Coming Home to Writing Practice.

writing practice

I entered this writing path through the writing practice Natalie Goldberg teaches. Practicing writing the same way an athlete practices her sport, the same way a pianist practices scales. Showing up to the page, grabbing a prompt and just writing for ten minutes without stopping, without crossing anything out.

The end product didn’t matter. The process of showing up and writing and connecting with the wilderness of my own heart and mind is what mattered.

Then I decided I needed to be more disciplined. I needed to produce more. More stories, blog posts, novels. And I let writing practice slip away, not counting it as “real” writing.

This summer I joined an on-line writing class hosted by the luminous Bryonie Wise called “Human is What We Are.” Honestly, I was hesitant. I have committed time and money to so many on-line classes over the years and I rarely finish them. My enthusiasm wanes then my connection to the group fades and I’m off on my own again.

This time has been different. First, I am intimately familiar with writing practice. Slipping back into it has been soothing and inspiring. It has been reconnecting with an old friend who really knows me, who sees all of me.

Second, Bryonie makes is all so accessible: writing, creativity, life. She gives us permission to meet ourselves where we are. She assures us that there is no wrong way to do this. That there is no such thing as being behind. We are where we are.

Third, summer has been the perfect time for this kind of loose but supportive structure. Ten minutes a day for ten days then we have a break to let everything germinate, let it settle and find its way into our bones.

My own notebook is more than half-filled. I have three separate pages filled with prompts that will draw me back to the page long after our third and final session ends. Coming back to writing practice has illuminated my creative process, allowing me to find inspiration everywhere.

It has reminded me of why I write at all: to come back home to myself which allows me to connect more deeply with the world around me.

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Books Read in May + June.

May + June Books

“This Messy Magnificent Life” by Geneen Roth

From the beginning, I was always more anxious than the average bear.

Once again, Roth dives deep into the brilliant muck of her own life and struggles to offer us a blueprint on how to do the same for ourselves. 

Yes, she talks explores women and body image but it goes so much deeper than that. She shares stories from her own life and those fo her students, guiding us out of the gotta-get-more mentality and into the peace of being enough in our messy, magnificent lives.

A sentence I underlined (and starred):

I’ve tried versions of not fixing myself before, but always with the secret hope that not fixing myself would fix me.

“You Think It, I’ll Say It” stories by Curtis Sittenfeld

Nell andHenry always said that they would wait until marriage was legal for everyone in America, and now this is the case—it’s August 2015—but earlier in the week Henry eloped with his graduate student Bridget.

That’s a hell of a first sentence! So much packed into it and it drops us right into the heart of who this couple tried to be and who they actually are now.

Each story seems to explore that edge between the image projected versus what is really going on inside whether it’s a woman fanatazising the downfall of an old friend who had become a lifestyle guru to a woman on her honeymoon who runs into a nemesis from high school.

Sittendfeld weaves in the poetics of the times but as background, also like white noise that adds texture to the stories, to the characters who will stay with you long after you put the book down.

A sentence I love:

Being in touch with her offered a cushioning to my days, an antidote to the tedium and indignity of being a person, the lack of accountability of my adulthood; it gave me stamina with Bonnie and willpower with Therese.

“The Rules of Inheritance” a memoir by Claire Bidwell Smith

My father’s voice is tinny through the phone line. I am in the booth at the bottom of the stairs in Howland dorm. It is my freshman year of college.

A student loaned me her copy before class one day. I started reading it as the rest of my students gathered and before class even started I already had tears in my eyes. 

This memoir is one of the most honest explorations of grief that I have ever read.

At fourteen, both of her parents are diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. By the time she is in her twenties, both of them have died.

The book is structured within the framework of the five stages of grief. She also moves through time in a very fluid way that I imagine mimics grief itself.

She made the deliberate decision not to use quotation marks throughout and it works. It is a constant reminder that these are memories. The lack of punctuated conversations reminds us over and over that they are gone.

Her sentences are stunning.

The story is powerful.

It wasn’t my book but if it was, I probably would’ve underlined something on every single page.

Some sentences I loved: 

“We kiss for the first time, there in the kitchen, and Ill always remember it for many reasons. One of them is because, for the first time in a long time nothing about the kiss serves to fill a void.”

“We agreed that I would move my things out this week. We parted ways at the door and there was a wildness between us, something frightening and alive, fluttering like a bird.”

“She turns her head to me now and runs a hand down my cheek. I’ve adored being your mother, Claire. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing I did right with my life.

She is crying now. I can tell by the way her voice has gone tighter. I still can’t bring myself to look at her.

