“There is no other practice than this practice.” –Shunru Suzuki
The Most Important Thing, for Writing or Just Being: Doing Nothing
The most important thing I do every day is . . . believe it or not . . . nothing. It is a practice that creates nothing, and yet creates everything.
It is the most uncomfortable, most valuable time that I spend.
Here’s how I do nothing:
I stop doing things. I sit down. I stay sitting.
It’s mostly impossible, the doing of nothing. At the same time, it’s very easy.
When I’m doing nothing, I feel aches and pains, warmth, tingles, chills, complaints, tightness, impatience, restlessness, lust. My mind fills with fears, impulses, regrets, desires, calendars, TV shows, grocery lists, sadness, terror, joy, traumatic memories, contentment, beloved faces, betraying faces, story plots, breakfast sausage, protests, longing, leftover pizza, the inane song in my head.
I can’t change the thoughts or run away or distract myself or make something happen.
Doing nothing allows life to just be, along with its torrent of thoughts.
Doing nothing teaches me that the good stuff arises independently of my conscious control. In writing, this means everything.
There will always be a new idea, something to say. When the story is patchy or implausible or weak, I don’t have to jump up and do something.
I stay. Wisdom will come. Solutions will come, just like problems.
When I do nothing, I find Center, I find peace. I’m not capitulating in defeat or indulging my lazy side or avoiding anything. I’m acknowledging a greater Source of my creativity and life.
In classes, I also do nothing. Leading others into nothing. Whether on Zoom or (someday soon again) in a live setting, we close our eyes together. We breathe. We relax. We stop forcing ideas, pushing our secret inner agendas.
We tell stories; we write them; we read them. No longer do we have to make things happen.
We experience heartbreak, horror, violence, a scream in the night, or an officer’s knock at the door. We feel humor and warmth: giant clown cookie shoes; a mother-in-law in robe and curlers.
We acknowledge zest and surprise, a buttercup-yellow meyer lemon, a kiss on the nape of the neck, a car radio playing as we drive a dusty desert road.
Our writing, our creating, our art, and our lives brim to overflowing. We stop trying to fix the world and surrender, holding nothing we can grasp, moving beyond our tiny brain-space, freed to experience the universe.
In doing nothing, we are overtaken with story and truth and wonder and love—that is to say, we are doing our best work, in everything.
Writing at the Crossroads
“She was pretty shattered, poor thing . . . . She’d run her life according to the prophecies, and now, there were no more prophecies. She must be feeling like a train which had reached the end of the line but still had to keep going somehow. From now on, she’d be able to go through life with everything coming as a surprise, just like everyone else.”
—from Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
I came across a photo and was bemused by myself standing on train tracks. I was definitely feeling like I was at the end of the line, but as it turned out, I was at a crossroads, where life would never be the same. Sure, I was smiling, but my inner world was chaotic. All the rules by which I’d lived no longer were working; what was safe no longer felt safe. What was tried and true brought up a million insecurities. And yet the train of life carried me onward, almost against my will.
I love this quote from the hilarious book, Good Omens, because it could have been about me. I’d had scripts for how things should go—prophecies, if you will. But now I didn’t know anything. Would I stay married? Would I reconnect to my kids now that they’d flown the nest? Would I feel okay about myself again? Could I find a sense of home? The emotions were frightening, but even so, I tentatively trusted what my heart was saying and moved forward with the motion, the locomotion of Life.
Five years later, I live in a different community, am partnered with a different person, and am still learning the joy and wonder of crossroads. If we allow surprises, changes, and shifts, and shore ourselves up emotionally, we can handle a midlife shift as well as a pandemic, divorce, or financial crisis. We find support when the train stalls, switches, or crashes.
A daily writing and meditating practice can make all the difference between feeling overwhelmed and experiencing peace amid uncertainty.
I invite you to sit down for five, ten, or fifteen minutes this morning and breathe. Next, write whatever it is you feel. Be brutally honest. (Sometimes you may do these steps in reverse order.) Experience what a boon it is to breathe. Notice the support that wells up as you allow the great changes in your world.
If we never reached a crossroads, we could never travel beyond the familiar tracks that offer no growth and little joy. If you’re at one of these places, listen for that whistle blast, and hold on.
Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Write
Neither you nor I would expect to complete a memoir while crouching to avoid the shots of a bank robber; we know we couldn’t write a novel while thrashing to escape a tsunami. And yet we writers and creators make countless demands on ourselves without accommodating our brain’s needs. We tell ourselves we should be more disciplined, tough-minded, brilliant, and talented, and we push ourselves to become these things. In short, we stress ourselves out.
Neuroscience is discovering that creativity works in the completely opposite manner. The more you relax and shut down the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the more you can bring artistic, out-of-the-box solutions to whatever you’re doing.
I learned all this decades ago, before science fully understood it, by reading Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, by Henriette Klauser, a book which transformed my relationship with writing and led to my own experiments with creativity. In twenty-five years of working with writers, I’ve seen it over and over again: when you calm the nervous system, soothing fight-flight-and-freeze responses (which are actually trauma responses), you find inner resources such as:
- breakthrough ideas
- unexpected flashes of insight
- intelligence beyond the status quo
New students sometimes wonder why we do relaxation exercises in my class, why we minimize Zoom screen use (which overactivates the nervous system), and why we focus on the positive, often to the point that our inner critic thinks nothing is happening.
Something is happening. Something profound and deeply affecting, which can transform a stressed producer into a joyful maker who has a deep sense of well-being.
In my writing classes, we deactivate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – and no electrical currents or intervention is needed, such as those used in recent research.
Meditation, relaxation, movement, breath, and poetry – these are some of our tools.
Remember, when you push, push, push, you’re expecting what isn’t natural. You’re running from Sasquatch and thinking you should be finishing that writing project with each step. Be here, relax, and let the writing flow in a way that’s natural, healing, and beneficial, not to mention super-creative and productive.
This is especially our agenda in QFire Class.
*****We have a last-minute seat open for the session starting Tuesday, January 12. Are you brave enough to join us?*****
Let me know if you want to try this counterintuitive yet nurturing approach to getting your words on the page.
Write to Listen to the Body
Hearing the Message of Pain
Some weeks ago I was going about business as usual when I noticed that it hurt to put on my coat. Also to close the trunk of my car. Also to wear my backpack. My shoulder was not cooperating with my daily life; in fact, it was protesting with pain.
It took a long time before I could check in. First I had to be willing to investigate. I had to open myself to hear the message of pain.
The miracle of “wildwriting” is that it allows you to sit and feel into whatever is happening when you might otherwise ignore it.
Ignoring is never a good long-term solution. When it comes to pain, injury, or discomfort, the body will speak more fiercely and loudly the longer you ignore it.
Writing is miraculous, though, because when I settle down, take up my pen and bravely write, I will learn more than I dreamed. If I jot down what I’m purely noticing, I can become whole, attuned, and available to mend.
When I got quiet, I wrote about my shoulder and noticed the word itself was comprised of the word “should.” The pinching, the searing, the discomfort – this was all about my should-er.
“My should-er has demonstrated it has had enough,” I wrote. “No more shoulds. But who will I be without them? Will I float purposelessly through the pandemic space-time continuum? Will I become a bubble, only to rise, bob, and break apart? Without shoulds, I fear I won’t have shoulders to carry grocery bags, hoist packages, shut heavy doors. Will I become a skeleton, a reed blowing in the wind? Shoulder pain, then, is trying to stake me to the ground. Add a flag. Human, you’ve landed.”
These understandings have opened my heart in this healing journey and in this pandemic time, when my coping mechanisms all have to do with should. Forcing myself to do things . . . because I should.
In the short run, we can drive ourselves, but over time, our creativity wants greater purpose. Just telling myself, “I should,” doesn’t solve anything. Even if I accomplish something, it will lead to a dead end where all my shoulds become concrete walls.
Listening to the body through writing is a beautiful tool. Taking in these life-giving messages is as important as eating nutritious food. I love that I’m learning about shoulders and shoulds, and I can’t wait . . . despite pain . . . to see what’s next.
What about you? Where can you listen deeply to your body?
Sit down with pen and paper and finish this sentence:
“What I’m feeling right now is . . . ”
Keep writing for ten minutes. Open your heart.
I’m Not Making this Up
“I’m not making this up. I’ve made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things. The lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball. And you look through it and see the thick steam in the all-night bathhouse . . . .” –Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Not making it up, but making it down. Writing gathers my actual experience, what I see, taste, and swallow; what I feel under and over my toes. The most mundane and ordinary thing becomes a story, a fascination. I pause to rub the pale bruise on my foot. It bears the story of Friday’s hike through blackened trees and overgrown brush in the Columbia Gorge, where a stick wedged its way into my hiking sandal and jammed against my toe joint. The bruise shines like newt skin, lime green and smooth. This is not good, bad, happy, sad. This is not something to judge a day by. This is a glorious receiving of Earth experience, story, and imagination all at once.
