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Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

Loving the Ebb

May 5, 2017

Sometimes I feel dry on the inside. I am not talking about vaginal dryness (though that is the first thing “dry on the inside” made me think of!). More like a brain dryness. A creative desert. For years, I’ve gotten a particular kind of headache I always find difficult to describe. The image that accompanies it is that of a ship run aground.

Do you know the book Amos and Boris by William Steig? It’s one of my favorite children’s books. At one point (spoiler alert), Boris, the whale, gets washed onto shore during a terrible storm. He is gasping and won’t live outside of the ocean for long. (Amos organizes some elephants to roll him back into the sea, so all is well for the friends at the end.) That’s how this dryness feels. Like I’m gasping and there is no water to swim in. Stuck. Dried up.

What does this have to do with anything?

I’m thinking about the question of inspiration. What is its source?

When inspiration is present, it’s like I’m a whale in the water: Powerful, mighty, swimming along in my element. When it’s not, I’m just an oversized body in the sand, waiting to die.

I know this sounds dramatic, but seriously it feels dramatic when the ideas are no where to be found. There is a kind of panic that threatens to set in. I have no energy. I’m lethargic. I’m all weight and no movement.

I can think and think and no amount of thinking will induce inspiration. Instead, I must change course. This means surrendering to what’s happening rather than trying to force it. And so my job becomes the surrendering itself, and below the surface of that, to trust that this too shall pass. Ideas will resurface, inspiration will return, a tiny mouse will alert the elephants who will roll me back into the ocean of creativity and energy.

This is all tied in with the ebb and flow of writing and of life for me — something I fight against and am slowly, over time, beginning to make friends with. An unlikely friendship, not unlike the one between a whale and a mouse in open waters.

The truth is, I favor the flow the way a mother is barred from favoring one child over another; she must — I must — find things to love about the ebb. And so I spend some time, as I lie there on the sandy beach waiting for help to arrive, looking at her more closely. She is quieter than flow, and moves more slowly. Imperceptibly, even. She’s not flashy and if anything, is easy to overlook.

But in my stillness, something happens. She starts to stir. I notice the intricate patterns of her being, ones I’d never seen before as I tango’d through the waters. She is beautiful in her subtlety. And suddenly, I am so thankful to be here, washed up on the beach. I know flow will return; she always comes running back, excited to show me what she has found in her explorations away from me.

This time, though, I’m going to keep ebb close.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life) Writing Groups

Thoughts on Conformity & Cherry-Picking

February 12, 2017

“I attribute much of [my] self-discovery and resultant empowerment to Jena. To the space she has always offered me and so many of us. A space inspired but not overly scripted, a space accepting and not conforming.”

Emily Nichols Grossi wrote these words late last week, in a beautiful statement about returning to the Get Your Muse On group.

For a long time, I thought I was cheating by not bringing more scriptedness and convention to my work as a coach and a group leader. It felt easy, and therefore surely I was getting away with something, right? (Like the board chair who once told me, when I was a 20-something executive director of a nonprofit with a newborn trying to find my way, that I was “cherry-picking.” Ouch.) Starting to trust that this was actually a legitimate and sincere approach to connecting with and supporting people’s growth continues to be profoundly freeing.

Yes, some folks bring all kinds of forms and evaluative exercises to the table. I am just not one of them. For me, showing up as myself, being real, and trusting my intuition — these are my power tools. I used to be afraid of using them, as if they might cause harm to myself or others. But what I’ve found is that the more harmful thing is to deny what I’m good at. When I do, I make it about ME instead of about YOU. Ironically, this is where my ego gets all in a twist. When I’m just here doing my thing, that’s when I can get out of the way and just appreciate the gift of calling this my work in the world.

So here is what I want to say to you:

Trust the parts that come easily to you and question the ones that are always a struggle. It doesn’t have to be hard to “count.” Fuck conforming. Come be you and write from that place. The world needs your voice now more than ever. Go ahead, pick all the cherries.

