What Painting Buddha Taught Me About Writing

buddhaFrom the time I was old enough to color, I wanted to paint. I kept saying “When I get older, I’ll paint.”

I guess I’m older now. It’s been poking at me with more persistence than normal. When I sunk into the mental process of deciding what I wanted to paint, I found myself drawn to the East.

I’m not religious, but I am very spiritual. There’s a clear difference to me. I see religion so often as a vehicle that carries people farther from the Divine instead of closer to it. They seem to get so wrapped up in coffee and cake meetings that love, compassion, and appreciation of the diversity of creation elude them. I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work, but if you study world religions that’s so often what happens. Each group thinks the rules they follow are the right ones and everyone else is simply misguided. Some religions are more tolerant of different thinking than others, but arguably any structure by its nature secretly (or not so secretly) feels right.

For me, Truth strings through them all. I have always been keenly aware that there is an amazing Source greater than me and yet somehow connected to me. My goal is to strengthen my alignment with that Source (or God or Creator–all names seem insufficient and okay at the same time) daily and by doing that, to evolve the world in a loving way rather than one filled with hate, discrimination, and fear. Simple, really.

Recently, I watched a documentary called “Inner and Outer Worlds.” It showed how to keep our inner worlds balanced in an outer world that’s constantly whirling about Tasmanian-Devil style. While watching, I found myself (as I have at various times in my life) drawn to the images of Buddha. The stillness and space of the images. During this same time frame, my husband had been looking for a Buddha picture that had been given to us from his dad years ago.

The signs seemed clear. I knew the Buddha would be my first painting and it would be for my husband. For a flash I was reticent about launching my introduction to my new paint class as the “Buddha Girl.” I live in more of a “crosses” kind of town right now. I’d be way better received if I were to paint an angel or Jesus on the cross. I suspected my Zen bend would make the other people suspicious of me. Not one to live according to what people think about me, I let it go as quickly as it came. After all, if I can’t be who I am at 50, I am certainly not connecting my inner and outer worlds well at all.

So I brought my many Buddha shots to my paint class. I flipped through them with my instructor and settled on the one above. I was excited that my new paint teacher, Sandi, said I could paint this in my first class with acrylics. That meant I’d have it in time for our anniversary. I felt the reactions from other painters. Some were intrigued, others suspicious as I’d suspected. Sandi was enthusiastic and highly creative. I knew I’d found a teacher who would let me play and develop my own creative channels.

As I brushed red on the white canvas, I thought about how similar painting is to writing. You start with a blank page. Tabula Rasa. From that, you create something wholly different than white. Ideally, anyway. You pour out part of your soul. You add color and contrast in characters and places you create. Your inner world has found a visual path to the outside.

While the first layer dried, I thought about the role time plays in the creative process. If you try to rush things, it can get goopy.But my real epiphany came while watching Sandi at work. One of the other painters had asked her to help paint an “eye” on a child painting she was making of her grandson. As Sandi dabbed her fine brush around the pupil, she talked about how every painter should paint portraits because it makes a person so observant. I loved the metaphor, eyes being windows to the soul and all.

So goes writing. I especially love watching comedians who write their own material. I’m an avid follower of “Last Comic Standing” for just this reason. The way the current comics are able to create humor from their fine-tuned powers of observing the mundane causes Roseanne to say nearly every week, “I love your ability to find a new slant on the mundane.”

That’s the sweet spot of creating anything. We all have it inside us. If only we quietly observe, we have all the material we need to create a masterpiece.

Artists Unite

faultFor the past week I’ve been surrounded by all things Green. John Green, that is. I’ve been a fan since the Looking for Alaska days. I saw him speak at the Century Plaza shortly after I read that at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference. Quiet and unassuming, I remember. And funny. When I saw Fault in the Stars at B&N a few months ago while trying to decide how to use a gift card, I picked it up. Good choice.

Even though I write young adult fiction, when I read John Green he seems to be writing a different genre, more evolved somehow. He seems to capture something I find elusive and I’d explain what that is except since it’s elusive, I struggle. I often close his books, saying out loud to anybody who happens to be in the room, “You, John Green, are the master.”

And while I love his work in general, I think Stars is my favorite. It feels like it comes from a place of pain inside him. I since that with authors, when they’re holding back. I find it brave when it’s there. While he gives the author disclaimer in the front that it’s a novel and he made it up, the thing that doesn’t feel made up to me is the rawness of emotion.