I wish for you a larger vision made of small things. The quiet hush of fascination. The courage to look at what the fire has burned, and where the bruises have softened you.
As the desire draws you, so the story waits like the heartbeat of something yet unborn. Draw your ear close and shiver with the beating of it: welcome the poem, and the world, and your heart.
Six Ways to Combat Zoom Fatigue
Two weeks into the 2020 Covid-19 quarantine, I was feeling pretty good. I met online with my directors at Clark College, strategizing how to offer my 20-years’-running class, Wildfire Writing. Lisa and Roseanne were asking what I knew about teaching online.
“I’ve learned that Zoom classes are different,” I said. “The attention is different.”
Turns out, my insight was an understatement.
The attention is different. Oh my goodness gracious me, it is solar-systems-away different.
It is not only different for the participant, but for the facilitator. Three weeks into the pandemic, I was walking around in a haze, or treading water, with this blurry, slow, foggy feeling in my bones. What was wrong with me? I was holding three or four or six Zoom classes and sessions a week, all short, but in between I felt like a zombie.
I started reading about Zoom fatigue. And then I realized it wasn’t trauma that was making me weird and tired, it was simple science.
The energy and strengths of an online class are topsy-turvy from interpersonal meetings. And this helps explain why Zoom fatigue is real.
As humans, nonverbal cues make up ninety percent of our communication. Subconscious, nuanced gestures and tones can only be received in close contact. If you’re an intuitive teacher or worker like I am, you’re reading the moods and modes of your people—but you are using subtle cues on a deep level without conscious awareness of what you’re doing. You’re noting breathing, eye movement, and posture, among other things—many of which are impossible to transmit via camera.
Reducing our meetings to two-dimensional experience restricts our awareness, taxes our resources, fogs our brains.
When we’re relying on Zoom day in and day out for work and learning, we’re asking the technology to do things it can’t. We’re asking ourselves to perform in arenas that are unnatural. Conversely, it’s easy when meeting online to send and receive resources, to edit documents, to hand off links, articles, videos, titles, and lessons.
At the same time, screens are exciting. To have “phone TV” was my dream as a child, ever since I saw it on the Jetson’s. Now, it’s a reality, and stimulating. And kind of delicious. Just like coffee is stimulating and delicious. But, oh man, too much at the wrong time is hard on the brain.
Screen use and upload of information can be fatiguing. What’s more, these things tap only a fraction of our capability.
Studies abound regarding whole-brain learning, and the benefits of using all of our senses. It so happens, quite nicely, that the strongest writing also incorporates the five (plus fifteen!) senses, and that when we are creating concrete, specific, sensory images with words, we are engaging our brains and activating the brains of our listeners.
Although our eyes may be overtaxed, one thing we’re in short supply of during this stressful and unusual time of quarantine, is listening. And yet many of us have fully functioning ears—thank goodness. Our ears, when allowed to take over for our eyes, can be an amazing resource that funnels useful info we can use.
The auditory system is a neurological system. When we listen to each other, we are connecting in powerful ways that our overtaxed eyes can’t achieve while looking at a screen.
So, incorporating this knowledge, I’ve designed hacks for myself that have made all the difference. My energy is back! My meetings and classes are bringing positive gratitude and feedback which means so much right now. And I’m loving my work – even online.
Here are some things you can try along with me.
- Say hello for the first 5 minutes of the meeting, then turn off the cameras.
- Limit how many cameras-on meetings you’ll have per week.
- Put a lovely screen saver on your computer or phone, turn of your volume, sit back, and listen.
- Use an old-fashioned notepad or journal, and take notes by hand. (There are studies on the benefits of writing by hand, too.)
- Take a 5-minute break every 30 minutes, or a 10-minute break once an hour. In Wildfire Women, which meets Thursdays, we get up and stretch together halfway between class. In my Story Camp on Fridays, I send the kids out for 10-minute scavenger hunts in their homes or front yards, writing about the objects at hand. As a certified yoga teacher, I also incorporate yoga into the weeks’ classes.
