Suck at Meditation? Try Lowering Your Standards.

Suck at Meditation? Try Lowering Your Standards.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’ve always sucked at meditation. 
 
While attending Buddhist meetings as a kid, I admired the adults who could chant for hours without concern for the time or their circulation. I had no idea how they maintained their laser-like focus. 
 
When we were supposed to concentrate on world peace, my mind was a jungle gym of ideas and worries about how long this was taking or whether kneeling on my feet would cause them to fall off. After a few seconds of focused prayer, my mind was off to the races. 
 
Over the years, I came to understand the various stages of sleeping feet from the pin-like tingles to the rush of blood that causes you to lose your breath to that moment when your foot feels dead.  Sometimes, I’d try to invoke a different sleepy foot stage during these meditations just to pass the time. 
 
I was too ashamed to share my experiences with the adults around me. I just figured I was a lousy meditator. 
 
My mind can still be a jungle gym of ideas. Sometimes when I’m meditating it’s hard to sit still, or some part of me will itch like I’ve been stung by a bee. These things are more likely to happen if I’m tired, worried, or not feeling well. 
 
After years of study, here’s what I learned: 
 
There are no meditation heroes. Sure, there are gurus and religious leaders like the Dalai Lama who are meditation pros. But even they struggle from time to time. Instead of trying to meditate perfectly, let each session be its own experiment. 

The rush of thoughts, wiggles, and those tickly, itchy feelings are completely normal. The brain’s main job is to keep you safe. It does this by making up stories about your experiences. Sometimes it ruminates on the past so it can learn from its mistakes. Other times, it rehearses future events to help you be more successful. When focusing on the present moment, sometimes you can actually feel your nerves activating. Hence that itchy feeling.  

If you’re a wiggly person who hates sitting meditations, try movement. Kristin Neff has a great standing meditation called Soles of the Feet. Many writers find a good walk solves their writing problems. If that’s you, give walking meditation a try. Walking meditations tend to enhance problem-solving because you are swinging your arms across your midline.  
 
The goal of mindfulness meditation is simply to give your mind a choice. That moment when you notice you’ve been focusing on all the brands of toilet paper you wish you could buy and then say to yourself, “Oh wait, I’m meditating” is your victory. Savor it and keep telling yourself that attaining this realization is enough. 
 
Do you suck at meditating too? What’s your meditation pet peeve? Share it in the comments. 

Three Reasons Why Meditation Is Good for Your Writing Practice

Three Reasons Why Meditation Is Good for Your Writing Practice

When I was in high school, my neighbors believed I worshipped the devil. It was the mid-1980s. We lived in a rural upstate New York town obsessed with Geraldo Rivera’s exposé “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.”
 
It probably didn’t help that: 

  • my brothers and I blasted Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil” from our stereo whenever our parents weren’t home, or
  • that I frequently wore black to protest the many international conflicts our president started, or
  • that my brother had told a few neighborhood bullies we were Voodists with magical powers. “Mess with us and Lisa will chant at you. Then you’ll get bad karma and die,” he frequently said. Often, this was followed by “Lisa, show them.” Sometimes, I did.

 
My mom converted to Buddhism when I was eight. I loved the exotic sounds and smells of this religion that promised a better, more peaceful life. Plus, the Buddhists smiled a lot and fed us candy. Our practice consisted of twice-daily chanting meditations for world peace.
 
I was fifteen when the devil worship cries began. A friend on my school bus asked what church I attended. I proudly said I was Buddhist and asked if she wanted to know more. A few days later, her mother gave me a pile of books on the follies of evolution and the dangers of cults. Two weeks later, I returned her unread books. When I politely declined her church invitation, she responded with the stink eye. 
 
At the time, I chanted with my mother every evening from 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM. This was common knowledge. For years, neighborhood kids had listened to our voices on hot summer nights. 
 
After my church refusal, the neighbor invited all the nearby kids to her house so she could warn them about the evil lurking in our duplex village. The evening after her meeting, a new ritual began. When Mom called me in for our evening mediation, neighborhood kids morphed into little town criers. 
 
