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Out of the Comfort Zone

Yesterday was a long day, lots of driving, fieldtripping with 6th graders. And I missed my afternoon coffee. Luckily last night was one of my twice a month writing groups. I love my writing group, facilitated by the ever-wise Susanne West. It brings me back to a sense of wholeness and peace regardless of how flustered or scattered I am when I arrive. One of the things I love is the way she's able to help me step out of my comfort zone -- for example by writing poetry, which I never feel like I know how to do.

Last night, in one of our writing exercises, I was inspired by the last line of the poem "A Blessing" by James Wright in Roger Housden's Dancing with Joy. That line (in quotes) became the first line of my own piece. It would have been easy to keep this private since I'm not confident about my poetry. But sometimes one step out of the comfort zone encourages another. So here it is:

"Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom"
Because it is not just the barriers of skin and bone
That hold me back.
It is the weight of words
And beliefs that saturate my brain.
If only I could step away
For a moment or two, I would see
The way they tether me
Like gravity.
The voice that cries "never enough"
And the one that insists I'm wrong
And the ever-present chorus
Of scoffs and jeers,
The reminder that I'm small.
If I could step away
For just a moment and feel the grandness
Bloom, feel the unfettered, unjudged fullness
Of my being, I would blossom
Gloriously with sweet, divine wholeness
Such that when I returned to my skin
I would glow
I would dance
I would float
Would have trouble keeping my feet on the ground
Enveloped then in the nearness of my soul.
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Do Not Panic: Life and Critiques

I'm trying to learn to be more Zen about life, to take what comes without judging it or freaking out about it. I seem to be a slow learner in this area. When I was a kid and played board games with my brothers, I confess, when I lost I would often fling the game off the table. It wasn't so much that I minded losing as much as I minded one of my brothers (I won't say which one) making me feel like I was a Loser (capital L). This is a feeling that stayed with me into adulthood -- which made receiving critiques of my work painful. It meant that when fault was found with a manuscript, I pretty much threw it in the trash bin. It made it hard for me to understand that problem areas did not mean the work was unsalvageable.

And who knows, maybe I can't blame my brother for making me feel this way. I tend to react intensely to most things (okay, maybe not quite as much as Kristen Bell, but still.) My initial reaction is usually red alert -- adrenaline pumping, breath shortening, stomach lurching panic. To be fair, to look at me, you'd never guess. People think I handle things well, that I stay calmer than they would in a similar circumstance. It's only on the outside.

Yesterday I was leaving my house to go to the gym. Let me be clear, I am not a fan of gyms, and the only way I can get myself to go is by scheduling an appointment with a trainer for which I will be charged regardless of whether or not I show up. So, I was running a little late and rushing out of the house. I hit the garage door button and grabbed my shoes. Well, as fate would have it, the garage door broke, the emergency release wouldn't release, and I literally had no way of getting my car out of the garage. Naturally, I went into instant panic mode. OH MY GOD! The door is broken! I can't get out! I can't go to the gym! Adrenaline pumping, breath shortening, etc.

Um, seriously? Panic? Cause you can't ... go to the gym? *Giggle, snort* Ah, darn, I can't go to the gym. I'm stuck waiting for the repairman and I don't want to get too involved in working on something because he could show up at any minute. I guess I have no choice but to read for fun (!) I don't usually read for fun during "work hours."

Once I caught my breath and calmed the #$!@ down, I started to realize how much I do this in my life and in my work. Freak out, that is. And I vowed to do better. Can a high-strung, moody, sensitive, neurotic Jewish girl do that? Learn not to freak out and jump to conclusions?Yes! I can, because -- believe it or not -- I'm way better than I used to be -- even if that only means realizing what I'm doing sooner than I might have in the past. I know I've learned to take criticism on my work, to understand its value, to use it to improve the story I'm trying to tell.

