Many of my students sign up for a writing course because they have an urge to bring forth their experiences.
They want to write stories, poems, memoirs. Many have never written before. They don’t know where to start. What to write about. How to choose fiction or nonfiction. Many have confidence issues. Fearing judgement, they hesitate to share their work.
I understand the tenderness of the beginning writer, the courage it takes to put forth embryonic work and place it under the light of scrutiny.
Even though I had written professionally for years, when I was ready to put out my first fiction, I was terrified. The marketing and training books I wrote, the manuals, web text, and scripts, even the ghost-written articles—none were as personal as fiction. It took stern conversations with myself before I started sending my work to magazines, accepting the inevitable rejections, and sending it out again.
Now, after publishing many short stories, three novels, and a few personal experience narratives, I tell my students that I learned the most about writing from the effort to produce publishable work.
My writing teachers taught me much. So did the students in the classes and workshops I attended. Every editor I hired to advise me before I sent out a piece taught me something new.
Some magazine editors were kind enough to say why they rejected my piece. Some even suggested changes. Every time I looked anew at a rejected story, I found ways to improve it. And of course there was the exquisite pleasure when an editor said they liked my story.
The whole process was a learning experience. It toughened me and eventually became fun. Not to say I enjoy rejections, but they no longer stop me. It’s not personal. It’s the work. Which can be improved.
What’s important for new writers, especially those who start later in life, is to honor the urge to create. To bring forth and shape the nascent idea nagging at you. The images you know are part of a story. The characters who spring to life in your mind. The feeling that your experiences matter. Which they do.
We live our lives according to the story we tell ourselves. We change our lives by changing our stories. Whether we fictionalize our experiences or write searingly honest memoir, the benefits of getting them out of our heads and into the world are enormous. It helps us, and it helps others.
The drive to create is in everyone. It’s part of being human. Honored, it makes us more human. Our Creative Self urges us onward. It wants to be expressed. It wants to dance, with joy and abandon. Honor it.
So, write! Sing! Dance! Paint! Make a poem! Outline your novel! Decide you’re going to tell about all that you’ve learned! I promise, you won’t be sorry.
The stories of our daily lives have changed. We had no choice. We’re working at home. Not working. Home schooling the kids. Can’t travel. No baseball games, concerts, movies, or parties. We learned to operate on Zoom and discovered you can order anything, literally anything, on Amazon.
The changes were abrupt and startling. We adjusted and asked a lot of questions.
- When will it be over?
- Am I safe?
- Is any of this true?
- When will life go back to normal?
For answers, there’s no lack of stories.
- It will end in the summer.
- The virus will run its course like the flu.
- Only old people are at risk, so don’t worry about it.
- We don’t know what’s going to happen.
- The way the story ends depends on how we behave.
We find ourselves in the role of protagonist.
But is that anything new?
There are so many stories to choose from. As much as humans love inventing stories, then repeating and elaborating on them to entertain each other, this is different, isn’t it?
Yes, and no.
Before written language, people told stories. They relayed what plant was safe to eat, what trail led away from the lion’s den and which one to follow for water.
Stories based on facts won.
When the story is about our health, safety, how we work, and how we provide for our families, we want a story based on the best facts available.
But when the story is about how we respond to abrupt cultural change and how we feel about it, that’s different. It’s about our lives. We get to make it up.
We tell a story about how we’re doing. What adjustments we’ve made. What’s going to happen. What it all means. It’s how our brains work. They want to know the next step. An unfinished story makes them squirm.
We tell the story of our lives all the time. To friends, to colleagues, when we’re interviewing for a job, or talking to a realtor about buying a house. The stories may be snippets, short stories, or in some cases, novels. This is who I am. This is what I did. This is what happened. This is what I’m going to do.
Our story makes up our personal myth.
- I’m the kind of person who always . . .
- I love a challenge.
- Nothing stops me from reaching my goals.
- If my family had been supportive, I could have . . .
- Relationships never worked out for me.
- Boredom is the worst, so I go where the adventure is.
Now that life has changed, are you changing your story? Developing a new plot? Inviting new characters into it?
In fiction the hero’s journey is a familiar plot. The protagonist ventures forth, meets allies, vanquishes enemies, and after conflict and difficulty, seizes the prize. Whether the prize is a princess to love, treasure, or hard-won knowledge, he meets his destiny. He was brave and developed skills.
