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.

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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:

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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!

#AMonthofFaves2016 ~ Best Changes We Made This Year

To your Day / Life / Routines / Blog / Habits

writing-chart

I’ve made two big changes this year, both incredibly beneficial (so hopefully that is motivation to keep them going!).

The first is my “Don’t Break the Chain” challenge. I created 365 boxes on a dry erase board and put an “X” on each day that I wrote. I’ve managed to write every day this year. Now, some days it was just morning pages. Other days it was merely one sentence in my WIP. But, the point is, that I wrote something every single day of 2016… so far. Next year, my plan is to make it a little more challenging. Maybe I need to write 500 words on my WIP at least 5 days a week to earn that “X.”

meditation

The second thing I did (and it’s only been since November 9) is meditate every day. Most days it is for at least 15 minutes. 2 days it has been for 5 because the day was so crazy and I just needed to fit it in. I have resisted meditation for years. Even when one of my favorite writers and writing teachers, Natalie Goldberg,  promised that meditation was the secret to writing, I still resisted. But now I am kind of in a groove. I feel like meditation creates space for all of my thoughts, all of my feelings. Nothing is being squashed or pushed aside. Meditation is holding sacred space for all for me. I find myself calmer, less reactive, more mindful, more focused…all great benefits for a writer.

What are some changes you’ve made this years or plan to make next year? I’d love to hear about them.

Check out the challenge here. 

Books Read in March + April.

March April books

“The Great Spring- Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life” by Natalie Goldberg

People come up to me and say, “I love your book.”

I read this one slowly, savoring the words, thoughts, energy of a teacher who had started me on this writing path all those 30 years ago with her first book, “Writing Down the Bones.” She cracked open my mind through the idea of writing practice. I filled notebook after notebook with my practice. Writing became the way I connected to the raw, uncensored deep and still yet chaotic part of myself.

Reading this book, all these years after Bones, it felt like all that practice had distilled into her very marrow, into her cells. Her writing, her observations, her breath and energy rose off the page to meet me at this moment in my life, on my path. At times I felt overcome with emotion, like she was touching a part of me.

She hasn’t changed in that she remains rooted and committed to the practices of writing and Zen. What’s changed with me is that I now have a regular meditation practice, something I resisted even after studying with her at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house where she practically guaranteed that meditation was the secret to writing.

Now, I know she is right. Both practices ground me in the present moment. Both allow me access to observing my mind, riding the wild waves and combing the still waters.

Some of my favorite sentences:

“I had written intensely all that morning, leaning over the notebook, deep in relation with my mind.”

“The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.”

“Crash Course- Essays from where Writing and Life Collide” by Robin Black

The only person in my home who thinks about words more than I do is my younger daughter.

I adore Robin Black. As my oldest daughter would say, I consider her my spirit animal. She writes the kind of stories filled with depth and characters that resonate deep within my bones— the kind of stories that I can only hope to write myself.

These essays give us a glimpse into her life—her life as a wife, mother,daughter, friend and her life as a writer. A woman just trying to lay down word after word in hopes of making sense of what is inside of her.

She’s not afraid to delve into the messy parts of life. In fact, that is where she shines.

I wish I could land on one chapter that I loved the most but the beauty of this book is that they all merge together to create a moving portrait of a writing life.

I underlined SO many sentence but here are a few.

Sentences I love:

“But perhaps more critically it means being able to survive rejection from oneself, to weather the huge number of failed attempts and dashed hopes, the daily sense that one is not actually good enough to do what one wants so desperately  to do.”

“I possess: this hunger to comprehend the complexity of human behavior, to look beneath what might be dismissed as only hurtful, to discover what may neutralize simple dispositions of blame, to convey this to the world, if only to convince myself.”

“…my interests were so entirely rooted in people’s emotional interiors.”

And from the acknowledgements…

“They taught me, through example and with lots of laughs, what kind of writer I want to be —not what I want to write, but who I want to be while I write.”

“The Chronology of Water” by Lidia Yuknavitch

“The day my daughter was still born, after I held the future pick and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her,then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.”

This book. What can I say about this book? Book seems too small of a word. So does story. So does memoir. It is her heart, her blood, her tears, her pain, her determination to be fully present to what happened to her, to where she got to where she is laid bare on the page.

Bare. Raw. Intense. Real. Honest. Naked.

True.

I’ve never read a memoir that reads more true than this one. She never hides. From anything, least of all herself.

I had tears in my eyes by the second page and I rarely cry over books.

I read the whole book with a pen in my hand, wanting to capture the magic she creates with words but getting too caught up in the words to remember to make  a mark.

This is a book I will return to again and again.

Sentences I love:

“Little tragedies are difficult to keep straight.”

“Everything collected in my memory curls like water around events in my life.”

“In my throat I swallowed language.”

“We laughed the laugh of women untethered, finally, from their origins.”

“Big Magic- Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Once upon a time, there was a man name Jack Gilbert, who was not related to me—unfortunately for me.

I read this for a second time after choosing it for our book club at the yoga studio where I reach. I devoured it the first time, so looked forward to reading it through again, savoring her words, savoring her ideas, savoring her perspective on life,on art,on creativity.

And what perspectives they are.

In the middle of reading it for the second time, I had the privilege of attending a workshop with her, an opportunity to explore the ideas put forth in the book. It unlocked the ideas in a way that merely reading them didn’t afford. Really connecting with her pillars of creativity.

What I love about her is, despite her huge success with “Eat, Pray, Love” she remains humble and in service to the art, to the process of writing, of creating.

Sentences I love:

“My intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing, period.”

“Because this is how it feels to lead the faithful creative life: You try and try and try, and nothing works. But you keep trying, and you keep seeking, and then sometimes, in the least expected place and time, it finally happens.”