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?
Sometimes inner guidance sounds more like a whisper than a growl. It might stalk you from behind a flowering Camellia bush and distract you with red blossoms. It might tap you on the shoulder and then run away. It may wonder how many times or in what ways it needs to tell you the same thing before you’ll take its advice. But if your inner guidance is anything like mine, it will be patient—and it won’t give up until you receive its message. It will attract a variety of experiences designed to help you, though you may interpret them as obstacles instead of opportunities.
Even before reading Brooke Warner’s Green-Light Your Book, part of me—the part I consider my Wise Self—wanted to publish my memoir with She Writes Press. As I read Brooke’s book, my conviction only deepened. The problem was, another part of me, the one I’ve come to know as my Insatiable Ego, threw a temper tantrum and demanded external validation in the form of a traditional publishing deal.
Meanwhile, I devoured Brooke’s book, which I read twice, all the while nodding my head in assent, my gut resonating with empowering messages about creative partnership, sisterhood, and more.
I listed the pros and cons of publishing with She Writes Press in my journal. My enumeration of pros was long—a download from my Wise Self. The cons consisted of two demands and perceived needs: conventional compensation (payment) for my writing in the form of an advance and royalties, and a yearning for legitimacy as an author. “Legitimacy is an inside job,” my Wise Self said. It also reminded me that the financial picture under the traditional model isn’t so clear-cut anymore, especially with traditional publishers cutting secret hybrid deals and authors in both camps having to pay for publicity. “Besides, this isn’t about money for you,” my Wise Self said.
That was June. I completed my memoir a couple months later, but wasn’t ready to sign with SWP or to shop it elsewhere. I was in limbo.
In October, my memoir serendipitously fell into the hands of an agent who read my manuscript twice and seemed eager to discuss my book with me. Our conversation left me frustrated and confused, however. The gist of her feedback was that my book was fantastic but not right for traditional publishing. She had a whole host of reasons why, and over the course of the conversation told me that my book was too good for traditional publishing. What did that even mean? The upshot of this interaction was that I sent my book to two readers. The first said, “I’m sorry to say I am not the right reader for you.” The second, Gayle Brandeis, a writing professor and award-winning author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and other books said, “I love this book, and as a writer/dancer/seeker who has struggled with the swing between self-doubt and grand dreams—resonated with so much of it.” She told me that I wrote with honesty and heart and offered a couple constructive suggestions for improvement. Gayle’s comment about self-doubt and grand dreams struck a chord. When I followed up and asked her if the central problem in the story was clear, Gayle said, “The problem felt very clear to me: anxiety and your desire to heal it (even before you knew what it was) seemed to be at the heart of everything in the book.”
I was grateful Gayle “got it” and also for her succinct articulation of my memoir’s spine. But I was confused to receive such different responses to my work. Months earlier Brooke had said the book was done. We had discussed beta readers. “Won’t everyone have their own opinion?” I asked. “Couldn’t that be confusing?” Her response was “yes” to both questions.
My next step—publishing—nagged me. I know many authors who take the time to get feedback from multiple beta readers. And most of the SWP authors I’d spoken to had shopped their books to agents and publishers before choosing partnership publishing. Others, like SheWrites.com co-founder, Kamy Wicoff, turned down a traditional publishing offer from one of the Big Five after she ran numbers and believed she’d make out better financially publishing with SWP. But even she’d made the effort to shop—and she was a co-founder in the press with Brooke. Aside from Brooke, a publishing expert, none of the authors I’d spoken to had gone directly to SWP without shopping elsewhere. Was I crazy for wanting this? Did this mean I was giving up on myself or on my writing? Or, could my resistance to signing with SWP be an opportunity to heal old, destructive thought patterns? Maybe. Probably.
