Jealousy. Envy. Not pleasant emotions. Personally, I don’t believe the two are interchangeable. To me, jealousy is about what somebody has, something that you want for yourself. Envy feels more inward. When I feel envy it’s because I want to be like that person. I want to have their qualities, not their things.
So, the other morning I realized I envy Dani Shapiro. I admire the hell out of her. I read all of her books. I listen to interviews with her. Every blog she posts feels like she is writing directly into my heart. So when envy came up I knew enough to pause instead of my usual MO when something uncomfortable arises which is to get the hell away from it. (Thank you yoga practice for teaching me to stay.)
Envy is an especially efficient mirror back to yourself if you stay with it. What you learn can act as a compass to your own truth north. I asked myself what I envied exactly.
~ All the books she’s written from memoir to novels to writing about writing
~ the way her days seems to be intimately woven around her writing life
~ she teaches meditation, yoga and writing retreats
~ she teaches in exotic locales like Positano, Italy
Then I ask myself what is exactly that I want in my life.
~ I want to explore different kinds of writing
I am taking notes now on a nonfiction book based on the class I created called Poses, Pens + Inner Peace while I continue to work on my novel and essays and blog posts.
~ I want to spend more portions of my days immersed in writing.
So, after meditating and a brief yoga practice to get all the kinks out my mind and body, I’ve begun taking my breakfast and tea straight to my desk where my first treat of the day is to dip back into Shapiro’s wonderful book on the creative life, “Still Writing.” From there I set a timer for 30 minutes and work on my novel. Then I do some mundane household task then come back to the novel or a blog post or some other piece of writing.
~ I already teach a class that combines yoga, mediation and writing.
It’s something I knew I wanted to do the minute I stepped on my mat. I feel the same energy on my mat that I feel in my writing—an energy that connects to deeper parts of myself. Holding space for a group as they release stories through yoga and writing and share with the class is an honor to me each and every week.
~ I want to expand Poses, Pens + Inner Peace beyond that one Thursday night class.
I envision taking this class as a retreat to different parts of the country, even abroad, bringing groups of women together in a sacred circle to heal, to reclaim parts of themselves they have lost, to celebrate their magnificent light.
So, really this is a thank you to Dani Shapiro. Thank you for living an authentic, beautiful, messy creative life that tugged at something in me and allowed to envision what kind of creative life I want for myself. Thank you for the example of your work ethic that I can admire and emulate to then take the steps to make that vision a reality. Thank you for the honesty of your words that pierce my heart. Thank you for sharing those words with the world.
I love lists so each Saturday my plan is to share a list of some sort, covering a range of topics
These are the top five books that started me on the writing path and that I turn to again and again.
- “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. This is the absolute first book that offered me a glimmer of recognition that perhaps I could write. Actually, that I must write.
- “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott She helped and continues to help me loosen the grip of perfectionism by taking it word by word, allowing myself to write shitty first drafts and writing what I can see through a 1-inch picture frame.
- “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson As he takes us meticulously through his process of writing one particular short story, Carlson reminds of the importance of doing the work, of staying in the room even when—especially when—I want leave.
- “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long This is a book about process and craft but it goes deep into all the layers of craft far beyond character, plot and setting. Never fails to get my pen moving again.
- “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro I have read this gem at least three times, maybe four and am currently reading it each morning as I eat my breakfast and drink tea at my desk before plunging into my own writing. Her honest reflection of the writing life comforts me as I continue to show up to the page and to my own writing life.
What books illuminate the writer in you? Please share in the comments!
Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.
I sat at my desk this morning with some toast and a cup of tea and began reading this book again. It’s at least the third time, maybe even the fourth. With each re-reading, I underline new passages, make new notes in the margins and feel like I am in conversation with her. I pick this particular book up when I need tender yet tough guidance back to my writing self, back into a space of compassion yet dedication to the work, to the process. I love how she calls it a creative life. It’s holistic and permeates her days not just the time at her desk or on the computer. Every page, every blog post she writes, every interview she gives, I feel like she is speaking directly to me. As we begin to ease out of summer (my girls are back up at college) I needed a gentle yet firm nudge not only back to the page but back to living a writer’s life and she provides it once again.
