The Importance of Telling the Story

Tell the story.

A friend calls.  A terrible thing has happened. She’s okay. But this terrible, unthinkable thing happened.  She tells me about it in great detail, going over every detail and then back again, looping around and around.  I listen, giving her the space to say whatever she needs, to repeat the particulars as many times as necessary.

Because I know she needs to tell the story.

Years ago, we had a fire in our home.  My family and animals escaped from the burning house as fire fighters arrived to put it out. We were all okay. Displaced for many months, but okay.  I found myself telling the story over and over again. To people. To my journal. In my head as I walked.

Because I needed to tell the story.

Telling the story is healing, people. I would go so far as to say that it is a necessary part of life.  Which is why you need to tell your story—whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction. Because, guess what?  Not only is telling the story healing but so is reading it.

When I read a memoir about somebody who overcame great suffering, I’m inspired. It reminds me that the problems I face aren’t such a big deal—and that I can overcome them, too.  When I read a novel with a fierce, fearless heroine I remember that I can be that way, too.

And there’s this: in our current political climate, people are seeking stories with happy endings.  In a story in Salon, bookseller Leah Koch says, “…we have seen more readers turning to romance than ever before, especially those who are new to the genre.” Others interviewed in the story back her up. People are seeking solace and healing in happy tales.

I can get mired in thinking, where’s the good in writing? Others are out there saving the world, being activists, building wells in Africa, researching cures for cancer. And I just sit at my desk all day and make shit up.  But then I am reminded of the power of story. We really can’t live without it.  And that’s what you and I are doing.  Our words allow people to live vicariously, and hopefully heal a little bit, too.

Never forget that. Telling the story is vital.  And that’s your job.

What story are you telling this week? Leave a comment.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. If you’d like it to come directly to your inbox, sign up on the form to the right. And–I’m gearing up to get back to regular blogging. More original posts soon!

A love letter about pain

This week.

It couldn’t have been more awful.  The terrible tragedy in Las Vegas, coming on the heels of a month of devastating natural disasters, was almost too much to bear.  People I know and love are suffering from these events. And on top of all that, I have a friend and a family member in the hospital—one dealing with surgery, one with the aftermath of being hit by a car.

My heart weeps.

And yet, on the other hand, things in my personal life are pretty good. I had a wonderful time in France, and got a lot of writing done there.  My agent is excited about my next project and still sending out the first book.  After a month of physical therapy and a cortisone shot, the pain in my body has lessened considerably and I’m walking more again.  I have great clients and fun upcoming teaching gigs. My family is amazing.

How to reconcile all this? How to exist, feeling grateful for what I have and yet heartbroken for the pain in the world?

While in France, I posted photos of all the things: the Mediterranean Sea by day and night, the phallic tower that rises above the water in Collioure, dogs and cats and beautiful old people. And all the while, back home, hurricanes and floods and fires swept the land.  Should I not have posted photos of what I was experiencing in deference to the disasters? Should I have included a disclaimer with everyone, something to the effect that I knew what people were going through and sent them love?

In other words, as I told a friend, I’m asking: what should my response be? How do I live in this world now?

Luckily, that friend was the very wise Patty Bechtold and she told something that really helped. She’d read it years ago, in the work of Robert Johnson. He likened such experiences as standing in the middle of a teeter-totter, with one foot on either side.   Balance. Getting comfortable with the gray area in the middle, even though most of us would much rather like things plain and simple, in black and white.

And maybe we just need to accept that this is how we must live now.

I’ll tell you what helps me live in the gray areas. Two things: creativity and connection.  I found solace in my writing this week. And I also found it in connecting with friends and family.  Maybe these things gave you solace, too. I hope so.

So here’s the only antidote I have to offer to make sense of the gray area: take to the page. Write your pain out. Or focus your energy on your current writing project. And when you are finished, go kiss a child, or a pet, or your spouse.  Call a friend; say hi to a neighbor. Email that aunt you’ve not talked to in a long time.

Creativity and connection. I’m astoundingly grateful for them both.

A love letter about time

I’m writing this to you at 4:30 in the morning, sitting at my desk back home in Portland.  Yes, you read that right: 4:30 AM. Because: jet lag.  I’ve been waking at this hour every day since we returned home from France on Tuesday night. It’s great for getting writing done, but hell for trying to stay up past 9 PM.

And it bears on the topic I want to talk about today: time.

