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.
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?
If you haven’t already done so, treat yourself to this gift: Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s full of wisdom and inspiration for writers and anyone living—or wanting to live—a creative life. The book champions creative living of all kinds, and is divided into six parts: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity.
Gilbert’s writing sparkles, soothes, and is guided by great stories. Her prose resonates deeply. But one chapter in particular, “Fear in High Heels,” hit me in the gut with its clarity and truth. I shared excerpts from this chapter with my students, and as I read to them, looks of recognition and awe illuminated their faces. I found myself wanting to share Gilbert’s words with all of the brilliant women in my life. I wanted to echo her message that contrary to the subtle and insidious teachings of our culture, women don’t have to be perfect to be loved or successful or worthy of their dreams. Just being here makes us worthy.
“Perfection is unachievable,” Gilbert says, and then quotes writer Rebecca Solnit, who adds, “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because perfection is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”
But Gilbert takes this thought a step further. “The Most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue.” A few lines later, she explains, “[People] wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.” And then she comes in for the kill: “Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
I never heard this stated so boldly, yet eloquently. Gilbert yanks the covers off perfectionism, and makes me want to kick off my shoes, dance around my living room, and then head for my study to prance all over the page. She makes a case for tinkering, for not taking yourself so seriously. She speaks of creating for the sheer joy of it.
Gilbert also says that perfectionism afflicts women more than men, pointing to “every single message society has ever sent us!” Where a man might go after a job he feels 41 percent qualified for, women tend to say things like, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.”
And she doesn’t stop there.
“We women,” she urges, “must break this habit in ourselves—and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfection is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is—if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart. Which is the entire point. Or should be.”
A glad and determined heart? Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert! This is the point! How many of us work joyfully with a glad and determined heart? How many of us live this way? How many of us even believe this is possible? Gilbert suggests it’s not only possible, but inevitable, when we open up to the “Big Magic” that surrounds each and every one of us!
Do yourself a favor: read this book. Nourish yourself. Live the fullest expression of your creative life—now!
And please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences regarding perfectionism. It’s up to us to lay this demon down. It’s up to us to allow ourselves to be exactly where we are, as humans, creators, and artists ready to live radiant, expressive, and imperfect (real) lives!
P.S. I just listened to Brooke Warner’s SW.com interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, which shimmers with insight, humor, wisdom, and light. I wish I could attend “Elizabeth Gilbert Live: Writing, Truth, and Community,” in Napa on November 7th, but I’ll be at my nephew’s wedding in Virginia. If you’re looking for a creative boost, a hit of inspiration, or if you think you might enjoy engaging face-to-face with a stellar writing community, it’s not too late to get tickets. If you go, I’d love to hear about it!
Let’s face it: the writing life can be difficult. We procrastinate, bargain with the universe, write hundreds of pages no one will read. We judge, discipline, chide, and berate ourselves, and others. We make unfair comparisons, inflate and deflate our work, our efforts. Our egos loom large like monsters, or cower in corners. We recoil from shadows, fight our own wisdom, attempt to flee our pain, but cannot escape ourselves, our lives—alas, our material. And this is the fun part! Add to this wondrous, yet at times daunting, creative process the business of writing and the slippery slope upon which conventional publishing resides. We attend conferences, make pitches, and reach out to agents and editors. Platform-building has become the buzzword every author feels they’re not doing well enough at. We perch ourselves upon social media towers from which we blog, tweet, chat, and update our “status.” It’s exhausting and overwhelming—and it’s also an honor, a privilege, a blessing, and a gift! You don’t get to do this work—play this game—if you’re sick or struggling with life’s basics.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know the past three years have been personally challenging. We’ve had five family deaths. I was executor of a contentious family estate. During this time I developed, and holistically healed, an anxiety disorder. I’ve radically downsized my professional efforts in order to deal with these personal challenges. John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” has crossed my mind many times.
But contrary to how things appear, life is still sweet. I’m learning how to slow down at a very deep and nourishing level. I am discovering what it takes to make peace with what life brings, even when it’s not what I wanted or expected. I’m realizing the importance of honoring life, going with its flow, and cultivating an open, patient, and loving heart.
When I was a child my family used to visit Mitzi and Sherwood, an elderly couple who lived at the beach on New York’s Fire Island. Mitzi was a painter and Sherwood was a sculptor and jewelry-maker. Their house had high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and art crammed into every nook and cranny. They were an eccentric, white-haired couple who lived and breathed art.
In Sherwood’s studio, one piece of equipment captivated me: a stone tumbler. We’d collect stones on the beach and put them into his tumbler. After days, and sometimes weeks, of being tossed about, these rough stones would emerge from the tumbler as semi-precious, polished stones ready to be made into jewelry. The transformation was amazing.