“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.”
“The Exquisite Risk- Daring to Live an Authentic Life” by Mark Nepo
Before stories were recorded, what happened to the living was told and retold around fires, on cliffs, and in the shade of enormous trees.
I underlined oh-so-many sentences and passages throughout this book. Many that just spoke to me, some that I want to use as themes in my yoga classes, some for the sheer beauty of the language.
I did find it hard to finish since I didn’t feel compelled to keep turning the page in spite of all the nuggets of wisdom I found there. Another reader said that is why she loved it—she could pick it up at any time and just dip into it and put it back down.
You can tell that poetry is his natural language. Such beautiful images and metaphors throughout. He weaves in his experience with cancer and other personal stories that helped him learn what he is now teaching in this book about living an authentic life.
It’s definitely not a step-by-step plan to lead that authentic life. It’s more a process of osmosis-—just sinking into the stories and wisdom he gifts us with and letting them percolate in your soul until they are ready to rise to the surface of your life.
A sentence I love:
That each time we take the exquisite risk toward being whole, toward living in the open, toward recognizing and affirming that we are, at heart, each other, we put the world back together.
“The Lifeboat” a novel by Charlotte Rogan
Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.
It is 1914 and Grace has married Henry Winter, unbeknownst to his parents. On their way back to America from London on an ocean liner, the ship suffers an explosion and passengers and crew are forced into lifeboats. Henry arranges for Grace to get in a lifeboat without him. We learn of Grace’s experience in that lifeboat with over thirty others as well as how she met Henry. Not only do they face the relentless sea, they must deal with dwindling resources, leaks and choices that people should never be forced to make.
It’s an unforgettable story of perseverance as well as the pettiness and strength of being human in extraordinary circumstances.
A sentence I love:
Unable to restrain my laughter, which kept lapping at my insides and bursting out of me like gigantic waves, I was not allowed to accompany the lawyers into the dining room, but had to have my meal brought to me in the cloakroom, where a wary clerk perched vigilantly on a stool in the corner as I pecked at my sandwich.
“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kauer
I basically inhaled these words in one sitting, letting the language and images and power of them just wash over and through me. I definitely need to read it again. Maybe many times. I love the structure of the book, how it is broken up into parts: the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing. I want to use each one as a jumping off point for my own writing. Then I love how each page is structured with so much white space so that the words and the story behind them have room to breathe. Words sometimes combined with simple line drawings. The words, the drawings and the white space all work together to give a certain urgency yet create an urge to pause and savor what we are reading, what we are seeing, what we are feeling.
A sentence I love:
the first boy that kissed me
held my shoulders down
like the handlebars of
the first bicycle
he ever rode
i was five
“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” a novel by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Cally Broderick lingered in the doorway of the resource office, waiting to be noticed.
“Waiting to be noticed” is basically the calling card of every human on earth, but particularly for high school students. Johnson takes us deep into the social strata of of a wealthy northern San Francisco high school, where a middle school tragedy haunts the students as they struggle to live up to expectations from teachers, parents, peers and themselves. The inside jacket says it is told in a “kaleidoscopic narrative” which describes it exactly. We see the story from different dizzying perspectives that join in various designs to reveal new slices of the story. It’s a brilliant structure that taught me a lot about structuring a novel and finding the right voice(s). I am impressed that she was able to take a teenage drama and create such a dynamic story that kept this adult turning the pages.
A sentence I love:
Maybe Calista’s mind—maybe Molly’s own—was like this. An immense space, at once apart from the world and embedded within it, a secret place that was strange and dark and vast enough to make its own weather.