We’ll get through. Okay, sweetie? I promise.

I finally look up at her and nod the tiniest nod. She turns on her side, pulling me into her like a comma, and we lie like that for a long time.”

“If We Had Known” a novel by Elise Juska

It was an unseasonably hot late summer day in Maine when Maggie’s daughter read about the shooting.

A mass shooting at a local mall rocks a small college town. It reads like a common national headline. Juska takes us behind the headlines, into the stories of the people left behind. Those that survived, those that knew the shooter, those that wonder if they could’ve—or should’ve—done something to prevent the tragedy. 

Maggie is a professor and divorced mom getting ready to send her only child off to college when the shooting happens. Through the internet and social media speculations run rampant , linking the shooter to an essay he wrote for Maggie in a class she had him in years earlier. Did she miss something in his writing, something dark that hinted at the crime he would later commit?

The novel explores these questions as well as the territory of this mother-daughter relationship in such gripping prose that it was hard to put down and hard to forget once I finally did put it down.

A sentence I love:

Her head hurt on contact, a small flowering of pain in her temple.

“Her” a memoir by Christa Parravani

I used be an identical twin. I was Cara Parravani’s twin.

Those first two sentences are at the heart of this exquisite memoir. After an act of brutality sends her twin down a dark path of depression and drugs, leading to her early death, Christa is left behind to try and remember who she is without her twin. To try and remember how she even is able to exist without her counterpart to balance out her existence in the world.

It is a haunting story that moves beyond  loss and grief, diving deep into the complicated heart of being an identical twin and how they can both lose and find themselves in each other. 

A passage I love:

All of our stories and hurts were now mine alone. I’d grown so used to stories being shared that without Cara it was as if neither of our lives had ever happened. With her death, my history had been erased.

“Silence in the Age of Noise” by Erling Kagge

Whenever I am unable to walk, climb or sail away from the world, I have learned to shut it out.

I finished this beautiful book in less than twelve hours. I started it before I went to bed then finished it upon waking. It opened me up to the possibility of cultivating silence within my life, not letting all the constant noise of the world in. Each page has plenty of white space for my eyes to rest and photos throughout that float in the center of the page, providing yet another resting space for my mind.

Kagge is a Norwegian explorer who has completed the Three Poles Challenge on foot—the North Pole, the South Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest. Using those experiences he then travels inward to explore the realm of silence in our lives. The book is filled with grace and wisdom and after closing the final page I found myself seeking out more moments of silence, becoming more aware of the noise I invite in on a daily basis.

A sentence I love:

Silence is about rediscovering, through pausing, the things that bring us joy.

“Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home” a memoir by Natalie Goldberg

I travel all the way to Kitada, Japan, to Taizoin Temple, near the Sea of Japan, to find the ashes of my Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi.

Those of you who have been following my blog will no doubt know of my special connection to Natalie Goldberg. I’ve often written about how her book, “Writing Down the Bones” first set me on this writing path. How the first time I gave myself persuasion to be a writer was when I attended her week-long retreat in Taos, New Mexico.

I have read every single book she has written at least once, often more than once. When I saw that she had a new memoir out I immediate checked my local bookstore, saw that they had it in stock, got in my car and bought it. Once again, I finished it in less than twelve hours. 

Since I have read all of her books, i noticed that this particular one seemed to emerge from a deeper, richer place. It comes from her years of writing practice, of Zen practice, of painting practice and this time, from her practice of being with her illness. Being in a body that has cancer. Being within a medical system that she fights against. Being in a relationship where they are both fighting cancer.

It’s a memoir that explores the practice of living. Of being present to all of it not just the shiny pieces we share on social media. It reminded me of the beauty and necessity of writing practice. The practice of relating to my world, to my self, my body, my mind word by word, moment by moment.

After reading the final sentence, I lay the book on my heart, resting my hand on the cover and I could feel my heartbeat reverberate up through the pages, through the words, tears filled my eyes and I silently thanked Natalie over and over, for setting me on this writing path, for giving me the tools to connect with my wild mind, heart + life, for always showing us the way through her own writing straight into the white hot messy center of our living and dying.

A sentence I love:

But I came in direct contact with the groundless disaster—I could not hold on to my old life; I could not manage or form a new life. 

 

The Practice of Practice.

practice

Image found via Pinterest.

Practice. It’s a word I used to hate. I didn’t want to have to practice an instrument or a sport. I just wanted to do things when I wanted to do them. And do them well.

Then I came across “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg where she introduced me to the concept of writing practice. Practice? I never considered needing to practice writing. You either wrote or you didn’t. It wasn’t like needing to practice the piano by doing scales everyday.

