Stand Up

Someone once said that strong people stand up for themselves but the strongest people stand up for others.

Have you ever ignored an opportunity to stand up for someone who was being disrespected or treated poorly? I have, and to this day it’s something I regret. It’s easier and far more comfortable to stay quiet. There’s always justification for not wanting to rock the boat, for wanting to avoid adding more hurt to an already hurtful situation, for letting rude or insulting behavior slide because you can see both sides of a given situation. I don’t want to get involved. It’s their issue, not mine. I hear those comments more than I care to admit.

The reality is that disrespect and hateful treatment, whether it’s on the world stage or between only a few, is a human issue. That makes it everybody’s issue. It’s not about taking sides, nor is it about seeking right or wrong. It’s about choosing love over hate.

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There’s a reality TV show called Love It or List It. Homeowners must decide whether they’ll love the home they’re in or whether they’ll list it. In other words, whether they’ll stay or cut their losses and sell.

Love it or list it. If you take away the real estate component of that show and replace it instead with human dynamics, you could rename it love it or lose it. Because if you boil any disagreement down to its pure essence, distill it completely, that’s pretty much what you’re left with. Will we choose to love or will we choose to lose? Will we be big-hearted, compassionate and accept someone even if we don’t agree with them or will we be small-minded, mean and reject them?

Love or hate. It’s pretty simple.

Last week it was the horror of Charlottesville. This coming weekend alt-right demonstrators are planning protests in Vancouver. There will be counter demonstrations too. People willing to stand up for inclusion instead of exclusion. People motivated by love and hopefully wise enough to demonstrate soulfully rather than aggressively.

I hope things stay peaceful. I wish I could be there to add my voice to the crowd. But instead of bemoaning the fact that I can’t get there, I’m reflecting on the Greek theory of the cosmos: that the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. I choose to believe that what we do in our own little world makes a difference. I believe that when we reject bigotry, hatred, disrespect or petty meanness on even a small scale, it adds a sliver of light to a dark corner of the world.

I believe I’ll stand up. I believe it’s time we all did.

Every Writer Needs a Lizard

Every writer needs a lizard. Or maybe a frog or a spider or, in my case, a golden ladybug.

We need a mythic animal or a symbolic touchstone where we can park our doubts when they get in the way of our writing. My friend Rachel has a lizard painted on the wall of her office. Lise has a stained glass frog hanging in her window. I have a golden ladybug. She sits on my desk as a symbol of luck. One day when luck seemed about as attainable as a trip to Mars, I looked down and there she was: benign yet strong, a little hopeful even. And perfectly capable of swallowing my doubts like her live counterpart swallows aphids in the garden.

Doubt is different than disappointment. In the aftermath of an immediate bad news moment like a rejection or poor sales figures or a difficult conversation with an editor, chocolate is a quick fix. So is triple cream brie or a bracing gin and tonic or a head-pounding workout if you have no hedonistic qualities at all. A walk & talk with a writer friend or a good movie help too.

I’m not talking about disappointing news. I’m talking about those ugly doubts that linger like the nasty cough that won’t go away after the cold is gone.  The doubts that say ‘you aren’t good enough,’ ‘this story bites,’ ‘the odds aren’t in your favor,’ or ‘find a real job.’

Doubt like that doesn’t belong at the desk.

In his outstanding book ‘Writing from the Inside Out’ Dennis Palumbo says writers need doubt in the same way we need faith.  It’s a mistake, he says, to strive to banish doubt, to see it as the enemy. “Just as courage has no meaning without fear, faith has no meaning without doubt. They’re the yin and yang of all aspiration,” Palumbo writes.

Most of us, however, want faith to win over doubt. We’ll take whispers of inspiration, encouragement, and hope over shouts of doubt any day of the week.  Not so fast, says Palumbo.  The more willing we are to mine our doubts, the truer and more recognizably human our characters will be

He has me there. Anything for the writing, right?

Okay, not so fast, Dennis. There’s a fine line between doubt and despair. And despair, taken to the extreme, doesn’t serve me.

Although, I have to be honest, doubt does serve me sometimes. That niggling seed of doubt telling me the plot twist isn’t quite right or the character motivation isn’t strong enough, that’s healthy doubt. Welcome doubt. But when doubt is so strong that faith is a distant memory, I have a problem.

That’s when I hand it over to my ladybug. ‘Take it and hold it and let me write,’ I say. ‘Just for today, let me have faith.’



Comfort Books for Writers

for_writers_onlyBGSometimes all you need is comfort: a warm blanket, a loving hug, a dog cuddle first thing in the morning.

Or a book.

I tried to cull my bookshelves last week. Tried being the operative word. I have more books than I have shoes, sweaters, and probably underwear too (I also have an embarrassing number of spices and condiments in my kitchen – Ras el hanout anyone? – but that’s not relevant to writing unless you care to know how I eat; the short answer is very, very well).

But back to books.  The problem started in early January when we took down the Christmas tree and put away the holiday decorations. You know that delicious feeling of spaciousness you suddenly have in the New Year?