As most of you know, I spent three weeks in the south of France (the less-crowded Lanquedoc region, near Spain) teaching a couple of writing workshops. And time flows differently there.  I actually began writing this letter there, in the Mediterranean town of Collioure, sitting on a terrace surrounded by ancient stone and concrete houses.  A typical day went something like this: writing workshop in the morning, delicious lunch (often three courses, with wine), a petite nap, and then writing.

My desk in Collioure

It doesn’t sound like the best time recipe to get a lot of work done, but I did.  I wrote the first chapter of a new book, worked on the rewrite of my WIP, and took one more spin through the novel my agent is shopping.  All the while feeling relaxed and happy.

How I wish I could replicate that feeling of productive ease here.  I ponder: was it the sea air? Walking several times a day? The wine? (I truly didn’t drink it every day at lunch. But, um, there was plenty of wine every night.)  But here at home, life presses in: appointments, client work, family obligations. Which is why, precisely, going away to write is such a great idea.

And yet, we can’t always do that, can we?

Time is such a slippery beast. It slows to a crawl when you’re waiting for something you want to do or someone you want to see, and it flies by without notice when you’re deeply engrossed in a creative project.  (Which is why the old writing saw, fast is slow and slow is fast is so useful to remember.  If your character is doing something with a slow past, dispense with it quickly.  If something is happening really fast, slow down the action.)  And most often, we end up feeling as if we just don’t have enough time.

In pondering all this, here’s my takeaway. I can’t replicate the atmosphere of a seaside village in France here in Portland, but I can consciously slow myself down. I can approach life with a more relaxed atmosphere and refuse to get caught up in the harried schedules most of us keep. I can say no once in a while (except to grandkids).

And hopefully, my writing productivity will rise in inverse proportion to my relaxed attitude about it.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. If you’d like to join the list, see the form to the right.

And if you’re interested in learning about next year’s writing workshop, head on over to the Let’s Go Write website and join the mailing list there. We’ll have 2018 info ready soon.

On Writing and Travel (A Love Letter)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite letters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

Here I am in France, an American in Paris (having just spent three weeks down south, in the lovely town of Collioure).

One of the first things people ask me when I tell them about my annual jaunts to Paris is, “Do you speak the language?” And the answer is, I do not. I took French in college and can sort of read it, but when natives speak it, forget it.  And my halting pronunciation brings either a smile or a grimace from the locals.  Furthermore, I do not look like a French woman. I am short and round.  Every single French woman on the planet is tall and thin. (I think it’s a law they passed a while ago.) And its for certain I don’t have the classic French personality, which I think of as elegant and reserved.  I tend toward the, the put it charitably, exuberant.

So I am different when I am in France.  And I’m constantly aware of it. (One of the most fun things about travel is arriving to a U.S. airport and suddenly realizing I can understand what people are saying around me.)

But I have come to appreciate that feeling this difference is a good thing. I live in my comfort zone way too much.  I like my comfort zone.  But the job of the writer is (at least partially) to bring a different point of view to their reader. To teach them about something they might not otherwise have known about.  To open new worlds.  And how can we do that if we’re not venturing out beyond our own usual world?

Funnily enough, though so many of us shy away from putting ourselves in a situation where we are different, there are some advantages to it.  Because you can’t interact as readily, you can observe others more clearly.  You may only be able to find your way through observing! And because you are constantly straining to understand, you listen better.  Being different in a different world keeps you pretty much always in the present moment.  You don’t waste time pondering the past or worrying about the future when you are trying to figure out what the hell is going on right where you are at the moment.

Finally, you can be bold. Nobody knows who you are, so you can act anyway you want. (But please leave the Ugly American act at home.)

All these thoughts about being different lead me to ponder how we need to celebrate differences between characters in our work.  I’m painfully aware of how often my characters tend to reflect me, a white middle-class woman of a certain age, and this is something I’m trying to change.  Being in France makes me remember that, too.

But being home is going to be wonderful also!

Do you like to travel? Leave a comment and share your experiences!

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On Regular Practice (A Love Letter Reprise)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite letters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

I have a busy life. (And I’m betting you do, too.) There’s my writing, client appointments, teaching, reading manuscripts, planning workshops, blogging and writing newsletters. And let’s not forget my gloriously time-consuming family, including four grandchildren under five who I want to spend as much time with as possible with while they still think Nonni is cool.

