One of my life intentions is to relish the joy of self-expression. But lately I’ve been reluctant to say what I think, especially on social media and in my blog posts. This is partly because posting anything other than politics these days has felt trivial, and political conversations can easily erupt into flames. Putting out wildfires makes me anxious, and I don’t want to live in hatred and fear. I know from experience that crashes are inevitable when anger and fear take over the steering wheel of my life. Another reason I haven’t been relishing the joy of self-expression lately is that when the shit hits the fan, like it has these past few weeks in our country, I tend to think that the problems of the world are so much bigger than I am that nothing I have to say could possibly matter. Of course this isn’t true. It’s a lie fear tells me. I know there’s plenty all of us can do. Especially writers.
And yet, we each have to navigate our own path. We must decide for ourselves what types of advocacy are best suited to our temperaments, personalities, and resources. I’ve been asking myself, How can I serve? How can I do something positive? How can I love myself and others—especially people with whom I disagree? This last question is the hardest. I won’t pretend I have it answered. I just keep asking the question. Every day. And sometimes I’m surprised by what happens.
A few days before my daughter returned to college after winter break, we went to a wholesale florist and bought four dozen white roses. At home, I wrapped each one individually in cellophane and ribbon while my daughter attached handwritten notes that said, “Wishing you a wonderful day. Spread the love.” We handed the roses out to people on the street. Some folks were reluctant to receive; they couldn’t believe the roses were free. “Why are you doing this?” they asked. “We just want to spread some love,” we said, “and bring a little beauty into your life.” Giving really is receiving. We went home with empty buckets and full hearts because of connections and conversations we’d forged with strangers.
Another thing I’ve been practicing a lot lately is my light meditation. I sit for my regular mediation, but position myself in front of a window blindfolded. After twenty minutes, I remove the blindfold and keep my eyes closed. The darkness on the insides of my eyelids is replaced by golden light. I imagine this light inside me; that it’s the real me. In other words, I identify not with my pain, but with this light. I then try to “locate” my elusive spirit. I sit and listen, poised to receive guidance. I bask in the light until I feel that I am this light, which exists in every person on the planet, not just the people I like or agree with, but everyone. I envision the light radiating from every living thing, consider how we are connected, and I pray for us all.
To some this might seem like a waste of time. But for me it’s an essential practice. While anger and fear have their place, they can also be knee-jerk reactions. They are like smog in Southern California in that it’s everywhere. You’re so surrounded by it that often you don’t even notice it anymore. In our culture love is the radical choice, and during these crazy times, I intend to remain sane. The best way I know how to do this is to up my self-care practices: to back away from the ledge when I become dizzy and feel like I’m about to careen into a pit; to turn inward; to appreciate the larger picture of our humanity; to notice the blessings and light; to connect with my heart; to reach out to friends; and to have faith that things unfold the way they do for a reason.
How are you and your writing faring during these turbulent times? I’d love to hear how you’re coping, as well as ideas for random acts of kindness. How do you spread love?
A few months ago, soon after I’d finished writing my memoir, Raw: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, I had the opportunity to share five minutes of my work at a reading. While combing through my manuscript for excerpts, I found myself thinking, Hmm, maybe this writing isn’t as strong as I thought. The writing felt flabby and slow. I found myself tinkering with passages so they’d read better in a shorter timeframe, and wondered if that was okay. In past readings, I’ve mostly read my poems, complete works, each one featuring a beginning, middle, and end.
But my memoir is different. It took time to develop stories in that longer format—time I wouldn’t have in a five-minute reading. I wanted to give my audience the best bang for their buck, to make my reading worth their while. I wanted them with me from the first word to the last. I have been to too many readings where restless audience members pick cuticles, scrimmage inside purses, check iPhones, or stare out windows, all overt cues that they’re desperate for the reader to just finish already. This sucks for writers, but it also means it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Every time you stand up and read your work, you’re pitching it. If you don’t grab your audience, and keep them with you, they will not buy your book. I’ve given several readings from my memoir since that first one and here’s what I’ve learned: presenting an edited excerpt of your novel or memoir is a gift for your audience as well as your book! In order to most effectively share part of a long-form story in a short-form (time) venue, you will need to compress, collapse, or cut. You may also need to compose transitions, connections, or endings to create a satisfying, standalone experience.