When I picked up the recent Time magazine to read the fascinating cover story “The Transgender Tipping Point” featuring Laverne Cox from my all time fave, “Orange is the New Black” series, there he was again. (I’m looking at Orange and I get Green.) In the article, Lev Grossman wrote about how Green’s Stars emanated out of a stint he’d done as a chaplain in a pediatric cancer center. Yep. Pain.

Then came the film release which was an amazing adaptation. We saw it last night and I definitely cry-cried. You know, that gasping-for-air-as-silently-as-possible-while-wishing-I’d chosen-to-skip-the-mascara crying? That’s the one. I thought back to Grossman’s interview wherein Green was on set watching his novel come to life. When a scene happened, all eyes turned towards him to observe his reaction. While he said he didn’t play a role in input, that felt like collaboration at its finest to me.

In between the bookstore, the Time article, and the film, I happened to be watching Ellen and there was Ansel Elgort who plays Augustus Waters talking about the film. (How he got through the whole interview without mentioning John Green was personally insulting to me.) He talked about how as they’d go from city to city promoting the film hordes of people would be there. Green had both tapped into the young adult consciousness and become, along with his brother, a social media genius in the way he’d played out the book tour. (The movie “Chef” is a “how to” on that, by the way.)

Watching creativity manifest in this way inspires me. First, in the mind of a true artist like Green. Then, in the process of creating visual art with the film. Choosing what to play up and take out is such a skill.  Next, in the acting of the character Green imagined. It’s pure magic to watch it all happen and I’m grateful for the artists that make it their lives to make magic.

 

True Words

mug shotAnne Lamott said something like if people didn’t want to end up being made into bad characters in her books, they should have behaved better. I always thought that was kind of funny, not that I’d ever use pen as sword.

But recently I was talking with a writer friend and realized I’d totally done it subconsciously. I’d killed off this person (and not in a very nice way, I might add) that had definitely annoyed me. I felt bad. What struck me most was that I totally missed it.

That’s just part of the fun of fiction, I guess. How often do you read a book and wonder if the author knows what she is revealing about herself by being quite possibly unaware of that. Writers are brave people that way. They know that they reveal their truest essence in ways they may not see, yet they do it anyway.

This is true even in non-fiction. I’m working on a couple non-fiction projects and am noticing that staying neutral is a challenge. I wouldn’t have thought that. Fact is fact. Yet, we all have a filter of some sort and even interpreting fact moves through it. Movie critics are probably the best example of this. Their reviews feel very much apart of their core personality to me.

There’s only one answer. Be nice to the writers.

Happy 50, Jamie!

IMG_0001Today I turn 50, and while I’m certainly taller now, some things don’t change. I still love kids, dogs, and blankies. I still actually have this afghan that my grandma crocheted about 90 years ago in that awesome 60s color combo.

I recognize that it’s quasi-culturally unacceptable to celebrate your own birth publically in a blog, but it wouldn’t be the first time I turned my head on the norm. That happens more and more the closer I get to 100.

I love birthdays–other people’s and my own–because they mark the day we decided to show up to this amazing adventure. I feel like it’s only right to celebrate each physical moment we have here on earth, be utterly grateful for the day it started…to grow, to stretch, to soak up each sunrise and sunset, to serve others and by so doing, serve ourselves most fully. So between the happy birthday phone calls, I will shamelessly hum the birthday song to myself all day long, not in an egoic kind of way, but in a grateful to have dropped by kind of way.

On the writing front, I had a great conversation with my friend Lois last week. We met at my first SCBWI meeting in a classroom inside Pacific Palisades’ Lutheran church where Lin Oliver did a workshop on humor. I liked her right away, better than anybody in the room, and we’ve been friends ever since– through moves, kids, through writing triumphs and challenges. Lois has many talents, but one I’ve always admired is her allegiance to daily writing schedule during first draft stage on novels. I can drag it out, distracted by life and a myriad of legitimate excuses. My first novel took me a year for a first draft, and 3 for one million (exactly–I counted) revisions.

But with the way the stars are lined up right now, and the shift I feel in my own patterning, we set a goal: I will do something on my current novel every day, even if that’s simply to open the document. It’s just time to establish a good first draft habit. (I will be on blog break next week while my hubby and I celebrate, but I will take my laptop and I will AT LEAST OPEN my document every day!)

