Lessons from The Writer’s Studio and Completing Goals

Woman writer2I did it! I finished 10 weeks of The Writer’s Studio workshop. I had to go back and count them up and yup I have 10 new stories. Now I have nurtured a mini-collection of healthy seedlings–starts to short stories or dare I say chapters in a novel. As I mentioned in this post, I was filled with trepidation about starting (and finishing) yet another workshop. In the past, I’ve struggled with workshops, unable to process feedback without inciting more self-destruction. I would feel angry that fellow classmates did not understand my intentions. The stand-out authors in class became a source of judgment and comparison, rather than healthy competition. I would read exemplary writing and kick myself for not doing as well and began to spiral in self-doubt. What came next is obvious, I would lose the energy to write, my ideas began to stagnate, eventually settling into debilitating writer’s block. I never asked for help or ever tried to reach out. I would just stop writing, skip one class, then another and slowly fade away. The self-defeat would feed more distraction from the very thing I have always desired in life–to write stories.

This time around, I gave myself one goal, to simply finish every assignment and never skip a class. Not to expect Nobel-prize winning narrative, oohs and awws over dozens of well-turned sentences and standing ovations. I just had to complete every assignment, in earnest. But most importantly I had to show up, week after week, ready to listen and learn. At first, 10 weeks seemed a long stretch and I was concerned about keeping up momentum. I am VERY guilty of starting off strong and petering out by the end. But it flew by. The best part, I never missed a single class, never “called it in” and I felt energized the entire time. It’s hard to put in words the immense feeling of pride I have for achieving my simple goal, but on the night of the 10th class I felt elated. I might as well have gotten a call that I won a Pulitzer Prize, Booker Award and National Book Award all on the same day. (Yes I know this is impossible, they are not announced at same time, just go with my metaphor please).lady writing

However, there were some positive side affects to my goal, changes that I didn’t expect, huge tweaks to my creative process. Because of the time I spent, huge mental blocks have been cleared. New ideas and perspectives have been forged. Aside from perfect attendance, here are some of the unexpected lessons I’ve gained in the past 10 weeks:

1. An idea is only the first step-I learned not to get over-confident just because I had an idea for a story. The seed still has to be harvested and the work has just begun. An idea invites us to sit down, open a notebook, turn on the computer and begin typing. An idea is a tiny fraction of the whole process. It’s only the start. Ideas are everywhere; what I have learned is how to begin to make them alive.

2. Begin by writing an intention for the story-The Writer’s Studio process includes writing a prologue before we begin creating the story. This can be a short statement that includes the type of persona narrator (ex. first person-present tense), types of techniques (such as playing with time) and objective of the story. I also began to think about the characters and their back-story and relationships to each other, so I had some guidance. When I would stray or felt stuck, I would read my prologue and it helped me get back to the story. This is a very useful technique, one that will stay with me as I write.

3. Writer’s block is an opportunity to try new techniques-Of course I had writer’s block, even if an idea sparked right away in class. For the first assignment, I wanted to write about marriage and kept getting stumped. My idea had a personal elements and it felt hard to get on paper. So I decided to write in the voice of a male character, something I had never done before. It was liberating because I could explain the situation in a totally fictionalized manner, however I wanted. Later I learned I practiced a writer’s trick without even knowing it.

4. Readers need a break from bleakness and caustic tone-This is a big one for me. Many of the stories I have yet to write are bleak–drug addiction, abuse, mental illness, failed relationships–and what I have come to learn is that readers (and the writer) need space. It’s not that writing about difficult emotions is taboo, but being heavy handed, negative and dark for pages upon pages makes it tiring for readers to stay engaged. Techniques such as adding dialogue, surrealism, abstract sounds, humor or simply changing point of view allow the reader a chance to take a breath. When I experimented with these tricks, I felt I had better responses to very emotional stories.

5. Don’t avoid your personal identity-Until this class, I have NEVER written characters of Indian descent, maybe I thought they were in my head, but I would give them Western names, talk about American ideals and culture. My characters did not reflect my full identity and this left out a huge part of my story. I felt comfortable talking about others, but this tactic kept me away from the richness of my own blended heritage. I finally wrote a story about a mother and daughter, named Ritu and Meera. I was able to get deep with the theme of culture clash, because I have lived this and know the way an Indian mother would think or react. It’s mind boggling to me, that I have never written this story. I feel open to a very large portal of personal material. These characters are not Lindsey and Michelle (yes at first I gave them these names) they are Ritu and Meera.