In November, I learned that the SWP author retreat was opening its doors to five members of the She Writes.com community. I jumped at the chance to go, and the experience didn’t disappoint. Brilliant women authors, a gorgeous desert setting, a lovely resort, and stellar author education provided a delicious experience filled with camaraderie, learning, and fun. How many publishers do this? None that I’d heard of! It was wonderful, but my prickly ego still wasn’t ready to sign with SWP. It was holding out for an old fantasy of traditional publishing, dangling a carrot beneath my nose. The problem was, I didn’t want to shop my book.
I told myself to be patient. The answers would come. I’d figure it out after the holidays. Maybe then I’d rally around the idea of shopping my manuscript. SWP was an excellent backup plan. I knew if I shopped my book, I’d have to crank out a new proposal. I’d already written a hundred-page proposal prior to writing my memoir. Agents complimented the writing, but tried to pigeonhole me in a way that felt off. At the time, I stopped shopping my proposal and wrote my book instead—with Brooke’s help.
The holidays came and went. I enjoyed a much-needed family vacation in Cancun. I am rested. I’ve had time off, yet I still don’t want to shop my book! I thought this might change with time. It hasn’t. “How long should I shop my book?” This is a question Brooke often gets. Her answer to me was, “How much rejection can you take?” To be honest, I don’t want any right now. I’ve had my fair share. Perhaps I seem like a wuss for not wanting to deal with the rejection shopping entails, but it also takes strength and courage to green-light your book. To say yes to yourself. To ignore the illusion that there’s one right way to publish. Or that one way is the way. Or that our value stems from what we do or achieve rather than being inherent to who we are. We are all worthy. We are all valuable. What I want from publishing is a positive, rich experience. I want to share my work with those who might find it helpful. And move on.
The root of the word author is “authority.” Authors have to be authors of their lives and careers as well as their stories. It is not enough to know what we want. Receiving clear inner guidance, as precious as that is, is one thing, but acting on it is something else. For months everything in my life had been pointing toward SWP, and yet, I hesitated. I lacked the courage, faith, and conviction to trust my inner guidance. I’d been digging up the same pile of bones only to bury them elsewhere in the back yard of my psyche. Well, I’m tired and I’m done with that. It’s time to go with my gut. The stomach has more nerve endings than the spinal cord; it’s known as the second brain. The heart too is an excellent guide. And mine has been murmuring “She Writes Press” for months.
As I write this, I realize my New Year’s resolution is to continue extracting myself from my ego’s gnarly claw and live in the subtle, yet radiant inner guidance provided by my Wise Self. Have you heard the expression “Let go or be dragged”? It’s 2017 and I’m letting go of old, outdated fantasies and moving forward with real-world opportunities. I’m saying “yes” to the dream of bringing my book into the world and ignoring old “shoulds” about how this is supposed to look. I’m going to sign with She Writes Press, and as I write this, I realize this is a victory for me on multiple levels. Many trails have led me to these people and this press, and I am grateful to have found fellow hikers—literary soul mates.
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?
If you haven’t already done so, treat yourself to this gift: Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s full of wisdom and inspiration for writers and anyone living—or wanting to live—a creative life. The book champions creative living of all kinds, and is divided into six parts: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity.
Gilbert’s writing sparkles, soothes, and is guided by great stories. Her prose resonates deeply. But one chapter in particular, “Fear in High Heels,” hit me in the gut with its clarity and truth. I shared excerpts from this chapter with my students, and as I read to them, looks of recognition and awe illuminated their faces. I found myself wanting to share Gilbert’s words with all of the brilliant women in my life. I wanted to echo her message that contrary to the subtle and insidious teachings of our culture, women don’t have to be perfect to be loved or successful or worthy of their dreams. Just being here makes us worthy.
“Perfection is unachievable,” Gilbert says, and then quotes writer Rebecca Solnit, who adds, “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because perfection is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”
But Gilbert takes this thought a step further. “The Most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue.” A few lines later, she explains, “[People] wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.” And then she comes in for the kill: “Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
I never heard this stated so boldly, yet eloquently. Gilbert yanks the covers off perfectionism, and makes me want to kick off my shoes, dance around my living room, and then head for my study to prance all over the page. She makes a case for tinkering, for not taking yourself so seriously. She speaks of creating for the sheer joy of it.