Another journey is that of the heroine, taken by both men and women. It does not require a quest, but instead follows an inner path where memories, feelings, and beliefs are examined. The goal is to be authentic. The heroine examines her values, decides how much of the common wisdom applies, and who she will be in the future.
This time seems perfect for the inner journey, a pause to examine our lives, notice our reactions to the changes we’ve had to make, and decide what can be left behind. As we move forward, we may need a new perspective. New plans. A new attitude.
If you’ve thought about writing the story of your life, for personal development, legacy, or memoir, this may be the time. Especially if that story is changing. Writing helps sort things out so you can become the conscious narrator of who you are and who you will become.
I offer a class on Writing the Story of Your Life through UNM Continuing Education. Contact me to learn more about it.
I have always written visionary fiction. It wasn’t as much a choice as how I perceived the world. Dreams, visions, alternate realities that peek from behind the veil, reincarnation, ghosts, messengers from other worlds—all the stories that dropped into my mind included these elements. When I sat down to write, I wondered how to incorporate them. What was I writing? Science fiction? Fantasy? Magical realism? As it turned out, all of the above.
As old as recorded literature, visionary and metaphysical fiction is now considered a sub-genre of speculative fiction, along with science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
In the Iliad and Odyssey, spirits spoke freely and generally interfered in the lives of mortals. In The Divine Comedy, we learn how one visionary experienced the afterlife. H.P. Lovecraft made us feel the dread of cosmic horror. And Paulo Coehlo enchanted us with the story of a boy pursuing his dream as he learned about magic and alchemy in The Alchemist.
So what makes a story visionary?
The purpose, for one thing. All stories must engage and entertain, but not all stories encourage readers to expand their view of what’s possible. Visionary fiction tells us about places, times, and beings we cannot perceive with our five senses. A leap of faith is needed. It encourages readers to expand themselves, to explore their own depths and engage their imagination. Visionary stories tease our creative brains as they challenge us to seek for the line between real and unreal.
But how does that help us now? In today’s world of pandemic disease, racism, uncertainty, and polarization, what value could an imagined journey to a made-up world have?
A lot, actually. The best fantasies, myths, and fairytales speak from the unconscious. The language of the soul, they offer the wisdom of the twilight world couched in symbol and archetype. They speak of the emotional, the intuitive, and the underlying connectedness of all life. Our frazzled minds may not understand, but our hearts do.
To solve personal and societal problems, we need new perspectives. The old ways are crumbling and traditional solutions have driven us farther apart. So why not look to visionary literature for clues?
To expand individual consciousness, a person turns inward. This is shadow work, the search for what was denied. Jealousy, anger, blame, fear, competition, dishonesty—all the emotions and impulses we prefer to ignore—end up in the shadow. If not attended to, they re-appear at the worst possible moment, causing us to say and do things we regret. Think of all the acts of violence perpetrated by people described as “quiet, polite, never caused any trouble.”
Only as we accept our “negative” emotions can we attain deeper levels of insight. Only then can our creativity blossom.
To face the shadow standing at the cusp of light and dark requires commitment and intention. We must be brave. Admit we’re not perfect. And make the journey down into ourselves. Into our bodies. Our past.
In my meditations, the entrance to the underground appears as a cave, sometimes a crack between two rocks in the desert. Like the shamans of old, to notice the door is to be invited to enter. Anyone can do it, even though most walk on by.
If we choose not to enter, we can hang on to our established beliefs. The trick is that what we don’t recognize within will be met outside. To heal the shadow in ourselves and society, we need to acknowledge what is uncomfortable. Climb down off that mountain of certainty. Which is exactly what the best visionary shows us how to do.
If we want to participate in healing the global changes causing so much fear and confusion now, being aware of our personal shadow is a good first step.
Another step is to notice what in us is similar to what we judge on the outside. For most people, this is a tough one. I have struggled with it. It means the end of blame and judgement. A tough one.
Which is why the journey to fantasyland, the underground, or the next star system is replete with struggle. Trials and tribulations. Dead ends. Attacks of the zombies or lizard people. It’s hard. Not everyone makes it. That’s why we read about it. We wonder, if we find the courage to go, will we make it?
For the journey to be complete, the hero must return with the treasure. Which may not be a gold ring, but something better. Knowledge. Perspective. Creativity. And eventually, the ability to look back with satisfaction. As Bilbo the hobbit said, “There and back again.”
We go into the darkness to bring back the light.
To read one of my visionary short stories, originally published in ABQinPrint, go here.