- Turn off self-view. In some applications, you can turn off your own view of yourself, and this creates a much more natural feel. You don’t have to be preoccupied or self-conscious. In Zoom, find your own “square” of image, now click on the three dots in the right hand corner. Scroll down to “hide self view” and select.
Best wishes! Tweak, try, experiment, and see what works as you find peace and equilibrium in this strange moment of history. Whatever happens, please know that the fog you are feeling is not permanent.
Quarantine Stories: Stuck at Home
- Go under the bed.
Under Mother’s bed is a light bulb, a pink sweater, a safety pin and an umbrella. Also, I’ve got Gold-n-Treasure marshmallow bits, and three pillows. Even stuck at home, all in all, I’ve got a pretty good hideout.
I move the hideout into the living room. Mother is reading Ladies Home Journal. “It’s bad luck to open an umbrella in the house,” she says matter-of-factly. “But that’s just superstition. You can break that rule.”
I leave the warmth of the radiator and go outside. It is the first summer in our new apartment, after Mother’s breakdown. An oil slick runs below the curb, blue purple green yellow orange dark blue pink red in a spilt rainbow. I walk around, toward a lake of puddle. I splash. It starts to rain.
I have the umbrella to keep me dry.
When you’re lucky, you can break rules.
2. Wear the green vest.
I graduate from Sparrows and that means I’m a Forest Craft Girl now. In the dark with candles and rows of girls, we have a ceremony and sing Kum Ba Yah. Some girls have badges all over their new vests, round ones, square ones, triangles. The only badge I have is the old brown sparrow in a light blue circle.
My best friend Ruby Nickels never got her green vest. She quit. When you’re lucky, you don’t have to quit.
3. Make up Recipes.
If you stand on the kitchen counter you can reach way back into the cupboard. There’s a lot of old stuff. In a see-through bag there are marshmallows.
Chop three mini marshmallows.
Break five Triscuits. Put in bowl. Put in sixteen raisins.
Put in eleven pieces Gold-n-Treasure cereal.
Sprinkle red cupcake sugar on top.
4. Play in the dark.
We turn off the lights. I do six jumping jacks. I walk around like a clown. My brother clicks the flashlight, off, on off, on off. It makes a fast-motion movie like we’re Laurel and Hardy.
We make shadow shapes. Eagles are easy. Theodore makes a fantastic shadow dog. My fingers don’t close all the way, so my dog has a hole in its face.
I hold the flashlight to my chin. In the mirror my face turns red with blood.
5. Go to Safeway.
Mother is by the milk with her big wool coat, brown comfortable shoes pointing down the aisle. She looks past the cottage cheese, small curd. “Christy! Where are you? Christy!” She says it like I am getting killed. A teenager is watching.
“I’m right here behind you,” I whisper.
It happens again by the creamed corn.
6. Use the Sparrows Telephone & Address Book.
Count rings. Twelve for Kendall. Fifteen for Jennifer. Untwist the pig tail cord on the phone. Twenty-four for Lisa May. Lisa May said she would be home, and we could probably play sometime. Six more for Lisa May.
Stop at forty-seven.
7. Get my birthday present.
Mother talked to Grandma and didn’t tell me, and Grandma talked to Mother, and now it has shown up, leaning on the porch rail, tied with a white bow.
“It’s a Schwinn,” says Grandma.
It has a yellow banana seat. It’s just my size. “Yay!”
“Just look at you,” said Grandma. “Just look at you riding around. You’re quite the lucky little racer.”
Having a bike means, if I have to go to a foster home, I can ride away fast.
8. Go to the corner drug store.
Me and Mother cross the street. She reaches for my hand. Nobody is looking, so I take it. The rules run different for Mother. She knows rhymes and rules and bad luck, but pays no attention.
When she paints with watercolors, she makes her own lines and goes outside them. We are swirls of paint, flowing where no one else can see.
The light turns red for the cars and the walk sign with its walking person turning white, and we walk slow across the street. There are her tan panty hose, and her brown comfortable shoes. Her shoelaces are tied in small bows.
Mother squeezes my hand.
I squeeze back.
Trapped in the darkness, tucked in the creases of my palm, puffy and hidden; it is there: all the luck in the world.
Quarantine Stories: Summer Camp
The packing list said sunscreen, sleeping bag, trail mix. I would tame the wild woods with flashlight and wool socks. But the word swimming suit choked my mind with unknown waters.
