It’s spontaneous, baby!: Writing that changes you

When someone asks me what I do I often have a hard time saying what that is. Well, that’s not exactly true — I can tell you aaaall about it if you’re ready to settle in for a chat. My work, the type of writing workshops I facilitate, as I’ve written about before, cannot be easily squeezed into a neatly labeled box.

I just returned from the Transformative Language Arts Network‘s Power of Words Conference held at Unity Village, MO, near Kansas City. There I gathered with my people, my tribe, brother and sister artists who sculpt emotions into words and words into images — poets, playwrights, singers, storytellers, essayists, novelists, journal writers, facilitators — anyone who uses words as agents of change — social, political, or personal change.

Although we all have different stories to tell and different ways to tell them, we have one thing in common: we know — because we’ve experienced it — the power of words.

Which brings me back to labeling my work. Now, thanks to a beautiful soul named Miss Annola, I have this powerfully descriptive word to more accurately explain what I do.

On the second morning of the conference, the 90 or so attendees huddled up into “talking circles” where we discussed whatever popped up. Annola told us about her writing group back home, which she called it a “Spontaneous Writing Group,” meaning they wrote together in the group from a prompt. I thought, that’s it! I facilitate spontaneous writing groups! 

In the light of all the powerful ways words can be beneficial — evoking emotional resonance to form personal connections between people, creating new stories to live by, transforming painful memories to heal old wounds, teaching and learning and understanding new information, tapping into innate wisdom and creativity, finding your own voice —  getting excited about the power of new label for what I do may seem more about branding. But I do believe spontaneity is the key to any transformative writing.

Julia Cameron calls it out-running the censor, Anne LaMott calls it writing the shitty first draft, and Natalie Goldberg calls it writing down the bones. It’s writing without stopping, without concerning yourself with what you’re writing or how you’re writing it (perfectionism does not belong here!). You’re just writing. Connecting head to heart to hand (to use another Natalie phrase) to get to the core of it, the kernels of truth, the gems of universal wisdom.

On the last day of the TLA conference, in a wonderful workshop called “Change Your Story, Transform Your Life,” led by Jenifer Strauss, we were asked to write down words or memories or items that immediately came to us when looking at a certain question. Then we had to pick just one of those, the one that most “spoke” to us in that moment. Using our choices we built the foundation of a story.

It was in the spontaneity that we discovered what we most needed to write about in that moment. 

And this is what I do in my own workshops. I ask you to trust the pen and trust yourself. Trust that in that moment you will write what needs to be written, what wants to be expressed. While it may not be your best writing — that comes later after you’ve sifted through and found the gems (yet another Natalie-ism), and are ready to start the revision process — writing spontaneously, getting out of your own way, before your censor tells you you’re doing it wrong, is how you’ll discover your voice and the story it’s longing and needing to tell.

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A Path to Publication, pt 15: An editor is your friend

I try to shake loose my mind, so something fresh can fall out… This process acts like a sifter—sand falls through and bright nuggets come to light.

–Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning

In my last post I wrote about the struggle I was having with a particular essay. Every tweak made it seem even more hopeless—it was still crap. This Facebook post sums up how I was feeling at that time:

If I didn’t know I’d regret it highly, I’d figuratively rip this essay into a million pieces and forget submitting anything, anywhere, ever.

Well, I am happy and extremely relieved to say, after finally letting it sit percolating for almost two weeks, the essay is finished and submitted to the magazine. And I am also beyond happy to say: It was good.

Yes, eventually, it got good. I could claim to be a writer again. Phew.

How did this happen? Well, Anne LaMott was right (of course), you really do need to let it sit. But, as Anne also says, it is essential to write that “shitty first draft” and, believe me, my first (and second and third…) draft was incredibly shitty. (And reeeeaaaally long.)