The key is to view a time “constraint” as a container. Make it work for you in the same way specific poetry forms, such as the villanelle, shape a poem. If you honor the requirements of your reading venue and deliver a complete experience, if you craft your work with a particular reading in mind, you have a much better shot of connecting with and entertaining your audience. If you leave them laughing, crying, or nodding their head, they are with you.
I have a three-ring binder with ten edited excerpts from my memoir, along with a list of others I want to develop. At the top of each page I’ve jotted down how long the excerpt takes to read. Please note: read slower than you think you should. Take your time. Plant your feet on the floor. Let your voice rise from your belly.
Edited excerpts will serve you well even if you’re giving a featured reading and have thirty or forty minutes. Remember to consider your audience when choosing passages. Your excerpt filled with sex and “colorful” language, however well edited, might not go over so well at a conservative ladies’ luncheon. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen authors fall into this trap. You may want to share several edited excerpts that feature different flavors of your story, rather than one or two longer selections. Sadly, attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been, and while a passage might be perfectly paced in your book, it might not hold a listener’s attention. Consider crafting ten or twenty excerpts of different lengths before it’s time to promote your book. You will be surprised what you can do with five minutes, or less. Being ready to go with as many great, edited clips as possible will make the reading part of your job successful and fun!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Have you grappled with the problem of reading a passage intended to unfold more slowly in your novel or memoir? Were you resistant, as I was in the beginning, to edit your excerpts? Did you do it anyway? If so, what was the result?
For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching private writing classes. Teaching is a great joy and pleasure for me—and as creative an act as writing is. I love meeting people wherever they happen to be with their writing (and their life) and helping them move forward. While I sometimes say and do routine things while traversing this path, teaching is a journey that feels very much alive and present-moment oriented. Like my writing, I carry with me into teaching the full scope and range of my life experiences. I never know what ideas will present themselves as I listen to my students, and I am often surprised and delighted.
I’ve just begun teaching my fall classes. I love new beginnings. On the first afternoon or evening of a new session, I ask my students these questions: What do you hope to get out of this class? Why are you taking the class? What are your writing intentions? If this class were successful beyond your wildest dreams, what would that look like? I encourage them to envision and express this scenario in as much detail as possible. I want my students to reach far and wide so they’ll have a vision to stretch into. But at the same time, I try to keep them grounded in what matters most: the work, and our relationship to it, to others, and to ourselves.
I encourage my students to explore their vision and intentions. Vision and intentions are like maps—if you have an idea of the destination you’d like to visit you’re more likely to arrive there. But it’s bigger and more important than that because having a clear vision and intentions is a way to make an explicit request of the Universe. Sometimes we receive things we don’t ask for, but our chances of getting what we want improve considerably once we know what we want.
Most writing students want a safe and supportive environment that offers both structure and freedom. They want to connect deeply with themselves, with source energy, with their inspiration. They want to publish and grow their platforms while writing authentic, well-crafted chapters, blog posts, essays, and more. Other students may be writing primarily as a vehicle for personal transformation and growth. Some are answering the call to write for the first time. Others are accomplished screenwriters, technical writers, artists, and dreamers wanting to fly in another direction.
Last week as my students shared their visions and intentions, I suggested they solidify and celebrate their intentions by performing a symbolic ritual. This ritual was passed on to me by Emmanuel Faccio, M.D., a medical doctor and modern-day Shaman committed to helping people understand how the mind, body, and spirit work together to effect total health and well-being. I met him while vacationing last summer in Montauk, New York. He suggested I perform a ritual as an act of healing, which didn’t have to do with my writing, per se, but certainly applies. As I listened to my students speak, I realized how relevant and helpful this ritual would be for their writing.