“The devil worshiper is worshipping. The devil worshiper is worshiping,” they yelled. 
 
Kids gathered on the curb across from our house. A few minutes into our meditation one of them yelled, “Devil worshipper, are you worshipping?” His young voice pleaded for some kind of satanic action.
 
I responded by chanting louder and ringing our meditation bell.  (I was 15. What did you expect?)
 
Soon boredom set in and they scattered. 
 
A lot has changed since the 1980s. 
 
Information about Buddhism abounds. Meditation has been scientifically validated as an activity that reduces stress, increases a sense of focus, and improves mood. How I practice meditation has changed over the years, but its importance in my life remains the same. 
 
I teach meditation in all of my writing classes. The techniques I offer are simple, mindfulness-based meditations with no connections to any religion. They are designed to prepare writers for specific writing tasks.   

So, why do I teach my students to meditate? 
 
Mindfulness meditation helps writers in three ways. 
 
1.     Throat clearing: ‘Throat clearing’ is akin to starting a car built before 1980 on a cold morning. You have to run the engine before setting off down the road. Writing requires a similar warmup. You have to clear out the disconnected, convoluted ideas before you can get to the good stuff. Pandemic-filled newscasts make throat clearing essential. 

2. Accessing internal wisdom: When your mind is clear, you’re better able to judge what you have the emotional energy for working on. You’ll treat yourself with greater kindness and work on challenging material more effectively.  Also, your B.S. meter is more likely to go off when your work is inauthentic. Practice regularly and the real story you’d like to tell will bubble to the surface.  

3. Brain priming: When meditation is part of your regular writing practice, it can prime the brain for creativity. Over time, you’ll experience less resistance when sitting down to write and have an easier time accessing your ideas.  

There are many ways to develop a mindful writing practice.  Here are a few suggestions.
 
Before you write:

  1. Set a timer for five minutes. If that feels impossibly long, try one minute.
  2. Sit in a comfortable position. Generally, this means placing your feet securely on the floor. Rest your hands on your lap.
  3. Close your eyes or develop a soft gaze toward whatever is in front of you.
  4. Now you have some choices: 
    • You could focus on the breaths coming out of your nostrils,
    • repeat a mantra in your head like “my creativity matters,”
    • count your breaths, starting at one and ending at ten and then repeating this process, or
    • listen to a guided meditation on an app like Insight Timer.
  5. Write as you normally would.

Here’s my best meditation advice: Find a practice you love.

Ideally, this practice should align with your views and tolerance for sitting still. This month, I’ll share a few meditation techniques for various stages in the writing process. Try the ones you like and disregard the rest. There’s no need to convert to Buddhism or any other religion. I promise, no one will stand outside your door and ask if you’re worshipping the devil.

 
Have you ever been falsely accused of something?

How did you handle it?  Leave your answer in the comments. 

Scholarships Now Available

Scholarships Now Available

Dana (pronounced “DAH-nuh”), noun. Sanskrit, Pali, roughly “gift, alms, donation”; voluntary giving of materials, energy, or wisdom (dharma) to others; generosity; regarded as one of the most important Buddhist virtues.

I grew up during the 1980s recession that brought us Ronald Regan and Black Monday. Between 1980 – 1987, my hometown of Elmira, New York hemorrhaged so many jobs our city’s economic crisis made the New York Times. My grandfather lost his job and pension in 1983. My father lost his job in 1985. After my parents’ divorce, he was functionally homeless for the next three years as he searched for steady work. During that same period, my mother, twin brothers, and I frequently lived on a lentil diet or ate dinners at my grandparents’ house.  

As I began to think about careers, everyone gave me the same advice. Be practical. Get a safe and steady job. Work for the government. Amass what you can now because one day everything will fall apart. 

Creativity felt like an impractical luxury I could not afford.  

And yet, creativity called to my soul. 

It wasn’t until I experienced a life-threatening bout of Lyme disease that I truly realized creativity was what sustained me and made me whole. As I embraced my creative life, mentors appeared. I received many generous gifts that led me to this job. 

Maybe you too feel like creativity is a gift—one you can’t afford.

