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!
Two months ago, I touched upon journal writing in my post, “What To Do When You Feel Like You Can’t Write?” I alluded to the fact that basically, when life throws you a curve ball, one of the best things you can do is write in your journal. I spoke about how journal writing provides self-comfort and self-knowledge. I said it was your writer’s training ground, your therapist, and your best friend rolled into one. But journal writing is such an essential part of my writing life that I wanted to say more.
When you’re stuck on a project or need space away from it, writing in your journal can help move you forward. When you’re pissed off, sad, afraid, confused, and feeling like an unfit conversationalist, you can speak your mind in your journal. You never have to worry about how you look or sound. You are safe from the thoughts, opinions, and judgments of others. You have nothing to prove, and you don’t have to be concerned about writing anything “good.” The fact that you’re writing is all that matters. Showing up. That’s it.
A few weeks ago on Facebook, I wrote that the difference between doing a little writing and a lot of writing is small. The difference between doing NO writing and a little writing is great. Even when you’re doing a little writing, you’ve got your finger on the pulse. You never know when you’ll experience a quickening from within. And when you do, you’ll be ready to follow its lead. You won’t have to strive and struggle to achieve your writing goals. It’ll just happen—because of your quiet, faithful commitment to simply and unselfconsciously scribble just a little bit each day! Your journal is the perfect place to do this.
It’s easy to forget the power, effectiveness, and cumulative results you reap writing a little bit each day. We think we have to spend hours at our desk to get any real work done. This can lead to avoiding writing altogether. We divert ourselves with busywork, kids, reading, exercise, or (gasp!) shopping. There are plenty of distractions. Even a trip to the grocery store can seem exciting if we’re trying to avoid writing. I don’t know about you, but I feel crappy when I’m not writing. But if I can find my way back to my journal, I feel like I’ve come home. It grounds me, and at the same time provides an entryway into my higher self. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of journal writing to heal and transform.
After my mom died, I plunged into work, didn’t take time to grieve, ignored the voice inside that told me to slow down, and then, last November, my life as I knew it screeched to a halt. For several months I suffered from debilitating anxiety, fear, and grief. I am feeling better now, thanks in part to my journal. I’ve poured out my heart and cried over its pages. I’ve written letters to my mother, and I’ve let myself be comforted by the wise, steady voice within.
I sometimes question, How this is possible? What’s going on here? And when I’ve found solace in my writing, I’ve also wondered: Why is journal-writing such a balm? I once read that when we write, we actually create new neural pathways in our brains. We literally change our brain, breaking old neural habits and creating new ones.
In his book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, psychologist James W. Pennebaker shares the results of his clinical research. “Self-disclosure,” he writes, “is good for our emotional, as well as physical health. Confessional writing brings about brain-wave congruence. As you write, the two sides of your brain converge. As you get deeper into your writing, you may reach a meditative state, which produces theta brain waves, which are slower than our daily, waking-state brain waves. The theta brain wave state is where we experience heightened creativity, breakthroughs, and effortless solutions to problems.”
Jack Canfield, coauthor of the Chicken Soup series, agrees. In his book The Success Principles he writes, “Many people have their greatest success accessing intuitive information through journal writing. Take any question that you need an answer to and just start writing about it. Write down the answers to your question(s) as quickly as they come to you. You will be amazed at the clarity that can emerge from this process.”
Janet Conner, in her book Writing Down Your Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary…, takes this a step further: “If you write with a clear intention to communicate with your inner wisdom, you create a doorway between conscious mind and cosmic mind, self energy and source energy, old neural pathways and new ones, life as it is and life as it could be.”
This is an extraordinary claim. But I believe it. My journal has definitely provided access to Universal Intelligence. Much of the time I’m not sure where half of what I write comes from, but I trust and deeply respect the process.
How about you? I’d love to hear about your relationship with your journal and its influence and impact on your life.
Note: This post appeared earlier this month in my monthly SHE WRITES column.