Here’s how it works: Write your intention and vision down on a piece of parchment paper (symbolic of ancient contracts). Say whatever feels important. Be creative. Try adding a few “I am” statements, such as:
I’d love to hear from other writing teachers inspired to share unorthodox or surprising teaching moments, or lessons they’ve learned through teaching. Please share your stories! I’d also like to hear from anyone for whom this ritual resonates!
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:
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” says author Neal Donald Walsch in Conversations with God, Book 3. Easy to say. Hard to do—especially when fear kicks in, which it does as you near the edges of your comfort zone. Writers are particularly susceptible. What happens when the thought of speaking in front of an audience fills you with dread? Or what if you’re afraid to fly and you need to travel for a book tour? Or what if your own writing is taking you down some dark alley and you’re sure you’re going to get mugged—or worse?
Last year, while struggling with anxiety, I learned a lot about fear. I learned that fear cannot be trusted. If it doesn’t outright lie, fear distorts the truth. Fear prevents us from being who we are meant to be. It’s a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. A bully. And yet, fear is also an excellent teacher—if you’re willing to learn its lessons.
The first thing fear taught me was acceptance. It taught me the importance of letting myself feel what I feel, even if it’s uncomfortable, especially then. “You’re not here to be comfortable,” my therapist told me. “You’re here to live your life. Move forward. Do what you want and need to do. Comfort is not the goal. Living is.” And for writers, I’d add, comfort is not the goal, getting your book written and into the world is.
Acceptance also means not resisting, fighting, or obsessing about things over which you have no control. I recently saw a cartoon titled “Suffering,” which consisted of a leaf gently falling from a tree. A dialog bubble, expressing the leaf’s sentiments, said, “Why is this happening?”
We don’t suffer because we experience challenges, or have to do things we don’t want to do. We don’t suffer because we are ill or in pain or uncomfortable. We suffer because of the stories we tell ourselves about our circumstances or situation. We suffer when our minds become like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go of limiting, fearful thoughts or ideas. Obsessive thinking, resisting, fighting, and trying to figure everything out is less effective than going with the flow and riding a wave, especially when dealing with things over which we have no control.
Writers have vivid imaginations. The stories we make up reflect our fear and our love of drama. When our work isn’t accepted into a journal, when our books don’t sell, when agents don’t return our calls, when two people show up to a reading, when we have a crappy writing day, or don’t write at all, we may ask, Why am I wasting my time? Or berate ourselves with negative self-talk, like, I have nothing original to say, or, My writing sucks. If you hear messages like this in your head, beware! This is not the real you talking; this is the voice of fear. Tell it, “Thanks for sharing,” ignore its false message, and keep moving forward.
Another thing I’ve learned from fear is that if you embrace it, if you give it some love, it disappears. Years ago I dreamed a snake was coming at me from a crack in my living room wall. At first I was horrified. But then I realized I was dreaming, and as soon as that awareness kicked in, I thought, Oh, it’s a snake. I’m afraid of snakes. Let me try to love this object of my fear. I stared into the snake’s eyes, and repeated the words, “I love you,” feeling warmth in my heart. Within seconds the snake transformed into a radiant, smiling queen who handed me her scepter.
Authors often complain about the many hats they’re expected to wear in today’s publishing climate. If I could just be by myself and do what I love—write—I’d be happy, some think. Many dread, and even resent, the hours waiting to hear back from agents and publishers. Many complain that social media sucks their precious time. Some writers would rather do just about anything else than promote themselves, and their work. But what if all these things are great opportunities to grow as a person, as well as an author? What if all our snakes are longing to be turned into queens? What if we are the sovereign rulers of our work and of our lives? Why not tell ourselves this story? It’s not enough to tell a story or have a thought. What matters is what we believe. Why not believe positive, liberating thoughts such as this one?