Why? If I’m a good writer shouldn’t I just know what constitutes should be in a piece and what needs to be left out? How things best flow and what theme should run throughout? No, not at first. That’s what revising and editing are for. First drafts are for just getting it out. Getting out of your head and heart what you need to express. Some of these things may never see light of day beyond your journal or computer screen but out they must come. As Shrek says, “Better out than in…”

Here’s how one of my friend-editors put it:

By writing this piece over and over again, you finally got out of your system how you wanted it to go, and let it tell you why you were writing it and what it was really about.

Which brings me to the subject of editors.

I knew someone a long time ago, an artist who struggled with self-confidence issues. This person was a good artist but, as is the case for anyone practicing a craft (even if it’s practicing the “craft” of living) having a mentor could have been helpful. My friend wanted nothing to do with it, I believe because he felt it implied he wasn’t good enough to do it alone.

There are writers like this, those who think their natural talent is enough. But let me tell you, having a mentor/editor or a group of such, is essential to your growth as a writer.

My main editor-friend is a gift to me. She is honest in her critique but generous in her praise. She willingly plowed through version after version I sent her, gently coaching and coaxing me. With her guidance I dug through the dirt to find the gems.

At times I didn’t take particular suggestions because they didn’t sit right with me intuitively–when I felt it was straying too far from what I knew was my truth. Together with an editor, you get to sift through all the unneeded “stuff.” And ultimately, after letting the essay rest for a while, my full truth flowed far easier and authentically because I’d already played with the muck around the edges and the gems were more obvious.

I also sent my work-in-progress to two other writerly friends to have it seen by other eyes and new perspectives. Their feedback was invaluable too. They too were honest in their comments when something didn’t quite work for them and supportive with their positive feedback. Their joyful (almost proud-motherish) reactions to the final draft was validating and humbling.

Writing this particular essay was difficult. It was a personal narrative about a painful part of my past. Bringing it to fruition was akin to a hard labor and birth. But my main midwife-editor and assistant doula-readers guided me through it, not undermining my ability with their presence and advice, but supporting and fostering it.

Once again, I thank you, Jen, Gabriella, and Jennifer!

A Path to Publication, pt 13: How self-absorbed are you?!

To bring about a paradigm shift in the culture that will change assumptions and attitudes, a critical number of us have to tell the stories of our personal revelations and transformations.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, Crossing to Avalon

I haven’t posted about my path to publication in a while because, well, last fall the path suddenly became a rut. I didn’t have the time or emotional ability to navigate that bumpy road at that time. But, as these things do, it hasn’t stopped nagging at me. Lately that voice has once again become too loud to ignore.

The question for me right now is: Do I stop everything else I’m doing, including pursuing other work, to dedicate my time to this memoir? It is so close to being finished (pre-revision finished, that is) it probably wouldn’t take too much concentrated time to complete it. But, as always, money and time are in limited quantities and I wonder if even the consideration of taking precious resources to work on a book is foolish.

Yes, the old fearful, imposter-syndrome, “who am I?” question has come into play. Why on earth do I think my story is so special that I have a right to spend anything on it?? Isn’t that kind of self-absorbed? Isn’t it just navel-gazing?

Well, here’s what my journal had to say about that last night:

If you are a good singer, you share your voice with others. If you are a talented cook, you feed others. You are a gifted teacher, you inspire others to learn. You have a story, you tell it.

I am a writer. A good writer, with a story to tell.

People respond to my writing. I have been given a gift. It is my gift back to share it.

I need my words to be read. I need to be heard.

And I have something to say. If it only resonated with one person, that’s reason enough to say it. Writing my story helped me to heal. Maybe it can help someone else too.

Humans are story-livers and givers. We relate, we learn, we empathize, we resonate, we make decisions, we change the world through story. It is my obligation to share mine.

Stop striving. Start listening.