Well, here we are. It’s been a month since I’ve attended a meeting outside my home. A month since I’ve taught in a classroom. Since I’ve had lunch with a friend, gone to a movie or stood in line at the grocery store. Even for an introverted writer who loves solitude, staying home this much gets weird.
Every day I bike through my neighborhood with my dog. She’s well over a hundred in people years, so we don’t go far. Lots of stopping and sniffing. I want her to keep her muscle strength as long as possible, so I persuade her even when she’s reluctant. She gains enthusiasm as we progress and on our way home, she trots along beside me, wagging and smiling. I put her inside and go out for a longer, harder ride. Sometimes I walk a Bosque trail. Most days I visit the local park to sit under a Ramada and watch people playing with their dogs and kids.
Everywhere I go, people greet me. They wave from cars and porches. We exchange anecdotes about our dogs, our shopping challenges, the weather. I know twice as many of my neighbors as before the pandemic. Maybe because more people are home. Maybe because community is our only bulwark against the waves of tragedy and fear sweeping our land.
It’s so odd that now we express our love for each other by keeping our distance.
I’m one of the lucky ones who can work at home and order what I need. And suddenly there was plenty of time. The perennial excuse evaporated overnight. Without appointments, errands, and classes, I could be wildly productive.
But it’s a month in and I’m just beginning to settle down. I have written. I always do. But my productivity did not escalate with the additional time. I found myself dithering, staring into space, watching shows on Netflix I didn’t even like.
My old responses to stress—procrastination, obsessing on unimportant details—re-appeared. My thoughts and fears about the pain and suffering hovering over the world like a black cloud was the culprit.
I meditated and prayed about it. Took the practical steps feasible for me. Reminded myself that I am safe. I am healthy. At this moment, I have a place to live, food to eat, beautiful animals to keep me company, friends to call and zoom with. And now, I’ve started offering writing workshops via zoom. Why not? Virtual training may be the new normal.
Finally, it occurred. This is the time. To stop making excuses. To look at my reactions to the changes in our world without flinching. To walk the talk. Be honest. The reason I’m not working on my new book for six hours a day is because I’m nervous!
When I’m nervous, I procrastinate. I read every email, news reports, the latest statistics. Being informed is fine, but knowing all the details doesn’t help.
So what does? What helps us live with uncertainty? This is what I came up with
- Acknowledge feelings. It’s okay to feel anxious, stressed, impatient, depressed. Feelings denied only pop up later. Now is the time to admit that I’m human. I’m upset. I don’t like this. I want it to end.
- Make self-care a priority. A walk, a bike ride, a yoga tape, an online exercise class. Deep breathing, meditation, stretching, dancing around the living room. Now is the time to move—bodies and emotions so those negative thoughts don’t dig in
- Keep in touch. Call, skype, email, zoom, wave from the porch. Make a new friend while out walking the neighborhood.
- Help someone. What can I do? Who needs help?
- Tolerate uncertainty. There’s no telling how any creative project will turn out, so that’s nothing new for a writer. It’s a good skill to master. Now is the time to let go of trying to control things. It was mostly an illusion anyway.
- Take small steps. Now is the time to say, I don’t know, and move forward. The best cure for paralysis is action. One foot in front of the other.
- And most important, notice negative thoughts. The what if’s. The it might’s. None of them are real. They’re just thoughts. And thoughts can be changed. Dissolved. Replaced.
I am safe.
I am healthy.
I have what I need.
I can adapt.
I can create.
I can do my work.
I can love.
Vein of Gold, metaphorically the hidden treasure of our lives, is the title of a Julia Cameron book on journaling our way to creativity and spirituality. Her books are for people seeking to uncover their art, who may be stuck, or lack confidence in their ability to bring forth their ideas.
Since I perceive little difference between creative and spiritual endeavors, her work appeals to me. Also, the book is subtitled “A Journey to the Creative Heart,” which has been my journey.
When her first book, The Artist’s Way, came out, I assembled a group of women to do the work, a recovery process for blocked creatives. Every person in the group (I was the only would-be writer) made significant changes in her life. The process worked.
When the chance arose to work on The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart, I spontaneously said, sure, why not. Let’s get a group together. Afterward, I wondered at my motivation. After slaying the dragons that had stopped me from writing fiction, I wrote and published short stories, essays, and three novels. So I asked myself, what do I expect to get out of Vein of Gold other than interesting interaction with like-minded people (not a small thing!)