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like those stones. What if life is the tumbler creating the friction needed to transform me into a human version of those polished stones? Some might think it’s a cliché to say our challenges are opportunities in disguise, but I disagree. Although my writing career hasn’t been going like gangbusters these three years, the lessons I’m learning will illuminate my writing—and my life—for years to come. Nietzsche said it best: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
It’s always a matter of keeping things in perspective. When your writing life starts to lag, or feel difficult, discouraging, or frustrating, count your blessings. Appreciate your health, as well as the freedom you have to engage in this noble work.
I’d love to hear from those of you who have soldiered on in the face of personal challenges, and what you’ve learned along the way. Please share your wisdom and your light!
Earlier this summer I made my annual trip to Claremont, CA, to teach my Write Where You Are Workshop at Camp Scripps, a four-day summer camp run by and for alumnae of Scripps College. I handed out three pages of prompts, lines gleaned from Nancy Levin’s poetry collection, Writing For My Life. A volunteer read them aloud and people circled the prompts they felt a visceral response to. Some of the most popular were:
We scribbled, nonstop, for thirty minutes. When the timer went off, one woman clutched her notebook to her chest and said, “I am going to hide this—or better yet--destroy it!”
Knowing that sometimes the most reluctant participants share the brightest gems, I turned to her and said, “If I had to bet, I’d say you’ve written something very much worth sharing. Would you like to read it?”
She turned red. “I didn’t know we were going to have to read what we wrote.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, “but in my experience, the more we don’t want to share what we’ve written, the more liberating the process can be. Bearing witness to our life experiences is a profound, sacred, and healing act.”
The woman read what she’d written and it was great. She had no idea anyone would care about her marriage, health, and finances. But her writing was closely observed, loaded with details, and her voice was magnanimous and wise. The fact that she had no clue she’d written something wonderful, along with her reluctance to share and her desire to destroy what she’d written, provided valuable lessons.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of the improper behavior, incompetence, etc. of oneself or another.” For writers, telling the truth can feel like improper behavior. Many of us were raised jumping through hoops trying to please others. As smart, sensitive children we knew what to say to satisfy those around us, even if that meant betraying ourselves. As mature women engaged in the act of truth-telling it can feel like we’re breaking rules. It goes against our “good-girl” conditioning, and this creates feelings of shame, which makes it hard to write the truth.
But people have a deep need to voice their truth, to see it, witness it, write and speak about it. Doing so affirms our existence. This is a major reason why we read: to see our lives mirrored back to us. It’s also the case that the personal is universal, especially when closely observed, without judgment. I remind students that just because they write something, it doesn’t mean they’re going to share it with the world. At least not right away. Years may stretch between the moment you write something and its publishing debut, especially if you’re writing a book. The point is, you get to choose what, how, and when to share with others. The main thing is to share first with yourself. Giving yourself permission to speak your truth in the privacy of your own room is a crucial first step toward creative self-expression and healing.
At a deeper level, resistance to sharing may reflect a lack of respect for yourself, or an inability to honor yourself. It’s often a clue that you’re judging yourself. We humans do all sorts of things we’re not proud of. But can we forgive ourselves? Can we accept and learn from our circumstances? Can we allow ourselves to be who, what, and where we are? Can we accept our darkness as well as our light? The ability to be honest about our less-than-glamorous selves, to expose our vulnerability and fear—and share it—is a virtue. My old writing teacher, Jack Grapes, used to say, “Your strengths are your weaknesses, and your weaknesses are your strengths.”
In order to write, and then share, your innermost truths, you have to make peace with them. This is a life-affirming process, which involves laying down your shame. If you can set it aside, if you can accept your life the way it is, with humility, curiosity, and wonder, you’ll experience deep radiance, which will warm you from the inside out. You will also become a beacon for others yearning to do the same.
We are imperfect creatures, perfect in our imperfection, but most important, we are here to learn. When you turn toward what you perceive as your weaknesses you exhibit great strength. This is where your creative power lies. This is your treasure, your gift, and your truth.
I’d love to hear about your relationship with shame and how it’s impacted your writing life. Also, please share how you unlock your truth. Or challenges you’ve faced (and perhaps overcome) while doing so!
How do you protect yourself when writing about difficult times? How do you make sure you don’t relive painful experiences while writing them? How do you keep your heart open without getting sucked into negative energy or destructive old patterns? Which painful memories do you revisit, and to what extent? And how much should be included in your memoir? These questions came up for me recently while working on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness. Here are eight ways to make your way through painful memories while not losing yourself in the process:
“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.
