Confession of a Writer

What you are afraid to do is a clear indication of the next thing you need to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the year before my dad’s sudden death in a bicycle accident, I had a soul whisper that I needed to get to know my dad on his terms. He was such an enthusiastic supporter of so many people that it was hard to get him to talk about himself. But I sat him down and asked questions and recorded his stories. It was one of the most inspired things I ever did. His death catapulted me into an ambition to write a book about him.  In those months as I was pregnant with my daughter and writing about my dad, spinning between death and birth, I met Sheila, my writing coach.

With her help, I finished and published the book, and after my daughter was born, I found more to write about. When I contacted Sheila again, she asked, “Do you remember the first thing that you said to me?” I didn’t so she reminded me that I had told her I wasn’t a writer, I just wanted to write a book about my dad. But as we worked together, she told me along the way that I would have more to write about.

I think back to how I was so quick to disavow any greater aspirations to be a writer and it showed how much I feared admitting what was calling to me. I didn’t want to presume that I had anything valuable to say (or write) and it wasn’t what I went to school for. In fact, when I was finishing my BS in Electrical Engineering, the last course I needed to complete was a technical writing course, and it took me until after I walked through ceremonies and had a real job to complete those credits and finish my degree.

Sitting down to write and publish blogging posts every morning has been my practice to walk what my inner self already knows is true. That I’m driven to write about this one wild and precious life of mine, to quote Mary Oliver, and that it’s not presumptuous to own that.

I like to think of writing as the last gift that my dad gave me before he departed this planet. And as such it’s the one that helps me integrate him with the life I have now with these two beautiful children. It’s the gift that has brought me depth and wonderful relationships with you all in the WordPress community. To not own that I love writing is a betrayal of all that so I guess I need to call Sheila back up and tell her I’m a writer.

How about you – do you admit that you are a writer?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Influence

Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.” – unknown

I went back to look at footage of an interview with Madonna in 2012 that has stuck in my mind. In the interview, she’s being asked about Lady Gaga’s music and she calls it “reductive.” Something about her facial expression made it stand out when I watched it even though I’m not deep into either of those artists’ work.

When I went back and watched it, I saw a lot of things that I didn’t remember. The ABC News interviewer was really pushing Madonna to say something unkind about Lady Gaga’s music – to weigh in on some perception of “feud” that was being circulated online. Madonna says a number of things about influence and being amused before being pushed to call Born This Way reductive. When the interviewer pushes further to ask what that means, Madonna gets this sassy look on her face and says, “Look it up.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary, it means, “tending to present a subject or problem in a simplified form, especially one viewed as crude.” Setting aside the issue of what we do to celebrities to try to stoke a controversy or conflict, I suspect I’ve always remembered this because I wonder if what we all do is reductive.

Speaking for myself, I think everything I do is derivative or reductive of someone else’s work. I’m endlessly influenced by the books I read, especially the Mark Nepo and Frederick Buechner meditation books that I read every morning before I write. But more than that, I’m influenced by all the posts I read from everyone else and the podcasts I listen to when driving. I try to carefully quote and link when I use material but often times what I get is inspiration or ideas about how to think about a topic.

Celebrity feud aside – isn’t what we are here to do to influence each other? And isn’t that an honor to be a part of someone else’s path? I’m not talking about plagiarism or giving credit where credit is due – but just knowing that our content might touch one other person in a way that is meaningful, isn’t that a good thing?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Worth Quoting

Do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

I like quotes. I curate them the way my dad did humor – but instead of using notecards, I use an Excel spreadsheet with a column for where I’ve used them and where I got them. I loan my spreadsheet out now and again – like to my friend who was taping quotes to her teenager’s mirror every morning as they waited for college admissions results to come in.

Quotes have such an elegance – a succinctness of capturing a particular idea so that it can be passed on. It’s an amazing gift to be able to do that, to coin a phrase or sentence worth repeating. And worth repeating outside of the context of any longer writing.

There is also an inferred meaning of a quote based on who said it, if attributed to someone. One of my favorite quotes is from Anne Sexton “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” It doesn’t take much looking to find that while Anne Sexton tackled some deep and revealing subjects in her work, she also is alleged to have physically abused her children. Knowing that, I find it harder to use that quote because who said it matters.

When I first started writing, I had a difficult time believing my own voice had any credibility so I wanted to rely on quotes as a crutch. To counter that, I changed my process so that I wrote and only when I was done or had trouble pulling together the last sentence did I go and find a quote that helped me clarify my topic. In that way, I’ve found a way to add another voice to what I’m writing without silencing my own.