And yet, maybe creativity also calls to your soul. 

While I don’t talk about it much, Dana has always been a part of my life. It’s a core tenant of my values. In 2020, I am going to put those values into practice within my coaching business. This year, I will award four partial scholarships to be used towards a one-hour coaching session or one of the four- or eight-week classes I’ll be teaching through Revising U. 

Scholarships will be awarded based on the following criteria: 

  1. Financial need 
  2. Dedication to the craft of writing and potential for success 
  3. A clear plan for how you will use this service to benefit your writing and others
  4. A commitment to be a good literary citizen and pay this gift forward 

 
Preference will be given to people with significant financial need and those whose stories have been marginalized. 
 
If you believe you would benefit from one of these scholarships, please send an email to lisa.cooper.ellison@gmail.com. In your email, please answer the following questions: 
 

  1. What financial barriers do you face when accessing writing classes? 
  2. What classes have you taken and/or what experiences have you participated in that demonstrate your commitment to your writing life? What successes have you had? 
  3. How will you use this scholarship to benefit your writing and others? 
  4. How will you serve as a good literary citizen and pay this gift forward? 

Questions? Send me an email. I love hearing from you. 

Write On, Friends!

Lisa Cooper Elison

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

In early October, my father experienced a medical emergency that sent me to Upstate New York. During his recovery, I spent three weeks in my childhood hometown. During hospital visits and errands, I listened to the conversations around me—not just what was said, but the words each person used to convey their messages.

Dialogue is the lifeblood of any scene. When executed effectively, it catapults the reader into the heart of a story. The very best dialogue feels authentic and flows seamlessly from line to line. But don’t be fooled. Effective dialogue requires keen observation, advanced planning, and lots and lots of practice.

 Let’s start with two scenes.

Scene One

The pizza was cold when it arrived. Frank bit his slice then dropped it onto the table. “Man, those motherfuckers must’ve given us a bad batch.”

“A bad batch?” Gene raised an eyebrow in Frank’s direction.

“Yeah, a bad batch. You gotta watch out for dranos in a place like this—you know, people with nothing left to lose.”

Gene nodded as he pulled out a pack of Camels. Before he could retrieve a cigarette for himself, Frank expectantly held out his hand. Gene cleared his throat then handed him the pack. “Yeah, I know what you mean about dranos. Those fuckers will drain you dry.”

 Scene Two

A wall of heat blasted us as we entered the house. The thermostat hovered somewhere around eighty, even though it was only thirty-two degrees outside. After a few quick hugs, Grandma ushered us to the back bedroom. “I saved the medium-grit sheets for you’ins,” she said. “They’re the warmest ones.”

Eying the window I planned to open when we laid down for bed, I smiled and said, “They’ll do just fine.”

Even without physical descriptions, there’s no confusing Frank and Gene for Grandma. Two aspects of the writing differentiate these characters: dialect and diction.

You can identify the very best characters with only a few lines of dialogue. Often, their diction reads like a fingerprint.

According to Merriam Webster, diction is a “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.”

When writing dialogue, correctness means choosing the right words for your characters.

 To develop a character’s diction, consider the following: 

  • Slang: Slang is time- and region-dependent. For example, something might be groovy, rad, or dank depending on when you grew up. Someone might make you wicked nervous or hella nervous depending on whether you’re from Boston or California.
  •  Phraseology: One character might use davenport to describe a piece of living room furniture. Another might say sofa. A third might say couch. Each choice reveals another aspect of who your character is and how they view the world.
  • Rhythm: A nervous character might speak quickly or run several sentences together while a depressed character might speak slowly and or use frequent pauses.
  • Idioms or Personal Phrases: An idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. Many popular clichés are also idioms. Think “piece of cake,” “wear my heart on my sleeve,” and “live off the fat of the land.” While you don’t want to fill your work with clichés, see if there’s a way to create some fresh idioms for your dialogue. A great way to find fresh idioms is to pay attention to the phrases used by people around you. For example, my brother is a fan of saying, “You’re risking a scab” anytime someone engages in risky behavior or makes a smart-aleck remark.