Gilbert also says that perfectionism afflicts women more than men, pointing to “every single message society has ever sent us!” Where a man might go after a job he feels 41 percent qualified for, women tend to say things like, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.”
And she doesn’t stop there.
“We women,” she urges, “must break this habit in ourselves—and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfection is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is—if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart. Which is the entire point. Or should be.”
A glad and determined heart? Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert! This is the point! How many of us work joyfully with a glad and determined heart? How many of us live this way? How many of us even believe this is possible? Gilbert suggests it’s not only possible, but inevitable, when we open up to the “Big Magic” that surrounds each and every one of us!
Do yourself a favor: read this book. Nourish yourself. Live the fullest expression of your creative life—now!
And please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences regarding perfectionism. It’s up to us to lay this demon down. It’s up to us to allow ourselves to be exactly where we are, as humans, creators, and artists ready to live radiant, expressive, and imperfect (real) lives!
P.S. I just listened to Brooke Warner’s SW.com interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, which shimmers with insight, humor, wisdom, and light. I wish I could attend “Elizabeth Gilbert Live: Writing, Truth, and Community,” in Napa on November 7th, but I’ll be at my nephew’s wedding in Virginia. If you’re looking for a creative boost, a hit of inspiration, or if you think you might enjoy engaging face-to-face with a stellar writing community, it’s not too late to get tickets. If you go, I’d love to hear about it!
Let’s face it: the writing life can be difficult. We procrastinate, bargain with the universe, write hundreds of pages no one will read. We judge, discipline, chide, and berate ourselves, and others. We make unfair comparisons, inflate and deflate our work, our efforts. Our egos loom large like monsters, or cower in corners. We recoil from shadows, fight our own wisdom, attempt to flee our pain, but cannot escape ourselves, our lives—alas, our material. And this is the fun part! Add to this wondrous, yet at times daunting, creative process the business of writing and the slippery slope upon which conventional publishing resides. We attend conferences, make pitches, and reach out to agents and editors. Platform-building has become the buzzword every author feels they’re not doing well enough at. We perch ourselves upon social media towers from which we blog, tweet, chat, and update our “status.” It’s exhausting and overwhelming—and it’s also an honor, a privilege, a blessing, and a gift! You don’t get to do this work—play this game—if you’re sick or struggling with life’s basics.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know the past three years have been personally challenging. We’ve had five family deaths. I was executor of a contentious family estate. During this time I developed, and holistically healed, an anxiety disorder. I’ve radically downsized my professional efforts in order to deal with these personal challenges. John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” has crossed my mind many times.
But contrary to how things appear, life is still sweet. I’m learning how to slow down at a very deep and nourishing level. I am discovering what it takes to make peace with what life brings, even when it’s not what I wanted or expected. I’m realizing the importance of honoring life, going with its flow, and cultivating an open, patient, and loving heart.
When I was a child my family used to visit Mitzi and Sherwood, an elderly couple who lived at the beach on New York’s Fire Island. Mitzi was a painter and Sherwood was a sculptor and jewelry-maker. Their house had high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and art crammed into every nook and cranny. They were an eccentric, white-haired couple who lived and breathed art.
In Sherwood’s studio, one piece of equipment captivated me: a stone tumbler. We’d collect stones on the beach and put them into his tumbler. After days, and sometimes weeks, of being tossed about, these rough stones would emerge from the tumbler as semi-precious, polished stones ready to be made into jewelry. The transformation was amazing.
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like those stones. What if life is the tumbler creating the friction needed to transform me into a human version of those polished stones? Some might think it’s a cliché to say our challenges are opportunities in disguise, but I disagree. Although my writing career hasn’t been going like gangbusters these three years, the lessons I’m learning will illuminate my writing—and my life—for years to come. Nietzsche said it best: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
It’s always a matter of keeping things in perspective. When your writing life starts to lag, or feel difficult, discouraging, or frustrating, count your blessings. Appreciate your health, as well as the freedom you have to engage in this noble work.