Holidays can be great, but they can also be challenging. Each person in every family has his or her own energy, plus the collective energy of the family itself. This is true for both nuclear families as well as extended families.
It’s easy to get drawn into old or stagnant family energies and stories that may not serve or uplift you. These stories may, in fact, create inner disturbances you can’t quite pinpoint. As a result, you might find yourself anticipating stress at holiday gatherings, if not dreading them altogether. This might be because old, negative, and unconscious patterns are playing out on the stage of your life, even though these patterns are not in alignment with your current values, intentions, or goals.
Here’s an exercise for not getting sucked into powerful, negative family dynamics. This is helpful to do any time of year and with any person who’s taking up too much space in you head, but it can be especially helpful during the holiday season.
Fill in the blank below with the name of a family member of your choosing, and recite or write the words that follow:
“_______, I respectfully return to you any and all energies of yours that I’ve been carrying. I accept and love you as you are. And I accept and love myself as I am. I honor you and I honor myself. I release you, bless you, and set you free. In so doing, I liberate myself and give thanks for my many blessings.”
If you’re feeling less than joyous at the prospect of seeing your family during the holidays, try to identify any judgments you may have placed against yourself or others and forgive yourself for them.
Here are a few examples of things you might be holding onto but needing to release:
Both of these exercises can help you maintain your equilibrium before, during, or after feasting with your family!
And let’s not lose sight of what the holidays are about: gratitude, connection, and generosity of spirit. Celebrate in whatever ways make sense. Don’t go on autopilot and engage in rituals that aren’t meaningful for you. Create your own meaning. Write your own stories. If you’re not happy during the holidays, ask why not. Write the part of you that’s unhappy a letter. Let it respond. Give your unhappiness a voice. Ask what it wants. Be generous and compassionate with yourself. Create a holiday season that is uniquely yours. Look for the blessings. They are right in front of you. Slow down. Savor love. Celebrate your gifts. You do not have to shop for the perfect gift. You are the perfect gift. Be the perfect gift you are!
A few weeks ago, while shopping at JoAnn’s fabric and crafts store, a sewing box at the check out counter caught my eye. I can use that, I thought, but had no idea why. Except for the basics, I don’t sew. My mom, an excellent seamstress, taught me how, but I don’t enjoy it, so I take my mending to the cleaners instead. I had no clue why this sewing box called my name; I bought it having no idea what purpose it might serve.
Driving home, I realized the box would be a great place to keep my spiritual healing tools—the objects I use during meditations, journal writing, affirmations, and other soul-centered healing practices.
These past weeks, I’ve enjoyed having all these items in one place, and since the box is portable, it’s become a traveling altar.
Here’s what’s inside my box:
Writing Instruments: For scribbling notes on a pad, or writing and doodling in my journal. I get some of my best ideas during this time.
Kitchen Timer: For timed writing exercises or meditation, so I can relax and forget about the time. An iPhone timer works, too, but I like to disconnect from electronics while meditating and doing other spiritual/healing work.
Gratitude Beads: Modeled after Greek worry beads, I use them to count my blessings. With each bead I say what I’m grateful for. If you’d like to read more about this practice, check out last year’s post, “Practicing Gratitude: To a Grateful Heart Much Is Given,” posted May 30, 2012.
Earplugs: Silence helps me turn inward and listen deeply.
Eye Pillow: For lying-down meditations, such as the chakra meditation I describe in, “Relief From My To-Do List,” posted April 8th of this year.
Stones: For the above chakra meditation, as well as for inspiration and grounding.
Oracle Cards: I use Doreen Virtue’s Ascended Masters Cards, listening to my intuition whether I’m looking at the cards to try to decide which quality I need to focus on or blindly picking one from the deck. I also enjoy learning about spiritual masters throughout the ages, from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds.