Novelist John Gregory Dunne recorded interesting phrases he heard on notecards he kept in his wallet.

Another way to increase the authenticity of your work is through the careful use of dialect. Again, quoting Merriam Webster, dialect is “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation from other regional varieties, and constituting together with them a single language.”

In writing, dialect could look like “Y’all, I ain’t got a dog in that fight,” or “Yo, that’s some mad fresh pizza.”

While the occasional use of dialect writing can add flavor to a text, heavy use of dialect can backfire. This is more likely to happen when your character is from a group you don’t belong to or the dialect includes a barrage of phonetically spelled words and unfamiliar slang. At the very least, poorly executed dialect overwhelms readers with its unfamiliarity. At the very worst, it can reinforce negative stereotypes and discriminatory views.

Dialect writing is tricky. There are often nuances in regional speech patterns that even native speakers get wrong. When these faux pas occur, writers lose credibility with their readers.

The key to using diction and dialect effectively is to do your research.

  • Listen to recordings and historically accurate film clips from the time or region you’re writing about.
  • Look for what makes a speech pattern unique and capture that in your work.
  • Use dialect sparingly and avoid overuse of contractions and phonetic spellings. Instead of writing a word like “gotta” on the page, consider writing “have got to.” When reading aloud you can always use the shortened form to enhance the sound of your work.

In her blog post “A Writer’s Guide to Speech Patterns,” writer Mara Mahan has an excellent list of questions every writer should consider when designing a character’s dialect and diction. Her questions cover topics like a character’s rate of speech, use of positive or negative statements, and the importance of considering your context. For example, would your character speak to her best friend in the same way she speaks to her parents?

Fleshing out your dialogue is worth the effort. Effective dialect and diction can make the difference between a publication and work that gets buried in a slush pile. 

Thankfully, my father is recovering from his serious illness. This means I can focus on the gifts this experience has given to me, such as the chance to develop some mindful attention to dialogue. You don’t need a medical emergency to sharpen these skills. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to train your ear. As you sit with family members, listen to the words they use. Carry a few notecards in your pocket. When you encounter an interesting phrase, jot it down.

The Death of Sonny

The Death of Sonny

This personal essay was a finalist in the

 Hippocampus Literary Magazine’s Remember In November Contest

   

  “Without smoke, you can’t see the light.”

  My husband Alex said this to me while explaining why professional tours use fog machines in their light shows. The particles reflect the light so we can see the beam’s path. Without the particles, the beauty is lost.

 I already knew about smoke and beauty. As kids, my brothers and I had been firebugs who created blazes in the abandoned brickyard near our house. Some fires were taller than we were. Heat waves shimmered in the smoky boundary between fresh air and flame, creating an ethereal blur we called the place between worlds. Sometimes we jumped through those flames hoping to boundary hop into this magical kingdom of particles and light.

Sitting in the band’s touring van as we waited for our new driver, Mario, I was once again surrounded by smoke. It was March 5, 1997, halfway through the European leg of Biohazard’s Mata Leão tour. Alex’s band was Biohazard’s opener. I’d joined the tour a week ago, half-hoping to find myself. Today was the band’s day off. We’d spent the early afternoon wandering through Innsbruck, a small city high in the Austrian Alps. At 3:30 p.m., we boarded the van and prepared to leave for Prague. Mario was supposed to arrive at four. It was now five-thirty.

 He was late, even by rock-n-roll standards.

 

Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

I remember the exact moment when I decided to become a writer. It was the winter of 1987. I was in sixth-period study hall, gripping Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The book catapulted me into the world of Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, making the rowdy seventh graders around me disappear. Every day that week, I stayed up well past midnight, unable to put Pet Sematary down.

I spent the next few years in various states of terror as I devoured King’s most famous works including It, The Stand, and The Tommyknockers. Stephen King is a masterful storyteller. His skills with dialogue, plot, character development, and scene-setting are incredible. But even during those early years of fandom, I regularly ran across what felt like a major flaw in his books: the backstory problem. 