In the video, The Energetics of Healing: A Visual Guide to Your Body’s Energy Anatomy, Caroline Myss relates positive and negative thinking to financial investing, urging people to “invest” in positive thoughts, likening the negative ones fear conjures to junk bonds. “What thoughts are you going to invest [believe] in?” she asks, “Are you going to finance that idea?”
Lately, when I remember to do so, I’ve been checking in with my thoughts and beliefs, and trying to consciously choose love over fear. Love is like the water Dorothy throws on the Wicked Witch of the West; fear simply cannot survive when drenched with love.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on fear. What has it taught you? How have you overcome it? What do you know in your heart to be true about fear?
My mother-in-law died this week. It wasn’t unexpected. She was under the care of hospice, and had been declining in health since her husband’s death in 2011. My mom died in 2012. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, for close to two years I’ve been embroiled in a family fight over money that has created stress, and with it, debilitating anxiety. We finally reached a settlement agreement a couple of weeks ago, but 2014 has been the hardest year of my life. In 2013, I’d buried my grief and escaped into my work. But by 2014, as family tensions escalated, my grief erupted and I had to stop working. My clients fell away like dominoes, I reduced my teaching schedule to one class, and I hit the pause button on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness.
I stopped working on my memoir for two reasons. First, I was sick—not physically (though I experienced physical discomfort, such as intense jitters and pressure in my chest), but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. I needed to focus my energy on getting better; I needed to slow down my life and take time to grieve, as well as to heal. When you’re struggling to get through the day, work feels relatively unimportant—all you want is to be well again.
But there was more to my not working on my book than that. I was writing a memoir on my “midlife quest for health and happiness,” which I’d thought I’d attained. I was an “expert” on the subject, writing my “success story.” My life had been at an all-time high; I’d felt like a flower in full bloom. The word “flow” best describes the ways in which my life was unfolding—until everything came crashing down around me. I couldn’t help but wonder, How can I write a book about health and happiness when I’m such a wreck? I felt like the oncologist who gets cancer.
It turned out my “raw years” weren’t over. My book is divided into three sections: body, mind, and sprit, and the proverbial shit hit the fan two chapters short of beginning the “spirit” section. It was as if the Universe said, “Now wait just a minute! You don’t know as much as you think you do; you have to live this before you can write about it. Buckle up, I’m taking you for a ride!” Well, let me tell you, it’s been a doozy. Never have I felt so out of control; never have I experienced such fear; never have I trembled, cried, and prayed so often or so hard.
The upside is, I’ve learned a few things. Every illness or malady contains within it an invitation and opportunity for healing and growth. The lessons of spirit have to do with surrender, faith, letting go of what others think of you, and, even more important, letting go of what you think of you. Anxiety shattered my self-image. I was supposed to be a helper, not someone who needed help. I was the kid who always had a “good head on her shoulders.” How had I gone from King of the Hill to hooligan?
The hardest lesson was learning to accept “what is” without judgment. Judgment creates tension in the mind. Tightness creates tension in the body. I experienced both. As humans, we all have pain, but that doesn’t mean we need to suffer. Suffering happens when we resist our pain. So I’ve learned to lean into my discomfort. I’ve also encountered a new word: kindfulness. Stephanie Nash, a mindfulness meditation coach, coined this term. She uses it to refer to bringing loving attention to the body. “We only have so much real estate in consciousness,” she says. “There’s only so much you can focus on at one time.” I’ve had to consider where and how to focus my awareness. I’ve had to learn how to be kinder and more patient with myself. I’ve had to consciously choose love over fear—over and over again. I’ve had to allow myself to be where I am, to befriend my fear. And I’ve learned that we are all much larger than we think.