I’d been living with Grandma since fall, and nobody seemed to know how long it would last. We didn’t discuss Mother’s illness, only that she was “sick,” and “in the hospital.” But it was the most frightening hospital I’d ever seen, where a teenage girl with a crewcut sat hollow-eyed in a TV room, and an old lady shuffled back and forth holding a doll, and a bearded man with a greasy T-shirt talked to a plant.
Not to mention Mother, dressed in a bathrobe, moving slow as if she were drowning. Speaking in a flat, faraway voice, with eyes that looked in your direction but didn’t see. There was a breadcrumb in the corner of her lips.
Now it was summer. No talk about fall, past or future. “You’re going to camp,” said Grandma. The only words I had were mysterious, in Helvetica typeface, next to tidy checkboxes.
Pillow, I read. Out loud I said, “Camera.”
“You can borrow my Instamatic,” said Grandma. She frowned and tapped a pen against her lips.
I looked at that one word again. It reminded me that I could not swim. It told me I might drown.
“It’s only for a month,” Grandma added. “A whole month! You’ll have So. Much. Fun.”
The last word on the list was stationery. Grandma wrote letters every week on her Smith-Corona typewriter. Letters were what you did when you couldn’t do anything else. When home couldn’t hold the right people, at the right time.
I stood in the parking lot, sun gleaming off the gravel. Grandma gave me a peck on the cheek and handed me a package just as I was about to board the bus. It was a see-through box tied with blue ribbon: stationery topped with bluebirds. Their beaks smiled grandly.
Two hours later, the Hidden Valley Camp bus turned out into wide, green fields bordered by forest.
Two days later, I knew the names of everyone in my tent, and what they got in the mail. Stacy got a care package of chocolate chip cookies. Jenny got a troll doll. Terri got a very small pillow with white daisies. I got a letter from Mother.
The return address was Western State Psychiatric Hospital. On the stamped letterhead, Mother’s penciled handwriting sagged like a sprung spiderweb. She wrote, I forget if it’s two or three sentences to a paragraph.
When I was five, I used to lean against the window and cry whenever Mother left. Now I crumpled her letter in my hands.
“Canoe time,” Counselor said, some days after. Stacy and Jenny cheered. Terri said, “All riiight!” I shivered at the water’s edge.
I don’t know how I made it into the boat, fat in my orange life jacket. Then I dipped my oar in the blue-green lake of shadows and it was easy. Like sticking fingers into frosting and pulling away a smooth, silky hunk. It was like mirror writing, the way you paddled opposite how you wanted to move.
After, I sat on the dock with my tentmates, dabbling toes in the ripples. The warm wood scratched my thighs.
“I saw ‘The Omen’ before camp,” said Stacy. “It’s rated ‘R’ but my Dad takes me to any movie I want. It scared the hell out of me.”
“Yeah?” said Jenny.
“In ‘The Omen,’ there’s this kid, Damien. His parents don’t know where he comes from. He’s a child of Satan.”
And with three words, the terror was back. Child of Satan told me everything I needed to know. The water wouldn’t kill me. Neither would it kill me to have a mother in the mental hospital. But this was the ultimate terror, and the reason I felt different from the other kids: I was a child of Satan.
The truth of it was a shadow, thick and empty, filling my stomach. I fed on it at night in my sleeping bag, the trees whispering about the canvas tent walls. It exhausted me at craft time. Child of Satan. It yanked me from the inside and outside, stretching me until I was thin and see-through like the taffy we pulled at Group Activity.
Three weeks, those words threaded through my mind.
Then, one day in the woods, I forgot to think them.
Our hike leader led us high along the forest trail. At last she said, “Okay, guys. Lean your heads back. Look up to the highest branches. Squinch your eyes. Can you see how different everything looks?”
There was a shine that wiggled in the treetops, like soap bubble liquid stretched over a plastic hoop. The light was changing, things were shimmering. Walking back to camp, I saw a trail mix of leaves and mushrooms, frosted ponds, sugar-daddy creeks. Old trees offered friendly, knobby hands. The creek was not afraid to sing.
That night, Jenny, Stacy, Terri and I held flashlights to our chins, laughing as our faces glowed molten red, changing from human to alien. I took out my packet of bluebird stationery.
I was very happy to hear from you! I’m going to tell you a little about this camp. There are many different things to do. There is Archery, Rifelery, Hikes, Riding horses, special events, sailing, canoeing, swimming, sports, overnights. Its hard to think of everything… Camp fires. Every person has to do something around the tent. One day you might be the sweeper. Another day you might be the Person that puts up the Tent flaps. Everything is fun. Hope your glad to hear from me! Love ya!!