“Ill Will” novel by Dan Chaon
Sometime in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river.
I read everything Chaon writes from his stories to his novels. This latest one feels different. Not just the heft of the physical book (458 pages) but the psychological heft of it as well. Dustin Hillman is a psychologist in a Cleveland suburb. His wife died, older son is away at college and the younger one is home but drifting away from him. Or is he drifting away from his son? Dustin has a lot on his plate. Still processing his wife’s death, he gets the news that his adopted brother is being released from prison after serving 30 years for the massacre of Dustin’s parents. aunt and uncle. The case came to epitomize the hysteria over Satanic cults that the the 1980’s spawned. On top of that, one of his patients has lured Dustin into a conspiracy theory involving the deaths of numerous drunk college boys in the area.
Chaon does an amazing job of weaving all of these threads together into a suspenseful thriller that kept me turning the pages. It is a master class in the power of using an unreliable narrator that explores all the ways memory fails us and we fail it, those around us and, most of all, ourselves. Brilliant.
A sentence I love:
But now,with my eyes opened in the dark, the clicks and hums of the house settling, the radiators stirring, the appliances doing their secret nighttime work, with my heart beating in an uncomfortable noticeable way, I couldn’t help but think: What if the dots are connected?
“Hourglass—Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro
From my office window I see my husband on the driveway below.
This is a beautiful, thoughtful and honest meditation on a marriage filtered through time and memory. Shapiro plays with time in a way that feels completely organic to the story, never manipulative or confusing. She explores the depths of her marriage, unafraid of exposing the cracks that inevitably arise out of a long term commitment. She is honest and the writing is beautiful. It feels like she is guiding you by hand as you both walk into the woods, unsure of what you will find but knowing what is there is better than not knowing. The trust she puts in the reader is only equaled by the trust I had in her to tell her story with a clarity that can only come from a commitment to seeing her marriage, her husband and herself as they really are. It is just stunning and I can’t wait to read it again in one glorious sitting so I can savor the entire arc of the story at one time.
A passage I love:
We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have imagined. Our shared vocabulary—our own language—will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.
“The Middlepause- On Life After Youth” by Marina Benjamin
I had always assumed that when the time came I would meet menopause with a certain dignity.
It used to be that menopause was never spoken about much less written about. But there is a whole new conversation being had between women and within an array of books on what it is like to age as a woman. What does it mean universally and specifically to this particular body. I, for one, am grateful that it is no longer talked about in hushed shame. With my yoga community I’ve spoken with women about hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia. We support each other, swap tips on how to deal with the changes. Mostly, it just feels good to know that we are not alone.
Middlepause is a perfect balm to the possible isolation a woman may feel as she enters middle age. Benjamin weaves her own story and experiences together with science, literature and philosophy to give us a new vision of what it means to age as women. I love the way the book is structured: Organs, Hormones, Skin, Muscle, Heart, Guts, Teeth, Head, Spine. Each chapter dissects with fresh candor her own sudden plunge into menopause and the myriad changes and losses and gains that middle age brings from aging parents to her teenage daughter mirroring her own cascade of hormones, from nostalgia to a brutal clarity about the present.
This is not a self-help book. She does not prescribe dietary changes or herbs or exercise. No, this an eloquent, intelligent, informed reflection of what it means to enter your 50s as a woman today. I found it much more valuable than any possible diet tips and tricks.
A sentence I love:
And fifty feels heavy at some elemental level, as if dense with neurons.
And 1 more:
When you are young, a mirror is not so much a tool for self-inspection as it is a window onto a series of potential yous.
1. I get chills every time I watch this video.
2. Dani Shapiro on the writing life. “My inner life is an inaccessible landscape when I’m not writing, a foreign and unfamiliar place.”
3. Keri Smith on the cult of celebrity.
4. Establishing a small, non-threatening daily writing habit when is a great idea! Can’t wait for Gretchen Rubin’s new book on habits to be published.
