Monday, May 15, 2017

Carving Out Time and Space For the Creative Life

Whenever I teach a writing workshop, I always emphasize the treasures that unfold when we devote time to a creative life―even if only ten minutes a day. One woman in this weekend’s writing group said to me, “I’m so busy I don’t have any time to myself. Although I have always wanted to pursue writing comedy, I work three jobs.”



I asked if she felt she might cut back on the hours spent at work, figuring she was about my age when I “retired” from my career as a journalist. “You deserve time to yourself,” I said, at which she quickly protested that she deserved nothing. So, I suggested that maybe she had “earned” the right to slow down and enjoy a creative pursuit. Later, in our writing workshop, she wrote a few sentences, a memory, crafted in a way that had everyone laughing with pleasure.

Whenever our hopes, our dreams, our desire to dip a toe into the creative life are stymied
―whether by ourselves or others―it saddens me ... not just for the woman, herself, but the gifts to others that may never come to fruition.

I often see in my writing workshops so much untapped potential. In our short session I led on friendship―using a poem by Robert Frost as a writing prompt―one woman created a wonderful little poem right off the bat. (The Frost poem was about setting priorities for what matters in life.) She read her poem to the group and everyone liked it, encouraging her to say, “Oh, I love writing poetry, I always have. It comes easy to me.”

The “coming easy” part is particularly revealing.
My memoirs practically wrote themselves. No strain, no heavy lifting. Tapping our creative muse, our voice and spirit as we tell the stories we long to share, feels invigorating … a healthy and powerful step toward a richer life.

Later, we chatted and she again brought up how much she had enjoyed the opportunity to write a poem and read it aloud. “Have you ever thought about publishing a poetry chapbook?” I asked. She looked away, flustered. “Oh no, I don’t think I’m ready to publish anything.”

Whether we write, or paint, make music or cook up a new recipe, unlocking the creative spirit nurtures the very best in us while at the same time fostering community and fellowship.

When I first started the Women’s Writing Circle,
I wrote this, which turned out to be one of the most popular posts on the blog. It’s titled: Devoting a Morning to Ourselves. I knew it hit a chord with the simple message that support and validation energize the woman’s creative pursuit to devote a morning to herself.

As Julia Cameron writes in the Artist’s Way, we can “recover” our creative selves at any age, any stage of life.
"Creative living requires the luxury of time, which we carve out for ourselves―even if it’s fifteen minutes for morning pages and a ten-minute minibath after work. Creative living requires the luxury of space for ourselves, even if all we manage to carve out is one special bookshelf and a windowsill that is ours ….”

As I write this, I “indulge myself” in the quiet of my living room. Yes, I have things to do, obligations to meet, but for now I ponder sunlight as it streams through the window with a view of purple and pink petunias in a hanging basket. I ponder the last gasp of the white azaleas as they drop their delicate flowers on the driveway, a visual reminder that soon the heat of summer ushers in a whole new season, a whole new morning with no time to lose to create the life I long to live.

How about you? Can you share how you create the time to find room for creative pursuits, or, how difficult it can be to do so?

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sheryl Sandberg, Widowhood and Life Stories



I wrote a memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, about the loss of my husband to cancer when my kids were seven and eleven. There is much to be said for writing our sad stories, so long as there are universal takeaways that readers can apply to their own lives. Then writing our stories is a true gift.

That’s a comment I left in The Washington Post comment section after reading a column, Sheryl Sandberg becomes a most unlikely Every Widow.

Written by a woman who lost her husband to cancer, the column's headline with the  phrase "every widow" immediately caught my attention. Are widows equated to "everyman?" Do we all share a universal journey, a club, as my father used to say, "no one wants to belong?"

Probably, although one widow can never speak for all of us. No one person holds the copyright to this story.

Sandberg’s book Option B is a self-help book on losing a husband when you have young children. I haven’t read it and won't. I'm not interested in revisiting the past, that way. I'm older now. Wiser. My sons have grown into men. It's been a rocky road but we're all still here, surviving as best we can.