P.S. I’m beginning to miss everyone a little.
When camp was over, Grandma met the camp bus, tapping my shoulder with her driving glove, ready to hit the road. A month later, she would put me in a foster home.
For years, Mother would save my letter, shuttling the bluebird pages from drawer to suitcase, from dresser to shoebox, in the halfway houses and care facilities where she spent her life. Home would never again mean having her with me.
I stopped crumpling Mother’s letters when they came. I answered them, putting down my thoughts — even when they were bright and flighty and fake as bluebirds that smiled. In this way, I learned to make my own magic words.
Quarantine Stories: The Contagion in Apartment 30-B
Unseen, unheard. Staying out of school. Exiled from restaurants, parties, sports. Daily getting fearful reports from the front lines. Waiting for it all to be over.
No, I’m not talking about society during Covid19. This was life in Apartment 30-B. I wasn’t given an explanation of my mother’s mental illness, but what I did hear was a constant litany of bad things about to strike: cancer, robbery, disease, suffocation, kidnapping, accidents, murder.
The one thing that calmed my system was a small supply of paper, a pencil, and markers. I read, wrote, and illustrated stories. It was as if I could create a magical trap door, leading out of Apartment 30-B and into a space of hope. When I picked up my Dixon Ticonderoga, I touched possibility. I found respite from the craziness.
And then at age 12, I was brought into a new home, where parents didn’t forecast a terrible future, day after day. I was free from the contagion of fear. And at last I could express myself to others. But the early days had brought a lifetime lesson.
Creativity and panic don’t co-exist. In any given moment, one must dominate.
If I choose creating, it makes way for feelings and experiences other than raw fear. Even if I start with unease or worry or pure dread–this is perfectly good. I can tell a story, draw a picture, doodle into a different thought.
When we choose creating, we’re building rather than defending. This helps hope to thrive, as well as creative strategies for managing crisis.
My writing coaching client and soon-to-be-author, Marianne Wakerlin, sent this note today:
“Much to my delight, I have been able to get a lot of writing done. Not all of it new stories or renditions of old ones. I skip around a lot. I’ve made writing the book my quarantine event so my day revolves around being productive. Skipping around to different stories keeps me from getting stuck. I also change location, spending the majority of my time on the computer but also taking a clipboard out to the deck or the living room couch. My writing endurance has increased remarkably.”
You might not think this possible, but there is hope in any measure needed.
If you find yourself in Apartment 30-B, my heart goes out to you. And I wish upon you a notebook, a yellow number two pencil, and a pack of markers. Look for that trap door. It’s waiting for you.
Sense and Sensibility: Finding A New Approach
“I will be mistress of myself.” –Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
I wrote my first novel twenty years ago. It was thin in concept, long in syllables, but filled with characters I loved. I picked it up ten years ago, realizing it was a perfectly good story that just needed revising. But it was tricky: now I was a different person. My early, fanciful ideas didn’t charm me anymore. I stopped revising out of sheer boredom.
Normally I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, but this year the resolution found me: I will complete this book and make it amazing.
One the hardest things to find, as a creator, is balance between letting old things go, bringing on the new, and holding onto what truly matters.
This in mind, I fell in love with the Portland Center Stage production of Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility I saw with my daughter on a recent rainy January evening. We settled in for a girls’ night, expecting all the frills and old-fashionedness of the 1889 novel – and to be honest, I was trying to get myself into the mood but feeling bored with the traditional story.
And then. We were knocked out of our seats by the outrageousness. Victorian girls’ night? My petticoat!
This play captivated me in a thousand ways. It was innovative, fresh, colorful, wacky, inspired and even obnoxious – yet it kept the core of the original story, without ever making fun of the ideals or timeless truth of what these characters were going through.
It was all about the way the story was framed for us. We were forced to see with new eyes, much to our delight and amazement. Imagine: a stage where everything is on wheels, and the action whisks and arrests you, accelerating your heartbeat with the motion and surprise of it all. Imagine: a character change that consists of a person flung across the floor, who rises as another, donning glasses. Laughter erupts from the audience at silly sound effects, and at the whirlwind of movement as doors become carriages, as characters become horses, as men and women are driven together by emotion or scattered far apart. Brilliant choreography brings to light the struggles of a bereaved family in a society far, far removed from our own. We feel it. It comes alive.