6. Editing is where art begins to shine-As I mentioned above, an idea is just the first step. With the first 2 assignments, I gave myself little time to edit, mainly because I was so sure my idea would just pour onto pages in perfect form. (Silly me). Procrastination, gave me little time to edit and I only whizzed through a draft to catch typos. The third assignment was to write a scene focusing on setting and I forced myself to start early. Immediately, I wanted to write about a man and his peach orchard. I gave myself a full 5 days to write. I spent more time hacking away weak adjectives, choosing obtuse words to describe a world of mud and trees and peaches, through sounds, smells and touch. I worked to create movement, following the man as he walked around to check his crop. I deleted his thoughts and showed his character through actions. I learned to push myself further, strengthen and hone. I realized something obvious, good writing does not happen in one draft.(Yes, you can say duh). It takes time to make art.

7. Feedback is a positive thing-Last but not least, the act of giving and receiving feedback. First off, we all hammered out themes, techniques and the style of each piece out loud in front of a silenced author. I quickly learned to focus on the prologue and point out the strength of the piece. Nobody in our group was negative, we all were encouraging. If we there were places to improve, we pointed to it as an opening to expand the story. Not as something bad, or wrong. The mostly positive feedback, helped me get over my lack of confidence and I began to feel safe and willing to experiment outside of my comfort zone. I believe strongly, that to put down any art in the beginning phase is negligent. We all seemed to really enjoy something in every piece. For me, this kept me alive and not afraid to write. I think this is the trick to The Writer’s Studio method and kept me from falling off the wagon.

mechanical-writing1I hope this inspires all of you to keep on with your writing or art. I am beyond energized. Now that I have an idea, I know that is just step one. I have begun to create my own process and can’t wait to share my stories with more readers and continue working on my craft. I have signed up for another 10 week session and I can’t wait.

WordPress Family Award

I have been very remiss. Long story short, I am officially over-booked with the goodness of life. This is not a complaint, I’m just slightly annoyed I haven’t kept up. Today I move forward. Funny thing, I’ve been keeping exciting news to myself. I’ve been nominated for a WordPress Family Award, by David, a prolific blogger (and dare I say new friend) about many things but mostly music on his blog Sounds Like Orange. David is usually the first to comment on many of my posts, has urged me along and now nominated me along with many other well-written blogs. I am very appreciative.

Take a look at the list of blogs, I am in great company and David is a very adept curator on many topics. Part of my procrastination is the fact that I am still trying to foster my own “family” of blogs. At this point I don’t have 10 but I am getting there. (Sorry, I am breaking one of the rules, for now).

Having support and followers is what this adventure is all about, after all. I still have a long way to go in creating my community and gaining some influence but I know I am onto something true. This award is a sign of progress. It means a lot to be read and to know people understand my voice. I have keep it silent for so long, only blabbing away in person. Removing self-consciousness, so I can say what I want, how I want, has been the first liberating step towards better writing. This self-consciousness had held me up for most of my life. Every word I have written since, moves me further away from this barrier. I am older now, I have gone through a lot and one thing I know, being concerned with what others think is a huge waste of time, talent and motivation. If I have enemies, detractors and conflict when I was caring so much about other’s opinions, why not just give up and be free?

So thank you all for the support, I have gotten emails, words of encouragement along the way and I have to say every tiny bit keeps me going. Don’t be shy, seriously writing can be solitary but in the end the words are meant to resonate with many people. So your feedback, encouragement and ideas are more than welcome.

Thank you all for Listening Hard.

A Galaxy of Unrealistic Dreams

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I know I gave myself a challenge. A post a day the entire month of May. I have my ears open for topics that shift perceptions, ideas that inspire change in attitudes, kill off old habits and upend outmoded thinking. My intention is to celebrate change, inciting motivation in myself. An act of doing rather than dreaming. But I have already hit a wall. Becoming paralyzed with the reality that I may be nuts and may never achieve my dreams. At some point, I wont be unencumbered with all this time to nurture ideas. Trust me, I am soaking in every minute. Walks, daily meditation, reading, movie watching, writing fiction, writing a blog, slight networking, making healthy meals, photography, volunteering at school, journaling and napping too. I should feel better right!?! Isn’t the Universe supposed to drop some profound gift, open a pathway, guide me to a new bright future. All my wounds will be mere scars. My failures will transform into a triumphant success. Seems ridiculous to even think this way. Maybe its a load crap? The Ophrahization of the society. Just follow your bliss the world will be yours. Nonsense. This is some serious work!