Sandberg, the author of Lean In, apparently offers a new generation her thoughts on widowhood when you have small children ... children who one day wake up and just like that have no father. She's a celebrity so she gets a lot of press on this. Still, though, it's helpful. Good for her for sharing her journey.

Like Sandberg, I felt my sons' welfare was my priority after John died―although there is no “one size fits” all way to get through a tragedy of this magnitude, no self-help book, no how-to manual on grief's trajectory. It's flying on a trapeze without a safety net.

I remember I talked to my boys … “Always remember your dad,” I said, sharing my stories and anecdotes of the man I loved. It was that simple. I had no one―not really―but my children. They offered me solace. (Rule No. 1. Don't always try and be in control.)

Then I remember … Daniel at seven years old, running into my bedroom as we got ready for a school concert. “Mom can you tie my necktie?” I felt helpless, I had no idea how to tie a tie! For a minute, I panicked. What kind of a mother was I that I couldn’t even knot a little boy’s necktie? How would I ever manage? What kind of men would my sons become without a father by their side?

John’s parents weren’t around and my own father would die seven months after John. So, "option B" was suck it up, along with the slow realization that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds ...  the pain just becomes a little less intense. What I found unfathomable after John died was that someday I would be old and look back and say, “Oh, he has been gone now thirty years.”

Seven years from now I will be at that moment.

As writers, our task is to share, not just by offering helpful information and coping strategies, but stories that touch the human heart, testimonies that we are not alone. That said, we can’t burden our readers, rather, we offer them a reward. At the end of the road is the wisp of hope … we will fly again, along with the knowledge that life isn’t fair and it isn’t our fault when terrible things happen to good people.

****

This same week the Sandberg column ran, the Washington Post ran another story: Diane Rehm, at the age of eighty, is getting remarried again and “that no one is more surprised than she.”

Rehm’s story sounds like a happy, happy story of two old people who didn’t want to be alone anymore. They had known each other forever. (There's no old high school boyfriend about to pop back into my life.) But I'm happy for her. Despite the knowledge that with age there comes fewer and fewer dates, we all need to live with the hope that when we least expect it, something wonderful can happen,

I suppose it’s all about your purpose and your life. That's where life story writing comes in. You get up in the morning, put the dog out, make a cup of coffee and start putting pen to page ... and soon, very soon you know that whatever happens, it's all going to work out just fine ... or, at least, the way it should.

Your comments and thoughts are welcomed.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Woman Alone Shines In Memoir―"A Three Dog Life"


When I tell people I’ve written memoirs I often hear the refrain: “I couldn’t write a memoir because there’s nothing special about my life.” I usually protest, “Oh, yes, you could because every life, however ‘ordinary’, is unique.” Therein lies the success of Abigail Thomas’s bestselling memoir A Three Dog Life. She isn't a celebrity. She's a writer who writes about the extraordinary within the everyday life and it turns out to be a pretty amazing, cozy and heartfelt journey for her readers.

She has a story to tell and she wants to tell it.

A Three Dog Life is one sixty-three-year-old woman opening a window into grief mingled with gratitude. Within that framework, Thomas proffers lessons shot through with light that resonate the universal experience.

Take living alone with dogs, which is something I’m familiar and wrote about here in this blog post. Although Thomas has three (I only have one), dogs provide perfect comfort and companionship; indeed, the idea of ever living with someone again (her husband Rich is in a nursing home after suffering traumatic brain injury) is beyond her reality. She is, as she puts it, “okay alone.”

More than okay. Happy.
“Nobody shoos my dogs off the sofa or objects to the three of them with sardine breath farting under the covers in bed at night. I like moving furniture around without anyone wishing I wouldn’t or not noticing that I have. I like cooking or not, making the bed or not, weeding or not. Watching movies until three A.M. and no one the wiser. Watching the movies on a spring day and no one the wiser. To say nothing of the naps.”