I’d love to hear from those of you who have soldiered on in the face of personal challenges, and what you’ve learned along the way. Please share your wisdom and your light!
Earlier this summer I made my annual trip to Claremont, CA, to teach my Write Where You Are Workshop at Camp Scripps, a four-day summer camp run by and for alumnae of Scripps College. I handed out three pages of prompts, lines gleaned from Nancy Levin’s poetry collection, Writing For My Life. A volunteer read them aloud and people circled the prompts they felt a visceral response to. Some of the most popular were:
We scribbled, nonstop, for thirty minutes. When the timer went off, one woman clutched her notebook to her chest and said, “I am going to hide this—or better yet--destroy it!”
Knowing that sometimes the most reluctant participants share the brightest gems, I turned to her and said, “If I had to bet, I’d say you’ve written something very much worth sharing. Would you like to read it?”
She turned red. “I didn’t know we were going to have to read what we wrote.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, “but in my experience, the more we don’t want to share what we’ve written, the more liberating the process can be. Bearing witness to our life experiences is a profound, sacred, and healing act.”
The woman read what she’d written and it was great. She had no idea anyone would care about her marriage, health, and finances. But her writing was closely observed, loaded with details, and her voice was magnanimous and wise. The fact that she had no clue she’d written something wonderful, along with her reluctance to share and her desire to destroy what she’d written, provided valuable lessons.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of the improper behavior, incompetence, etc. of oneself or another.” For writers, telling the truth can feel like improper behavior. Many of us were raised jumping through hoops trying to please others. As smart, sensitive children we knew what to say to satisfy those around us, even if that meant betraying ourselves. As mature women engaged in the act of truth-telling it can feel like we’re breaking rules. It goes against our “good-girl” conditioning, and this creates feelings of shame, which makes it hard to write the truth.
But people have a deep need to voice their truth, to see it, witness it, write and speak about it. Doing so affirms our existence. This is a major reason why we read: to see our lives mirrored back to us. It’s also the case that the personal is universal, especially when closely observed, without judgment. I remind students that just because they write something, it doesn’t mean they’re going to share it with the world. At least not right away. Years may stretch between the moment you write something and its publishing debut, especially if you’re writing a book. The point is, you get to choose what, how, and when to share with others. The main thing is to share first with yourself. Giving yourself permission to speak your truth in the privacy of your own room is a crucial first step toward creative self-expression and healing.
At a deeper level, resistance to sharing may reflect a lack of respect for yourself, or an inability to honor yourself. It’s often a clue that you’re judging yourself. We humans do all sorts of things we’re not proud of. But can we forgive ourselves? Can we accept and learn from our circumstances? Can we allow ourselves to be who, what, and where we are? Can we accept our darkness as well as our light? The ability to be honest about our less-than-glamorous selves, to expose our vulnerability and fear—and share it—is a virtue. My old writing teacher, Jack Grapes, used to say, “Your strengths are your weaknesses, and your weaknesses are your strengths.”
In order to write, and then share, your innermost truths, you have to make peace with them. This is a life-affirming process, which involves laying down your shame. If you can set it aside, if you can accept your life the way it is, with humility, curiosity, and wonder, you’ll experience deep radiance, which will warm you from the inside out. You will also become a beacon for others yearning to do the same.
We are imperfect creatures, perfect in our imperfection, but most important, we are here to learn. When you turn toward what you perceive as your weaknesses you exhibit great strength. This is where your creative power lies. This is your treasure, your gift, and your truth.
I’d love to hear about your relationship with shame and how it’s impacted your writing life. Also, please share how you unlock your truth. Or challenges you’ve faced (and perhaps overcome) while doing so!