This is a follow-up to this post: On a mission (statement)
credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

I’ve written of Serendipity and Synchronicity before. There have been many examples of it in my life, such as the time two women showed up to one of my workshops out of the blue. It “just happened” that these two women were from the very organization I had been trying to connect with the previous week but from whom I had, frustratingly, received no response. Turned out they had never received my email, but had picked up one of my brochures and felt my work was perfect for their organization.

These occurrences always seem to happen right after I have had an emotional break-down of epic proportions. Crying. Blubbering about giving up. Despairing. Wondering how I will ever make things work.

You see, I forget. Every. Single. Time: I can’t make things work. I get caught up in trying too hard, striving, driving to do and be more. Without even realizing it I do this. It’s an unconscious thing.

Instead, I have to remember to allow things to happen organically. I have to be open to possibilities. And above all, I must be authentic and truthful with myself.

So, here is the latest series of synchronous events.

First, I have been trying to find work in a particular industry for a while. Reason being: it seemed the only possibility for any real money. However, even as I was pursuing it my gut was saying to my brain, “Hey, up there! I’m not so sure about this!” But I kept pushing anyway.

One meeting that made me feel a little ill, then another. But still I put together proposals and hoped for the best.

Then, one day, during a writing exercise (as described here), I realized I had it all wrong. This wasn’t what I wanted to do. Instead I created a new mission statement.

As soon as I did that, I felt clearer.

And things began to happen.

1. The director of an art center asked me if I’d like to teach a summer workshop for teen girls. As my graduate research was focused on the loss of voice experienced by girls at adolescence and how expressive writing can help reclaim it, this is a perfect fit for me. I put together a proposal (one that didn’t prompt my stomach to yell at my brain).

2. During a conversation around this same time, someone pondered if my work might be a good fit for enrichment classes in independent schools, for which this person had quite a few connections. I thought “That sounds exciting. Maybe so…” and filed the idea away. Until…

3. While putting together the art center’s summer class proposal I was asking for some wording input from parents of teen girls. This prompted one mother to suggest I put in a proposal for an enrichment class at her daughter’s independent school. Because I already had a proposal in the works, I was able to tweak it and send it off immediately.

4. Because I now had a proposal specific to an enrichment class I could now contact the person who had suggested enrichment classes to me the previous weekend and say, “Hey, hook me up with your connections!” That person asked if I had a flier she could give out. Well…

5. I had that very day been designing one. As soon as I created my new mission statement a couple of weeks ago, I had decided I needed to put together a new flier. With this additional, potential audience in mind I re-worked it slightly and soon it will go to print.

6. Meanwhile, I discovered a conference, for which I registered, is coming to a neighboring town focused on mentoring young women, and I was just asked, thanks to a recommendation from a wellness director at one college, to run my intro to journaling workshop for students at another college.

Trust. It is a difficult, difficult thing to do, especially when the bills are piling up and walls seem more numerous than open doors. But I believe it is these walls and road blocks that signal you’re not on quite the right path; often it’s close to the right one, but if it’s slightly off, you will get the message. The Universe likes focused aim with the target being your authentic passion.

Eve Ensler said in one video (I apologize I’m not sure which one), and I paraphrase: Happiness is action… and giving away what you want the most.

I felt silenced as a young girl (and not so young) woman/person. I want to be heard. I want a voice. This is what I want to give to other people. Once I articulated what it was I wanted and needed and really heard myself say it then things began to click into place.

I have no idea where, if anywhere, any of these recent events will lead, but it feels like a step forward through an open door, instead of trying to smash through a wall.

Prompt: I’m trying too hard to… What I really want to do is…

On a mission (statement)

Recently I met with a career coach. My intention was to see how my (rather unorthodox) skills and experience might translate into the “real” world and a “real” job. Well, you know that saying, “Physician, heal thyself”? My session with her was a clear example of how we can be blind to our own needs even while helping others.

Although she used different terminology and visual examples, the ways she suggested I figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up was practically the same as what I have my clients do with journaling techniques. In one word: visualization.