I know it too. It’s one of the comforts of Bloatuary January. Except I didn’t feel it this year. Sometime between October and December, my book pile had babies. I’m pretty sure each title had triplets (Don’t even ask about my Kindle).

I needed to find space. So I went through a couple of bookshelves and pulled some titles to donate to the Goodwill.  In the process, I stumbled over books I hadn’t looked at in a while.  And one of those books brought me so much comfort at the time I read it I decided to put together a list of books specifically written to comfort writers.

These aren’t books geared to craft or business, though many writing books on those subjects also include terrific advice and comforting thoughts.  I wanted books where comfort, insight or advice, was the primary goal. Think of these books as a New Year’s tonic. A writer’s jump start. The equivalent of a warm blanket, a loving hug or a cuddly puppy.

Rejection, Romance & Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer by Laura Resnick.  Sharp, funny, honest and insightful, these essays on the writing life cut right to the heart of the joys, sorrows and rewards of being a writer.  On my keeper pile and never leaving.

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore. Though it’s small enough to fit in a back pocket or a bag, don’t let size fool you. This small book packs a big punch. The Mindful Writer starts by outlining the four noble truths of the writing life and then goes into four key areas:  the writer’s mind, the writer’s desk, the writer’s vision, and the writer’s life. A wonderful source of inspiration and insight.

The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes.   According to Keyes, inspiration isn’t nearly as important to the successful writer as tenacity.  And encouragement and hope are cornerstones to keeping that tenacity alive. Drawing on his experience as both a writer and teacher of writing, Keyes details some of the tactics well-known writers have used to maintain hope, particularly during difficult times.  Enriching and full of encouragement.

For Writers Only by Sophy Burnham. One of the first ‘comfort’ books I ever bought on writing, and still a favorite. A collection of thoughts from many great writers interspersed with Burnham’s own observations on everything from nerves and letting go to audience, productivity, and aloneness.

Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. Since Palumbo is both an author and a psychotherapist, he brings a unique empathy and insight into the writing life. A positive and fresh take on topics like envy, rejection, loneliness and the joy of commitment.  Wise, compassionate and funny.

 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  In spite of the fact that Lamott is one of my all-time favorite writers, I wrestled with whether to include this title because Bird by Bird does have a number of chapters directly relating to craft. However, in most cases they go well beyond craft, and reading them is more like having coffee with your favorite writer friend. That aside, this book is a must have for these three comfort chapters alone: Broccoli, Perfectionism and Radio Station KFKD.

Holding Hope in Your Hands

mindfulwriterIn a bookstore last week, I stumbled across a book I didn’t know I needed: The Mindful Writer ~ Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore.

I was away from home, trying to maintain some semblance of a writing life while helping family. It was a precarious juggling act and one with mixed results. There were glimmers of joy (my mother-in-law was improving; I scored some amazing dim sum at an Asian grocery store one afternoon) but there were challenges I couldn’t escape: a concrete hard bed, relentless rain, and – worst of all – a new manuscript that wouldn’t behave.

Never mind behave – the story was only embryonic but it was already on life support. The harder I worked, the less satisfied I became. Pinning this particular story down was like trying to catch a minnow by hand. Slippery, elusive and frustrating.

Before I left for home, I decided to stop at a bookstore and spend some time browsing. I’d probably miss a ferry because of this, and possibly even dinner, but I needed to be surrounded by books. I needed the physical reminder that stories do get started and finished, they do find readers, they do bring pleasure. Surfing an online bookstore wouldn’t cut it. I needed to smell the ink and flip the pages. I needed to hold hope in my hands.

Funny thing, after looking at the first few shelves of fiction – and reminding myself that some of these authors surely struggled at one point in their manuscripts too – I meandered into non-fiction. I checked out metaphysics, biographies, cookbooks, travel. And, as a matter of routine, I glanced at the section on writing. I didn’t expect to find anything (my library of writing books is vast; I don’t need more). But when I saw the title Mindful Writer I pulled it off the shelf.

A friend has been talking to me lately about mindfulness. About breathing. About staying present. About loving detachment. Her advice has concerned life circumstances rather than writing but I don’t believe in coincidences.

I opened the book to the quote on page 33: What crazies we writers are, our heads full of language like buckets of minnows standing in the moonlight on a dock. Hayden Carruth.

In his discourse under the quote, Dinty Moore says that the exact thought we have, the precise phrase or adjective we want, can be just as elusive as that minnow, just as frustrating to catch. We know what we want to say – all we have to do is say it. How hard can it be? Of course, he says, it’s often harder than we’d like it to be, and certainly harder than most non-writers would believe.

In case I needed more, in the intro Moore talks about the power of releasing control of a story, of letting the words and the characters take us in unexpected directions. “The less I grasped at my writing, the more it seemed to expand into areas that surprised and pleased not just me but the reader as well,” Moore says.

Needless to say, I bought the book. The Mindful Writer ~ Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore. A collection of thoughts and inspiration for the writer. Or as I like to think of it: hope in my hand.