Whether we like it or not, we’re living in a time of revolution. “Here’s How To Care For Yourself During These Revolutionary Times,” published on Huffington Post, shares ways to remain mindful and politically engaged during this time of turbulence.
Despite Saturday’s sweltering temperatures, The Trust Guy was on the downtown mall. Pedestrians meandering between shops and restaurants changed their pace as they neared his sign which read “I’ll Trust You. Will You Trust Me?” Some arced away, shuffling their feet across the brick walkway while shaking their heads. Others took a few steps closer and stared at the blindfolded man who waited to be hugged. A few reached out their arms then stepped shyly away.
Rain or shine, David Reid comes to the downtown mall for two hours each week to offer hugs free of charge. A member of a local mindfulness organization, Reid does this to promote compassion. He’s a balding guy with gray curls and a wrinkle-free forehead who is unafraid to be completely vulnerable in front of a crowd.
For the past three weeks I’ve been asking my Writing from Your Bones students to be that vulnerable, except the crowd they’re confronting is mostly in their heads—the judge, the procrastinator, the cynic. They’ve come to the page on a regular basis despite busy schedules and minds that throw them curve balls when the work feels too honest.
In class, I promote the power of allowing yourself to write junk. I’ve advised them to write in clichés. Scratch down something and plan to throw it out. Intentionally write their worst stuff. In other words, have a little fun. The first time I said this jaws dropped. One woman scratched her temple. Another wrote down the words then let the pen hover over them like she planned to cross them out.
“Trust me,” I said, “it works.”
My class reminds me of the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mind, especially in the middle stage of a project. When I expect brilliance instead of accepting my mediocrity (a la Cheryl Strayed), my pen falters. Even though I’ve been writing for a while, there’s more crap to wade through, or what Anne Lamott calls shitty first drafts. It’s possible that all I need to do right now is turn my shitty shitty first drafts into less shitty second ones while I continue to integrate the lessons of this project and find the deeper meaning in my work. I’m also generating new material—tangents, side projects, and pieces I need to write in order to get to the ones that belong in the book. For me, new work is like the blindfolded man on the mall. It helps me stay open.
Watching The Trust Guy was like participating in a social experiment. Many people paused and read his sign. Some pressed fingers into the divot between their lip and nose or grabbed their chins, perhaps confronting both their need to trust and the difficulty of doing so in a world as confused and crazy as our own.
The writing process is fraught with just as much doubt. It’s so much easier to check my phone, plan to scrub the shower grout, or consider Portland, Oregon’s weather. Digging deep into my thoughts requires me to put on the blindfold, open my arms, and wait without judgement, welcoming anything that comes to me as if it’s what I’ve been waiting for.
What if it is?
As the sun boiled up a sweaty sheen on my upper lip, I decided to be the arms The Trust Guy was waiting for. I walked up to Dave and said, “I’m going to trust you,” then I hugged him. I thanked him for helping me develop greater self-awareness and explore the challenging parts of myself. As a thank you, he hugged me a little tighter. The experience was delightful.
Over the years I’ve learned that you need two things in order to sustain yourself during long projects: an intention and permission slips.
In 2014, I attended a book talk with Dr. Rosenthal, the psychiatrist who first described seasonal affective disorder and the author of The Gifts of Adversity. During the question and answer period, an audience member asked him what he felt was the most important aspect of writing a book. His answer: You have to have something you really want to say because writing a book takes a lot time. It’s easy to get sidetracked.
As I’m working on the second draft of my memoir I’m internalizing this wisdom. I consider revision to be the Act Two of the writing process—you know, the part with all of the obstacles. There’s the flagging motivation, the boy am I sick of this feeling that sometimes tickles the back of my throat, the pressures on my time. When writing the first draft, everything felt like new territory. My only goal was to write towards an ending. Now I’m embroiled in research, staring at the page more often that I’d like to admit, and digging deeper both into the text and inside myself.
It’s hard work.
But this isn’t my first book-length project. Over the years I’ve learned that you need two things in order to sustain yourself during long projects: an intention and permission slips. Intentions, particularly those unrelated to accolades or commercial success, give your work the meaning necessary to sustain you. When I encourage someone to set an intention, I always use the invitations I’ve learned in my years of yoga practice: make it personal and for the greater good. When starting my memoir, my intention was for the work to heal some of places inside of me that hurt the most. During my years of therapy training, and my personal healing journey, I’ve found that there’s only one way to heal those places—you have to walk through the pain, not around it.
Memoirs worth their salt traverse difficult terrain. They dig into the ugly mess of human relationships and our inner worlds. They confront the places that scare the writer most and delve into topics that are difficult to discuss—sexuality, vulnerability, our difficulties with anger or forgiveness. If I didn’t have my intention, and I didn’t know the importance of walking through the pain, I would have quit a long time ago. But I want to heal those painful broken places, so I tolerate the challenges of Act Two.
This is a one-day-at-a-time approach, because Act Two takes a while. When I heard Nick Flynn, author of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, talk about the challenges of carrying a book in your head at a reading this past March, I nodded in agreement. He said that carrying a book in your head is a weighty proposition. You get irritable because you’re constantly trying to keep those pages in the correct order. You’re fighting against the wind that’s trying to knock them over. Anyone working in Act Two knows that those winds are always blowing. In other words, my crankiness over the process is completely normal.