And now, today I feel stuck. So I tortured myself reading an article about a fancy pants writer girl, she is 44 but looks 30 with amazing flowing hair standing in front of a vintage Galaxie 500, a mother, a wife, a talented writer. Her home is my distant, not-possible fantasy, “a two-story American Craftsman house…austerely decorated with vintage furniture and an eclectic mix of art, including a painting of a self-possessed woman in an evening dress by the Social Realist artist Isaac Soyer that once hung in her grandparents’ Long Island home.” Rachel Kushner is her name and I even want to read her book, The Flamethrowers. I’m not jealous, just in awe of her success. She started UC Berkeley at 16. Then an MFA at Columbia. She was the oldest at 29. TWENTY-NINE! See, what am I thinking? I will be in my mid-forties, if I can even get into a program. Reading about her, makes my dreams– a published novel (notice I didn’t say “highly acclaimed” but I am lying if I said that wasn’t important) a nice house, degrees, confidence to finish and get noticed–seem fit for another person’s life.

They feel out of reach today. The monsters of doubt are always within, lurking to take center stage. Some days, I believe what they say. Taunting me in my dreams. How in the world will you ever write a novel? You just started in earnest at this age. Time has passed and you’ve lost your chance. You’ve squandered it away partying in San Francisco. Your talent is limited and your dreams don’t match reality. GET. OVER. IT. This ain’t gonna happen. Successful writers work very hard. They are highly trained. Their teachers are Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan. They get mentored and advised. They get invited to Iowa to write in retreats. You can’t just write on your own without help.

It tells me. Be prepared for life in a cubicle. It’s calling.

I might be going at this all wrong. Maybe I need to accept reality as it had been. There was nothing wrong with my life until now, I just had an attitude problem. I need to get over myself and put my big girl pants on and join the race. The sidelines are for spectators and losers.

Hello there, you furry little demon.

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I get excited when I am onto something and it gets validated shortly after, this is the gift of taking time to listen. You can hear the whispers before they are glaringly loud, screaming in your face, keeping you up at night. Recently I cracked open and started yet another journal.  I use it as a place to write down the cruddier thoughts that are not blog worthy and this process really works well for me lately. I have a beautiful moleskine, that is asking me to treat it like a sketchbook, so I have been.

Turns out this is actually a good technique.  I am sure I read about this at one point or another, but this time I just started doing it and am still staying committed. Yeah yeah, its still early on, I am still motivated. But I remember last week, I almost gave all of this up and was trolling LinkedIn, Staffing Agencies and non-profit sites for a job?

Anyhow, I’ve been reading “Writing Down to the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg and each page has been a little gift of validation. I keep smiling because I am a step ahead of each chapter. She talks about demons (or as I call them gremlins) too. She describes the process of journaling as composting and says,

When your writing blooms out of the back of this garbage and compost, it is very stable. You are not running from anything. You can have a sense of artistic security. If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you. Besides, those voices are merely guardians and demons protecting the real treasure, the first thoughts of your mind.

Yes, exactly, ah—guardians and demons. I always hear them inside. The fight and roar, gnashing teeth and all, they have kept me in fear for a long time. Here is how I composted recently. Ever since I wrote this out, I have felt the floodgates open. The demons and guardians have given me entrance to my vault of riches.

Reason’s I can’t write. 1. I don’t know how to write 2. Nobody will read it 3. Everyone has read it already 4. It’s already been done 5. I won’t make money 6. I will fail 7. It will suck 8. Everyone wants to write 9. Not many succeed 10. I have nothing important to say 11. My story is boring 12. I don’t have time 13. I won’t have time 14. I should have started years ago 15. It’s too late 16. I am too old 17. I have no talent 18. I won’t finish 19. I haven’t started 20. I don’t write enough.

Reason’s I can write. 1. I have a story to tell 2. I want to share my story 3. I feel it calling 4. I can practice everyday 5. It doesn’t have to succeed 6. It doesn’t have to make me rich 7. I can work on my story little by little 8. I carry a rich past 9. I have a strong voice 10. People will like it 11. It will free my soul 12. I can know I tried 13. I will regret not doing it 14. My story should be on paper 15. My story needs to get out of my head 16. My story will be a good adventure 17. My story will be my legacy 18. My story will set me free 19. My story will help me heal 20. My story will help me forgive.

Give your gremlins a hug today.