How do you protect yourself when writing about difficult times? How do you make sure you don’t relive painful experiences while writing them? How do you keep your heart open without getting sucked into negative energy or destructive old patterns? Which painful memories do you revisit, and to what extent? And how much should be included in your memoir? These questions came up for me recently while working on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness. Here are eight ways to make your way through painful memories while not losing yourself in the process:
In honor of Teacher’s Appreciation Week, which was May 4-8, here’s a list of qualities some of the best writing teachers share. They may not be the first thoughts that enter your mind when thinking about studying writing, but teachers with the personality traits listed below make excellent writing guides. Don’t settle for anything less. You deserve the best.
1. Student-focused. A great writing teacher is focused on her students and their needs. She puts aside her own issues and concerns to make herself present and fully available to her students. She may share stories from her own life, or even work, on occasion, but if your teacher spends half the time talking about herself or her work, she’s not serving you. It doesn’t matter what she has written, or how famous she may or may not be. The focus should be on you, the student, and your work. Don’t be fooled by a person’s literary track record. Just because a person can write, it doesn’t mean she can teach. Writing is one thing; teaching is another. They require different skills.
2. Generosity of Spirit. A great writing teacher is generous with her time, praise, and experience. She understands that there’s room at the top for everyone, and genuinely wants you to succeed. She creates a safe space in which you are free to express your innermost thoughts. She sees the best in her students, and knows that we all have sparks of genius within. She understands that the right fan can transform those sparks into a creative blaze. A great teacher can be such a fan (double meaning intended). She knows how hard to blow and is also your most enthusiastic champion. She is an expert tender of inner fires—hers as well as yours. She knows we are all vessels, and does everything in her power to help you move out of your own way so that what’s wanting to come through you can. She’s a midwife, standing by to help you birth your writing dreams. She wants the best for you and your writing, and will do everything in her power to support both.
3. Fearlessness. A great writing teacher feels fear, but doesn’t let it stop her from navigating treacherous terrain. She’s in for the long haul. She laces up her boots and guides students willing to climb steep mountains, or dive into deep, murky lakes. She’s an intrepid traveller, willing to traverse hinterlands. She does so by leading with her heart. She inspires in her students a love of adventure, a thirst for truth, and a hunger for knowledge. She understands that fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but moving forward in the face of it. She’s a paradigm-shifter, a frame-changer, a person who understands that fear is the opposite of faith. She believes in you and in your work. She believes in herself, and she believes in life. Not all the time, perhaps, but enough of the time. She’s a grab-life-by-the-balls kind of person, and believes in the power of walking with you to your edge. She has taken her share of leaps.
4. A Fully Loaded Toolbox. A great writing teacher has a toolbox—tricks of the trade—she’s spent decades assembling. These include specific strategies, such as prompts and exercises, she uses in her classes. It also holds the teacher’s knowledge of and sensitivity to strong, creative writing. A great writing teacher is able to make solid suggestions to students for improving their work. Her tools are not one-size-fits-all. She’s adept at customizing them, as needed. She listens closely, can tell where each student is and where they want to go, and knows how to help them get there. She probes the psyche with graceful finesse, and knows what questions to ask, as well as how and when to ask them. She senses when to push her students and when to back off.
5. A Lifelong Student. The best teachers are lifelong students. They never stop studying, learning, and growing. Life is their classroom. They learn from their students, teachers, colleagues, coaches, books, families, and everything else life offers. They walk their talk. They say “yes” to themselves and their own writing dreams, which helps them feel good about themselves, so that they can be good to you!
What qualities do you appreciate in a great writing teacher? Who was your best writing teacher and why? What made that teacher great? If you’re a teacher, what qualities do you hope to share with your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
We all need a certain amount of discipline in order to get our writing done, but sometimes we cling too tightly to rigid beliefs, habits, and expectations when what’s really needed is letting go.