After our session I went home and go out my journal and wrote what was, in Journal to the Self parlance, a Perspective. That is, I wrote about my ideal day, my ideal life — I visualized myself already living the life I wanted. When you give yourself permission to imagine in this way, you allow for things not probable, but possible.

First, after you have acknowledged the things about your current life and career that are not what you want, you can dream about how those things would look different. You can ignore the realities of your present life and the supposed inevitabilities of future bills and car break downs and frozen pipes, and, if one is of an artistic bent like me, the “starving artist” syndrome must also be pushed aside.

This wasn’t a difficult exercise for me; I know exactly what my ideal life looks like. On paper I’m great at ignoring “realities” and “probabilities.” (I say “on paper” because in my real life, the one in which I am married to an idealist dreamer-type, I have to be the realist, you know the one who considers that we might actually need plates to eat off when we go camping or that moving across the country requires careful planning and lots of boxes, not just a truck in which to throw all your belongings in a big pile… )

Yup, on paper and in my head my perfect life trips along happily without toothaches or empty oil tanks or kids home from school due to snow for the fourth time in two weeks, bored and fighting and apathetic of my looming deadlines.

And it was on this paper that it became clear the “real” job I’ve been pursuing isn’t what I really want, but rather a desperate attempt to squeeze myself into a box, the only box I could see as a potential paycheck-producing one. On paper, the grim realization dawned that my most passion-driven, authentic life has no (immediate) guaranteed financial advantage. Crap.

However, one other thing rang out loud and clear as my words flowed across the paper: I had a mission.

Now, I thought I already had established this a long time ago. I knew that I wanted to help others find their authentic life through writing (see, it says that in the header of this blog). What I didn’t realize was that I was being too vague and that I hadn’t yet established a niche or focused in on what I know best.

I have presented journaling and expressive writing workshops and talks to business women, teen moms, tween girls, teachers, guidance counselors, stressed people, spiritual-seekers, and aspiring writers. I have written thousands upon thousands of words for my local paper about my city’s people, events, and businesses. But my personal life, my experiences, my graduate research, and above all, my own wounds all point to my greatest strength and deepest passion: Finding Voice through Writing.

I knew this but yet I have skirted around it, creating workshops of a more general nature, pursuing work that I thought I “should,” and landing myself a freelance job writing about things I care about but aren’t my expertise or passion, and for which I do a lot of brain-wearying head-writing instead of my beloved heart-writing.

The upshot of all this is, while I still don’t know my next exact step(s), I know I must keep writing, researching, and facilitating. And now I can focus — focus on the exact path I want to be on. When an opportunity arises I can ask myself if it fits my personal mission and as time and finances allow I will be able to let those things go which don’t.

And as coaches and inspirational speakers love to tell us, it is when, and only when, we focus on what we are called to do — which is usually, painfully where our own deepest wounds lie — that the people who need us and the money will find us.

So, here, dear readers, is my personal mission (most likely to get tweaked as time goes on):

To help the silenced heal their voice through story, creating new narratives to live by.

Now to stay open to the opportunities wherein I can be the most helpful and find the most meaning and fulfillment… and money; can’t ignore that very basic necessity of life!

For more information on writing mission statements, please read my Examiner article.

Prompts: In my ideal day I would be…

It is my mission in life to…

Writing Practice: The roles my journal plays

(I originally wrote this post, with the title, “Writing Practice: How I learned to use my words,” for the Transformative Language Arts blog’s series highlighting TLA practices.)

journal-with-lockWriting is my life. Day in, day out, I am writing—four weekly columns, magazine articles, and my journal—or I am helping others get their own words down. And I am living this life today because I began practicing at twelve years old.

At twelve I started recording my life in a turquoise diary with a lock. At 22, I became addicted to writing stream-of-consciousness style thanks to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. At 32, I began passing onto others through workshops the incredible benefits of writing I had experienced. At 42, I am a published writer.