Thankfully, these past few months, my internal storm has raged less and less, and I sense it has almost passed. I have borne what I naively deemed unbearable. We humans are stronger than we think. When I first heard the news about my mother-in-law, I feared her death might throw me back into the pit out of which I have worked so hard to climb, but I feel calm, and grateful, because she lived a full life and was ready to go. It’s a blessing. This is life. We live and we die. Her death inspires me to live. And for me, writing is a huge part of living. Although I haven’t been writing my book, I have been writing. My journal has been a close companion and a source of comfort during this time. I’ve also written many letters to my mother, and monthly blog posts. Though that’s not the same as working on my book, it has taken the lid off of my internal pressure cooker and enabled me to express myself. This kind of writing is a tremendous release. I let go of what I don’t need and receive universal wisdom, while keeping my writing juices flowing. I liken this process to daily barre exercises, which I did for years as a young dancer.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when to work on a project and when to pause—and for how long. I knew I needed to stop working on my book, and I trusted that I’d be called back to it when the time was right. My mother-in-law’s passing has made me think the time is now.
I don’t have everything figured out, which I know isn’t necessary, but my hand and heart are steady enough to return to my memoir, old friend, who I suspect will deliver me to my next level of healing. No need for perfection. No shame in falling apart, when in coming back together I bring with me new gifts of insight, deeper compassion, and expanded consciousness. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some trepidation. So I’m asking you, my kind readers, for your support, love, and prayers as I begin again.
This post appeared earlier this month in my She Writes Column.
I did not choose to be a writer; writing chose me. It took a long time to realize this. For years I believed I’d chosen this occupation. I sensed it might be hard. At times I worried I would not succeed, or that I might not be smart enough, or have anything interesting to say. I spent days, months, and years doubting myself and resisting my urge to write. I used to wonder whether I’d wasted those hours, but I now believe that I needed that time and space to think, and learn, and grow. I needed to struggle, because through my struggle I grew. And this continues to be true.
As a child and young adult I’d beat myself up with negative self-talk and criticism. I figured if I knew I sucked, if I criticized myself—and if I was better at berating myself than anyone else, then nobody could hurt me. I had no idea I was hurting myself. It took years to become conscious of this debilitating habit, decades to realize I was living with an internal bully. The harder life got, the greater the challenges, the more my inner bully raged.
Awareness of these patterns was the first step toward healing them. Life became sweeter as I made room for another voice inside my head; one that told me how creative and capable I was—not in an egotistical way, but with a gentle, confident knowledge. This voice said that I, like every other human being, am worthy of love. It assured me that answering my call to write—living my dream—was not only a reasonable and responsible thing to do, but also a mandate from my soul.
Over the years I’ve deepened my relationship with this voice, which I refer to as my “Wise Self.” She has become my mentor, guide, cheerleader, parent, and best friend. I’ve needed her a lot this year. Some of you know that my mom died in December 2012 and named me executor of her estate. A 20-month family dispute has added stress to my grief, and I’ve suffered debilitating anxiety. But surprisingly, my anxiety has been a gift. It’s required me to step up my self-care, love myself more, and have greater compassion for myself, and others. It’s shown me what’s really important in life. It’s shown me that nothing matters if you don’t have your health; you can’t play the game of life if you’re struggling to get through each day. It’s shown me that we each get dealt a hand and it’s our job to figure out how best to play it. Life is a creative process, and one that requires patience, compassion, and love. Love is what matters most. And peace. This is what I continue to learn.
Pamela Hale says, “The most-used strategy in reaction to wounds is self-abandonment. Another wound. So stand in the inner place of the friend and say, ‘Of course! Of course you felt (or feel) that way!’ This is a simple route to self-acceptance, the first step in healing.”
Life is filled with challenges and disappointments. Writers know this. But with a bit of courage and faith, you will realize you are not wasting your time or your life—you will know you are living fully. When obstacles arise, embrace them. We spend a lot of time and effort resisting things. Resistance means wanting things to be different from how they are. Acceptance is a widely misunderstood word. It’s not passive; it’s intentional. When you accept things, resistance falls away, and life feels more spacious.