I experienced a bit of letting go myself last week and it really paid off. I entered my office intending to work on the last chapter of Part Two (of three) of my memoir. But when I sat down at my computer, I had a strong desire to rewrite my chapter summaries for part three instead. I’d written them over two years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then, in ways that I knew impacted my memoir. The summaries needed a complete overhaul as a result. In the past I might have forced myself to stick to my original plan to work on the chapter. My methodical self might have said something like, Don’t jump ahead. You’ll get there. Finish Part Two first.But I felt such excitement and passion to work on the summaries instead. It was as if something was tugging at me, and I couldn’t resist its pull. I had to follow. You’ll get to the chapter, an inner voice soothed and prompted. It’ll unfold easily once you’ve got Part Three straightened out.
The new summaries unfolded effortlessly. And then I experienced another pleasant surprise: I began sorting notes and journal entries, and assigning them chapters. I had documents for seven chapters open on my desktop simultaneously. I dumped material from my notes into each one. This brought each chapter into focus. Each one’s theme, and the stories I’d use to express it, became clear. Now there will be no blank page to face when I sit down to write these chapters. Working on all seven chapters at once is not something I ever planned to do, but it helped me see both the final section and the book as a whole. It also defused my fears about writing the first two chapters of the third section, which deal with difficult material. I was able to see those chapters—and by extension, those experiences—within the context of what felt like a safer whole.
It’s important to point out here that I approached this work differently than I usually do. Over the years I’ve experimented with taking breaks during my writing day. My typical MO has been to sit down, write, and the next thing I know hours have passed. On a good writing day five hours feel like five minutes. I’ve known for years that this isn’t great for my body. I’d tried setting timers, but they’d go off and I’d hit reset and keep working. I’d do this multiple times, as many as six or seven.
But I recently heard this expression: “Sitting is the new smoking.” Scientists say sitting is that bad for us! So last week, while working on my chapter summaries—and then that final chapter of Part Two—I took lots of breaks. In the past, I moaned about household chores pulling me away from my writing. But over the past year, while grappling with anxiety, I discovered that putting things in order around my house calms me. It’s something I can control. So I experimented with interspersing chores and other activities with my writing. I washed dishes, meditated, made beds, ate lunch in the yard listening to birdsong (a luxury I enjoy living in Southern California), folded laundry, and walked around the neighborhood. Rather than distracting me from my writing, these activities helped relax me, and also gave my writing some space. Ideas flowed while I was away from my desk.
I probably wouldn’t have discovered this on my own, but I’ve been taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class—MBSR—based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Practicing mindfulness creates space in my life, and also in my writing. “Give it space,” my meditation teacher, Gloria Kamler, says, giving permission for a difficult thought or emotion to arise. I’m learning to release my grasp on thoughts and feelings. As a result, I am loosening my grip on how I work, trying to detach, observe, and pay attention to the present moment. The result is that I’m experiencing greater ease in my writing and in my life, and I’m trusting more.
Still, I sometimes have strong ideas about what I think I should do and how I should do it. This can be helpful, except when it isn’t. “Stop shoulding all over yourself,” Gloria says. This is as good a lesson for writing as it is for life.
I often tell my students and clients that our main job as writers is to stand back and allow whatever needs to come through us to do so. We are vessels—the more spacious the better. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to back away from it, to give it space. This is a liberating process. And so is the knowledge that it’s not always what we do that matters so much as how we do it.
When was the last time you gave your writing a bit of space? What happened? I’d love to hear from you.
According to the gnostic gospels, if you bring forth what’s inside you, it’ll save you; if you do not bring forth what’s inside you, it’ll destroy you. Many writers ache to bring forth what’s inside them, but are challenged by inner saboteurs that thwart their efforts.
The premier saboteur is fear. A common fear among writers, especially memoirists, is that their writing will hurt, betray, offend, or enrage their family, friends, and/or associates. For years I believed that if my parents or in-laws read my poetry, which dealt with my sex life, I’d be disinherited. My inner saboteurs, or gremlins, launched into me, saying things like, “If you keep writing this stuff, you’ll embarrass yourself and people will think you’re an exhibitionist.” When I ignored those warnings, I faced deeper internal threats, such as, “Your husband will divorce you,” and, “You might end up in prison, or homeless—or crazy!” In retrospect, it’s hard to believe such nonsense, but at the time those fears loomed large.