Part of embracing all of life is learning to accept what comes our way -- which, of course, isn't always what we want. This is also true when receiving critiques of our work. In any of these situations, whether it's one of life's curveballs or whether it's a biting critique, there is a simple and straightforward process to take:

Step 1: Do not panic.
Step 2: Give your body time to calm the #$%@ down after it ignores step one without your permission.
Step 3: Let whatever is before you be okay -- whether it's the garage door breaking or a critique that stings. Know that you can handle it.
Step 4: Get to work.

If I can do it, you can too ;)
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"How the Light Gets In"

Have you ever read Rachel Remen's Kitchen Table Wisdom? It's a beautiful and inspiring book. In it she talks about a patient who came to her to deal with the emotional issues that came with having cancer. She asks him to draw an image that is representative of himself, and he draws a cracked vase. He feels damaged. At their last therapy session, she hands him his drawing and asks if there is anything he would change about it. He stares at it for a while, smiles, picks up a yellow crayon and draws light streaming out of the crack.

Similarly, Leonard Cohen sings,
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

This is what has been on my mind lately. How we try to seem a certain way for so long until we crack. And that's when the light streams through.

In writing, isn't this what happens in one way or another to most of our characters? Characters have to grow or change in some profound way to make a book worth reading. It's not the mundane that interests readers, it's the cracking open. What does it take to crack your character open wide -- to help her move from being who she thinks she is supposed to be to being the person she really is? What will it take to crack each of us open -- to bring us to write our truths or be our whole selves? And once we're cracked open, how long will the effects last -- is it forever -- or will we seal ourselves up with glue and go back to the way things were?

This is what's on my mind today. What's on yours?
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Embrace Life

I found this photo on the internet the other day and immediately made it the wallpaper on my desktop. I'm not sure I can explain what so moves me about it. I love the dreamy, mystical, almost eerie feeling of the sunset colors in the sky and on the water and how they blend with the woman and her clothing. I love the birds flying free and yet somehow in harmony with her dance. I love the beauty, grace, and openness of her leap. I love her commitment, how connected she is to this moment. I love that this image makes me smell the salty breeze and hear the ripple of the water and feel the last rays of the setting sun against my skin. I love that this woman is embracing life.

Mrs. V, a book blogger, commented on last week's post mentioning the idea of One Little Word instead of resolutions and that hers last year had been Embrace. I'm making that choice this year. It began with the idea of embracing who you are and is stretching to encompass the whole idea of embracing life. It feels like a bigger challenge than it seems like it should be. What's so hard about embracing what's in front of you?

We get so used to throwing up our guard all the time against any elements of life that are not pleasing, shutting down, trying to keep out the hard stuff. I'm trying to learn to embrace it all and trust that it's all leading me where I need to go.

I hope the image inspires you, as it does me, to embrace life, to let life take you where you need to be. Embrace.
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New Year's Motto: Embrace Who You Are

In my final post of 2011, I talked about some of what I'd learned in that difficult year. And then, as I took a few weeks off of posting, I found that one of those lessons stayed on my mind. I decided that instead of giving myself any resolutions for the new year, I would give myself a motto -- a reminder of what really matters. And the motto is that final lesson from 2011: Embrace who you are.

What does that mean? It means cutting off the addiction to filtering life through what you imagine other people's judgments might be. It means living according to what is true for you rather than by what you believe will please someone. It means not trying to be the next J.K. Rowling or Lady Gaga or whomever you might aspire to be, and instead aspiring to be the first you. Writers, like actors, tend to be a fairly angsty bunch. And trying to please an agent or editor or market or fan base can dramatically affect our creativity.

I know that much of the writing I did over the past few years was written in an attempt to please. And that wasn't working for me. My current project is different. It was written from a place of need -- the need to express emotion and tell a story I needed to tell. And I have loved writing it. And I love what it has become. And maybe it will get published and maybe it won't. That is out of my hands. But the point is, I wrote it from my truth, from who I am, without trying to tame that or make it more acceptable or pleasing or less quirky. I'm quirky! Different, strange, peculiar, odd -- blessings all!