The first night I started my new habit I went up to my desk (since it was not my carpool turn) and opened the document. I heard the kids get in the car and take off, knowing I had a solid 2.5 hours before they’d be back and hungry for 10pm after-practice tacos. In what seemed like 5 minutes, I heard something outside the office window. They were back. I seriously thought they’d forgotten something. I looked down at the time. It was 9:40! I’d lost all track of time. I remembered–that’s why I love writing. I lose myself there, like in the garden when I’m playing in the dirt and time stands still.

So far, 100% success for the week! Thank you, Lois, for always being there for me, letting me be there for you, and sharing this writer’s journey which is full of so many twists and turns. It’s friends like you that make it so much more fun to live on this planet and travel this journey.

With this goal, even today–between my Cyntergy class, massage appointment, humming the birthday song, and family dinner–I WILL open Intuition. The end.

Exposing the Shadow

shadow4Last Thursday I was scheduled for jury duty. I called after 5:00 and found out I didn’t have to go, free for another year from the summons’ police. This gave me all day Friday to work on my WIP novel. Sweet.

I woke up Thursday to my daily morning chef ritual, peanut butter pancakes and fresh squeezed orange juice for my boys. After I messed up the kitchen, then cleaned it again, I rounded up the three teen boys that I cart to school each morning and off we went. As we were driving, I started planning my writing time.

I should really do my exercise first. It’s important and it’ll get the juices flowing.

When I got back, I went out to our combo shop/music/exercise room and hopped on the elliptical for 45 minuntes. As I wrapped up my time there (and respective special on Jane Goodall I was watching) I planned my writing time.

It’s raining and I love sitting in the hot tub in the rain. Talk about creative flow. This will do it. A logical next step.

While sitting in the hot tub under the rain, I composed a Facebook status that was entirely too long. Here it is in case you missed it…

I’m not a huge fan of “read more” posts–subscribe more to the Twitter style of posting. But I feel it coming on so maybe just this once. Can I just tell you that one of my most absolute pleasures on this earth, one that makes my cheeks hurt because I smile so much when I’m doing it, is to sit out in the hot tub in the rain. Right now, the clouds are shapeshifting, white and gray faces and animals dancing together across the sky. The windchimes tingle one moment then ring out in a full orchestra in the next, moving with the wind. Towering pines sway amongst oaks as birds dive in and out of branches, chirping back-up to the chimes. The rain changes in intensity with the shifting of the clouds and when the drops get fast and fat, they look like the Bellagio fountains on the surface of the hot tub water. No, better. Because this is Nature and it is just pretty perfect as far as I see it. #Bliss

By the time I finished my hot tub time–and novella of a post–it was time to make lunch. And shower. And blow dry my hair…and my toes.Oh, and I needed to get the laundry started, unload the dishwasher, and check my email.

I looked at the clock: 2:00. In 30 minutes, it was time to go get the boys. Kind of hard to start now. Interrupt the flow and all.

I know. I’ll wait until they get settled, eat, and then I’ll knock out ten pages.

So back to school. On the way back to school, I remember my de-clutter program. I am organizing one thing per day in the house (a drawer, a cupboard, a closet) because items in the drawers have become unrecognizable.

I’ll do my pages AFTER I de-clutter the spice drawer. All that de-cluttering will be good Feng Shui and show up in my writing.

I pick up the boys, get home, fix food, de-clutter the drawer and then take my computer up to my desk for some peace and quiet. My husband’s on the other side of the Japanese screen that divides our desks asking me something. My son’s downstairs making noise about how we don’t have any food and need to go to Walmart.

How am I supposed to write with all this noise going on?

Off to Walmart we go to buy lots of things we don’t really need. And to Goodwill to drop off some of those de-clutter bags. And to Sonic because it’s Happy Hour and strawberry shakes are on sale.

Back home at 8:00 pm, I sit down at my laptop. I rework my first sentence three times. Add a word, take it out, add it, take it out, read both versions to my husband.

I’m exhausted. And, I reason, to start this flow now would really be activating.

Really, I should have some TV time with my hubby. He did, after all, help me on my sentence.