I’ve  been struggling this past week. It’s to be expected. The gremlins of shame, anxiety and sadness are back. I am scrambling to make them go away. I know how to do this, right? If I just white knuckle it, work hard to dig out from this rut, pull myself up by my bootstraps and be strong everything will be fine. The feelings will pass and I can move on.

But this is what I always do in these times. I am an expert at pulling myself up from a heap. I always focus on ways to get stronger and tougher. But does that work? Once I power through, I can keep the gremlins at bay, sometimes for extended periods of time. But I know they are still living in my soul, ready to pounce at the first given opportunity. If I have anything to gain from this time in my life, I have to break my pattern and old habits. As of today, I have little experience with really trying to feel the feelings, to sink into them and let them be alive. I always try to fight back.

I was reminded to listen to Dr. Brene Brown today, I had listened to her TEDXHouston Talk about vulnerability a few years ago and her words resonated so well. Recently she gave the closing talk at Ted 2012 called “Listening to Shame” and I was struck by her main message:

Vulnerability is not weakness, that myth is profoundly dangerous. To let ourselves be seen and be honest is courageous. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before.

The journey I have set before me is scary and some of my ideas seem really far flung and out of reach. But in my core, I know there is more to my life than how I was living. I know that I have to listen more closely to the faint voices squashed in my soul. So far, I have had many failures in my life and I am starting to listen and use their lessons. I am not ashamed to admit I have failed. But the biggest mistake I make each time is to recreate the same scenario over and over again. I have spent very little time trying to understand the message. Even worse, I give into the old cycles thinking that’s what is best. I just push through the noise, fight off the gremlins and pretend to be tough. But I never give anything new a chance to grow. I tell myself not to be creative, or write or make something of my own because I am not worthy. So this time around I know it’s my turn to really sit with my vulnerable self and let her know I am listening and trying to learn. Then maybe I can start to create.

I’m Listening, to the signs.

I recently lost my job. It’s been a few weeks and I’ve been silent up to now, but I am strong enough to admit it out loud. This post has been aggravating my writer’s block so I have to get this out.  I am pushing myself to ignore the unhelpful voice inside that has stifled my writing for so long so each post is a baby step in a new direction. I am using this time to work on my writing and find a new path in life. If you know me, I always love a good challenge, the difference is this time I am going to try put my energy into my own projects.

Okay so, job loss. Here is the deal. I was simply told I was not a good fit. It wasn’t personal and I have good skills. But I was not what they were looking for at this time. I think that working for a start-up is not for me, so I agree with assessment even if it still stings. Working at highly competitive and high growth environment requires employees to give everything and anything to their work and to be honest this is not something I am able to give. I was doomed to crash and burn at some point.  I had way way way too much on my plate that I felt like I couldn’t even think straight.  I wasn’t “hungry” enough for the company. I wasn’t ruthless according to management. These attributes are not within me and I knew it when they said it and I was always worried. But I still tried and I still pushed and pushed myself against the racing pulse, sleepless nights, bitten fingernails and churning stomach.

But the hard work, pushing myself to the edge just propelled me into a dead-end. I felt frozen at times.  I couldn’t deliver at the drop of the hat. What I did deliver failed to meet my standards and never hit the mark.  It wasn’t long that I started to feel like a pathetic mess that had lost my way. I had lost all my confidence.  When I started my new job, I had confidence and drive. I know this came through in the interview. I was committed to marketing and helping the company grow. I said I was creative and managed projects that had good outcomes. I felt sure of myself. But that all vanished when the flood of stress and anxiety drowned my ambitions.

I also need to admit to myself (and others) that I can’t work 40-50+ hours a week. And go to school full time. And raise my daughter. And have fun with my husband. And have a tiny tiny bit of a social life. Yeah I felt overwhelmed and I felt like I was drowning, because I was. But I didn’t want to admit it.

I knew this wasn’t sustainable, yet I felt powerless to change the dynamic. I did not fail at my job because I lacked the skills. I was not able to contribute because I was too locked up in stress.  I’ve been ignoring the signs for a long time and so for the first time I am really listening. So here is what I’ve learned. I am not weak for listening to my mind and body. Having a few weeks to get into a routine that allows for long walks, healthy meals, naps and most importantly a re-connection with family and friends has been the best gift. My new commitment is to find a line of work, job or career that will allow me to bring these new gifts along with me.

I know this will be a journey and it will take some patience and time.  I know I am creative, energetic, friendly, smart, strategic and ambitious and I would like to use my talents on something that is my own. I hope I am onto something good. At least I am starting to listen, really listen.

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