Vaclav Havel once said, “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” Outcomes are never our job. In writing and in life, all we can do is show up, do the work that’s ours to do, and then trust and let go. To do this we must first be present and available to ourselves and to our challenges. How we do this is different for everyone, but the process unfolds more gracefully when we are willing and able to support ourselves. It is much easier to answer the call to write, or to do anything for that matter, when your best friend dwells within, whispering, cheering, and prodding you to follow your heart. Unlike the head, filled with chatter, arguments, judgments, and evaluations, the heart speaks plainly, not with words, but with hunches, intuition, and gut feelings. Trust them. Trust yourself. Say yes to your call to write. I often tell my students the need to say yes to your writing is like the need to bathe—it has to be done on a regular basis. Answer the call. Start a conversation and see where it takes you. The journey is what matters. Let yourself wander and enjoy the trip!
I wrote this post for my July monthly She Writes column. Have you ever heard the term AFOG? If you’re interested in creative writing and personal growth read on!
Recently one of my students, an attorney who represents death row inmates, responded to a comment I’d made in class about his writing: “Oh, I see,” he said, biting his lip and scratching his head. “This is an AFOG!”
“A what?” I asked.
“An AFOG,” he repeated. “Another fucking opportunity for growth!”
Everybody laughed. We all understood the agony and the ecstasy of this truth—for the characters in our stories, and also for ourselves in our own lives. Most of us would like our lives to flow smoothly. We’d like not to experience pain, or discomfort. We’d like to glide through life with as little heartbreak or drama as possible. We’d like to encounter few obstacles, and get what we want when we want it. But life, as you know, doesn’t quite work that way—and neither do stories.
What differentiates a story from a sketch is that something happens in a story. There’s movement of one kind or another, a shift. It can be subtle. It can be quiet. But something or someone has to change or be transformed by the events in your tale in order for you to have a story. If you don’t put your characters into risky or dangerous situations, or if they don’t experience challenges, then they won’t get the opportunityto grow or change. And that’s what readers want to see. This shift is the reason your story exists. Without it the reader ends up thinking, What’s the point?
We look for ourselves in the stories we read—perhaps not consciously. The people we read about don’t need to face the same struggles we do, but they need to be challenged, as we are. Fiction writers understand this, but the same principle applies to memoir, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting. No trouble means no drama, and no drama means that you, the writer, have a problem—which of course is an opportunity! The Chinese character for “challenge” is the same as the one for “opportunity.” What our characters do with their problems, how they respond to their challenges, is where the power of your story lies.
Likewise, how we respond to the challenges in our lives, as writers and as human beings, determines the direction and quality of our experiences. We are always creating, with our thoughts, actions, and emotions, as well as with our computers and our felt-tip pens.
We cannot know all the ways we are capable of growing until things happen—until we’ve been plunged into our own boiling water, until we’ve navigated though our own hell. It’s only once we’ve made it safely to the other side of our obstacles that we often have the wherewithal to see the opportunity for growth within the tough experience we’ve just weathered. We are not taught in this culture to welcome hardship, but it would be wise to cultivate this attitude, to develop patience and compassion, and take an honest look at our habits and thoughts, in order to make ourselves more available for growth.
This perspective is valuable for anyone to keep in mind, but it’s especially important for writers. With the number of roadblocks, potholes, and red flags in a writer’s life, it’s essential for writers not only to accept, but also to embrace challenges. The way to do this is to welcome them. Consider the outrageous possibility that nothing “bad” is happening—even if it looks and feels that way. Resist the temptation to judge your experience. Try looking for the blessings in your situation. You will be strengthened to the extent that you are able to suspend your judgment and sit with what is. This can be difficult to do, but it’s a worthy and beneficial practice. The more you resist challenges, the larger they loom. Have faith. Nothing stands still. Time marches on. You—and your characters—will get through your “opportunities for growth.” Neither of you will have to live in “a fog” forever. One way or another, stories get resolved. Be patient. Be kind. Be grateful. Love yourself—more than you think you can—and your AFOG will turn into an AMOG—another miraculous opportunity for growth!