good! Life started out good and remained good underneath my cacophony of crazy thinking. When my frenetic mind finally settled, I realized that I could slow down, breathe, and relax.
“This is really big!” someone wrote on my Facebook feed about the award.
What’s “big” is not that I won an award for my memoir, but that I wrote the book at all. I had to allow it to write me! I showed up and wrote even when no one else noticed or cared—because I had to do it for myself. The writing sustained me for a long, long time and was its own reward.
I had excellent help along the way. Books don’t get written in a vacuum. I’m grateful beyond words to the coaches, guides, friends and family who cheered me on.
Looking back over my trip to Chicago, I catch myself replaying and basking in positive memories. But immersion and identification with any thinking—positive or negative—pulls me out of what’s here now. The past is gone. It’s time to return to work and life in this moment, which is where life’s great gifts reside.
If you’d like support accessing your own transformation and writing gifts, check out my spring classes, which begin next week. I have one spot open in my Thursday night on-site circle and two spots available in the Wednesday online circle. My classes may bring you closer to making your writing dreams come true!
Writing a memoir is a huge undertaking. You’re dealing with tons of content by virtue of having lived a life. Here are some suggestions for getting—and staying—organized.
Forget writing on scraps of paper. Get yourself a journal. You may use your computer to write if that feels better for you, but I prefer the hand-heart connection writing with paper and pen offers—at least in the beginning. Writing on paper also makes it easier to ignore typos, spelling, and grammar and to focus on right-brain creative flow. Later you can transfer your work to the computer, editing as you go.
Date your journal entries each time you sit down to write. When you complete a journal, label the spine and put it on a shelf. As you fill more journals, organize them chronologically. I have journals organized this way dating back to 1979. When I’m working on a project I consult them. It’s amazing how much we forget. But if you’re keeping a journal it’ll be filled with recollections big and small, as well as details long gone from your mind.
For work done on the computer, give your pieces titles and organize them into folders. If you work across genres you may want to have a creative writing folder and within that folder other folders that house poetry, fiction, essays, ideas, etc. If you’re working on a particular project, such as a memoir, you’ll create a unique folder for it, which will contain outlines, ideas, and chapters—each in their own documents.
Your diaries, journals, letters, and other work you’ve written are great source materials, which will remind you of stories and events, but will not be part of your memoir, per se. They will inform what you write, but not be your writing. You can cull that material for ideas and even use them to help you make lists of stories you want to tell.
Explore possible themes for your memoir based on the subjects that emerge in your journal writing. What topics or subject matter do you write and care about? What concepts or threads run through your writing? Is there a specific story you want to tell? Can you distill its essence and state it in a sentence? For example, my memoir is about my determination to heal anxiety even before I knew what it was. Take a look at these questions early on in your process and keep asking them. Memoirs are different from autobiographies, which chronicle a person’s life. Memoirs are organized around a particular theme of a person’s life. Everything in your memoir should point in the direction of your theme. The theme is your content’s reason for being.
Think about how you can divide your material into sections. My memoir, Raw, has three sections: Body, Mind, and Spirit. My latest project, WHERE DO YOU HANG YOUR HAMMOCK? How To Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book, has five sections: Dream, Nourish, Write, Publish, Promote.
Next, consider how many chapters you’ll have in each section. This will depend on how long each chapter will be. Do some math. Your memoir shouldn’t exceed 80,000 words.
This creates a container into which you can pour your stories. Each book project is different so think about structure, but hold it loosely. You may want to take a look at books you love and review the tables of contents to see how many chapters those books have.
Now it’s time to generate an outline, which is a living document and will change and grow as you and your story does.
After the outline you’ll write chapter-by-chapter summaries, which provide a look at each chapter so that you (and hopefully your coach or editor) can see the progression of the story. It’s important to get feedback during this process because it’s hard for writers to have perspective on their own work.
Hire a coach if you can. It will save you hundreds of hours, confusion, and aggravation. Plus, the right kind of support is as transformational as direction. I’m a super organized person and still I benefit tremendously working with a coach/editor.
I hope this helps. Good luck with your project!
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.