Thomas writes no-nonsense. She admits she bullied Rich for not finding interests after he retired as a journalist, but guilt is not in her lexicon anymore. And I could hear her exhaustion with men who take up so much energy.

She's a writer content within her own head. And, of course, she has the dogs.

From the beginning of A Three Dog Life we’re journeying with an idiosyncratic woman; one who removes her green and pink polka-dotted shoes and changes her unmatched black socks with red peppers in the middle of a Barnes and Noble while browsing shelves for Montaigne and Vivian Gornick.

Thomas probably wouldn’t have been a close friend of mine if we’d happened to meet; she's a bit spacey, reminding me of hippies back in the day who seemed neither intent on nor caring to deal with the reality of money or career as I felt obliged to do for over thirty years; but I value Thomas for her self-acceptance; her I-don’t-give-a-damn what other people think. She draws me in with her honesty ... not feeling sorry for herself. Her grief over her husband’s horrific accident―he was walking their beagle Harry one night in Manhattan when the new leash she bought snapped; her husband chased the dog and was hit by a car―is palatable but not all-consuming.

“I found my husband in a pool of blood, his head split open … part of his brain descended into his sinus cavities … his skull fractured like a spider web. Everywhere.”

“How do you feel about your dog now?” she is asked after her husband’s accident. “I found it a peculiar question,” Thomas writes. “I couldn’t get through this without Harry” … his “small warm body” snuggled up against hers at night combines “grief and gratitude.”

Later, years later, she describes grief  “like a hot coin” on her chest. Then one day the burning becomes intense, the floodgates open, yielding a cascade of tears ... a three dog life. (Australian Aborigines slept with their dogs for warmth on cold nights, the coldest being a "three dog night." ~ Wikipedia)

My dog Lily
We never learn whether Thomas has a religious life, we don’t know much about her childhood, although the “ancient wisteria that grew by my windows is forever the smell of hot summer …”.

The memoir is a series of vignettes with her husband's accident, his brain injury and the dogs as the unifying threads. Giving up smoking cigarettes; gaining weight; meeting Rich, draw us into the ordinary life shot through―as most lives are―with one sudden irrevocable tragedy. We don’t learn about her marriages before Rich, or her children. She declares early on in the memoir she is not interested in the past or the future. As women alone often do―she lives in the moment.

Thomas didn’t start writing until the age of forty-seven, thinking she wasn’t “very good at it”; then she stopped trying to “imitate the voice of the woman” who told her a story and tried writing that story from another angle in her own voice and discovered she had something she liked.

In the end, you can't help but appreciate and relish the extraordinary lessons learned by this writer living the ordinary life―a woman alone.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Confidence of Memory―Memoir Writing


I have been reading Abigail Thomas’ memoir A Three Dog Life. It’s a quick, easy read and I’m almost done. The book, as one of its critics said, is “shot full of light,” meaning insights and takeaways abound. Which is helpful for me as I start teaching a four-week memoir class tonight. Reading another writer always helps clarify your own thoughts about writing, voice, storytelling that you hope to impart to others.

My class was advertised as “Getting to the Heart of Your Story.” And while this might seem simple enough, it is the most complex piece of the memoir writer’s journey―for one reason. Can I trust that my memory is true? Answer 'yes' to that question and the story falls into place.

Thomas writes how a friend once accused her of "stealing" a memory. Not only that, but of getting the memory wrong, infusing it with gratitude, not with the grief her friend recalled.


“For days the same questions went through my head. Is memory property? If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn’t my memory of a memory also real?"
The answer, Thomas writes, may be this. Everyone adds layer upon layer of memory to one story. And in the end, “the art of storytelling is too various to have any one person have complete control.”

Think of an eccentric aunt, a cousin who drifts in and out of our lives and then disappears. Everyone adds their own recollection of that person, infusing the stories with individual memory and perspective, an intricate weaving of many threads.

At the end of the day,
you have to trust your instinct, your voice, your emotion. How you write the story is also up to you. Throw away the rules. And as I often say to novice memoir writers who worry that so and so will be upset at what they write, “Let them write their own story.”