Except that it is exactly like that. Writers need to practice their craft just like a musician or athlete does. It keeps our fingers, heart and mind limber. Practice keeps the words flowing because there is no pressure to produce the perfect sentence or paragraph or scene. Writer’s block occurs when we think the writing needs to come out perfect. But practice implies, even relies on the concept of imperfection. Because we are practicing we are already admitting that we don’t know how to do something as well as we’d like to. Thus, we practice.

Once I committed to a yoga and meditation practice, the word took on another layer of meaning. In this context, practice implies a certain sacred intention. There is still the freedom to show up without needing to be perfect, but there is also this sense of a ritual that nourishes my soul. It carries an intention to stay present.

These days, my writing practice combines both. I show up to the page each day, free to write the worst crap in the world because it’s just practice, but I also come to the page with a deep reverence for this practice that connects me to my light and dark, my body and mind, my heart and soul. It connects me to this moment.

These days, my art is my practice and my practice is my art.

When I First Heard about Columbine.

never again

Image found via facebook.

There are certain events that I will always remember where I was when I heard about them.

I was on the school bus when I heard about the death of John Lennon.

I was standing in the kitchen when a friend called to tell me about the (first) plane flying into the World Trade Center on 9/11.

I was in my bedroom, packing to fly out to my sister, when a nurse called to tell me that my brother-in-law had died from his injuries sustained in the car accident.

On April 20, 1999, I was on a pay phone at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, attending my first ever writing retreat with Natalie Goldberg.

It had taken a lot of convincing on my husband’s part to get me to go. I objected that we couldn’t afford it, that even we could afford it there were better things to spend that money on, that I couldn’t leave him with girls for a whole week, that my oldest had to go to Kindergarten Round-up. My husband  assured me that none of those excuses were actually based in reality, so I went.

Obviously, this was before cell phones, texting and FaceTime. I tried to call once a day from the pay phone. The work was intense. Because I was so secluded from the world, I dove deep into the process of writing, filling three entire notebooks in seven days.

On April 20, after I spoke with both of my daughters, my husband got back on the phone. I heard something in his voice. When I asked what was wrong, he didn’t want to tell me. He didn’t want to burden me with it, knowing that I was pretty much off the media grid and hadn’t yet heard. After some prodding he told me about the shooting at Columbine.

Even just hearing about it, without seeing the constant barrage of images on a TV, was chilling. As the news began to spread throughout the rest of the participants, a palpable heaviness descended on the repeat. That night the wind was intense at the base of the mountain. Natalie shared that Native Americans believe that wind like that is carrying spirits into the afterlife.

When I got to the airport a couple days later, the images were splashed over all the televisions. I remember watching the line of kids, hands on their heads walking out of the school and thinking it didn’t seem real. There was a subdued quality to the crowds of passengers huddle around the images.

My youngest remembers being on lockdown in kindergarten. A real lockdown, not a drill. She remembers hiding behind a desk and seeing the silhouette of a man slide past the window and she didn’t know if it was a police office or the bad guy.

Last month she ended up on lockdown again, this time up at Central Michigan University when a shooter was at -large. It turned out that he didn’t have a gun with him while on the run after shooting and killing his parents in his dorm.

But nobody knew that.

Nobody knew how bad the carnage would be.

We didn’t know because we’ve seen how bad it has been.

Over and over again.

I pray that the next life-changing event I remember will soon be the passage of sensible, national gun control.

Because we know how bad the carnage has been.

Shame on us for ever letting it happen again.

The Company of other Writers.

Write Smart, Write Happy

Today, I find myself sitting at the bookstore cafe with a grande soy chai, notebook and laptop open. Not an unusual scenario.

What is unusual, these days, is for me to be drawn to a book on writing. A book that promises to help me “become a more productive, resilient, and successful writer.”

Now, I used to devour these books daily when I first knew I wanted to write. It was how I taught myself to write. I read books on writing fiction, writing essays, writing from prompts, writing practice, the writing life, writing goals. You name it, I bought it and read it. What I didn’t do was write very much.

Oh, I’d write Morning Pages and I filled notebooks with writing practice gleaned from Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones.” I loved how she made writing so much more accessible by declaring that just as an athlete practiced drills or a pianist practiced scales, a writer also needed to practice. It bought writing back from that lofty pedestal I had placed it on. It took the fear out of it by calling it practice.