Hand Mirror: When it comes to reciting affirmations in front of a mirror, some folks can’t get past Stuart Smalley’s SNL spoof, in which his nerdy persona turns to the mirror and says, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and dog-gone-it people like me.” But I find affirmations extremely helpful and healing. I’m always writing and rewriting them to clarify and honor what I want and who I am. Here are a few recent favorites:
Pendulum: Helps me answer yes/no questions. When I have a yes/no question I hold the pendulum still and ask my question. Back and forth movement reminds me of a nod, which means, “yes.” Side-to-side movement resembles the shaking of the head, which means “no.” The energy of my own desire/will/thought moves the pendulum. I also receive clarification by paying attention to how I feel when the pendulum swings in one direction or another. I ask myself how I feel about any given answer, which helps me understand more clearly what I want.
Rose Quartz Wand: Everybody should have a “magic” wand. I love how mine feels in my hand. It helps me focus on what I want, and connects me to a place of inner magic.
Tibetan Bells: To begin and end my meditation.
Here’s what my toolbox looks like inside—nothing like a sewing basket, though I use its contents to stitch together pieces of myself that stray from the holy garment that is my life.
My intention in sharing the contents of my box with you is to inspire you to create a box of your own—if the idea appeals to you. Please note that the items in my box serve me. They are personal and particular to my growth and healing. Yours may be completely different. Creating your toolbox—and deciding what goes inside—is totally up to you, but I’ll tell you this: it’s clarifying, nourishing, and fun!
What would you put into your box? I’d love to hear about it.
Last Friday was a stressful day. I found myself thinking about how I cannot control what happens, but I can control my reaction to what happens. But having that knowledge and putting it into practice are two separate things.
When I awakened Saturday morning I was determined to have a better day than I’d had the day before. I absolutely did not want to dwell on family drama. Not only because of my hefty to-do list, or because I was hosting a literary salon at my house on Sunday, but because I genuinely wanted to rid myself of inner turbulence and create some peace. A little joy would be nice too, I thought.
So instead of diving into my to-do list first thing, I decided to try a bath ceremony I’d read about in Tony Burroughs’ book, Get What You Want: The Art of Making and Manifesting Your Intentions. The ceremony was inspired by a traditional Native American medicine wheel ceremony. I drew myself a warm bath. When the tub was full, I knelt down beside it and swirled the water five times with my hand, blessing each swirl. The first blessing was for the Holy Father; the second was for our Divine Mother; the third for Holy Angels, helpers, and guides; the fourth for All Beings everywhere (including people I was having a hard time loving at that moment); and the fifth was for myself. Then I added five pinches of bath salts, and repeated the blessings with each one.
I expected to have a good, long, cozy soak. But that’s not what happened. First, the stopper wouldn’t stay in place and I had to plug the drain with a washcloth. Then the bath mat wouldn’t stay down and flapped against my thighs and butt. I kneeled to push it down, spreading the front corners with my hands, and then I paused and realized I was on my hands and knees, my face inches from the water. I let out a big sigh. I was so close to the water I could smell my foul morning breath. I want to let go of everything in me that’s foul, I thought. What am I ready to let go of? I took a deep breath, and as I exhaled loud and hard into the water—as if I were blowing my words into the water— I said, “I let go of all my resentment and bitterness.” What else do I want to let go of? I took another breath, and again exhaled hard into the water. I did this for at least five minutes, listening for words, then saying and releasing them into the water with strong breaths. A litany of negative emotions poured out. I surrendered hatreds, fears, petty jealousies, and more.
This was not how the ceremony was supposed to go. I was supposed to soak in sheer and utter bliss. But I didn’t want to stay in that water. I soaped down, splashed myself, and thought: I am cleansing myself. When I pulled the washcloth out of the drain, I returned to Tony’s ceremony and recited his words: “I ask that anything unlike Love, anything unlike God, leaves my body now and goes into this water, and that it goes down the drain and into the earth to be purified and transmuted into its highest and best use.”