This post was featured earlier this month on She Writes, an online organization serving over 20,000 writers. They also have a first-rate press, which is publishing exquisite books! If you haven’t already done so, check them out!
Let’s face it: there are times when, as much as you love and want to write, you just can’t do it. It may be that life has swelled like a tidal wave and crashed down hard on you. You may be ill, depressed, anxious, or maybe someone you love has died and you need to grieve. Or maybe you’re going through a rough patch with your partner, or your teenager is on drugs, or your baby keeps you up all night.
Or perhaps there’s no obvious reason for your resistance—you just don’t feel like writing. Sometimes the best response is to take time off, to understand that rest is part of your work cycle. Dormancy, stillness, quiet, and respite may not seem like ideal places to inhabit, but they are just as important as cranking out pages. You are a human being, not a machine. Your life is rich and complex. You are more than just a writer.
Dwelling in this non-writing phase will be challenging to most writers unless you consciously practice acceptance of what is, compassionate self-forgiveness, and radical self-care. To do this you must surrender your judgments of what you think you and your writing life is supposed to look like. You must slow the running horses in your mind and sink deep into your heart. You must embrace your inner knowing. You must trust that what’s happening is for your highest good, that the wave that’s crashed over your head will eventually deliver you to the shore of a lovely beach, which you will comb for shells and other treasures.
But what do you do when you’ve given yourself the rest you need and you still don’t feel like writing? You listen. Maybe you need more rest. Perhaps you need to make a change in your life, such as lightening you load, joining a spiritual community, or attending a writers’ conference. Or perhaps you need to have fun, visit a museum, spend time in nature, or read, not as a writer, but simply for your own pleasure.
I’ve seen people (myself included) search high and low for answers. We consult experts of all kinds when we’re in distress. Over the past three months, in response to debilitating anxiety, I’ve visited an acupuncturist, a Reiki healer, a hypnotherapist, a spiritual counselor, a shaman, a breath-work practitioner, a therapist, two medical doctors, and a psychiatrist.
And then—finally—I made the decision to consult the person who knows me best: me. I pulled out my journal and told myself everything I needed to hear; everything I wished I’d heard from the lips of experts. I became, at last, my own authority, and I was brilliant. I got to use the full range of my writer’s imagination to articulate my own diagnosis and treatment.
Doing this reminded me of a time, seventeen years ago, when, while walking the Venice Beach Boardwalk, I sat down with a fortune-teller. I was nine months pregnant, two days from my due date, and wanted reassurance that the birth would go well. I don’t remember what the woman said, just that I didn’t like it, or her, and nothing about her words resonated with me, so when I got home I decided to consult my own inner fortune-teller. I pulled out my journal and let her speak. I let her say all the things I’d hoped to hear at Venice Beach. Her words soothed me, which was all I was really looking (and paying) for.
Journal writing is free, and always available to us in service to our healing, growth, and upliftment. We don’t have to limit our writing to our projects, blogs, and professional lives. It doesn’t have to be a public process. I find writing most powerful as a tool for self-comfort, self-knowledge, and personal transformation. When everything feels like it’s falling apart, I pull out my journal and try to get out of my own way. I try to allow whatever needs to come through me to do so. I tell myself everything I need to hear. It doesn’t always work. I sometimes have to get creative, like when giving my heart, or other body parts, a voice. Sometimes I rant at God, or ask for assistance. Sometimes I speak with my Future Self, who has already lived through whatever turbulence I’m navigating. I also consult my Inner Counselor, my Wise Self, and my Spirit. I let them all advise me.
And I let my Gremlins express their fears as well. I put what they say in quotation marks to separate their thoughts from my own. All they really want is to be heard, and they tend to mellow out when I let them express themselves.
It’s wonderful having access to this kind of communication. We’re writers. We receive and we give. Sometimes we need to give the gift of our writing to ourselves.
Sooner or later this process will lead you back to the project that’s been patiently waiting for you, or a new project will glimmer at the edge of a waking dream and you’ll catch a glimpse of what your next step will be. Either way, trust that you will be called back to work when the time is right. And in the meantime, use your journal. It’s not only your writer’s training ground; it’s your therapist and your best friend rolled into one. You may even mine it at some point in the future for a book or other project to access source material.
The key is to lean into your journal; to trust it. Let it hold you. Accept where you are and be compassionate and loving with yourself through your challenges, as well as your triumphs. Contrary to what you might think, one state is not more desirable than another. It’s all grist for the mill. And writing is only one part of your life, one thing you do. It’s a calling to be answered in service to your highest good and the highest good of those around you—and so we must pay attention to those moments in life when it’s time to pause. Your writing—your gift, your creativity, your voice—will never give up on you; it’ll be there when you’re ready to return.