The quotes that I think of when I’m in a crunch or stuck change with the major themes in my life. I had a different set of go-tos when I was trying to work up the courage to have kids then now when I’m in the thick of parenting. With that said, here are a few of my personal favorites.

You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right.” – Henry Ford

Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

“Everything you’ve always wanted is on the other side of fear.” – George Adair

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.‘” – Erma Bombeck

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” – Matthew 7:3

The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

“God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” Hazrat Inayat Khan

“Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know.” – Carl Jung

Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” – William Blake

You don’t have a soul, you ARE a soul.” – Dick Leon

And the perfect one to end this post comes from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Expressive Writing

Fill the paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth

My 6-year-old daughter, Miss O, brought home her journal from first grade because she’d filled the composition notebook. The teacher gives them a topic and they write a little bit every day.  Miss O sat me down to show me how in the beginning of the school year she wrote a couple of words and doodled. By her entries in March, she was writing a couple of paragraphs. She was incredibly proud of her work.

It reminded me of a recent reference I heard to the work of James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology (and formerly the chair of the department) at the University of Texas, Austin. In the late 90’s, he wrote a paper summarizing the findings of studies he’d done that showed that people who practiced expressive writing, writing about thoughts and feelings, tended to have positive health outcomes (less visits to the campus health center or evidenced by blood pressure and heart rate).

In a summary paper published in 2017, Dr. Pennebaker theorizes that expressive writing helps because keeping things secret causes stress. I’d say that many of us creative non-fiction bloggers, know the benefits of expressive writing anecdotally – in the community that we create and the support we get from others. Sharing our thoughts and feelings, even though unnecessary to reap the health benefits according to Dr. Pennebaker, makes them feel more normal.

It feels to me like words give our thoughts and feelings definite shape. It morphs them into things that can be actionable. There is a magic that comes from owning our stories.

This brings to mind the post I wrote about humorist Kevin Kling whose therapist was helping him through a bout of PTSD stemming from a motorcycle accident in which he lost his arm. He was angry and unable to sleep until his therapist had him tell his story about that day as if the accident didn’t happen and he reached his destination unharmed. It worked like a charm and Kevin’s takeaway was, “we need to rewrite our story sometimes just so we can get some sleep.”

Flipping through Miss O’s journal, I find this entry that I share with her permission:

“Wen I grow up I want to be caring. Because caring is nise [nice] and I’m areredey [already] nise. Caring is what you shod be!”

Miss O’s 1st Grade Journal

The Fruits of Blogging

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso

I have just passed the milestone of posting to this blog 300 days in a row. Writing a blog has been so personally gratifying to me, mostly because of the community of friendship and support I feel with fellow bloggers on this journey.

So I looked around for studies about blogs and found some interesting conclusions that come from a paper published by the Canadian Center of Science Education. The paper entitled The Effectiveness of Using Online Blogging for Students’ Individual and Group Writing studied a students who were learning English as a Foreign Language. Studying their writing styles before and after a 14-week period of blogging, here are some of the key take-aways that caught my eye:

  • Not only do learners better improve their writing skills through blogging practices, they can also build their self-confidence as writers and attract a wider audience.
  • Blogging practices play an active role in encouraging learners to experiment, take risks and foster their awareness to be private and public writers.
  • Blogging helped both individual learners and groups come up with more engaging ideas.
  • As practice time progressed, learners using blogging tried to transform their writings when they acknowledged their audience and expected or anticipated a level of interaction in the form comments, criticism or support.
  • Blogging became a space where they could improve their writing, and where numerous readers and bloggers were also arbiters in matters of language usage and mechanics, cohesion, coherence, idea generation, debate, discussion, critical thinking and so on.

I couldn’t find a study that verified the positive benefits of interacting with an interesting and interested group of people with whom one would have never met otherwise and who comment in ways that inspire and delight. But I don’t need a study to affirm that – because I live it every day! Thank you my blogging friends!

(featured photo from Pexels)

What’s Next

The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Robert Byrne

Several months back when I wrote a post about performing for likes, Ab of the My Lovable Pest blog, made a comment that he had turned off notifications for when people like a post. I thought it was a pretty good suggestion so I modified the notifications on my own blog so that I don’t receive notifications when people click “like.”