I was only in the tub about ten minutes, but when I got out, I felt lighter than I’d felt in a long time. It’s been raining recently in Los Angeles, and I hadn’t been spending time outside. I spent most of last month in the hospital with my mother. The weather on Saturday morning was wet, but mild. I walked outside. The air smelled like damp earth. The grapefruit tree was heavy with fruit. Both camellia bushes were in bloom—red blossoms on one, pink on the other. I hadn’t noticed.
I couldn’t resist setting up a yoga mat outside and meditating under the overcast, drizzly sky. It was cloudy, but the air was cool and fresh. I felt nothing but gratitude and love. Instead of racing around, being a slave to my to-do list, I chose to sit and write about my morning. I wanted to share it with you. I wanted to remind you of what I so often forget—that we can stop life’s rollercoaster rides anytime we want to. We can choose to love the people we want to hate. We can turn away from our family dramas. We can choose to see life’s beauty and experience joy. Peace is here for us all right now. And things don’t have to be so hard.
Later that day, preparations for the salon felt effortless. Everything fell easily into place and the work I feared would take all day took two hours.
A week after back-to-school night at my daughter’s school, our Indian summer ended abruptly. Clouds filled the sky. No raindrops fell, but it turned cool enough to convince me that, yes, summer is over. I’ll admit I didn’t want it to end. I love the long days of sunlight, the warmth, and fresh produce. I’m going to miss my hammock and lounging by the pool reading. I’m also going to miss meditating, practicing yoga, and journal writing in the back yard. I’m going to miss lying on my back and staring up at our eucalyptus tree. I’m going to miss hummingbirds and blue jays, and the smell of honeysuckle and damp earth after my husband has watered the yard.
Yesterday I moved all my spiritual practice paraphernalia indoors: my yoga mat, blankets, bolster, and blocks; my journal, pens, timer, earplugs, sacred stones, and gratitude beads; my lap desk and my moonstone egg. At first I felt sad; I didn’t want to move my practice indoors, didn’t want to leave nature.
But as I rearranged furniture, cleaned house, recreated altars, lit candles and incense, and set my butt down on my meditation cushion, I not only felt better, but joyous! I set up three places for spiritual practice: in my bedroom, living room, and office. The office space is small, but rather than cramped, it felt cozy. Indoors has advantages, which started me thinking about things I enjoy about this time of year, the greatest of which is that delicious back-to-school feeling of hunkering down even deeper into my work—which I love!
Here are some tips for transitioning into fall. Enjoy!
A few months ago I bought a moonstone egg. When I roll the hard, cool stone in my hand, I visualize my memoir, which has not yet “hatched,” but is gestating. The blue tinge on the stone’s surface reminds me of the challenges I face writing it, the difficulty of mining the depths, telling the truth, and conveying complex human emotions.
When I hold the stone up to the light, it glows. This reminds me of the pleasures of writing: discoveries and surprises, the power writing has to heal, the joy I feel when words flow, when I’ve nailed an event or emotion, or stumbled upon a new awareness.
When I see light in my moonstone egg, I imagine my dream is contained within its glow. My dream is a fetus. I envision the cells of my story multiplying, my memoir alive and well. It breathes. It has a heart.
Holding my moonstone egg in the palm of my hand also reminds me of the much larger light that fills my body—the light that informs my writing, but also my life. It’s within me even when I can’t feel it or see it.
If it could talk, my moonstone egg would say, “Remember your glow, remember your light. Nourish your project and it will grow. It too is part of this light. It wants to be born. Imagine its birth. See it published. Visualize it making its way to readers, whose lives will be moved, perhaps even saved, by its message.”
What’s your dream? Perhaps you’d like to paint large canvasses? Or start a new business? Or breathe fresh life into the one you’ve got? Maybe the summer Olympics inspired a more physical dream. Perhaps you’d like to run a marathon? Or hike the Himalayas?