I love all this, every bit of it, even when I’m fretting about getting everything done.  But a funny thing often happens to me. People ask me what’s new or what’s been going on and I draw a blank. I know I’ve been doing a million things but I can’t get my brain to land on any single one of them. Does this ever happen to you?

I notice that this happens a lot when I’ve been writing regularly.  When people ask me what’s been going on, I start to say, “Well, you know, Bridget just found out that Cade is dating someone young enough to be her child.  And she’s tempted to  leave the small town he brought her to! But she can’t, because she has to stay to see this job through.” And then I remember—that’s not my life, that’s what’s happening in my book.  The one I’m working on every morning.

I’ve finally realized that’s what’s going on in my life—I’m writing.  Day in, day out (with the occasional every Saturday, when I can’t seem to focus, off).  There’s no drama, because I’m busy working.  Nothing to see here. Move along.  I’m practicing.

Practicing, as in sitting down to work at my profession every day and practicing, as in working to improve my work in my profession.  Because when you have a practice, as in something you do regularly, you get better at it.   You just do.  You can’t help but improve when you turn your attention to the same thing over and over again.

I’m happiest when I’m practicing.  And I suspect I’m not the only one.  I used to think that as a creative person, consistency would be boring.  That life needed to be exciting so I had something to write about.  But quite the opposite is true.  Nothing is richer and more fulfilling—and thus more exciting—than having a consistent practice.

I have two consistent practices in my life at the moment: writing and meditation. (I used to be consistent at walking but a pesky knee ailment has sidelined that for the time being.) I feel better when I’m practicing both. (But if I had to choose, I’d go with the writing.) As Mitch, one of my wonderful clients said last weekend, “I start to get edgy if I don’t write for a few days.”

Indeed. Me, too.

Leave a comment and tell me what you practice regularly. I’ll do my best to respond promptly, despite being in France!

And please do join the Facebook group! Just request membership here and I’ll approve you!

Also–if you’d prefer to have this love letter come directly into your inbox each week, just fill out the form to the right. You’ll also receive first notice of classes, book releases, and events.

On Conflict and Writing (A Love Letter Reprise)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite newsletters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

 When first I started writing this letter, it was about a different topic (travel to be exact).  But as I tunneled further into it, I realized that what I really wanted to write about his week was conflict.

Ah, conflict.  It is the most important element of any piece of writing.  Conflict creates the underlying rhythm of all fiction, and non-fiction as well.  It is the thrumming baseline, the constant hum, the clothesline on which we hang all our writerly clothing.

Many of us are told, repeatedly, to add more conflict in our work. And yet we run from it, screaming, in life, right? Right? I know I do. I shrink from arguments, hate confrontation, abhor conflict in all its forms. I meditate and knit and weave and go to church to find inner peace, because I absolutely, positively, for real, hate conflict.

But there is one conflict that is basic to my life: every single moment of every single day the constant drumbeat in the back of my head is, I should be writing.  (Years ago I had a writing friend who set her screensaver to say, why aren’t you writing? I did that until I took to screaming what I thought were perfectly logical reasons I wasn’t writing at the computer.)  When I’m watching TV at night, I think that. When I’m performing the afore-mentioned relaxing crafts I’m thinking it. When I’m reading emails I’m thinking it.

I suspect that many of you feel the same way. Our time to write can be precious and fleeting in the press of other life demands and so we obsess about it when we can’t do it.  I suspect other creatives share this trait with us, that painters worry about painting, musicians about playing music, and son. In fact, I think it is this constant conflict, this constant pull, that separates creative people from non-creative types. Okay, truthfully, I think everyone is creative, some just don’t choose to express it.  But for the sake of brevity, we’ll just call them non-creative.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be one of them.  To not have this constant thing nipping at my heels, calling me to attention.   Peaceful and easy, I imagine. I wouldn’t have to work so hard at all that inner peace, right? And yet I’d be bored as all snot, too.  I can’t imagine what life would be like without the call to creativity and I really don’t want to find out.

I had this crazy idea as I’ve been writing this letter.  And it’s this: that writing pulls us out of our everyday lives, that it’s the impetus to pull us onto a creative path, the hero’s journey if you will.  I just pulled out one of my favorite writing books, The Writer’s Journey (1st ed.) by Christopher Vogler, vaguely recalling that he said something about this very topic. And indeed he does: “The Hero’s Journey and the Writer’s Journey are one and the same. Anyone setting out to write a story soon encounters all the tests, trials, ordeals, joys, and rewards of the Hero’s Journey…. Writing is an often perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one’s soul and bring back the Elixir of experience—a good story.”