I hunkered down into my writing practice for years, filling notebook upon notebook. The problem was, I got stuck in practicing. Don’t get me wrong. It served me well. I learned to put pen to page and write under pretty much any circumstance. I learned how to make space and time for writing in the life I was currently living ( a stay-at-home mom with young children) instead of waiting for the perfect time. I learned to write past my censor.

But I didn’t use what I had learned to actually get in the game of writing. When I finally began writing stories, taking classes and workshops, that’s where the bulk of my learning took place. Writing and finishing stories taught me how to write.

I’ve written dozens of short stories, some published, some not. I have a completed novel-in-stories (looking for an agent). I am well into my second novel, about 6o,000 words into the first book of a YA fantasy trilogy and am beginning to gather notes for a memoir on writing and yoga.

So, with all that writing under my belt, why  do I find myself drawn to this particular book today?

Because it’s a process.

Because I am always a student.

Because I am not afraid to be a beginner.

Because of course I want to be a more productive, resilient and successful writer.

Because now I know that I can read a book like this but, more importantly, I know I have to follow through with action: writing, querying, submitting, reading, setting goals and meeting those goals.

I know there are no quick fixes or shortcuts to being a writer.

I know that merely reading about becoming a successful writer is not enough but I am humble enough to be open to advice from others along the path.

I know that I am willing to put in the hard work necessary. And these kinds of books feel like my own personal cheerleading squad, telling me I can do it. Telling me that I am not alone.

Telling me that it’s okay, that we can walk this path together.

I am grateful for their company.

My Love Affair with Writing Prompts.

prompts

I love writing prompts.

I taught myself how to write using them. It started with prompts from Tristine Rainier’s book,”The New Diary” then I found Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” and began filling notebook after notebook with writing practice.

I knew I had to write and not just read about how to write to, you know, actually be a writer. Prompts got me writing. They bypassed the the censor and let me just get directly to the writing. I didn’t have to think up what to write about.

Prompts are a springboard that let me dive into the deep end instead of lingering at the edge, dipping my toe in as I try to decide what exactly to write every single time I sit down to the blank page.

When I began writing fiction, I still used prompts only I wrote them from the POV of my characters. Sometimes nothing came of them except that I got words on a page (always a good thing). But often some new, crucial information was revealed about the character or plot. Those days felt magical.

This story published on literary mama.com began as an exercise in a class from a prompt using a photograph of a chair by the side of a house.

My finished novel-in-stories began as prompt from this black and white photo by Mary Ellen Mark:

mary-ellen-mark

Image found via NPR.

 

It’s not that I imagine the characters look like the girls in this photo. The energy between them, the juxtaposition of tween girls in a kiddie pool and the cigarette just intrigued me and led me to explore (for years) that energy that first sparked something in me.

While photographs work really for me (I keep a board on Pinterest) I’m also drawn to other types of prompts as well. Contributions to Post Secret can provide rich material. And I have written through every prompt in Judy Reeves’ “Writer’s book of Days” several times. I once wrote a short story based on something I overheard a man say on a cell phone while at the airport.

Prompts allow me to get back to that playfulness of writing that I had when I first started out. They allow me to get out of my head and into my subconscious where all the juicy things wait.

But mostly they just get me writing no matter what my mood or energy or anxieties. For that reason, prompts are priceless.

Poetry: A Path into Wonder.

Poetry month

April is National Poetry Month.

I love seeing what poems have touched people’s hearts as they share them on-line.

I love that we take a month to celebrate poets and how they see the world, how they allow us to see the world a little more clearly, a little more deeply.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with poetry. I resented that I didn’t always understand it. I resented being told what it meant. I resented being told that how I interpreted it was “wrong.”

How could I be wrong? These words touched me and like a tuning fork, reverberated within me. How could that be wrong?

I remember the first time I was drawn back to poetry as an adult. I was out of school so it wasn’t for an assignment. It was out of curiosity, out of joy. I was reading Natalie Goldberg and she shared coming across a book of poetry by Erica Jong about vegetables. Eggplant, I think. And she thought, “You can write poetry about eggplant?”

That was my thought, too.

I thought poetry had to be obscure and about serious things like “death.”

I started to dip my toe back into the pool of poetry. I remember reading a poem by Marge Piercy in her book, “My Mother’s Body.” It is called “Six Underrated Pleasures” where she writes a series of poems about:

  1. Folding sheets
  2. Picking pole beans
  3. Taking a hot bath
  4. Sleeping with cats
  5. Planting bulbs
  6. Canning

Wait. Poetry could be be about simple pleasures? It could be about folding a sheet?

Of course it could. Poetry is a path deep into the moment, not unlike yoga. Which is probably why I usually read a poem at the end of every yoga class I teach.