* * *

Do you love writing but long for a place to practice and play with other fabulous and non-conforming humans? Come get your muse on. Madhuri Pavamani, author of the paranormal romance trilogy “The Sanctum” (St. Martin’s Press) calls the Muses “the best place on the internet.” Join us today.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

A Side of Breakthroughs with Extra Ketchup

January 23, 2017

I’ve been staring at a blank screen on and off for well over an hour. I tell people, just start, and keep going. But fuck me, it’s hard. I could start and delete and start and delete — this is where the “keep going” part comes in. But keeping going is not easy when nothing is flowing and you are doubting that you have anything worthwhile to say at all. Couldn’t the world use more silence? How is it contributing to write this kind of unedited dreck? I just listened to Julie Daley on Facebook Live talking about the status quo and about creativity and how creativity is so much more than what we relegate to what we call “The Arts” but really life itself. Life force.

And, there is also this balance — one I’m so aware of — between listening and speaking. Reading and writing. Taking in and adding to. I share my practice in part because it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff we too rarely get to see, of how creativity actually happens. It happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it’s insufferably stuck-feeling and you need to step away and get into some other state, some beta state let’s say, like walking or showering or reading, where your creative brain can catch a breath instead of you breathing down its back, demanding output. It doesn’t work like that. We are not machines. Creativity-on-demand doesn’t exist. Can you imagine, if we could just put in our order:

Hello, yes, I’d like three chapters of my novel today, two epiphanies, and a side of breakthroughs with extra ketchup?

I came down with a cold today, a bad one. It came on like bam, out of the blue. I worked and napped — a fairly usual Monday. And then I stared and started and deleted and thought, this whole start and keep going thing may be bunk. It doesn’t work. It’s awful and stupid and I hate it. Ever thrown a tantrum and realized it had nothing to do with anything and maybe was a sign to wave a white flag of surrender to effort and try again tomorrow?

It is ok to try again tomorrow. It is ok not to be creative all the time. It is ok to read, to listen, to absorb, to ring it all out in a hot bath or a cold sweat, and to notice the ways in which sitting still is squirmy. Where creativity is in its dormancy, where beauty is the growing mountain of Kleenex telling you to get in bed, sister, and get some sleep. We have miles and miles to go, and so much to learn. If we worry so much about saying it right or waiting until it’s perfectly crafted, we might never step foot outside our comfort zones again — which is exactly where the world needs us.

Can both be true? I think of the old “two Jews, three opinions” axiom and chuckle. Yes. Both can be true. Be gentle with your creativity, your spirit, your words — but ask a lot of them, just as you might with your own children. Love means holding each other to the highest expectations, while forgiving each other’s constant and inevitable failings. And I’m here writing, not deleting, because I love you and this life and this work and this world. And because the world needs your patience and your urgency. Your imperfect offerings. Your best effort and your unwavering commitment to growing things that feed others — literally and creatively.

Now let’s order another basket of fries. I’m buying.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

Works in Progress

January 18, 2017

Photo: Les Anderson

I am a work in progress dressed in the fabric of a world unfolding. – Ani DiFranco

On days like this, when I’ve started and deleted three different blog posts, it can be easy to feel discouraged or doubtful. All or nothing thinking spills over, threatening to flood my thoughts. I take this a signal to step back and give it a rest, and turn to reading other people’s work instead. I have no idea what I will write next; what will have legs, what will stand up on its own two feet and dance a two-step around the kitchen.

It’s time to pick Pearl up from Hebrew School. Our synagogue has not received any bomb threats today, a fact that is made remarkable only by the fact that 20 JCCs on the East coast did receive bomb threats today, and this is the second time this month there’s been a spate of such calls. Aviva runs in to sign her out while I wait in the car. Parents and kids leave the building in twos and threes. I realize that every time I’ve entered the building since November, I’ve scanned the exterior for graffiti. For swastikas. It seems more like a “when” than an “if” at this point, a fact that makes me angry and frightened.