So take heart, because all that conflict you’re experiencing about your writing makes you heroic, my friend.  And remember, all you really need to do is put the conflict on the page—instead of getting embroiled in it in life.

Leave a comment and tell me how you deal with the constant conflict of writing vs. not writing.  I’m in France, but I’ll do my best to respond!

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Going back-to-school time (A love letter)

The Abundant Writer

September 3, 2017

Vol 10. No. 36

Here in the Portland area, it is back-to-school time. (I know in many parts of the country this happened weeks ago.)  And it is one of my favorite times of the year. (There is the fact that I’ll be spending most of the month in France, but I loved this time of year long before I started traveling to Europe annually.)  I love this time of year because the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting cooler, but most of all—

Because its back to school!

What is better than shopping for brand new school supplies?  New notebooks just waiting to be filled with ideas, notes, and reports (I loved writing reports) and pens and pencils to write in them with.  New classes with new teachers and new friends.  New topics to learn and new books to read.

There’s so much promise and possibility in the air.  And if there is one thing I love, it is promise and possibility. I’m a great starter.  I love the moment when a new idea starts rushing in and I begin to gather thoughts together and start planning a project. I’m in heaven at the beginning of things.

But finishing I’m not so good at.  I have to dog myself something fierce to bring projects to fruition.  Which is why my craft closet is filled with half-knitting items. (In the knitting world, these are known as UFOs, for Unfinished Projects.) There’s just always a gorgeous new shawl to start! Last winter, when I completed a mitten, my daughter-in-law said, “What? You actually finished something?” Um, yeah. My reputation for UFOs in sterling.

And yes, I do have some UFOs in my writing, too. Stories that seemed so full of promise that fizzled out somewhere in the middle.   A whole draft of a novel that needs a major rewrite.  Haven’t had the heart to tackle it yet—because I have a different novel and a novella that I’m trying to finish editing.

But for the moment, I’m going to allow myself to revel in the back-to-school feeling of newness.  I’ll be teaching in France throughout September, and in past years abroad I’ve gotten inspired and started a new novel.  I have a bunch of notes on yet another new fiction project and I don’t care, I’m going to allow myself to start it!  While I also work on finishing up the editing of the rewrite.

Oh, and by the way—there are some killer sales on school and office supplies at the moment. I suggest you take advantage of them and stock up. Because if you’re anything like me, next to shopping at a bookstore, time spend at an office supply store is one of the best activities imaginable.

Happy back-to-school days!

Leave a comment on what you like about this time of year!

And do come join the Facebook page. You can request membership here.

 

A love letter about having, and deserving, good tools (A love letter)

Recently, I got a new computer, the one I’m writing this newsletter on.  It’s a Macbook Air, and I love it. Working on this computer makes everything easier and smoother and faster.  Working on this computer makes me happy.

My previous computer was two years old; a very inexpensive PC. I liked it well enough. I thought it was just fine. But it wasn’t until my cat threw up on its keyboard that I pondered getting a new one.  (Only the keyboard was damaged, the rest worked fine. So, for a while I carried an external keyboard and mouse around with me.) I went kicking and screaming to a Mac, buying one only because I want to run Vellum, the book formatting software on it, and it is available only for Macs.

And now I’m in love.

The other day I had to check on something on my old computer.  I was stunned at how slow it was, how long it took to connect to the internet, how clunky it felt. (And let me be clear, this is not a rant against PCs, I like them. It was more about my poor, overworked computer.) But as I worked on it, I remembered: this was previously what I struggled with every day.

So why didn’t I get a new computer earlier? Because new computers are expensive. Because I told myself I didn’t need one. Never mind that I use it all day every day. I told myself the one I had was just fine. Never mind that it was slower than trying to get a toddler to do something he doesn’t want to do. Just never mind.

I guess I should thank my cat for vomiting on the keyboard because now I realize how much I was putting up with. Settling for.  And pondering all this has made me think that maybe there’s still a bit of that old residual feeling of, but I’m just a writer. I don’t need anything fancy. For some of us it may even be a reluctance to admit that we are writers.

So many of us have self-doubt about our role as writers. And even though I’ve been a professional writer for years, I still sometimes struggle with this, too. When I read a story about a humanitarian building schools in Africa or a teacher changing the lives of children or an activist accomplishing great things I get deflated.  And start to think that all I’m attempting to do with my so-called life purpose is entertain people.

