If you’re a writer, your goal might be to finish writing a book. Or start one. Or publish a book you’ve written. Or perhaps you’ve done that and your goal is to promote it. Maybe your goal is to sell out your print run or win a contest. Whatever your goal, you may think that reaching it will make you happy. But more often than not, as soon as we reach one goal, we create a new one. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se—many of us get a lot done this way—but when we believe that our contentment or joy is somewhere “out there” attached to a goal we have to strive, fight, or suffer in some way to achieve, we live in a perpetual state of wanting, and, in the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, we “can’t get no satisfaction.”
Michael Neill, an internationally renowned success coach and author, asks his clients to state their goal and then add the words, “as part of my wonderful life.” So, for example, if your goal is to sell out your print run, you’d say “My goal is to sell out my print run as part of my wonderful life.” This is different from the belief—which may or may not be conscious--When I sell out my print run my life will be wonderful. It may be. But it may not be, especially if you’ve been deferring your happiness or feelings of self-worth and putting conditions on your joy. I’ll be happy when—fill in the blank. This is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Contentment and satisfaction take place in the here and now.
Over the past few years, family illnesses and deaths have challenged me like never before. While I might have referred to earlier times of my life as “wonderful,” that’s not the first word that comes to mind now. Words like hard, heartbreaking, and at times gut-wrenching feel more accurate. Still, I’m discovering that even when the shit hits the fan--especially when the shit hits the fan—there’s still love, beauty, inspiration, and plenty to learn. I’ve been practicing slowing down. I agree with Michael Neill, who says that urgency is insecurity, not wisdom. I’ve also been attempting to surrender my illusions of control and practice acceptance of what is. And I’ve been trying to trust and love more and fear less. It’s a practice. Some days are better than others.
But I’m more likely to experience my life as wonderful—even with “shit” flying in my face—if I have the thought in my head that it can be and often is and keep asking myself questions like, Where’s the beauty here? How can I love more? How can I be of service? This is where shifts in perspective occur; a life can go from wanting to wonderful even when there’s no change in outer circumstances. This is fertile ground.
Our lives matter more than our work. It’s not that your writing isn’t important, but we write within the context of our lives. So honor yourself and your life as the exquisite creative process it is and soak up inspiration wherever you can find it. Look for it in places you might not expect to find it, like in the struggles of others, or in your own aching heart. Be with your challenges. Respect them. And go ahead and set goals—as part of your wonderful life!
Can you see the wonder-fullness of your life even when part of you thinks it sucks? What have life’s biggest challenges taught you? Can you move forward in the direction of your goal while perceiving your life as wonderful? If not, what needs to change right now for you to step into your wonderful life? Please share. I’d love to hear from you.
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!
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!
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:
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.
“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.