It's hard not to compare ourselves to others, to look at other's successes and want to embrace their truths. But their truths are only going to work for them. Only my truth will work for me. So as I step into the new year, I do so with this promise to myself: I value what I have to offer and intend to honor it. I hope you do the same for you. Here's to a brilliantly beautiful 2012.
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Friday Five: Lessons Learned

This will be my last blog post of 2011. I blogged yesterday at YA Outside the Lines about goals for the new year. Today I'm reflecting on what I learned in this one.

1. It's best not to get attached to specific outcomes. Getting attached is the source of most of our suffering. This one is extremely hard to follow through on. But when I can remember to do it, I'm calmer, life is less stressful.

2. It's important to feel grateful for the mundane. Not because there's some Higher Power looking down and judging us for not doing it, but because it actually makes life more enjoyable. It slows me down, makes me present for this moment.

3. This moment matters. We should slow down and experience it. Not every moment is fun or easy, but every one of them matters. We rush. SO MUCH. We are SO BUSY. ALL THE TIME. How many moments of our lives are we actually experiencing vs. how many are we rushing through? I know there's a lot to do. I know it all has to get done. Breathe.

4. Things have a way of working out. Seriously. They do. You can stop panicking. I give you permission. They don't always work out the way we want them to or at the speed we desire. But it's okay. Things actually do have a way of working out for the best.

5. Embrace who you are. Do we ever stop struggling with this one? I'm trying! Trying to stop comparing myself to others, to stop judging myself according to other's lives, to stop attempting to be more like anyone other than me. I'm trying to accept and embrace that who I am in the world is different than who anyone else is. It's supposed to be that way. And dampening that serves no one.

So that's what I've learned this year. Will I have to learn it all over again next year? Maybe. But I think/hope I'm making progress. May all our lessons be gentle in the year ahead!


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Gratitude for the angst

I've been blogging a lot about gratitude lately. But it's been on my mind. As I've mentioned before, my daughter has been facing a chronic illness since this summer. Just recently, her health has begun to improve (knock wood). And I find myself feeling incredibly grateful to see her stressing over homework and teen drama and the school play. As if this were the most incredible gift. And it is. And we take it for granted every single day. Our problems. We can't afford the newest technology. Or our lives are too busy. Or we have deadlines we're not sure we can meet. Gifts. Every one of them. I imagine that if my child's health continues to improve, as of course I hope and pray that it does, I'll be taking our lives for granted again in no time. And maybe that's human nature. Always looking up. At what we long for, at whom we hope to become. And maybe that's okay. Maybe that's what keeps us moving forward. As long as we don't forget to look around and give a leg up to someone who may need it.

Which is what I love about Christmastime, even though I don't celebrate the holiday. But I do love the spirit of the season. (Okay not the Black Friday mobs or the traffic that seems to grow at holiday time or the inability to find a parking space anywhere.) I love the spirit of giving that blooms this time of year, the stopping for a moment to remember that there are foster kids with no Santa to deliver gifts for them or shelters that need help serving food to the homeless or that a donation of a warm jacket or old sleeping bag could save a life.

Last year at Christmastime I found out that a dear friend was dying of cancer. Of course it made me desperately sad, and it also made me feel grateful for my family's health and well-being. But somehow that feeling of gratitude felt more academic. It wasn't until illness hit my family directly that I truly understood the depth of gratitude for the "normal", the healthy, the everything we take for granted. I generally consider myself to be a pretty empathic person. So why did it take so much for me to get to this place of understanding? And will I be able to maintain my sense of gratitude when (hopefully) we're all relatively healthy?

It's a question I don't have an answer to. I suppose only time will tell. Maybe the gratitude is one of those gifts that comes from the difficult times, one of those silver linings. Or maybe I can share it so you don't have to live through it: Take time out to be grateful for what you see as the problems in your life and ask yourself if maybe you're lucky to have them. It doesn't take away the angst that comes with having too much to do or feeling overwhelmed or wishing for more. But for me at least, it does bring a kind of peace alongside it.