It had a funny effect. At first, I really missed getting the emails that “[alias] liked your post and went on to say “They thought [post name] was pretty awesome.” Actually, they didn’t necessarily think it was awesome – they “liked” it. But more to the point, I had to go through the withdrawal of not getting those dopamine hits in my inbox.

Eventually I got used to it and it led me to focus more on the comments I was getting which was a far more meaningful experience of interaction around any particular topic whether it was something I wrote or I was commenting on something someone else wrote.

But then I started writing for the Pointless Overthinking blog. On Wednesdays, I publish a post on that blog with 27,404 followers. And the settings for that blog are tuned differently so that I do get the “likes” for that post, usually about 100/week.

That felt pretty great for the first few posts but then it morphed into a feeling of “what’s next?” A feeling that Harvard professor and social scientist Arthur Brooks describes as success addiction. We get to a new level and it feels pretty great – and then we adjust to that level and look to the next thing.

His cure for success addiction is to know our “why.” By being deeply rooted in our why, we can hope to get off the treadmill of looking for the next thing because we are grounded in our mission.

The why of my blogging has evolved over time. I’d say that I blog because it helps me process the depth and delight of my experience in life. I find something that I learn or see or feel in a day and by writing about it, I burn it in a little deeper. And when I talk about it with people through comments, I get the gift of seeing it through others’ eyes.

Puzzling through this helps me move through that “what’s next” blah because I remember that what’s next is another conversation with my delightful blogging friends.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Other People’s Writing: Dec 31st

I had a different piece of writing picked for today but then I got a piece of news yesterday that sent me to Pema Chödrön’s writing in When Things Fall Apart. Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun that writes so intimately about groundlessness, that moment when we can’t find anything solid to stand on to pretend we have it all together. Oh, how I love my life when I’m not experiencing groundlessness – but wow, how much I’ve learned when I have.

And here’s what sent me to this place. First, before Christmas my son caught the bug going around daycare so he had to be out sick a couple of days. Next I got sick. Then we were all well and the scheduled holidays with no school and daycare happened. Fine – I’ve now missed about 6 days of work in December but some of those were expected and I’m rolling with it.

Then it snows in Seattle. And Seattle is ridiculous when it snows so 2 more days of daycare for my son this last week were canceled. Then, and this was the latest, Seattle Public Schools just announced they are canceling school for my 1st grader on Monday, January 3rd so they can hand out COVID tests. <scream>

How the heck am I supposed to be responsible, professional and earn a living when the ground beneath my feet is always shifting? The fact that I know I’ve typed that question in practical terms in order to gain the most sympathy tells me that I’ve at least gained some consciousness about my situation. Groundlessness is like a patch of ice on a mountain – the trick is not to dig in and try to plant your feet but instead walk lightly across letting your momentum work for you.

For me, this COVID era has been one big patch of ice. I’ve always figured out a way through before and I know that I will again. Re-reading Pema’s words reminds me that in moments like these that I get to learn so much as I do so.

Basically, disappointment, embarrassment, and all these places where we just cannot feel good are a sort of death. We’ve just lost our ground completely; we are unable to hold it together and feel that we’re on top of things. Rather than realizing that it takes death for there to be birth, we just fight against the fear of death.

Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It’s actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. Things like disappointment and anxiety are messengers telling us that we’re about to go into unknown territory.

…How do we work with our minds when we meet our match? Rather than indulge or reject our experience, we can somehow let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we’re feeling, pierce us to the heart. This is easier said than done, but it’s a noble way to live. It’s definitely the path of compassion – the path of cultivating human bravery and kindheartedness.

In the teachings of Buddhism, we hear about egolessness. It sounds difficult to grasp: what are they talking about, anyway? When the teachings are about neurosis, however, we feel right at home. That’s something we really understand. But egolessness? When we reach our limit, if we aspire to know that place fully – which is to say that we aspire to neither indulge nor repress – a hardness in us will dissolve. We will be softened by the sheer force of whatever energy arises – the energy of anger, the energy of disappointment, the energy of fear. When it’s not solidified in one direction or another, that very energy pierces us to the heart, and it opens us. This is the discovery of egolessness. It’s when all of our schemes fall apart. Reaching our limit is like finding a doorway to sanity and the unconditional goodness of humanity, rather than meeting an obstacle or punishment.