That’s why you need to give yourself permission slips. This is an idea I borrowed from Brene Brown, the psychological researcher and author of books on leading an authentic life, including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. I’ve taken several of her courses. At the beginning of each course, she asks you to consider what you need to give yourself permission to do in order to keep going. Often these permission slips involve making time for your work, valuing your efforts, and setting appropriate boundaries with others. But sometimes it means giving yourself permission to move at a slower pace, take breaks, or practice more self care. Her courses challenge core beliefs and assumptions about vulnerability and shame—no small task. She revisits these permission slips right before her most intense lessons.
When I started my memoir, I needed to give myself permission to make time to write, to practice self-care, and to develop some affirmations that would keep me going. I needed to find a community of people working on book-length projects because there’s power in numbers, and an excellent leader who would help me traverse that difficult terrain.
I’ve got all that down pat.
The permission I need right now is to take it slow, to allow my work the time needed to marinate so I can get it right rather than get it done. The writing (and healing) process takes time. If I want to live up to my intention, I need to allow all of the parts of myself time to speak—the wounded kid, the rebellious teenager, the wise adult. They all have important things to say that will inform my final draft. In order to hear them, I have to write all those pages that are necessary to the work, but perhaps don’t belong in the book. Sometimes I need to stare at the wall. When I’m feeling weighted down by all those pages in my head, I have to give myself permission to see this time spent listening and staring as a necessary part of the process.
On February 29, 2016, I participated in #EditQs with Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Lisa Munro. It’s a twitter chat where editors and writers discuss the craft of writing. During that session we discussed the challenges of writer’s block—the feared death knell of a writing career.
I used to have huge struggles with writer’s block. In fact, I spent years either flooded with ideas or staring at a blank page, my fingers sweating as I pleaded with my brain, “Come on ideas, where the hell are you?” When the page remained blank, I’d lament my stalled process.
In 2013, I joined a mindfulness-based writing class at the University of Virginia and encountered an approach to writing that freed me up. Here are the basics of the practice:
• Meditate for a period of seven to ten minutes to calm the brain.
• Spend twenty minutes writing based on a prompt
• Let go of any expectations regarding what it is or what it could be
• If you’re stuck, write “this is bad,” this is stupid,” or “I don’t know what to write about” until an idea pops into your head. If you don’t have any ideas, write about that experience.
• Immediately share what you’ve written with the group
There was something powerful about letting go of the outcome. I realized that much of my writer’s block was related to my attachments to what writing should be (a story, a poem, an essay) and whether I was following the rules of the craft. My pesky internal editor was constantly saying “That’s really dumb. You should probably give up.” Sadly, on more than one occasion I listened.
When I first joined the mindful writing class, that internal editor continued to send me cheap shots. I just wrote them all down. “This is stupid.” “I know this is the lamest thing anyone has ever written.” “I’ve got nothing to say.” After about five minutes of dictating these negative thoughts, ideas popped up. Some had potential. Others were terrible. But, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, we all start with shitty first drafts.
And then we had to read what we wrote. Unedited. Unrehearsed. I wanted to offer a huge disclaimer regarding the inadequacy of my work. I wanted to skip my turn. I was shocked by the lines I hated that others thought were good and how much encouragement I received for something so unpolished. I began to value the importance of having witnesses to my process and the beauty of witnessing someone else’s creative expression. I discovered the authenticity present in first drafts shared in a safe, supportive environment.
Some of my twenty-minute musings have become essays and short stories. Some are now chapters of my book. Most are just the throat clearing one has to do in order to get to the really good stuff.
That little practice took care of ninety to ninety-five percent of my writer’s block. I still struggle with the nagging procrastination that happens when I encounter something uncomfortable that I don’t want to write about, or if I’m not feeling well. During those times I attend to mundane tasks that help me maintain my writing practice but don’t require as much creative effort—research, copy editing, line editing, outlining something that’s already been written. Sometimes maintaining a writing practice and overcoming writer’s block is about going with the the flow and being gentle with yourself.
The discussion on writer’s block during the #EditQs twitter chat was a gentle reminder that while we may lead very different lives, the problems writers face are very similar. We had all experienced writer’s block and developed our own solutions for addressing it. As the session wound down, everyone in the group agreed that having a journal and experiencing the highs and lows of the writing life was key to being a good editor. Journaling and wrestling with writer’s block has help me develop compassion and humility, because as Dinty Moore says in The Mindful Writer, “Writing is hard work.”
When can you call yourself a writer?
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked this question or that I’ve asked this question of myself. Over the years, I’ve whittled down the answer from when my book comes out, or I’m published in ____________, to my current definition: I’m a writer when I write.
I can thank three of my favorite mindful writers–Natalie Goldberg, Dinty Moore, and Pema Chodron–for helping me come to this conclusion.
But you may ask, is this too simplistic? Lots of people scribble in notebooks, type up blog posts and write letters to the editor. If they’re all Writers with a capital W, does that mean there are no standards? Is there nothing to strive for?
The purpose of deconstructing this identity is to remove the power from it that keeps people with very interesting stories from actually writing them down. Writing is incredibly difficult work. As Ira Glass points out this short video on omleto.com, it takes years to develop the skills necessary for your talent to match your taste. But during that period of training, you’re still a writer. Your job is simply to continue showing up.
Writers write. Period. End of Story.
People who are persistent, work hard, and have a love affair with rejection get published. But, that’s something else.
If you still want a litmus test for your merits as a Writer, think about a time when you wrote something that received negative feedback: a plot that didn’t make sense, a character that was flat or boring, an essay that had no point. If this hasn’t happened yet, think about the times when you showed up to your keyboard or notebook and scratched out a few sentences you knew no one would ever read. Did you attend to the disappointment and loneliness—that visceral feeling that maybe you should give up—and then write one more word?
If you did, call yourself a Writer. You passed the most important test.