If I teach anything the next four weeks, it will be this: Getting to the heart of your story requires acceptance―this is your story, your memory, your recollection. Tap into the emotion, mine the grief, or the gratitude. Relish the confidence that your voice, your recollection, your story matters. Then go ahead, put the pen to paper and enjoy.

Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Memoir Moments―Writing and The Woman Alone

From rampant misogyny during the presidential election to all the president’s white men making decisions about women’s health and birth control here and abroad, it’s been a tough, soul-depleting year for women. War, attacks and machismo … feels like a state of emergency.

That’s where writing comes in. I don't believe it's an overstatement to say writing is saving the lives of many women, especially now, at this moment in history. It offers a positive path forward, a way to sort through the rubble―the destruction of any hoped-for progress―and it winds back to the inspiration that comes with the life examined on our own terms.

With a little help from my friends―my writer friends who came to our Women’s Writing Circle critique session earlier this month―it gets better as together we offer visual depictions of our lives through writing and story. Who can write in a vacuum?

The power of a writing group resides in the validation and the support that your words resonate, that your opinion counts. We all suffer from a lack of confidence and our world only makes it harder for women to move forward with confidence and clarity. A writing circle provides valuable insight into the lives of women.

****

The woman alone has been a topic I’ve been pursuing in my writing and have shared in the Women's Writing Circle. Perhaps, I will delve deeper or even repurpose this with other blog posts I’ve written over the years, or turn it into a separate memoir or creative presentation.

Although many people want something light-hearted. Take my talk on Nepal, for example. My ramblings about Buddhism and the Nepalese culture appeal; women writing as a way of healing, perhaps not so much.

***

Like May Sarton, I feel blessed that I have this time in my life to think, to ponder, to work on my craft―which is creative writing steeped in memoir and the personal essay. I stress the creative part because it seems like another world now where I wrote solely as a journalist―reported on what I saw and heard and the people I met, although I always believe and always will that journalism gave me a strong foundation to stay “on track”―what is my story about, how to keep the story moving and the “facts” relevant to a larger picture? Creative writing “stretches” me; to see beyond the facts and bring a lyricism, metaphor and artistry to my attempts at expression. It is hard work and I work hard at it.

***
How many of us have known people who avoid solitude as if it were an illness? Who enter into a bad relationship because they fear being alone? Who live in a turbocharged atmosphere of perfection and accomplishment of their own making? Who miss out on the radiant red and yellow tulips glowing in the April sunshine, as if pondering them is a luxury reserved for dreamers and poets? Solitude―and the luxury of not having to go to a depleting job or take care of one's family anymore―is my fortune. And it is integral to my life as a writer. It’s beautiful. It’s lonely. Like much of the writer’s life, paradoxes abound. 

***

Having a dog is a pleasure. There is no contradiction, no puzzle. Lily is almost Zen-like. Calm and steady, wise and farsighted, she lives totally in the moment; her will at one with mine, the perfect companion for the woman alone. If I want to take a walk, she is ready. When I step out on the patio to soak up the sun, she is right behind me. As I head to my favorite reading chair, she curls up at my feet.

Her patience, her fortitude, her total commitment and unconditional love offer respite. She demands nothing except to be fed and walked. The past is not on her mind nor concern as to what the future holds. I watch her dream, legs moving, listen to her little whimpers … where does her imagination take her? In her dog’s dreamland, I imagine she sees herself racing through green fields, wind at her ears, cavorting with another Lab. Or maybe she comes upon the unexpected … being chased by a demanding owner.

***

Writing at will, in the moment, discovering where the pen leads; moving beyond confusion toward crystallization … the aha moment. This is my story. This is what I want to say.

Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Zen and The Woman Alone―A Memoir Moment



My son sent me this photo from his travels ... a tea house walkway in Kyoto, Japan. Photographs of walkways, trails and paths hold so much meaning for the writer. I have photographed many paths. They serve as visuals for the writer's way … where will the words, the writing lead?