And that, my friends, is the dark side of writing for me. The only caveat is that the next day I wrote ten pages because I was so disgusted with myself. (Good pages, too.)

Thanks, Matthew McConaughey, for the Epiphany

Matthew-McConaughey-wallI had an epiphany this week. I think it started when we were watching “True Detectives,” a new HBO series my husband and I can finally sink our teeth into. McConaughey plays the best role I’ve ever seen him play, including his stellar performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Something was different about this role. He shines in a way his other picks have not allowed him to shine. The satisfaction he feels playing Detective Rust Cohle is palpable, and it makes watching it so satisfying. The energy comes through.

When I think about the writings I’ve loved, I can feel it when the author is having the same experience as McConaughey in this role. It doesn’t matter whether the writer is a poet, a blogger, a teen writing a paper, or a kid writing a poem for his mom. I can feel it when the person poured themselves into the words and they are not just a mere combination plate of syntax and correct punctuation with a simile and metaphor thrown in on the side. These are the writings that move me.

I can also feel it on the writing side which is why I like blogging so much. I don’t blog for my Ego’s sake, or my web presence, or to show off how to spell big words or just pretty literary quips. If those were my primary motivators, I’d quit in about 5 minutes. I blog because I’m really moved by something and want to put those feelings into language because that’s my playground.

This is also why I have to work on novels I’m passionate about, not ones that follow a formula and fit nicely into a commercial genre in the bookstore. If the feeling isn’t there for this 90% kinesthetic girl, the writing is going to be shit. On this, I’m clear.

This idea seems so basic, yet struck me so profoundly. Thank you, Matthew McConaughey, for the moment of clarity. It’s a good reminder of where my heart needs to stay.

Sacred Space

sacredspaceSome people fantasize about exotic trips around the world. Others crave fame, or recognition for their work, money, or admiration for their educational and professional accomplishments. Here’s what I fantasize about, right here to your left: sacred space.

The idea of sacred space is as old as man. It’s a concept I’ve seen played out by the Native American’s in beautiful ways. When I was young, we had a friend who was the matriarch of a Northern California Native tribe. Her daughter was the tribal shaman for a period of time. The daughter would go up to a mountain top (a place no non-tribal person could ever go) and she would stay there overnight while her mother kept guard on the ledge below doing ceremony. They knew this space would help accelerate the healing that needed to take place between tribe members and they gave it great respect and reverence.

The desert is also one of these places. Once in Sedona, we had a trail guide take us to sacred sites and perform Native rituals intended to help us see the world in a more connected way. He wrapped a native blanket around us and took us through a guided visualization commonly performed in Native traditions. Just being on the top of a mesa, looking out at the stunning valley of red rock and indigenous plants, with an eagle soaring through the lavender-blue sky, accelerated the experience in a way that couldn’t happen in a Safeway parking lot. The Sacred Space cemented the journey.

A friend and I were recently discussing this idea. She and her dying son had taken a sojourn to sacred spaces all across the country before his death. Each morning over coffee, they would share their dreams. Not long after their journey started, they started having the same dreams, and attributed that to the sacred spaces they slept in.

Sacred Space is palpable. N. Scott Momaday said when you’re in this space, “you touch the pulse of the living planet; you feel its breath upon you.” People sense it. They seek it out. They know when they’re in it. And when I’m in it, my creative flow gushes through me in a way it doesn’t show up in other spaces. Building one writing space, for this very reason, is something I crave. (Now, when I write, it’s often on the couch, or at my childhood home where I can get quiet and see the vast green outside, or in some other nomadic location, including my car while waiting to pick up my kids.)

I dream of a place like the one in this picture. A simple place, where I can see out into nature and crack open to that creatively flow. The same space where I can go every day. A place with a desk and a chair and maybe a small bed. I picture Thoreau’s cabin, which we’ve visited on Walden Pond in Boston. (I’ve only recently learned that he and Emerson were friends and Emerson let Thoreau put the cabin on the land as a place to fully commune with nature.) In this phase of my life, I care less about accumulation and more about the simplicity of space, the space that allows me to hear that quiet voice flow through and feeling its breath on my neck.

“If you have been in the vicinity of the sacred – ever brushed against the holy – you retain it more in your bones than in your head; and if you haven’t, no description of the experience will ever be satisfactory.”