The world has changed, oh so incredibly much, since 1811. No doubt we’re a bit bored with the conventions of that time; we don’t speak or live that way anymore.
Ah, yes, back to my own changes. I can honor them, knowing I don’t want my novel to be what it once was, twenty years ago.
You and I move, we wheel about, we surprise the universe.
But the core of our story, the substance of our hearts, it remains timeless.
Top: Quinlan Fitzgerald as Marianne Dashwood, Danea C. Osseni as Elinor Dashwood
Photos by: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye tv.
Why Every Brilliant Thing Is Brilliant
“Look with new eyes,” I tell the writers I coach. “See through the eyes of Dream Kid. Then write about what you see.”
Dream Kid is that hope-filled inner dreamer, blissfully engaged in any given moment. She is taken with wonder and notices the intricate, quirky details of everything. As adults, however, we are rushed, challenged, stressed, and injured by the grown-up problems in our lives, and we seldom take time to hang out with these micro-joys. As responsible, critical-thinking people, we lose the tiny miracles that make up a life.
The play, Every Brilliant Thing, takes us by the hand and brings us back. We follow a charming, deep-feeling, curious, caring, seven-year-old who finds a way out of painful adult-induced problems—by concocting a list of all the brilliant things in life. He hopes to convince his suicidal mom that life is worth living. With each addition to the list, he cultivates this magical quality of seeing.
It’s a difficult quality to describe, this way of being absorbed in the minute and wondrous. And so it kind of boils down to things. A kitten, a newborn, a sunset . . .
Wait, this kid’s list is much better:
A ham and mayo sandwich without the ham
The word ‘plimpf’
How long can this list get? What will it take to keep growing the list when the hopeful child becomes a troubled adult?
Isaac Lamb, who performs Every Brilliant Thing at Portland Center Stage, is warm, disarming, convincing as both a kid and the grown-up he becomes. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role; he invites audience participation in such a genuine way.
There’s a moment when he launches into a bongo-drum induced dance, so uninhibited and goofy that you can’t help grinning for joy. He runs offstage with a quick, “Talk amongst yourselves!” grabs a breather and swig of water, then rushes back without skipping a beat: “What’d you talk about?”
Spontaneity is present whenever we look with new eyes. It invites concrete, interesting noticings. It reminds us to live in the moment, which is the only way we get through the really hard stuff.
Hard stuff like family problems, suicide, depression.
“That the list could combat hardwired depression was incredibly naïve,” the performer tells us. And yet, it offers a gateway to wonder. We can examine the most difficult things along with the most brilliant, seeing the wonder when we take them apart, moment by moment.
It’s what we do when we tell our stories.
It’s what writers do. And all of us who are keeping our Dream Kid alive.
“Astoria” and How to Be Death-Defying
“Astoria” tells of Herculean effort: the dual expedition to the Pacific coast in 1808 shortly after Lewis and Clark made their journey. When Artistic Director Chris Coleman first came across the book unveiling this history, he asked, “How have I never heard of this?” And in typical Chris Coleman-genius-fashion, he found a way to adapt it for Portland Center Stage.
It’s a sweeping tale. One expedition sets sail, seeking the Northwest Passage via South America, while the second expedition pushes across land by foot, horse, and canoe. The adventures are harrowing, and the miscalculations and misery and deaths along the way are ominous. The man behind this two-journey scheme is John Jacob Astor, an entrepreneur determined to cash in on the Northwest’s number one resource: fur. He’s in such a hurry to get on with things, he makes less than optimal choices of leadership, while ensconced in his stuffed armchair back east.
Astor appoints Jonathan Thorn as the ship captain whose staunch military training takes black-and-white thinking to a horrifying extreme. Ben Rosenblatt plays the role compellingly. As for the land expedition, Astor appoints Wilson Price Hunt, a greenhorn businessman barely qualified to lead a camping trip. His constant waffling makes every bad situation worse. Another great performance here, by Shawn Fagan.
I imagine Astor to say: But what can you do? Brilliant, courageous, survivalist, self-sacrificing, resourceful, ambitious, determined, daring, death-defying, hardscrabble, relentless, mountaineering-and-seaworthy leaders are hard to come by these days.
Near-misses, hard choices, selfishness and self-sacrifice all come into play. It’s a harrowing saga which recounts many near-deaths: being scalped, or gulping down moccasins to avoid starvation, or swallowing seawater in a storm-tossed rowboat.