One of the failed blog posts I wrote and scrapped earlier was about parenting and time going by and kids growing up. It’s the kind of thing I would have written 10 years ago, and while it was fine and nice, it felt stale and safe. I don’t want to write safe and I don’t want to write stale.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s this: Not every blog post is a winner. Not every freewrite has hidden gems. Not every poem makes you weep.

I know there are writers who only share with the world the pieces that do hit a home run, whatever that means — who would never share unedited pieces or drafts or one-offs. I share so much of the latter that sometimes I wind up perverting my own practice.

Perfectionism is sneaky like that.

I want to wrap this up neatly with something inspiring, like “it gets easier.” But fuck that noise; platitudes don’t help us get stronger, and neat endings certainly don’t help me expand my ability to show up even when the writing just ain’t flowing. Nope. There’s no pretty ending here, no ribbon, no gift wrap. What I do know is this: I don’t give up nearly as easily as I used to. And if I waited for perfection, you would never read another word of mine, no exaggeration.

Real life happens every day; great writing happens sometimes, if we’re lucky — and if we take our seat, even when it doesn’t. And days like this? They are a gift in their own way, reminding me, as Ani wrote, that the writing, like life itself, is a work in progress, ever unfolding.

Now pull up a chair. At least we can order another espresso and do this thing together.

Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life) Uncategorized

Eleven Things I Learned in Physical Therapy That Relate to Writing + Life

September 20, 2016

childs-poseI started physical therapy last week for the first time ever. It’s probably long overdue; I’ve had some lower back stiffness and pain on and off for nearly a year now. My first appointment with a kind woman named Rebecca resulted in a little worksheet with drawings of a person lying on their back — single knee to chest stretch, double knee to chest stretch, isometric abdominal exercise for core stability.

Today, I went back for the second time. For 45 minutes, I enjoyed the novelty of focusing on a single thing: My lower back. I could practically hear my body thanking me for listening. I made some mental notes during our session. Now it’s later, and I’m sitting here in the yellow chair that is probably not great for my back, the sun streaming in through south-facing windows warm on my hands over the keyboard.

Here’s what I learned today during physical therapy, that I’m pretty sure I can apply to writing and life.

1. Be honest.

Rebecca: How’d it go this week? 
Me: Well [looking down]… I didn’t really do my homework.
R: Thanks for telling me.
Me: Reminds me of writing, or anything, I guess. It’s easy to make excuses, when really, I just didn’t do the exercises.
R: Well, let’s get started and see how today goes.
Me: Great.

That was it. She asked, I told her. And now? We added a few things, and it’s up to me to decide how important this is to me and what will help me commit. Lying about what I did or didn’t do is certainly not going to alleviate my pain.

2. Pay attention and slow down.

Rebecca: You might want to hold each of these stretches for about 30 seconds.
Me: Wow, that makes me realize how fast I’m usually going.
Rebecca: Exactly.

The sensations and movements, like the learning itself, are so subtle sometimes you could miss them altogether if you rush through. Awareness of what’s happening requires slowing down — something that comes as a revelation all over again.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had on Sunday; at one point, I asked a question and then launched into a story, only pausing when the person I’d asked pointed out that I had said I wanted to hear her thoughts. I wasn’t paying attention. This doesn’t have to mean I was too much, it just means “push pause.” Undoing shame around this is a practice itself.

3. A little is more than nothing.

Me: I always tell the people in my writing groups that some words are more than no words.
Rebecca: Right. It’s like that here, too. Some movement is more than no movement. 

Will I do ALL of the exercises today and tomorrow, before my next appointment on Thursday? I don’t know yet. But I will do some. And that will more than before, which was none. Enough said. More words is more than no words. Five seconds is more than no seconds. Seriously, it is that simple.

4. Most things don’t happen suddenly.

As we were talking about various yoga poses this morning, I flashed on classes I took as long as 15 years ago, when I would avoid certain back bends or find myself seeking relief in child’s pose. Why? My lower back ached. I also remembered feeling that same ache after a long day of walking in NYC or Boston — as a teenager.

In other words, it suddenly became clear to me that no single injury, incident, or accident had landed me in Rebecca’s PT office.