This week my journey led me to my friend, who I hadn’t seen in over a year. She has been very sick. Serenity is elusive, especially for many older women. It’s not their fault. They have been victimized by a system tilted away from helping elderly women.

She saw me and immediately ran out of the activities room, hugging me and in tears, distraught over her situation. We spoke at length about her circumstances and we ate a lunch of salmon and bagels I had packed. People on the ward were crying, shouting, holding baby dolls. Many are in wheelchairs and need to be spoon fed.

This situation, my friend said, is contributing to her feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Her despair.

I want to practice Zen. Move forward yet remain in the moment, nonjudgmental, non-feeling, attached but not attached. She could be me … she could be any woman alone.

Her face is haggard, drawn. A man was involved. Aren't they always? A lot of emotional anger that he took out on her. Still, she defends him.

“I know he wasn’t much, but he was mine,” she said. “I can’t be alone.”

My journey has led me away from men, many of whom I view as unfeeling, domineering and controlling, predators even who use women and casually discard them. I won the lottery once, long ago. I'm not playing the odds anymore.

My friend has no desire to be in a nursing home. She understands she can use help, but she said she feels she is being manipulated by "the system." Yellowish-red bruises under both eyes and a scab on her chin and lip attest to a recent fall on the sidewalk. She shows me her forearms, deeply bruised from her brief hospital stay after the accident.

I want to think it was the system that caught her up in a maelstrom that consumes many of the elderly, although my friend is still in her sixties. But for now, all I can do is love her. Tell her that this is only a temporary situation.

Her room contains a small bed; she shares it with a woman who can't speak. A pair of legging-type pants smelling of urine crumpled on her unmade bed. I remove them and put them outside in the hallway in hopes the nursing staff might notice and wash them. My friend, a writer, has no reading glasses. Someone gave her a book on dogs. I had brought her a novel. Three times I ask about getting her glasses. A social worker/nurse on the ward said she had some downstairs and would get a pair. This had not happened by the time I left three hours later.


My friend and I talk about her being placed on the Alzheimer’s unit.
Does she believe she has the disease? She shakes her head. She said activities include looking at drawings and then identifying what they are. I point to a black and white drawing of a toilet on one of the closet doors. “Do you mean stuff like that?” I ask, and she says, “Yes. Stuff like that.”

A flash of her old cynicism shines through. "This is a disaster. How did it come to this?"

Then we reminisce. She remembers every detail of the day she introduced me to my husband. She is my best friend.

And the memory returns of a warm July afternoon. She and I sit under elm trees at the battered wood picnic table in her parents’ backyard. We are twelve and thirteen years old. We play with Barbie and Ken dolls, our whole world dreaming of the day when we meet Prince Charming and he carries us off to happily-ever-after.

Yesterday as I drove to the store, a man in a gray sedan pulled beside me, honking his horn, giving me the middle finger. “You c…! You cut me off,” he shouts through his rolled-down window. Had I? Perhaps, I hadn’t been paying attention.

But why did he have to use that word .... the c word? What kind of a man is so angry that he feels women can be ground under his boot heel?

Thoughts of how women journey into the darkness where a man is concerned often consume me. The newsfrom Bill O’Reilly to Bill Cosbyadds to the daily fare of abuse of women threatened with loss of career and, ultimately, their sanity. Some of my friends can't sleep, worried about the man they call "the Groper in Chief" holding power over their lives.

****

Did my friend end up in this horrible predicament because a man took her for her house and money? Did he emotionally abuse her for years because he had no life, no taste of success and took it out on her?

This is a cautionary tale; the fate of women, especially older women, if they are not careful.

I wrote this, not just for people who need to know about my friend, and the woman she is, but for me, as a healing journey, to put things into perspective. Writing does that. It offers a window into the hazy blur of something almost beyond our comprehension.

I look at the photograph of the tea house walkway; search for the serenity, relish the solitude, that Zen-like moment. For a writer this is essential. I have written about this before … as I have written about the cruelty of men, of the woman alone. I will continue walking this path to see where it leads.