And then I remember one of my favorite quotes of all time, from Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey:

But take heart, because writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural, on the borderline with telepathy. Just think: we can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended.

And when I remember it is magic, I feel better about my role as a writer. I hope that you will, too. And also remember that because you are a magician, you deserve the best tools, be they a computer or the special pen you love or that expensive paper that feels so good to write on.

Indulge yourself. You deserve it. You’re creating magic!

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On eclipses…and love (a love letter)

Dear Writers,

Tomorrow (August 21) is the Great American Eclipse, and as you read this I’ll either be on my way or soon to be on my way to view it.  Me and about a million other people—that’s how many visitors are forecast to arrive in Oregon, a broad swath of which is in the path of totality.  Traffic jams and food and gas shortages are predicted. You can’t get a hotel room or rent a car to save your life anywhere near by Portland. (We are just a few miles north of the path of totality.)

I love mass events like this.

And I love eclipses even more. I’ve been greatly enamored of this eclipse since it first came on my radar several years ago.  Because: eclipses are when day becomes night and night becomes day.  They shake things up, astronomically and astrologically.  And sometimes, shaking things up is good.

They are also about showing us our shadow side, the darkness in us that generally stays hidden.  All you have to do is look at the events of the last week to see that in action.  And difficult as it is to witness, I believe to my core that you can’t eradicate the darkness until you can see it.

On a far less serious and more personal level, I see the eclipse as a giant reset button, a chance to challenge old, stale ideas. Like: creativity is just fluff (even though it is vital to our health and well-being), or, you can’t make a living as a writer (even though you can these days, in a million different ways), or one of the biggies: there’s not enough (of course there is).

But the biggest outdated idea of all is the most pernicious: that of the other. As in, you’re different than me and that make me better. And all the variations on that theme that result in abuses of power, politically, financially, and morally, over and over again.

So I suggest, that along with our personal resets, we also focus our eclipse ideas on a grand scale.  And let this event uncover the fact that there is nothing more important on this planet right now than loving one another.

Because there isn’t.

Happy eclipse.

Leave a comment and tell me if you plan to view the eclipse! (And what you might like to reset.)

On Being Sick…and Getting Well Again (A Love Letter)

I have a fraught history with getting sick.  Well, duh, who doesn’t, right?  But I like to think I have a particularly difficult time with it because in my family it just wasn’t acceptable.  When any of my sisters or I complained of feeling ill and wanting to stay home from school, my Mom, would say, “You’ll be fine. Get up and get going.”

And so we did.  I realize now, after having raised children of my own, that my mother’s attitude stemmed more from desperation at having a kid underfoot during her precious days alone, than an inability to abide sickness.  But that kind of attitude was not conducive to lingering in one’s sick bed for any length of time. Or at all.

So it is inculcated in me to avoid illness at all costs.  Imagine, then, my surprise and embarrassment when earlier this week I sat up from the Pilates machine at my physical therapist’s and the room spun.  It spun in a way I’d never experienced before, even when I drank too much MD 20-20 as a teenager. An alert PT aid asked me if I was okay and when I said I thought I was going to vomit, brought me a wastebasket.

Into which I promptly retched.  In the middle of a gym full of people.  Somehow I made it home, running into the house and throwing up more upon arrival. And that was how the rest of the day went: massive vertigo with any kind of movement followed by vomiting.

I was not a happy camper.

But, after a couple days of rest, I am pretty much back to my normal self. (And desperately sympathetic to anybody anywhere who struggles with vertigo.) And let me tell you, the world looks like a bright, shiny new place. It is as if someone has pushed my reset button.  Getting in the car and driving to the grocery store, a chore I hate so much I often order online, is a pleasure, because: I’m out of the house! Taking the car through the car wash is a fascinating experience.

And it makes me wonder how much I miss when I’m meandering along through my life, thinking same old same old.  How many stories and ideas are passing me by because I’m pondering what a drag it is to have to go grocery shopping?

This is when I vow to turn my journaling habit—which tends to be navel gazing and figuring my life out entries—into more of a writer’s notebook, in which I will write brilliant observations, copy down witty dialogue, and note gorgeous descriptions.

Yeah, right. But I will say that’s the one good thing about getting sick—you come out the other side feeling like a fresh, new human being.

What’s going on with you these days? Leave a comment and let me know.

And don’t forget to join the Facebook group! (I’ll be on there regularly during my blogging hiatus.)