Whatever it may be, a talisman can help energize your vision. It can help you not only image your dream more fully, but give you an opportunity to commune with your dream, to linger with it the same way you enjoy the company of a good friend. When focusing on your dream, assuming you’re clear about what it is, it may help to project into the future and ask these questions:
The better able you are to visualize your dream and feel its truth, the better your chances of creating it. Holding your dream not only in your imagination, but also in the palm of your hand makes it that much more real.
Years ago, while traveling in Greece, I picked up a pair of worry beads (Komboli). It didn’t take long to incorporate these beads into my daily meditation practice. But I renamed my worry beads gratitude beads.
First thing every morning, as I slide each bead, I say something in my life I’m grateful for: my health, the health of my family, my husband, my daughter, our home, my mother, my sisters, their families, my friends, my students, my clients, my guides—both physical and spiritual—my enthusiasm, my love of learning, my computer, my car, my writing practice, my connection to God, my life itself, and so on. I try to stay in the moment and think of new things I’m grateful for each day.
Yesterday in church, the Reverend said, “To a grateful heart, much is given. The Universe sees you as a satisfied customer and gives you more.” Then he asked, “Can you allow what’s good in you to change you?” I realized this is what I try to do each day with my gratitude beads. Thinking about the ways in which I feel blessed focuses me on what’s going well in my life. The more I do this, the better things get.
Lately I’ve been looking for ways to give myself treats. Since my Greek gratitude beads are plastic, I thought it might be nice to make a pair out of a gemstone, such as rose quartz or amethyst. Purple is my favorite color. It is the color of the crown chakra, which symbolizes our connection to the divine. Amethysts are associated with nobility, spiritual awareness, meditation, balance, psychic abilities, inner peace, healing, stress relief, and positive transformation. But rose quartz’s properties enhance all forms of love, self-care, kindness, nurturing, and tenderness.
I went to my local bead shop and held strings of rose quartz and amethyst stones in my hands: they both felt wonderful, but I selected the amethysts, and with the help of the women who worked there, created a new set of gratitude beads.
Modern Greek worry beads contain 19-23 beads. My plastic set contains 21. But I decided to make my new set with 22 beads. In Soul Lessons and Soul Purpose, Sonia Choquette sites several reasons why the number 22 is auspicious: In numerology, the study of the mathematical order of the Universe, 22 is a sacred number that reflects how the physical world is manifested; in western Kabbalah, this number is considered the foundation of all things; the first 22 numbers symbolize the cosmic principles; the Hebrew alphabet is composed of 22 letters, each corresponding to a number that represents spiritual law; there are 22 archetypes in the Major Arcana of the Tarot; and in many spiritual traditions, the number 22 is an important and sacred number. But for me, the clincher was that my daughter was born on 2/22.
The day I made my amethyst gratitude beads I visited a psychic for the first time in years, as part of my treat quest. When I showed her my beads, she said, “These are great, but you need another pair—in pink.” The rose quartz beads I’d been holding earlier flashed in my mind.
“How come?” I asked.
“You’re aura is radiating pink. There’s all this loving energy around you.”
Great, I’ll take that, I thought, thrilled for an excuse to return to the bead shop for the rose quartz I’d left behind. The bit of guilt I experienced over acquiring not one but two new sets of gratitude beads vanished when I held the completed rose quartz creation. This second set was more radiant than the first; when I held it in my hands I felt serene and happy.
I keep the rose quartz beads on my main home altar, the amethyst beads in my purse, and the original plastic set in my office, and I am grateful for them all.
While preparing to write this post I found a website that explains the history and use of worry and prayer beads, including Muslim worry beads (Tespih); Buddhist worry beads (Malas); and Christian rosaries. The site includes information about gemstone properties, and offers exquisite beads for sale. I’m eyeing several pair, but am holding off for now. I want to make sure my desire to express is greater than my desire to possess.
If beads aren’t your thing, you can use your fingers to count your blessings, or keep a gratitude journal, or just remind yourself daily how lucky you are to be alive. The simple act of expressing gratitude never fails to uplift me. Try it. Take five minutes. What are you grateful for?