Most Mondays I wake up raring to go. Some days I hit the ground running, but other days, the sheer number of things I want (and tell myself I “have” to do) paralyzes me. My best defense is to dump everything that’s swirling around inside my head onto the page. This morning my to-do list looked like this:
Meditation and prayers
Write in journal
Write blog post
Re-read last section of memoir
Unpack from trip
Respond to emails
Write birthday thank you notes
Talk to Helen (my daughter)
Consult web designer
I don’t know if I’ll get everything on this list done today. Probably not. It helps to remind myself that it doesn’t matter if it takes me two or three days to complete these items. What does matter is that everything on my list I’m doing for love.
Dr. H. Ronald Hulnick, author, teacher, and world-renowned pioneer in the field of Spiritual Psychology, once told my class at The University of Santa Monica: “The only reason to do anything is for love.” That statement gave me pause. Really? I thought. Part of me wanted to disprove it. I wanted to say that was a luxury few people could enjoy. Would this be true for disadvantaged people? And on and on. But then I stopped myself, and asked, What if this is true? What might my life look like if love motivated my actions? What if I replaced fear with love? Unfortunately, as is the case for many of us, fear motivates a lot of my behavior. I began to wonder how life might be if instead of feeling pressured to do things out of obligation, insecurity, doubt, and fear, I flipped the paradigm on its head and chose to do things out of love.
So I experimented. The result was joy. It’s been interesting to realize that the specifics of what I did every day remained pretty much the same, but how I did things changed. When I realized I was doing what I was doing because of love, life felt lighter. For example, instead of complaining about cleaning my house, I focused on how much I loved my family and my home, and how great it was that I was able to clean my home. It also occurred to me that I was lucky to have a home. Instead of bitching and moaning about how much work it is to be an author, I reminded myself that this work is part of why I’m here. I love it, and I get to share it. How cool is that!
I am sometimes invited to do things I don’t want to do. When this happens, I ask myself, “Where’s the love here?” Maybe it’s connected to a person. Or perhaps it has something to do with the love I feel for a college, institution, or cause. I root around and sniff out the love. If I don’t catch its scent, I say no and move on.
I’m not absolutely positive that Dr. Hulnick’s statement is a maxim, but it’s been a sweet guide in my life and it’s helped me recalibrate everything I do so that I’m looking at my actions through the lens of love.
Recently, Robin Finn, a friend and former student of mine, published her first novel, Restless in L.A. Robin told me months ago, when she signed with her publisher, that her intention was to enjoy bringing her book into the world. And though there have been bumps in the road, which is always the case, she has not strayed from her intention to enjoy the ride. Here’s a great example of a teacher learning from her student, because as I gear up to bring my own memoir into the world next May (2018), I’m going to follow in her footsteps and hold the intention to enjoy the journey—potholes and all! And I’m going to remind myself that I’m publishing my memoir for love. Love for myself and love for others. Publishing is an act of generosity of spirit. It takes courage. The root of the word courage is heart. Anything coming from the heart resides in the neighborhood of love. And when you live there, life is good.
What do you do for love? Please share your thoughts. Hearing from others, making meaningful connections, is one of the things I enjoy most about blogging!
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?
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.
When I returned home from my trip I hit the ground running, burning the proverbial candle at both ends. I stayed up late and woke up early. And then, predictably, I hit the wall. Even the simplest item on my to-do list felt like it would require a Herculean effort.
My daughter said, “If you’re tired take a nap.” I didn’t think I could sleep, but I knew I’d crash harder if I didn’t rest. Plus my daughter was watching. I had to set a good example.
I crawled into bed. Tossed. Turned. Mentally revisited my to-do list. Rest wasn’t on it. Neither was “try a few new ‘healing’ techniques,” which I’d read about in David Elliott’s book, The Reluctant Healer. But that’s exactly what I ended up doing.
I rubbed lavender oil on my throat and on the back of my neck. The scent soothed me. I collected rocks from the garden, got back into bed, and placed one between my eyes, one on my chest, one on my solar plexus, one on my belly, one on my pelvis, and one in each hand as I lay down. The rocks felt grounding. I covered my eyes with an eye pillow and began breathing two breaths in and one long breath out through my mouth. I became very present in my body.
Then a thought arose: Slow down and be patient. Everything is unfolding at the right time and pace. Don’t move so fast.
I’d spent the bulk of my coast-to-coast plane ride reading David’s book. I don’t read as many books as I used to. Sadly, my attention span has decreased in recent years. I scan my iPhone and computer for information instead. But I adore books, which provide much-needed time and space to mentally wander and roam, to reflect, learn, and listen.
While resting in bed, I observed my active mind. Dazzling thoughts leapt, spun, and twirled. Afraid to “lose” any good ideas, I considered getting up to write them down. But I didn’t want to remove my eye pillow and mess up the rocks, so I told myself, Surrender, relax, let go. You don’t have to cling to every thought that comes your way. They will continue to flow. No need to hoard them.
Next thing I knew, I was waking up from a delicious nap! I’d surrendered my to-dos, anxiety, and resistance, and had fallen into a deep, restorative sleep. I awakened two hours later ready, willing, and able to face the tasks at hand, which earlier had seemed insurmountable.
My meditation practice helps me sit still, observe my mind, connect with and listen to my spirit. This is harder to do when my body is tense, which was the case this morning. I’d awakened with a stiff neck. When my neck, a bridge between my body and mind, is stiff and shut down, I experience congestion, both mental and physical. So I moved my body.
I used to feel guilty moving during meditation. I thought I was supposed to sit absolutely still. But there are many ways to mediate, and as much as I savor stillness, movement is as life-giving as breath. Intuitive movement also breaks habitual patterns and helps you discover untapped resources. It creates additional pathways in the brain, which leads to new and original thinking.
A couple days ago my friend, Kathy Dolin, a massage therapist and yoga teacher, was talking to me about fascia, the layer of soft, connective tissue that runs through our bodies and protects our muscles, blood vessels, nerves and other structures. She mentioned the work of John Barnes, the leading authority on Myofascial Release, a holistic, hands-on therapy designed to treat a range of maladies, including back pain, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, painful scars, sciatica, Fibromyalgia, women’s health issues and more. Barnes is the source of the wonderful quote: “Healing is not an event, it is a process.” Therapeutic release can occur directly—with hands-on pressure, but also indirectly, through dance. “Dance is a way of myofascial unwinding,” Kathy said.
The body is a wise teacher. Intuitive, creative movement is a great way to listen inwardly, relieve stress, and heal. It doesn’t matter if you move alone or with others. I recommend both. To find creative movement venues in your area check out Conscious Dancer Magazine.
Here are a few creative movement facilitators and venues in the Los Angles area: Spirit Weaves with Anneli and Michael, Medicine Dance with Fred Sugarman, Body Freedom with Tarnie Faloon, Moving Theater with Camille Maurine, and Soul Dance with Alisha Hayes.
I will be offering my BodyTalk Creative Movement and Writing Workshop this summer or fall. Movement and writing are exquisite muses that work beautifully together. Giving voice to body parts is a powerful, surprising, and joyous process. It’s also a wonderful way to integrate body, mind, and spirit.
Comments? Questions? Thoughts? I’d love to hear from you!