Early chapters in King’s novels were absolutely riveting. But just as the story began to truck along, he’d interrupt the forward-moving story with a fifty-plus-page U-turn into the past. I remember little of those forays into backstory other than my fervent desire to skip them.

This summer, I experienced a similar backstory trap as I revised my memoir. Despite everything I tell students and clients, I found myself loading early chapters with backstory about my childhood experiences. The problem had my internal editor on high alert. Every move felt wrong, and yet I continued to scramble around in the past, believing it was all essential. 

As I continued to wrestle with this problem, I researched common backstory traps to see which one I’d fallen into. 

Problem One: The Kitchen Sink

Authors want readers to know who their characters really are. And, because the past often predicts the future, sometimes they share everything leading up to the story present. While some backstory might be essential, most of it is unnecessary.  Even when a scene from the past seems like a perfect fit, it’s important to justify its presence. 

In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory Seamlessly into Your Novel,” agent Jeff Kleinman is quoted as saying “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know—not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.” Look at what the character wants to say and not what you as the writer want to convey.

Solution: Take time to understand who your characters are and what your story is about. Once you’ve solidified the narrative arc, think about what backstory items directly affect your story. Ask your characters what they desperately need to say for readers to understand them.

Problem Two: The Dump

In early drafts, it’s not uncommon for writers to dump essential backstory into the first few chapters of the book. Writers who use this technique sometimes hope wounds revealed on page seventeen will have a huge payoff on page 210. If you’ve sunk a good hook into the reader, they might employ the skip technique to work their way around your backstory dump. But, if your hook is insufficient or the story doesn’t actually start until page eighty, readers are likely to put your book down. Even when readers stick with your story, they might not remember that page seventeen detail if there’s a lengthy gap between initial mention and payoff.

Solution: Place backstory properly. While some backstory belongs in early chapters, other episodes might work best as flashbacks that amplify a pivotal moment. Instead of planting that wound on page seventeen, consider a flashback at the moment when that wound matters most. This can be particularly powerful if the flashback is essential to the conflict or understanding a character’s motivation during a specific scene.

 

Problem Three: The Stand-In

Sometimes backstory is a stand-in for character development. Interesting tidbits from the past are used to create intrigue but they tell us nothing about a character’s present experience. In her essay “How to Tell if Backstory is Sabotaging Your Novel,” Roz Morris writes about this problem using a character who was raised by theater folk as an example. “The writer hopes [the theater upbringing] will make her interesting. It does, to a point, but it’s only the start. The real value is in what it makes her. Does she crave security and a settled life as a result, or has it left her with itchy feet? Perhaps these twin urges are at odds inside her, sometimes pulling her one way, sometimes the other.”

Solution: Develop characters fully in the forward-moving narrative. Place them in interesting scenes where you can show who they really are. Give them quirky mannerisms and fresh dialogue only they can deliver. Let their reactions to other characters and your story’s conflicts define them.  If a colorful backstory exists, make sure it defines who they currently are.

 

Problem Four: Off-Page Issues 

Sometimes we’re stuck in backstory because it’s safe. We know what happened and how we feel about it.  Early chapters in my memoir introduce important events leading up to my brother’s suicide. Everything else happens after he’s gone. As I approached the chapters leading to that tragic moment, swells of grief washed over me. I realized that while I likely have some on-the-page backstory issues (dumping, anyone?), some of my problems are internal. 

While circling around backstory to avoid painful feelings is a common memoir problem, writers working on thinly-veiled novels are also at risk. This problem can even happen when the plot differs greatly from the writer’s life, but the feeling tone of the conflict rings true to the writer’s experience.  

Solution: Practice self-care and manage expectations about your progress. Allow yourself to take breaks, write at a slower pace, and affirm the power of the process. Give yourself permission to work on something else until the story feels less intense.

Once I realized my biggest backstory trap was off the page, I pushed back a deadline, wrote for shorter periods, and completed more meditations.  As I accepted this part of the writing life, revising became easier. Three weeks ago, my story began sharing its secrets through late-night wakeups and flashes of inspiration. Now that we’re on speaking terms, I can ask my characters what parts of my backstory are absolutely essential.

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