Do you have a story of a friend who finds herself in a desperate situation? Do you have a story of writing as a healing journey?

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Spiritual Quest Along the Writer's Way


A writer does many things to present a compelling story to her readers, but perhaps the most important is conveying her message, her take on the world. In that regard, almost every writer must dig deep into her spiritual resources, her soul, if you will. Who is she? What is the divine power behind her creative journey? So, every memoir, for example, is a spiritual memoir; every novel the author’s own personal life experience and quest for grace and redemption.


Key to the artist’s creative muse, journey, spiritual quest is confronting the timeless battle between good and evil. This comes in many forms and faces. It can be the punishing parent who warns that if you publish this story she will see you in court and thus ends what might have been a glorious book enjoyed by many; the agent/publisher who rejects your work because he or she wants a “marketable” book, the sort of trash you have no intention of writing. It can be the voice within you saying, what I write is no good. I have no talent. This self-sabotage is often the darkest of places because there’s no way out except through sheer force of will.


This is where the dedication to the spiritual journey becomes even more crucial to the writer. She must believe that she has something of worth to say, that her journey is not just about her, but about the human condition, indeed, the divine power within and without her … the battle between good and evil. For that battle is ongoing every day in the most personal of ways, an affront to civilization, to decency. We see it in the news and in all the many horrific things going on here and around the world. Sin exists on a global scale.


Think of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (‘inspired’ after soldiering in the trenches in World War I); J.K. Rowling’s magnificent Harry Potter series; Rowling, a welfare mother, whose take on evil and attempts to degrade the sacred and the orphaned became an instant classic. Think of your own life; the son dying from addiction to opioids or alcohol; the growing malignancy in your husband’s body that slowly, cruelly is killing him right in front of your eyes and those of your young children.

The battle between good versus evil is epic.
The promise of writing is that we just might be reborn, that our creative quest gives us new life. At the end of the day (or the book), we, hopefully, find the atonement and redemption author and reader seek. It's a collaborative journey. Every great book offers lessons learned that readers can apply to their own lives, it’s both a spiritual and an educational finale for writer and reader.
Rose garden in New Zealand

Grace precedes atonement. Grace is our God-given talent and sharing that with others, whether through writing, painting, serving in leadership positions, volunteering, teaching .... Grace moves us forward.

As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, “Life is what we make of it. Whether we conceive of an inner god force or an other, outer God, doesn’t matter. Relying on that force does.”

During this Lenten and Easter season, I have been on a spiritual quest to understand the meaning of the Crucifixion. Why did Jesus have to die so horribly and in such a public fashion? And how does his suffering, degradation and inhumane treatment translate to our own lives … how can we believe in a God who lets this happen to people?

On Saturday, I attended a religious conference led by the great theologian Fleming Rutledge. One of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest, her message “hope in dark places” comes from the premise that we are constantly living in, among and around the forces of good and evil. This is the great battle that God has engaged with the devil since the beginning of time. But hope resides in even the darkest of places. Whether you believe in the Resurrection, I feel, is not the point, as much as do you believe that good will eventually prevail over evil and that the promise is fulfilled?
With Fleming Rutledge

On Sunday, I had the great pleasure to again share a conversation in church with Jerry Levin, former CNN network journalist, who was kidnapped and held hostage by Hezbollah.

Jerry produced a short memoir of his spiritual awakening Reflections On My First Noel, and a series of reports from the West Bank over several years and Baghdad during the opening months of the second U.S. invasion in West Bank Diary.

I realize that my journeyboth as journalist and creative writer has always been driven by this quest to make sense out of the senseless. As a journalist, it was to expose the truth. And as an author, the goal was to write about the power of sin, of great love and great loss, with love eventually triumphant.

The quest to make meaning of this fantastic, beautiful, dark and evil place called life is a powerful, God-given journey. I think it's safe to say it's a spiritual quest along the writer's way.

Your thoughts and comments are most appreciated.