5. As a recovering self-help junkie, I can totally relate to this.
Yep. I totally slacked off in this area of my blog. If I don’t write my reflection immediately, then they start stacking up and I see the stack and think, “Ugh, not really interested in tackling that right now.” And I continue to read so the stack gets bigger and… well, you see where I’m going with this. I end up not posting any of the books I’ve read for months. I’ll try and do better next year.
“May We Be Forgiven” a novel by A.M. Homes
Do you want my recipe for disaster?
I was smack in the middle of reading this when I heard that Homes had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and all I could think was how deserving she and this novel are. It’s a huge (480 pages), rollicking, darkly funny, touching story that sucks you in and never lets you go. In the first fourteen pages there is a car accident, adultery and murder. It’s hard to even attempt to briefly describe this novel. It involves sibling rivalry, coveting your brother’s wife and the disastrous consequences that follow, leaving Harry Silver, historian and Nixon scholar, suddenly parenting his nephew and niece, both of whom are away at boarding school. As he maneuvers his way through this new world, he encounters an array of characters that expose Harry’s longing for connections as he builds a family of choice rather than purely biology. This novel explores redemption, forgiveness and what it means to be a modern family, much more complex than the one we see on the TV sitcom by the same name.
“The Spectacular Now” a YA novel by Tim Tharp
So, it’s a little before ten a.m. and I’m just starting to get a good buzz going.
I wanted to see the movie but I absolutely must read the book before I see the movie. It’s kind of a rule for me. So, I ran out, bought the book and pretty much devoured it in a day and a half. Once again, this novel has the thing that always reels me: a strong , engaging voice. It is then complemented by a strong and engaging story. I cared about these characters even if I didn’t like them at times. Sutter, a boy with a pretty major drinking problem thinks he sets out to save Aimee, a shy loner girl but in the end finds that he may have had that all wrong.
What I learned: To let my characters screw up. Seriously. The more bad choices they make, the juicier the story.
“The Woman Upstairs” a novel by Claire Messud
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know.
The reviews I read of this novel intrigued me but it was when I read the first page that I knew I had to read it. The whole being a perpetual “good girl” versus the yearnings to be an Artist really hit home with me. Instead of following her dream of becoming a Great Artist, Nora Eldridge is living the compromised life of a school teacher, dutiful daughter, reliable friend and nice neighbor always on the edges of life. When a new student, Reza Shahid enters her classroom she becomes friends with his parents, Skandar a charming Lebanese professor and Sirena who is everything Nora once dreamed of being including a successful artist. She is lured deeper into their family after Reza is attacked at school by bullies. She soon finds herself drawn to all three of Shahids in different ways, cracking opening her world in startling and unexpected ways.
What I learned: To use those things that annoy, enrage or infuriate me. Give them to my characters and it’s away to explore them.
“Nine Inches” stories by Tom Perotta
The first time Lt. Finnegan pulled me over, I actually thought he was a pretty decent guy.
I love short stories and when I writer I like publishes a collection I am on it. Each one feels like a perfectly contained world, a perfectly contained moment in a life. The essential moment. There’s no questioning why this story, why now? I swear that the first line of each story is a lesson in what first lines should do: establish character and conflict. Each one immediately drew me in. Love this collection.
What I learned: To really nail that first sentence.
“Love in the Time of Global Warming” a YA novel by Francesca Lia Block
The building has gold columns and a massive doorway, a mural depicting Giants, with bodies sticking out of their mouths like limp cigarettes.
The beautiful cover art first drew me in, then the title then the premise: Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that destroyed Los Angeles. Yep, another dystopian type YA but with some fantasy thrown in. As she ventures out into what is left of the world she knew to find her family, her journey mirrors that of Ulysses. I never read Ulysses but based on the little I do know, I could see the echoes and threads that tie the two stories together. Beautifully captivating.
