Sunday, October 25, 2015

write like a baby

If you know me personally, or follow me on social media, or read this blog, you know that we welcomed our first grandchild into the world this year. Caleb is six months old now, already past the gentle rocking stage, the quiet observing phase, the happy-just-to-be-cuddled time of his infancy. Now he's sitting, crawling like a little speed demon, and pulling himself up to standing. You can just see him plotting his first walk.

Of course, none of this came easily to him. It's like he got an idea in his mind, but when he tried to pull it off, something went wrong. He knew he wanted to sit up by himself, but for a long time, whenever he tried, he would simply topple over. Rather than let it discourage him, though, he would begin again. And again and again. Then, just when most of us would have given up altogether--BINGO! Success! Victory was his!

Suddenly, it seemed as though everything changed in a heartbeat. He wasn't sitting up by himself in the morning, but by afternoon, he had it down. He couldn't pull himself up to standing when he went to bed, but he mastered it before before lunchtime the next day. It took many heroic attempts before he was standing next to the coffee table reaching for things he shouldn't have.

He gets an idea in his head and he works at it until he figures out how to do it. He practices tirelessly, getting closer and closer with every attempt until he gets it. He'll do this when he takes his first wobbly steps...when he gets his first bicycle...when he writes his first novel...

...which is how all of us should approach writing.

We get an idea for a story in our heads. We start writing but it isn't very good. The first draft never is, we're told. So, we begin again. And again and again. Suddenly, what for so long has been so difficult for us falls into place on the page. Hallelujah! Success!

...until the next project challenges us to begin again.

Remember the joy of victory:

"Proceed as if success 
is inevitable."

Monday, October 19, 2015

why humans need to feel safe

Don't judge anyone, ever. Not for their green hair, or the ring in their nose, or the tattoo inscribed on their butt. Not for the clothes they wear, or the car they drive, or the shelter they depend on. That's one lesson we learned at the "Writing from the Heart" workshop with Nancy Slonim Aronie last week. Don't judge people. You don't don't know their stories. You can't tell what they've been through by the look on their faces when you pass them on the street. You can't imagine the heartache that keeps them up at night. If you knew, you'd invite them all in for milk and cookies.

Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Battle

Our second lesson? Humans need to feel safe. Free from judgement. Embraced just as they are, all tattered and torn. Why? Because unless they feel safe they'll never tell us their stories. Unless they can cry right there in front of people--strangers, even--without fear, they won't say a word.

At this workshop, twenty-two of us, strangers one and all, sat in a circle and bled onto the page for 10-15 minutes at a time to prompts like these:
  • The hardest thing...
  • What I didn't tell you then...
  • A time you acted one way, but felt another...
  • Dinner at my house...
  • I picked up the phone...
  • A birthday party...
At the end of fifteen minutes, we read what we had written. This isn't one of those workshops that invites you to read your piece if you'd like to...because you're so proud of it. No--everyone read what they had written. It wasn't the quality of our prose that mattered, but the depth of feeling and the honesty that went into it. There were tears and there was laughter. There were breakthroughs. Transformations. Victories. 

Here's one piece: A time I acted one way, but felt another...

Visiting hours have ended. The lights have been turned down for the night. Except for an insistent call bell somewhere down the hall, the floor is quiet.

I'm standing at the nurses' station with the attending on the case, Dr. Bush, and a man he introduces as the husband of the latest after-hours admission. 

Dr. Bush presents the case in standard rhythm and verse: "The patient is a 46 year old Caucasian female who presents with a one month history of shortness of breath and cough, a twenty-five pound weight loss, and night sweats. She is being admitted for further evaluation and treatment."

He slips her X-rays into the viewing box, and there it is--the smattering of hazy white balls in both lungs that shouts the word "cancer."

Dr. Bush glances at the patient's husband. "Paul?"

The man straightens his shoulders and  looks me in the eye. "The word cancer is not to be used around my wife. Do you understand?" he says. A tear escapes. "It would kill her if she knew."

Suddenly, what appeared to be a sad but straight forward case becomes a moral dilemma.

Dr. Bush repeats, "Doctor? Do you understand? She is not to hear the word cancer. Tell her anything, just not that."

The name of this game is "Let's Pretend." Let's pretend that the patient doesn't have cancer. That it's something else. Let's pretend that this will somehow make it easier for her. That it will erase her worry, relieve her pain, give her hope.

But, what am I supposed to say when she asks, "What's the matter with me, Doctor? What did you find?"

That pneumonia sometimes presents like this? That even adults can develop asthma later in life? That we'll get to the bottom of this, don't you worry?"

How is she going to prepare for the end? Who will be there to help? Who will stay at her bedside and hold her when she cries?

How will she say goodbye to her children?

How will she plan her funeral? Who will choose the music and prayers?, Dr. Bush. I do not understand. It isn't right to lie. This isn't the time to pretend.

I pick up my stethoscope and start down the hallway to the patient's room. 

So...what will it be? Truth, or consequences?


Go ahead. Give it a try. Tell us what, for you, was the hardest thing. What you wish you had done differently. What you wish you had said but didn't. You have fifteen minutes. Go!

Then, find a safe person and read it to him or her.


Friday, October 9, 2015

the truth about writing

Tomorrow morning I plan to get an early start. I’m headed north to Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY.

There, for five days, I’ll be writing under the tutelage of Nancy Aronie Slonim, author of “Writing from the heart.”

This is not one of those workshops that teaches the mechanics of writing or the steps to publication. This is about finding your inner voice and having the courage to speak the truth as you remember it, or understand it, or imagine it. Most of us are a little confused about the past, so we need clarity. We need to revisit our experience, and reclaim our feelings about it. Slonim says, “Good writing is not about good grammar. Good writing is about Truth.”

Here are few quotes from her book:

“As writers, we must be willing to feel our sadness, our anger, our terror, so we can reach in and find our sweet vulnerability that is just sitting there waiting for us to come back home. Then and only then are we able to create the perfect weaving, the masterful mix, the ideal harmonizing of our wounds and our words.”

“Writing can be the bellows for the dying embers of your intuition. Writing can breathe the life force back into you. The recovery might begin as a whisper. Or it might begin as a wail. But the writer won’t miss it. Once you hear it, you’ll realize you’re in charge of the volume control.”

“Why are our personal stories so powerful? Because they are true. What is Truth? Someone said that Truth is the gentle removal of denial so that when you are ready you can lift the veils that have kept you in darkness…Why write the truth? The answer is, because there’s nothing more powerful than the truth. Because writing the truth sometimes helps you face the truth. Because writing the truth is the beginning of living the truth.”

The truth is that, next week, the autumn leaves will be at the peak of color in Rhinebeck. The food at Omega will be amazing. Inspiration will flow freely, and words will find their way onto the page.


According to Anne Lamott:

Signing off for the week. Enjoy autumn as it unfolds.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

how to write like a horse

This past week a lone horse in a pasture captured my attention. I spotted him running full speed ahead from one end of his football field-sized enclosure to the other--back and forth, back and forth. No one was chasing him. No one was cheering him on. He seemed to be galloping along for the pure joy of it. To feel the wind in his mane. To stretch his legs.

Image result for horse running in a field
When he'd had enough, he simply stopped and rested.

Bay Horse Grazing

This, I believe, is how we should write: for the joy of it. Letting loose on the page. Stretching our imaginations. Letting our spirits soar without anyone questioning our motives. Writing what we can simply because we can. Without prodding. Without apology. Without  restraint.

And, we should feel free to stop and rest when our joy is satisfied and our energy is spent, knowing that we can take off again anytime.

Go ahead. Write like a horse!