And it was in my journal that I set a path for this future. I envisioned a life filled with words and using words I laid a road in that direction.

I remember sitting in my cubicle at the bank where I was a Trust Account Assistant or scribbling in my journal at the coffee shop during my lunch break imagining the day I’d be sitting at my own desk, writing in front of a big sunny window. I didn’t know what I’d be writing; I just knew my fingers and my heart ached to churn out words, not crunch numbers.

In my twenties, I tapped out the beginnings of an historical fiction novel and a mind-numbing autobiography on a dinosaur of a word-processor whose sheer size overwhelmed my small antique desk. Meanwhile, each morning I was turning out pages upon pages of handwritten drivel.

Back then, if anyone asked, I would say I was a writer. To the inevitable next question of “Oh, what?,” I’d respond sheepishly, “Mostly just a journal right now.”

What I didn’t realize then, as I penned on its pages my fears, excitements, dreams, it wasn’t just a journal, it was a journey. A journey towards my future.

Or as Natalie Goldberg would say, I was practicing. Writing practice. I was learning to write—and, more importantly, to become myself. Having no audience but myself, I was learning to write and be from a place of intuition and inner truth.

Like meditation, prayer, yoga, running, etc., it was a practice of self-care that helped calm, heal, and energize, so that with greater confidence and understanding I might face the world knowing who I am and what I wanted for myself. By practicing to see and accept my own foibles and paradoxes, I was learning to interact with others with more empathy and emotional maturity. I was learning the need for safe and sacred space in which to write one’s own truth. I was learning how to help others write theirs.

Checking in with myself on an almost daily basis—How am I feeling? What do I want to be doing? What could that dream have meant?—I was also learning to be observant. Then, by honing the skill of observing the personal, the minutiae of my life, my experiences, my feelings, and weaving them into a more universal story, I was learning to become a better public writer.

Today, whether it’s to write an article, help a client get writing, navigate the hills and valleys of everyday life, or envision my next future dream, I always feel more capable when I have practiced and processed my life and emotions through the free-flowing, free-of-judgment words of my journal.

***

Here are a few of the specific roles my journal practices:

Best Friend. It is always there to lend an ear to my concerns and hopes regardless of whether I require its services at 6AM before the kids get up looking for breakfast and a lost sock, at 10:30PM when I need to process the day before I call it a night, or at 3AM after waking from a bad dream.

Therapist. More than even a best friend could, my journal helps me through difficult situations—helping me be more self-aware and accepting. I ask myself hard questions about how I’m feeling, why I might be reacting a certain way; the paradoxes, the biases, the conflicting emotions. I try to always be truthful with myself and accept the answers that flow onto the page. I dig deep and unpeel the onion that is the emotional body: the memories, the triggers, the yearnings.

Personal Secretary. Being self-employed and working from home I am constantly juggling my schedule and brain space. When the inside of my head resembles the starting line of a marathon, my journal helps me sort through it all, to see what needs to split from the pack and take the lead, and what needs to sit it out for a while.

Creative Partner. When I was writing my memoir and thesis during graduate school, many essays and vignettes began in my journal, where, without the pressure of “perfection,” the words (and memories) would start to flow. When I couldn’t quite see the connection between some concepts I would take them to my journal, write through my confusion, ask myself questions until it clicked. Or, when faced with a particularly difficult memory, I would write it out first, let the tears, anger, hurt flow into the safe pages of my journal before I wrote the more emotionally-controlled piece for school. These days I use the journal to generate ideas for new workshops or consider themes and threads for my articles and blog posts.

A Path to Publication, part 12: When the silence descends

manda4Silence. My yearning for it is as strong as my need for sleep. At least eight hours of sleep and almost as much silence. Otherwise, don’t expect too much from me.

Today I have silence. For an entire day. It’s a different kind of silence than I experience weekly once the kids are off to school and I sit in my office to write my articles. It’s a silence where I get to think and write what I need to. For me.