Why would anyone sign up to go through that? I kept asking, witnessing the perils of each crew. How can greed be such a compelling force? But it wasn’t greed for everyone. It was survival. The hirelings who made up these crews were dirt-poor immigrants or persecuted natives or out-of-work sailors. So they made up their minds about what they had to do.
To not risk, meant dying.
As the play closed, I stood with the rest of the packed audience in a resounding ovation. I felt relieved that I didn’t have to fight fatigue, starvation, disease, hypothermia, attack by natives, treachery. How comfortable my life is.
I have nothing compelling me to take my life in hand and journey across an unknown world under brutal conditions.
Being a creator, my mind quickly goes to the landscape of my writing. I’m okay, so I don’t write as if my life depends on it. If I don’t get my stories or thoughts out: so what?
Creative discoveries may be awaiting as if on a jagged peak or along a swollen river, or in a meager encampment. These are things that deep down I believe I was meant to experience, but may not, without conviction.
Could I willingly sign myself up for emotional peril: pain or embarrassment or the mental anguish of writing my story?
In Letters to a Young Poet (translated by Stephen Mitchell), Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”
I don’t want life-or-death choices, I want my hot bath and my lavender chamomile tea. I don’t want to reveal my stories if it means rejection, judgment, scoffing, or the worst: being ignored.
Those who move the world are these brave ones underneath it all, acting because they must, carving pathways, creating change, for better or for worse.
Time to rethink what I want, and to want risk.
What this reminds me is that it’s time to take the lead of my own creative journey. There’s only one choice of leader. And if she’s going to be a good one, it’s entirely up to me.
Photo credits: Kate Szrom
Teachers Who Help You Be You
Thinking today about my art teacher, Lee Baughman, who has made such a difference in my creative life. The best teachers are the ones who support you being you. They don’t insist that you become carbon copies of their work or that you echo their preferences.
Lee has helped me discover my own voice through watercolor, collage, and mixed media. Although Lee is specifically a watercolor teacher, his focus is on helping each student find the tools to develop her own unique voice. With this support, I’ve found immense freedom to grow and play and experiment, and I’ve recently discovered a new teacher who has infected me with the joy of pastels. Thrilled to be learning from Jane Aukshunas.
Teachers and mentors like Lee remind me how much I want to help writers become more themselves. Not to travel the path that I would like or expect, but to lean into their own storytelling vision and follow where it leads.
This is why I get excited when my writers “graduate” from working with me, and move on to other classes, teachers, writing styles, and schools. I don’t own their growth–I’m simply here to witness and boost as they build on their strengths.
No matter where the creative journey takes us, we always hold our first teachers in our hearts. They are our angels.
Similarly, when I run into a student from a class I taught years ago, I revel in our shared connection. It never ends.
Heroes like Lee Baughman have granted free reign to my artist soul, and I’m grateful to offer the same freedom to my students and clients, those beautiful writing souls in my world.
Outshine the Fear: A Writing Coach Climbs A Mountain
One week ago, I embarked on an adventure I never thought I could or would undertake: climbing a mountain.
It’s too much work.
I’ll freeze to death.
I don’t have time to train.
I’m not strong enough.
Ron did it, and Ron didn’t like it, and I probably won’t like it either.
There’s nothing up there to see anyway.
These are the thoughts I usually had at the mention of mountain climbing.
Then this spring, I received a personal invitation to climb Mount Adams in support of Mountain Owl, a new northwest nonprofit. I felt a sense of wonder, and a rising, “Yes!”
I said yes.
Deep down, it was something I’d always wanted to experience. My fears on the surface, however, had convinced me for a long time not to try.
As I prepared for the adventure, objections and fears returned. I noticed them. But I didn’t let them run the show. I had to continue to check in with that deeper part of me who is unlimited, who is unafraid.
In this way, climbing a mountain is meditation or prayer or dancing. Or public speaking or painting or singing. Intrusions and doubts swirl like mists obscuring a mountaintop. We learn they won’t last forever. We keep going.
And climbing a mountain is telling someone we love them. If we expect too much risk or effort, we let this override our deep-down desire to show up in the world.
And climbing a mountain is writing.
When we check in with what we truly want to say, we find a yes that outshines all the fear.
One week ago, I climbed a mountain. I didn’t think I could do it; but then I allowed a new thought. And my idea of what was possible lifted 12,000 feet into the clouds.