What I learned: Use what you are passionate about in your stories.
“Still Writing- The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro
I have been writing all my life…In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.
I followed the release date of this one for months and months, counting down the days until it would be available I read Shapiro’s blog and it almost always feels like she is talking directly to me. The book is the same. It’s like she pulled up a chair, served us both some tea and proceeded to tell me everything she knows about the writing life and process, two subjects I can never read enough about. I devoured it pretty fast and know that this will be a book that I turn to again and again, an intimate companion on this creative path.
What I learned: So much. I’m sure that I will underline more and new pieces each time I read it. Here is one of my favorites from the first reading: “The writer’s life require courage, patience, empathy, openness. It requires the ability to be alone with oneself. Gentle with oneself. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks.”
“Help Thanks Wow- the Three Essential Prayers” by Anne Lamott
I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.
I admit it. I’m an Anne Lamott groupie. She could write her grocery list on a napkin and I’d want to read it. Whether she’s writing about God, prayer, parenting or writing, it feels like the two of us are hunkered down for a nice long , deep conversation. I love how she makes everything so relatable. So available. I love how she revels in our humanness, our beauty and flaws. I always feel like hearing from someone whose been in the trenches and has come back to tell me it’s all okay.
What I Learned: The title says it all: there are 3 essential prayers.
“Divergent” a YA novel by Veronica Roth
There is one mirror in my house.
Once I heard that this was going to be a movie starring Shailene Woodley (who is apparently the queen of YA novel screen adaptations), I knew I had to read it first. Because I always have to read the book first. It’s a rule. I loved “The Hunger Games” and this is along the same lines: dystopian future set in Chicago. But the premise of this story really intrigued me: society is divided into factions defined by specific values. That premise dovetails nicely with the action of the story. I never felt like I was being lectured. The troy kept me turning the pages long after I should’ve turned out the light. In fact, when I got to the end I had no idea it was the end. There were pages of interviews and book club guides that I assumed was still part of the story. It definitely leaves you wanting to go right out and grab the next in the series. Which I got for my daughter for Christmas and she opened it, looked at me and smiled, “So this is really more for you , isn’t it?” Guilty as changed.
What I learned: That an intriguing premise can be a good foundation but the characters and story are what keep you turning the pages.
“Writing is My Drink- A Writer’s Story of Finding he Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too) by Theo Pauline Nestor
Two competing forces have dominated my life: a great need to please others and an equally powerful desire for expression, a tumbleweed that has grown in mass and velocity with the passing years.
I love writing books that share the writer’s experience as well as prompts to get us writing ourselves and this does exactly that. Her voice is authentic and engaging. Reminds of Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” which is high praise, indeed.
What I learned: The only way to find your writer’s voice is to, you know, actually write.
“Tapestry of Fortunes” a novel by Elizabeth Berg
When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend was a woman named Cosmina Mandruleanu.
In this new novel, Berg does what she does best- giving us access to the intimate side of women’s friendships. Cecelia Ross is a motivational speaker who can dish out advice but has a hard time taking it herself even when she feels stuck in her life. The death of her best friend has left her lost and drifting. Once she makes a decision to down-size her life she is lifted out of her stagnation and into the company of three new friends, all with their own secrets and quests to undertake.
What I learned: Each character must want something, that yearning then informs their actions which creates the plot.
“This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” by Ann Patchett
The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.
When I first saw this book on the table at the bookstore, I thought it was novel and I was going to put it on my Christmas list. I love Ann Patchett. Then when I saw it was essays and that the first one was about writing, I bought it right then and there. Whether she is writing about being a writer, opening a bookstore in the digital age or a family pet, Patchett writes with a warmth and clarity that is impossible to resist. When I finished reading the piece about her dog dying I was crying and called my own Izzy to snuggle with me on the couch.
What I learned: That the arrangements of essays creates its own meaning. If these had been arranged in a different order, in could have been a completely different book.