Part of my practice is to follow my impulses, so I started working with the book. Whipped through the first few chapters. Yes, regular writing. Yes, walking is meditation. Yes, play invites the creative spirit. Then I got to the part about writing about my earlier life. There, lightning struck.
For several years, I’ve been toying with how to write a book about healing. Much of my life has been devoted to healing–physical, emotional, and psychological. After a recent difficult period, I broke through another veil. I understood what I wanted to say and how to do in, in broad strokes.
Broad strokes are the easy one. The work is in the details, and I found myself sitting in fear and trepidation about reviewing earlier parts of my life. Considering past experiences is not always pleasant. Remembering can be painful. Putting them into perspective is daunting.
Illumination comes from unlikely sources. This morning on the radio I caught a discussion about how memory, rather than being fixed and immutable, is a creative process. According to neuroscientists, when we remember, we re-create the experience. The more often we remember, for example, our disappointing sixth birthday party, the farther the memory gets from the original experience, and the more different it is. Emotion, judgment, and later experiences all influence it. The influence can be positive or negative.
This explains why one of my therapists helped me re-envision difficult early experiences mentally, through imaginative journeying. It explains why energy healers can go back in time and heal physical and psychological patterns active in a family for generations.
MEMORIES CAN BE CHANGED!
Of course! I knew that! But it’s fascinating when science discovers the mechanism by which mystics, healers, shamans, and psychics (and some psychologists) assist us in changing our lives.
Now I know why I’m working on Vein of Gold. As I review the phases of my life, I can change the experiences I choose so my present can be more creative and fulfilling.
Today, the book seems a lot less daunting.
If anyone is interested in joining the Vein of Gold group that is still forming, please contact me.
If you’d like to listen to the radio lab broadcast, here’s the link
Have you ever felt stuck? At a stalemate? Not sure where to go next or what to do?
Trauma, illness, unexpected life transitions of all types can leave us at loose ends, not sure how to pick up the pieces. Maybe even wondering if we want to. Transition, especially the involuntary type, calls into question who we are, how we relate, what roles we want to resume or release.
After life changing events, we often need to change priorities, evaluate time and resources, develop or re-gain the crucial balance that promotes clear thinking and productive effort. On some level, we know that. The problem is, how to do it?
The uncomfortable emotional states of transition don’t help. Some people get depressed. Others feel anxiety about the future. Old habits thought long conquered may re-assert themselves. Unfinished creative work may look stale and not worth completing. New ideas fail to materialize.
Sometimes what is nearest our hearts is the most difficult to acknowledge. After all, what if it isn’t possible? What if we can’t find meaningful work, a loving relationship? What if we try and fail to write the novel or poem or song?
As a transition coach, I’ve met people who spent years denying what they most wanted to do, be, or have in the interest of security, loyalty, or the need to stay compliant with family or community values. Without exception, when they made the leap of faith and started singing their own song, miracles happened. Not everyone was “successful” in the financial sense, but all experienced an upsurge in energy, in personal well-being, and self-confidence. Taking the leap is hard, but so worthwhile.
I’m no exception, and am quite capable of staying stuck while terribly busy doing things that are not quite right. I rationalize, explain how I need income, security, something to do that’s not too hard because I’m sick, upset, or lacking in confidence. All the while, the voice in my heart reminds me to look inward, to walk the inner path where wisdom lies, often buried beneath heaps of excuses.
When I’m stuck on a project or need to get myself out of a difficult place, I remember the North Star, the brightest star in the sky that always points to the same place. The Center. The place within us that is most authentic.
The North Star is the meaning and direction of my life. Although I’ve always known I’m a writer, how to express it has evolved. No matter if I worked in corporate communications, free-lance editing, fiction or nonfiction, the needle always pointed true. The North Star gives life a focus.
When I’m stuck for an answer, I pick up my pen and start writing. Write long enough, regularly enough, and you’ll find what everyone who uses this practice discovers. The creative self within. The Muse waiting patiently to offer her gentle guidance. The wisdom of the heart. The well, the watcher, spirit, the inner guide.
Journaling for insight and self-discovery is a tool for everyone, not just writers. It stops the mental circling that is never productive. Putting thoughts into words helps us understand them and come up with new solutions. It helps us work out how we feel about things. Pursued regularly, it leads us unerringly toward our own center, whatever form that takes.
Try journaling for a week or two, at the same time every day, for about twenty minutes, and you’ll begin to see the benefits. Keep going and you won’t be able to shut out the light of your personal North Star.