Poets know how to be present.

I am dawn to poetry that seems like it is about something mundane, like folding a sheet, or watching a grasshopper but then it veers off and I fall into this abyss of wonder.

That is what poetry is for me. A path into wonder.

It allows me to see the world with fresh eyes and an open heart, flinging me out into the beauty of an ordinary moment.

The Summer Day

Image found via Pinterest.

 

Room to Grow.

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As a wife and mom, I’m grateful that I’ve always had a room of my own.

When my husband and I moved into our first apartment, I got the spare room where I set up my drafting table and art supplies. After we moved to Arizona, he needed a home office so he took the spare room and I created my own space in the great room—a large open room off the kitchen and dining room. By this time, I was writing regularly so we set up my desk, bookshelves and our very first computer.

Our next move took us all the way across the street. That house had converted the third bay of the garage into an office, so he took that and I got the spare room downstairs. Our kids were little and I remember sitting in there, closing the door and trying to write, my ears and mom radar always on, waiting for them to need something. I alternated between getting up early to write and writing late at night. I preferred nighttime because I knew they were asleep and (probably) wouldn’t wake up until morning. But when I wrote in the morning, I was always waiting for them to let me know it was time to put my mom cap back on.

But it wasn’t just physical rooms I had. My husband has always given me room to grow, to change, to explore. When our daughters were five and three, he made it possible for me to attend my first writing retreat with Natalie Goldberg at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos , New Mexico. I remember sitting on the van driving up to Taos and feeling so…unencumbered. And then feeling guilty for feeling that.

But that week was turning point in my writing and not only because I filled three entire notebooks. It was more about the fact that I had given/taken/claimed that time for my writing, For myself.

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In our current house, I have two rooms of my own. One is my yoga room, the other is my writing room. Both are spaces where I can be alone and practice writing, yoga, meditation. But, again, it is more than just the physical space. Its about me claiming space and time for myself.

More than that, it is about the space my husband and I give each other to grow into the people we are meant to be. I don’t know a lot about plants. (Ask anyone who knows me.) But I do know that a plan cannot continue to grow in a pot that is too small. It needs to be repotted into a pot that has space to thrive.

We will be married thirty years this summer. People often ask how we’ve managed it. I never quite know what to say. Marriage is incredibly complicated. I think one of the keys to ours is the fact that we support each other’s passions and give each other the time to pursue them.

In our marriage, we each have a room of our own.

The Practice of Beginner’s Mind.

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Image found via Pinterest.

I enjoy have beginners in my yoga classes.

It reminds me of the beauty of Beginner’s Mind.

Natalie Goldberg writes in “Writing Down the Bones:”

“When I teach a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner’s mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, that beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.

So when I teach a writing group, I have to tell the story all over again and remember that the students are hearing it for the first time. I must begin at the very beginning.”

I do this for both yoga and writing. It is always helpful to remember what it was like before I knew anything about either practice when I step onto my mat or set my pen to the page. It is so easy to be swept away by all that I think I know. If I think I already know how the pose feels I miss the nuances of how it feels today. If I think I know where my writing is going, I miss on where it wants or needs to go today.

It is also the key to drawing. Forgetting what I think the object in front of me looks like and just looking at it now, noticing the lines, the white space, the angles and drawing exactly what I see in front of me instead of what my mind thinks it sees.

When I have students who have never done yoga before come into my class I get to step back into that space of beginner’s mind. Back into that time before I understood what the practice of yoga offers, what the poses look or feel like in my body. I get to return to the basics: breath, body, presence. Those are the basics of writing as well. And honestly? They are the basics of life.

Getting back to basics allows me to remember that I need to meet myself where I am each day. Like Goldberg says, just because I wrote something good yesterday, doesn’t mean I will write something good today. And just because my body got into a pose today, doesn’t mean it will get there tomorrow.

I attended a workshop today on understanding Ayurveda and yoga. She asked those of us who already had some knowledge on the subject to set it aside. To be there as blank slates. It would have been so easy to sit there, ignoring what I thought I already knew. But by sitting there with my beginner’s mind I learned so many things in a different way. My mind was open. I was open.

Each day is a blank slate. Each day is a journey without a map. Embracing it with a beginner’s mind turns each day into an adventure. Embracing it allows me to be open to the wonder that surrounds me

 

List: Top 5 Books that Illuminated my Writing Path.

I love lists so each Saturday my plan is to share a list of some sort,                                    covering a range of topics

five books

These are the top five books that started me on the writing path and that I turn to again and again.

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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!