2020: Halfway Through

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking about how 2020 turned out much differently than I expected. So much of 2020 has been challenging, disheartening, depressing. There’s so much fear in the world right now, and I spend so much energy trying to keep it at bay. And yet the isolation has also provided time to reflect on my priorities and the space for important truths to emerge. It’s my hope that we can move through 2020 and become better for it.

Every year I do a weekend retreat where I think through my goals and plans for the upcoming year. These were my big goals for 2020, written in the obvliousness of January:

  • Attend a writer’s residency (I applied to 2 and was rejected by both; I’m not even sure many residencies are moving forward right now.)
  • Finish the second draft of my novel (I’ve started this, then abandoned it in disgust, over and over again. I think I will pick this up in the future, but it seems so overwhelming right now! )
  • Write three poems to publish (I’ve written two! Publication pending.)
  • Revise my play script (I have not even looked at it, I doubt I’ll get to it this year)
  • Go on a new hike every month (This is the one thing I’ve pretty much done consistently!)
  • Attend my first yoga retreat (Probably not possible in the current climate anyway)

Some of the plans I made at the beginning of 2020 seem outmoded or impossible. Or maybe even silly and shortsighted in the face of all the suffering happening in the world. But halfway through the year is a great time to take stock and refine these goals. I like my goals to be concrete and tangible, so I know when I’ve accomplished them, but I think I missed the mark in not including a few esoteric goals. These are a little more uncomfortable, because they’re more personal and there’s no fixed endpoint. But I’d like to add:

  • Commit further to anti-racism work, starting with self education and focusing on the local community.
  • Cultivate my own authenticity. This is an ongoing focus of mine, but rarely do I put it into words. For me this means developing radical self acceptance and opening myself up to the world in a way that’s in keeping with my values.

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”

― Pema Chödrön

11 Rules for Writing

Inspired by the Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.

  1. Write every day, no matter what. When you don’t write, write the next day.
  2. Fill your life with inspiration, and know that everything is inspiration. Keep it close to you.
  3. Write with bravery and confidence (write what you want and how you want). Don’t stop for anyone.
  4. Write happily, even though writing is work, it is also joyful. Work with pleasure only.
  5. Have a space set aside for writing, but don’t be bound to it. Writing is everywhere.
  6. Write the Truth, not the facts. Authenticity is everything.
  7. Be precise.
  8. Finish one story before beginning another. But horde story ideas like gold.
  9. Don’t be afraid of anything, nothing is off limits. Don’t censor, but do write spaciously, leaving room for symbolism and metaphor.
  10. Relaxing is invaluable. Use your unconscious mind, do things that appear mindless to find solutions when stuck.
  11. Don’t focus on finishing, just take it one day at a time. That’s how work gets finished.

How to Write Well

What helps you to write well? Strong coffee? A concise outline? The perfect background music?

Dig deeper.

One often overlooked component to good writing is safety. In order to write well, you need to feel safe. You need to feel free to express yourself. Otherwise, your mind clenches, and your so-called rational mind takes control. You worry about what people will think of your writing, of you. You worry still: Is this any good? Am I wasting my time?

Nothing will shut you up faster than that.

What you want for your writing is unfettered authenticity. You want your unique, uninhibited self to shine through. In order to do that, you need to feel safe. But how do you feel safe? How do you overcome your fears, of failure or rejection or whatever it is that keeps you from writing what you really want to write?

This is an elusive practice, and there are no clear-cut answers. But I’ve found one technique in an unexpected place: yoga. What started out for me as a purely physical exercise has become a mainstay of my writing practice. It is grounding. It is playful. It is about discovery and deep self-acceptance. It is about embracing mystery. It’s about quieting all those nagging voices that tell you you are wasting your time, to give up, to go to law school and make sure your life actually amounts to something.

Yoga, at its philosophical core, is about uniting who you think you are with who you actually are. Starting a yoga session is a lot like sitting down to the blank page. You are wrestling with your mind, with its endless possibilities both good and bad, with your potential. You discover what you are capable of. Ultimately, it teaches you to trust yourself. And this trust is where safety lies.

Solitude and Fear

This weekend, I went on a one-woman writer’s retreat. There’s a cabin on Whidbey Island that I found listed on Airbnb a few years ago. It’s a single-occupancy dwelling nestled in the woods, complete with a strong wifi signal and three thesauruses. It’s designed specifically for writers. I bookmarked it and periodically came back to it, thinking, one day, I would go there.  Not today, though. Not this month.