My natural (hyper-extended) posture + two pregnancies + running + not much core strength + time = pain that had finally become chronic enough not to ignore.

How bad does something have to get before it warrants your time and attention?

5. It’s nice to have help.

Oh, it felt so good to lie on the table, even on top of that paper covering that gets all creased and makes that papery sound. To let her bend my leg, her hands on my knee and heel respectively, yielding completely to the movement she initiated. It felt good to be learning useful things.

It felt good to be doing something about something that hasn’t been working — and to have some guidance about how to do this safely and effectively in ways I could take home.

It felt good to have help.

6. You can’t know in advance.

My hope, of course, is that working with a physical therapist and learning what I can do on my own will pay off with pain relief and greater strength. It’s likely that I’ll get out of it what I put into it.

This reminds me of something Krishna Das said at the Kirtan we went to last weekend:

“We want to know what chanting will do — to us, for us — before we chant. And there’s no way to know. You can only begin and, in his words “keep singing.”

It is so simple as to be obvious that this applies to not just chanting, but… everything. No matter how many people before you have walked a given path, there is no precedent, ever, for your own lived experience. The deeper you go, the more your own body and mind and heart and choice and voice may surprise you.

And the fact remains: There’s no way to know in advance how it will go or what it will “do” for me, no matter what “it” is.

I don’t always have the most disciplined track record. When did I stop stretching? I asked Rebecca at one point (as if she’d be able to tell me). But what I didn’t do doesn’t matter. And while there’s no predicting how this will go, I’ve signed up to give it a shot and see what happens. My job is to keep singing, er, stretching.

7. no one else can do it for you.

Unless you live in some kind of cool sci-fi world where people have actual body-doubles, there’s no surrogate for you. I am the only one who can take  the time today — five or ten minutes at a pop, say — to take care of my body. Nobody else is going to do it, nor could they even if they offered.

Whether it’s on the yoga mat or the blank page, there’s no substitute for the ordinary yet radical act of showing up.

8. change happens. so does inertia.

If I go to physical therapy and do my homework, I may see changes in my body. My hope — my expectation — is that these will be positive changes. Improvement. I’ve defined this as less pain, more mobility, and greater strength and endurance.

If I don’t go to physical therapy, or I go but don’t do jack shit at home, I may also see changes in my body. My guess is that things will at worst, worsen, and at best, continue to go the way they’ve been going — a little something we call inertia.

In this case — where there is actual pain — I am essentially inviting more pain but doing nothing. The changes that will happen may be negative; they will hurt, they will limit me in some ways, and I will have to adjust other things in my life around that.

Inertia is not an inherently good or bad thing, but it is a thing. And it is, to some degree, a choice. 

9. don’t wait.

If you’re hurting — whether it’s your body, your heart, or your mind that hurts — don’t ignore yourself. I say this knowing full well how easy it is to put stuff off, to say we don’t have time. In fact, I said that to Mani last week — on my way to PT, no less! I believe our exact dialogue went like this:

Me: I don’t have time for PT. 
Her: You don’t have time for not PT.

(Wise, that one, isn’t she?)

If you don’t know where to start, start right where you are. Write something down. Make a list of symptoms, whether they’re physical or emotional, specific or vague. Tell a friend, cast a line, or make the call.

10. trust yourself.

Always. Both with doctors and teachers, I’ve had experiences when I pushed aside my own experience and deferred to the “expert.” Every time I’ve done this, it caught up with me. I “paid” for not listening to my body or not taking my own instincts seriously. Just because someone has professional training does not mean they know more about you than you do.

At the end of the day, only we can know what it feels like in there. (May we encounter practitioners who value and respect this dance.)

11. the world needs us whole.

We can do so much more from each other when we’re tending to our own pain rather than lobbing it at each other or hobbling around hurting and unable to deal.

**

These insights may not be life-changing or new. But more and more, I find that it’s revisiting the small things that makes for big changes in my life — all of it, the loving, the working, the writing, the having a body thing. One knee lift and one word, at a time.

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