The last time I wrote a post here, it was high summer and my children were away visiting family. I lived in daily, sometimes empty, silence for many weeks. It was wondrous. It was enlightening. Rejuvenating. Inspiring.

During that time I worked on my memoir manuscript to send it off to an agent who had requested it (see previous posts). Other than these blog posts and those in my journal, I didn’t write copiously during that time, I’d even taken some time off from my weekly newspaper columns. All my creative energy was thrown into editing, which I thoroughly enjoy.

But since that time, when I hit send and watched (in my mind) the .pdf snapshot of my life shooting through cyberspace to an office, and hopefully appreciative agent in New York City, a new silence has descended.

In August my children returned, and I reveled in their energy, yes, even in their noise. For a while. When they went back to school, I, thankfully, once again fell deeply into the softness of a quiet house, the calmness of  solitude, and into the love of writing. And I was writing almost every day, producing 3,000 words a week for my columns, and who knows how many more scribbled in my journal.

But I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write. Besides in my journal where I anguished and cried and pep-rallied my way through a difficult personal situation, I began to feel my voice was silenced. Of course, my writing voice came through in every article I wrote; every turn of phrase, every angle, every theme was mine and a reflection of my authentic self, but it wasn’t quite right. Writing had become my job. I was doing it for a paycheck. Deadlines were almost daily, interviews frequent, and topic brainstorming endless. I had lost the joy. It felt as if I was talking a lot without saying a word.

The busy-ness of my freelance life took over from everything else. This blog became silent, and the urge to write after my deadlines were met was gone.

It has been almost five months since I sent off my manuscript, and I didn’t hear a word — silence. And that’s OK (well, it’s not exactly OK, at least a “no, thank you” note would have nice). It’s mostly OK because I feel freed up to move on. And move on not necessarily with that piece of work. It called me over the summer and I responded with a passion that wouldn’t let me quit despite the emotional chaos of those few weeks (in fact, it probably helped get me through it), and now I feel satiated for a while.

It’s like last year when I became obsessed with making mandalas. manda1I knew I needed to do something meditative to pull me and my mind from my ever-open laptop. Over a period of three months I made over 100 mandalas, one or two a day, and I loved every second of it.

Then I stopped. Just stopped. I was done. And that was OK.

I’ve been a singer since childhood — solos, small groups, choirs, voice lessons — and I continued until my first child was born. After that my singing activity was sporadic at best. And that was OK.

I was an avid artist from my senior year of high school through college and a little beyond. Then I started writing and it took over my imagination and my life. And that was OK, too. Very OK.

I always knew I would get back to singing (I have) and to my art (more than mandalas) which I will when the time is right. I feel similarly about my book right now. Like the mandalas, which served a valuable purpose when I needed them, working on my book was necessary at that time. I don’t feel the drive for now, and that too is OK.

What worries me — as in, it is causing me discontentment with my good fortune of having such stable freelance work — is that something is beginning to bubble in my depths. Something else needs to be written. I’m not sure what it is, I get only a vague glimmer of it once in a while. I try to get it to focus in my mind, but it won’t.

I also re-experience the joy of writing once in a while when I decide to write one of my columns free from the constraints of interviews and profiles and event promotions. It is when I write these pieces that I remember why I love to write, and it verifies that I have more to give, more to experience, more to say. That I need to free myself from the confines of freelance work. That I need my “talking” to say something more authentic and more — dare I say? — important.

Ideas and questions I discovered during graduate school and am learning in life right now need further exploration as only writing can do; things that need to be shared and offered to others to (hopefully) help them on their own journey. I need to do more but I can’t quite grab hold of what it is and how I might do it.

So, in the unexpected silence of today while my family is off playing in the snow, I ponder the silence of words not written, the silence that is caused when what one really wants and needs to say is not said.

But acknowledgement is a first step. Yes, I know I have more to say, but it might not quite be the right time to say it. But it will be. And so, that is OK.