I told myself it was because of my toddler. Wouldn’t it be cruel to leave her behind for three whole days? How could I explain my absence to her?  It seemed a luxury I couldn’t afford. But truthfully: I was afraid. I was afraid of being alone, for vast stretches of time. I thought I might die of boredom, or of missing my daughter. More realistically, I thought I might have a mental breakdown being alone with my thoughts. The more I thought about it, the more I began to dread the specter of my own company. So I avoided it for many months.

My husband kept bringing it up, every so often, but I always had a good reason why now wasn’t a good time. Eventually, my sister told me I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like that. Of course, she was right. It was a little counterproductive, me standing in my own way. So, I booked it, even though the decision itself was made with much trepidation. Even, at times, regret. But the cabin had a very strict no refund policy, and so it was decided.

I cooked three day’s worth of food ahead of time and braced myself for solitude. If I was going to do this, I was really going to do it.  I didn’t want any distractions. (I didn’t even pack wine.) Instead, I packed several notebooks and several more books. I wanted to brainstorm my next writing project, journal, and read. Maybe do some yoga and meditation. And I did all those things. But mostly, I just sat around and thought.

I thought a lot about fear and how difficult it can be to express when you are afraid. It feels somehow humiliating, an infantilizing admission. I also felt a bit unreasonable in my fear, like I didn’t deserve the opportunity if I was only going to be angsty about it. (Funny how the mental admonitions of adult-me sound like echoes of emotionally neglectful parents.) Of course, it’s not patently unreasonable to be unnerved at spending three nights alone in an unfamiliar cabin in the woods, away from everyone you know, without so much as a car or reliable phone service.

Regardless.

I was able to parse through my thought processes and really analyze the fear that I hold inside of me. The fear wasn’t the problem so much as the denial of it was. The avoidance, the minimalizing. That’s what people have been doing to me my whole life, but it’s weirdly terrifying to realize that I do it to myself.

But fear is so human. When we avoid our fear, when we attempt to will it out of existence, we only succeed in diminishing our own humanness.

There are a lot of things I fear, many of them I don’t even think I can acknowledge properly. Some of these feelings have been forced down for so long that I no longer recognize them for what they are. It’s a long process to unravel the knotty threads that kink and bind your perception. Solitude helps. Facing yourself–your true, human form–honestly and gently, is perhaps the best antidote for fear.

NaNoWriMo: Halfway Point & Excerpt

25K written, halfway through.

Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote today–obviously very rough, weird draft. Sorry, if it’s not clear what I’m going for, it’s supposed to be a page of a letter from the main character, this wellness guru/religious leader. It’s roughly modeled off of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians and Song of Songs, so hopefully that explains the strange tone somewhat.

Love is another illusion. It is one of those grasping, desperate attempts to outwit your natural solitude. You may fool yourself for a while, but sooner or later you will recognize love is an illusion that cannot be sustained for long.

Ultimately, it is a betrayal. Sometimes this betrayal is like cold, slick metal between your ribs. Other times it is a dull constant aching, like a cyst, like a cancer. Either way, it will eat you from the inside. You will be changed. Look at me. I was in love once, I was cut from the inside out. My whole body, a thousand tiny cuts. I will bleed away, eventually.

It is like that wonderful dream where you have found the Other, the one who completes you, the one who can look into your eyes as if they were her own, the one who seems like they can reach into your heart, and gently, gently, cradle it. They have entered your bloodstream, and you feel overwhelmed with joy. You feel as though you have found what you had been missing all along. That precious, vital thing that had been cut out of you so long ago, returned and now you are whole. You are, at last, yourself. Only, of course, you wake up. Everything is the same as before. You are not changed. You are the same person you’ve always been, half empty and bewildered. You grieve the loss of that feeling of wholeness, like a sawed-off appendage, even as you realize it was never really something you possessed to begin with. That is the essence of love. That is when you realize what the poets say is, somehow, true. He cannot contain you. You will vanish into thin air.

Ask yourself, for how long can you keep your beloved? You cannot possibility expect him to stay in there, inside your head, alongside those incessant thoughts, the gruesome doubt, the internal screams that keep you up all night. There is no room for him, either.