…If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

(featured photo from Pexels)

Other People’s Writing: Dec 30th

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest and prolific author. In the forward to his book, The Inner Voice of Love he describes a period of mental and spiritual anguish catalyzed by the sudden interruption of a friendship. To heal from this agony, he took a six month retreat during which he wrote down spiritual imperatives that were his notes on working through his pain and healing.

He never intended for these notes to anything other than private. But eight years after he’d worked through his anguish, a friend convinced him they could be helpful to others. The last note of the book, it includes a quote that knocked me over with its power: “Your future depends on how you decide to remember your past.” Here’s the passage:

As you conclude this period of spiritual renewal, you are faced once again with a choice. You can choose to remember this time as a failed attempt to be completely reborn, or you can also choose to remember it as the precious time when God began new things in you that need to be brought to completion. Your future depends on how you decide to remember your past. Choose for the truth of what you know. Do not let your still anxious emotions distract you. As you keep choosing God, your emotions will gradually give up their rebellion and be converted to the truth in you.

You are facing a real spiritual battle. But do not be afraid. You are not alone. Those who have guided you during this period are not leaving you. Their prayers and support will be with you wherever you go. Keep them close to your heart so that they can guide you as you make your choices.

Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.

The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen

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Other People’s Writing: Dec 29th

I don’t know where I got this book, The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates nor can I even say that I’ve read her work extensively. But this author of 58 novels who was first published at age 26 and taught at Princeton for 36 years certainly has so many great stories to tell about writing with sections on inspiration, self-criticism, memory and more. But it’s the description of her process that caught my attention and charmed me.

The Writer’s Studio

It’s a room much longer than it is wide, extending from the courtyard of our partly glass-walled house in suburban/rural Hopewell Township, New Jersey (approximately three miles from Princeton) into an area of pine trees, holly bushes, and Korean dogwood through which deer, singly, or does-with-fawns, or small herds, are always drifting. Like the rest of the house my study has a good deal of glass: my immediate study area, where my desk is located, is brightly lighted during the day by seven windows and a skylight.

All the desks of my life have faced windows and except for an overwrought two-year period in the late 1980’s when I worked on a word processor, I have always spent most of my time staring out the window, noting what is there, daydreaming, or brooding. Most of the so-called imaginative life is encompassed by these three activities that blend so seamlessly together, not unlike reading the dictionary, as I often do as well, entire mornings can slip by, in a blissful daze of preoccupation. It’s bizarre to me that people think that I am “prolific” and that I must use every spare minute of my time when in fact, as my intimates have always known, I spent most of my time looking out the window. (I recommend it.)

The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

And as a bonus selection – here’s a small part of her reflection on inspiration.

Inspiration

Yes, it exists. Somehow.

To be inspired: we know what it means, even how it sometimes feels, but what is it, exactly? Filled suddenly and often helplessly with renewed life and energy, a sense of excitement that can barely be contained; but why somethings – a word, a glance, a scene glimpsed from a window, a random memory, a fragrance, a conversational anecdote, a fragment of music, or of a dream – have the power to stimulate us to intense creativity while most others do not, we are unable to say. We all know what it was like to have been inspired, in the past; yet we can’t have faith that we will be inspired in the future. Most writers apply themselves doggedly to their work, hoping that inspiration will return. It can be like striking a damp match again, again, again: hoping a small flame with leap out, before the match breaks.

The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

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Other People’s Writing: Dec 27th

I’m dedicating this dark and quiet week before the New Year begins to posting writing that has inspired me this year. To start, this meditation by Frederick Buechner who was a writer before he became an ordained Presbyterian pastor.

In addition to being an author and pastor, he has taught both religion and writing at a number of places including Exeter, a boarding school in New Hampshire. One of his students was John Irving, who included a quote of Frederick Buechner in A Prayer for Owen Meany. His meditations often strike me often as a writing lesson as much as spiritual guidance.

Silence of the Holy Place

What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort, as the huge monk in cloth of gold put it, than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.

God knows I am no good at it, but I keep trying, and once or twice I have been lucky, graced. I have been conscious but not conscious of anything, not even of myself. I have been surrounded by the whiteness of snow. I have heard a stillness that encloses all sounds stilled the way whiteness encloses all colors stilled, the way wordlessness encloses all words stilled. I have sensed the presence of a presence. I have felt a promise promised.

I like to believe that once or twice, at times like those, I have bumbled my way into at least the outermost suburbs of the Truth that can never be told but only come upon, that can never be proved by only lived for and loved.

Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner

(featured photo from Pexels)