Wishing you peace, love, joy and gratitude this holiday season
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Gardens of Gratitude

Earlier this week I posted about gratitude over at YA Outside the Li​nes. I wrote about seeking out the gifts in difficult times and about how that which we tend is what blooms in our lives. This is true in life and also in writing.
If we listen to the inner critic day in and day out, if we tend its garden, blossoms of self-doubt grow. If instead we focus on whatever bits of our writing we actually feel good about, confidence and strength is what blooms. In the story itself, if we attend only to what's not working, it can be hard to find a solution. Instead, try writing the parts that are clear in your mind and see if they guide you to solutions for the more problematic areas.
I'm not saying it's easy. If you're anything like me, your natural tendency is to grab on to the negative and let it grow you a whole garden of thorns and prickers. I have to fight against that natural tendency and remind myself to look for the positive, to focus on growing the flowers. Gratitude is often the thing that helps me shift my attention.
So as Thanksgiving approaches, find your gratitude, let it help you find your way to tuning in to the beauty. Ask yourself: which garden am I tending?
It'll probably be a few weeks before I post again. Happy Holidays! Wishing you gardens of gratitude and beauty <3

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Getting the story told: Butt-in-chair or Wind-in-your-hair

If you're anything like me, you were brought up to believe that one must work hard. You must push and push to get it all done and achieve. It has recently occurred to me that this might be a lie. 

I have begun to toy with a different way. Instead of expecting productiveness at all times, instead of setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals, I'm taking things slowly. This is partly because of other things going on in my life, but it's also partly as an experiment. And what I'm finding is that the creative work has its own rhythm. 
I know for a lot of people butt-in-chair is the rule they follow to get the job done. But what I'm finding is that even with less b-i-c time, the story still gets told. Here's why: While I'm out in the world doing all the stuff that has to be done, my mind is secretly working. I'll be driving down the freeway and whole scenes will play out in my head. I'll be in line at the grocery store and the solution to a plot problem will pop into my awareness. And the time it takes to get these ideas onto paper when they have formed themselves is far less than it would have taken me while sitting in front of a blank page. 
So if life gets hectic or busy or overwhelming. Have faith that the story that needs to be told is working its magic. Give it a little space to do its thing. Get out of the chair and go take a walk or run your errands or deal with the day job or just sit and breathe fresh air before it gets too cold to do so. Spend a little less time doing and a little more time just being. Your story will still get told. It has a life of its own. And sometimes a little less productiveness on your part is just what the story needs to free it into form.
Be well 
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Writers' Block: Getting Unstuck

I've been working on a first draft lately. I love first drafts. It's like reading a new book, learning what happens as you move from page to page, learning about the characters, learning what they're learning. This manuscript had been progressing really smoothly, as if it knew what it needed to say, and I was just there to get it down on paper.... Until I got stuck. Maybe it was because there's so much going on at home. Maybe it was because I was trying to work in medical situations that I don't yet fully understand and for which I need to do more research. But for whatever reason, I was stuck. And I hate being stuck. I sort of knew where I wanted to go, but I wasn't sure if that plot point was going to work and I definitely did not know how to get there.

Yesterday I came across an article about what to do when you can't figure out how to get from point A to point B in your story. It had some great suggestions. The one that resonated with me the most was the advice one of the authors had learned from Stephen J. Cannell, which entailed plotting the place where you're stuck from the perspective of the antagonist. It made me realize that I've been so busy moving forward that I'd forgotten about all the other juicy stuff you learn from taking a breather and seeing what your characters have to say about things.

So late last night (a time when I never feel alert enough to write), I set aside the manuscript and interviewed my antagonist, asking him to show me what was happening from his perspective. Even though I'd already had an overall idea of what he would say, it wasn't until he said it that I saw the complete picture. I'd been aware of his basic motivation, but not of the details of what had been happening along the way to make his choices make sense. And in discovering that, I was able to see how the rest of the story will play out.

Now, I just need to find the time to get it all down. So note to self: When you're feeling stuck, don't try to push through. Step back, seek out your characters, let them tell you what happens next. It's much easier than trying to think it up yourself!