― Daniel TaylorIn Search of Sacred Places: Looking for Wisdom on Celtic Holy Islands

The Writer’s Ego

babygoose2

Talk true to me. If you knew Baby Goose was just waiting for your stuff, wouldn’t you be piping it out like a rapid-fire machine gun?

It’s hard to be a writer and not be infected by the Writer’s Ego. After all, writing is a form of communication and if nobody’s reading, how are you communicating? Most writers I know write to be read, not just to pile up long strings of paragraphs in their bottom desk drawers to be discovered when they kick it.

When I think about the reasons I kept writing after college when I no longer had to, I come to this conclusion. All along the way people (teachers, professors, peers) stroked my ego by telling me I’m a good writer. I didn’t know that, but I recognized the pattern of that feedback.  I had friends along the way who I thought wrote well, but when the professor would say, “This is just crap,” they never wanted to write again. They were embarrassed. Ego and the dark side of Humility, crawling into the fetal position, and pulling the blankie over their collective head.

And yet so many writers claim to not write for anyone but themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not themselves that works as agent, editor, publishing house, reader, library, bookstore, readers. In the end, we write to be read and we want others to love it…all others–the gatekeepers, the readers, the librarians, the award committees. There’s always somebody to please.

Yet the message you hear over and over again is, “This business is so subjective.” What one person loves, the next reader can outline a list of bullet points about what’s wrong with it. You just can’t please them all, and you want to posture as if you don’t care, but there’s a place inside that wants to please the reader. As I was growing up. I never had anybody tell me anything except, “You’re a great writer.” I’m pretty sure if I had, I would have stopped. I may even resist posting Facebook statuses.

When Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson came to speak with American writers, he told them to find their own voice, that part that is uniquely them. We hear that over and over today from agents and editors at conferences who speak to both new and veteran writers about the elusive “how to get published” conundrum. But to be uniquely you requires not only a knowledge about who you are and how that differs from the rest of the Earth people, but also how that connects with the rest of the world. What I see much more regularly is people getting caught up in meeting the criteria of publishing, which often has little to do with being uniquely who they are.

What’s the Ego’s block then? When too much chatter lords over the creative process, it deadens it. It’s harder to access. When too many rules dictate the flow, the writing feels stale. On the other hand, at least for me, when I sit down to pour out on the fertile landscape of my journals, I see ideas blossom in a way that’s very hard to copy when I work on manuscripts. My current goal is to dismiss my Ego at the bottom ot the stairs, before I go to my office, and write like nobody’s watching.

Sorry, Baby Goose. Right now, it’s not about you.

The Torch Carriers

torchWriting blog? What writing blog?

I marvel at writers who are disciplined 12 months out of the year. They have routines where they spend two hours each day most days (or even 7 hours each day) on their works in progress or other creative projects. They make time for journal entries, stream of consciousness writing, snail mail letters, blogs. You, my friends, are the Torch Carriers.

I’ve touched this discipline at times. And if nobody gets sick, or runs out of toilet paper, or has one of those out-of-the ordinary demands that are ordinary in my world, I can keep it going for maybe a few weeks.

Then it’s like anything. My writing time–which I’ve so nicely slotted out on my Google calendar–has been mulled over by life and the priorities I’ve chosen instead.

And this is a choice. It’s not like a bulldozer from my subconscious emerges and I have no control over it. It’s that I’ve looked at what’s most important to me right now in the present. I have two teen boys, one here only until June when he goes back to Germany, and one here for the next three years. Those moments are measured out and of highest priority as I know from having a 26 year-old that these moments fly by so quickly. My husband and I love date nights and daily walks with our 11-year-old lab. Those moments are measured. I exercise every day and coach others into a healthy lifestyle. I meditate each day, and spend time learning something new (right now in the form of weekly classes) and this is what keeps me balanced and inspired. I’m not willing to give any of that up.

When the day is over, I ask myself where I might have fit my writing in and I may or may not see a place. I ask myself where I might find a place the next day and I balance my priorities accordingly.

Whether or not it fits, there is this driving force in me that yearns to create, to explore the ideas that flow through me like Niagra Falls and never leave my lips or my keyboard, to tap into that utterly divine collective unconscious that so often arrives at similar tracks despite the allusion of individual creators.

And I know I will. Meanwhile, I am so grateful for the writers out there who write daily and keep the torch burning. Thank you, Torch Carriers.