When thoughts like these arise, know that they are fear’s diversionary tactics. Nothing more. It’s certainly not your truth. Don’t believe the lies. Your mind has a mind of its own and thinks millions of thoughts a day, positive and negative. You don’t have to believe them all. Tell the voice that’s trying to scare you out of writing, “I’m not publishing this work, I’m just writing it.” In other words, stay present and give yourself permission to get your story on the page. This is a liberating, healing, and sacred process. It will transform you. Your world will be different on the other side of telling your story. If you have the urge to write, it’s your soul talking. There’s a reason you’re doing what you’re doing. This is true for all of us, no matter our genre.
I’ve encountered some self-help writers, especially therapists and coaches, who worry about breaking client confidentiality. They have incredible healing stories to share, about themselves and others, but are afraid that if they write and publish them their careers will plummet and their cherished clients will feel betrayed. I give these writers the same advice: “You’re not publishing,” I say, “you’re just writing. Give yourself a break. You can deal with protecting the privacy of others later.”
There are many ways to protect the privacy of others. Once you’ve gotten your story on paper, you can loop around and clean things up. You can change identifying details, such as names, job titles, physical character traits, and more.
“But isn’t that lying?” some writers ask. No. What’s important is your emotional truth. The specifics are less important than conveying the heart of your story, the part that teaches and helps you and your readers heal. We’re writers; we make things up. We use our imagination, as well as our memory, neither of which involve exact science. And we construct scenes—all in service to our stories.
Some writers ask loved ones to read passages in which they appear to make sure they’re okay with what the author has written. I did this with my husband before publishing my poetry book. Of seventy-two poems he had an issue with one. So I left it out, because his feelings mattered more to me than that poem. But please note that I did this at the end of my writing process, as I was approaching publication.
Give yourself the gift of not thinking about sharing your manuscript too widely until it’s written. Until that time, you don’t know who will show up in your book and under what guise. Why worry about offending someone when they might not even end up in the final draft?
Some writers are afraid of failure. I tell them to forget about trying to be “successful”—since everyone has their own definition—and focus on being of service. Make a difference in your life and in the lives of people close to you. Know who you are and what you want, which will free you from the thoughts, opinions, and judgments of others. If you’re worrying what others will think of you or your work before it’s written, you’re basically switching off your creativity channel. I tell my students and clients that as writers our job is to get out of our own way. Our job is to let what wants to come through us do so. Our job is to let the words flow. It’s pretty much impossible to do this when we’re wondering about what anybody else is thinking of us or our work.
Letting yourself write despite your fears—and this is a practice—is also a wonderful way to soften your own opinions, values, and judgments of yourself. It requires you to be gentle and compassionate with yourself. You start to see that nothing you’ve done or said or thought is without redemption or outside the sphere of compassion. You’ve done your best with what you’ve known and what you’ve had. Writing your story forces you to walk a path of self-acceptance. And if you keep at it, you will grow. Memoirists know that sometimes the hardest parts of our journeys are the most difficult to write. But don’t leave them out. If you do, you’ll be doing others, and yourself, a disservice.
In her book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth Lesser writes, “As I explored the subject of change and transformation, I was most inspired by those who were brave enough to tell the whole truth about their journeys. When people left out the dark and bewildering and shameful parts, I lost interest, and even worse, I was led astray.”
If you vow not to lead yourself astray while bringing forth what’s inside you, if you trust yourself and this process, your writing and your life will be rich beyond measure—and so will the lives of your readers. In the end, writing is an act of generosity. Give your gift.
What stops you from bringing forth what’s inside you? And what strategies do you use to meet your resistance and move forward? I’d love to hear from you.