19. How To Learn How

12/30/2017

When I was much younger than I am now, I wanted to become a firefighter.* Never mind why – it’s a long story. I was small compared to the male firefighter Wanna-Bes I was competing with. I went to the gym and pumped a whole lot of iron and didn’t get much bigger but I got  hecka-strong. (It took a while.) I applied at every fire department hiring opportunity that came up and took the tests. First is the written – easy enough if you study hard. (You should study really hard.) Next, if you pass the written, you get to take the physical agility test. I failed the physical agility tests of first three departments I tried for, at first by a mile, and then by inches, and finally by 2/10 of a second. I went back to the gym. I applied at more fire departments and took more tests. I failed another one. Maybe two. I forget now. Once I passed, It didn’t matter, I would pass some more…

I had to fail, to learn how. I had never encountered those kinds of challenges, or even those kinds of objects, lifting and carrying heavy rolls of fire-hose, climbing the 100-foot aerial ladder, dragging the 160-pound dummy through the tunnel. (At first I only weighed 115 pounds myself.) Very early I learned two Essential Truths, and I’ll share them with you in a minute.

There are wonderful things you can learn from Brooks, that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. But there are some things you cannot learn that way. You can’t learn how to play home-run baseball…   out of a book. You can’t learn how to downhill ski… out of a book. And you can’t learn how to be a firefighter and perform the skills a firefighter must do extremely well, very quickly, and absolutely reliably… out of a book. Here comes one of those Essential Truths I mentioned. (You may want to take notes.)

Essential Truth #1: The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.

Take downhill skiing, for example. The first day when you go out to the bunny hill with awkward boots and slats for feet, what’s going to happen? Right! You fall on your butt. Not once, but many times. And there will be people around who will see you fall on your butt. Little kids will laugh. Some adults will smile smugly. Others will be annoyed because you’re messing up the good snow with your sit-splats, besides getting in everybody’s way. “She shouldn’t even be here! She doesn’t know how to ski at all.”

The next day, you will again fall on your butt in front of everybody. A lot. But probably you will be doing a little bit better, and there will be thrilling moments when just for short distances, you get it, and miraculously, it works. It feels like flying! Your heart, for sure, is flying. Now when you fall, you get up quicker, you want some more of that good feeling.

By the third or fourth day,  your spirits soar more times, for longer moments, right before each time you crash clumsily again. But now you will be up more time than down, and though not exactly smoothly or elegantly, you are skiing!

We must expect the same from our writing.  In the beginning, it’s the beginning. While the first levels of success in skiing may take a few days, writing more likely will take a few years. We’re learning how to express our gift. For every great writer, there was a beginning. Thus, Essential Truth #1 about writing: The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Oh, and the skiing is fun too.

Essential Truth #2: Failure is a necessary part of the process.

Falling down is one of the first things we do in life. It is necessary, inherent, and valuable. Failure is how we learn what to do and what not to do. There is no other way.

Besides, we never learn as much from success as we do from failure. Therefore, allow yourself this. Expect to not be a brilliant writer right away. Expect a cartload of disappointments and possibly humiliations along the way. These do not prove you are un-brilliant. They only mark a serious commitment to the truest and best expression of whatever is your unique personal gift. It will be different from most people. Most people live their whole lives without expressing their truth, not because they don’t have any gifts, but because they don’t have the enormous courage it takes to do it.

Don’t be one of those. Fly down the hill, again and again. Fall on your butt with determination, and with embarrassed, wounded, but unconquerable pride, Get up.  Fall down. Get up, keep going. You can do this,  if you want it bad enough. Because if writing is truly your path, you will do it.
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*I did become a firefighter and served eight years with Alameda County OES Fire Department as a line firefighter and officer.
ofcr me w2w

 

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#8 Rain Thoughts

09/30/2017

I’m still trying to to break a stubborn habit of sleeping late and missing too much of the morning– my best time to write. I worry that this might be a symptom of my sometimes moods of melancholy and borderline depression, the writers Demon. Today I am up early though, 7:30, and watching the sunrise gradually lighten up the dark sky. Everything is silent now. Nothing is moving except the tops of the trees, heaving in the winds, then settling down again. Rain is coming.

I love to write. Love to have a pen in my hand, just to make marks on paper. When I write in my journal, sometimes I have nothing to say. I write anyway. Sometimes surprising things come. If there’s nothing to say, I write fiddle-faddle, just because I need to be writing something. I’ve had this urge to write ever since I was six years old and first learned how. I never got over the wonder of it, making marks on paper, clean and sharp, that said things. Marks that could make the pictures that were in my mind, and tell the stories.

My book is going slowly. I’m impatient. This is hard. It’s not flowing. This is like cross-country skiing through wet cement. And yet, I marvel at how lucky I am– to be warm indoors, waiting for the rain. Hot coffee, cozy room, silvery sky, and the sweet promise of soft rain.

The rain begins now, very faint and misty, hardly more than a whisper of fog that settles almost invisibly onto everything, refreshing the green living things and making them tremble with wetness and expectation.

I’m grateful for the life I have, even though it’s not all I want. Outside my window the trees sway gently in the winds, first harbingers of good hard rains to come. Gusts are troublng the branches of the little lemon tree, and ruffling the trumpet vine on the fence. That trumpet vine would have bright red-orange flowers, but it does not bloom. Underneath the big oak tree, there is never enough sunlight falling on it, even on the brightest days. But it is beautiful still, it is being as beautiful as it can, where it is. It cannot move out of the shadows.  But I can,  And maybe not today, but soon, I will.


18. Write On

09/29/2017

I’m still looking for a beta reader or two. I never imagined they would be so hard to find. A few  friends began to read the book, but when they got to the hard parts, they just stopped. Admittedly, this book is not for every casual beach-reader, it’s not a romance, Sci-Fi  or a fairytale. It’s true, and there are parts of it that are dark, where people do things that are not kind, and things happen that are ugly.

But no soul is ugly. This is a deep lesson. It’s the one I learned in my years as a caregiver in a hospital emergency room. That’s where every kind and level of human life comes together in one place, sooner or later. To see the Soul  in some of these— lifelong drunks and drug addicts in rain-and-urine-soaked clothes with lice and cockroaches living on their bodies, and the stench was horrible – it was nearly impossible. But what the a 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said  is still true:

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” 

And these wretched remnants of humanity I served and fed and cared for, I finally learned, were the Bodhisattva who have come to teach us what not to choose.

So I write on, as writers do, it’s what we do because we must. Today I still have a ton of work to do and it all seems so impossible. There are times when it flows, but sometimes it’s like turning the crank on the old steel hand-operated meatgrinder my Greek grandmother used, part of the necessary work to prepare the marvelous spaghetti sauce that only she could make.


17. Writing From the Inside

08/11/2017

What I’m writing is a memoir but has become something of an epistle of faith. When I look across my history and the history of my family from the outside now, I see patterns and meanings I didn’t see when I was looking from the inside out. I’m not leading, I am led. It is being written like a letter not from my usual ego view, but more as if spoken from some inner voice, seen by inner eyes, uncontrived and unplanned. Whatever comes to me that rings true and real, I write it down. If it has value, it will stay. If it is meaningless or useless, it will be discarded. These things take care of themselves. All of my poetry came this way – as gifts of grace, never as the product of conscious effort, craft, or intention. I trust the soundless voice that speaks, much more than I trust my own limited and confused intellect.

When I was in my twenties, an artist and a fledgling poet, I said to God “Make me your instrument.” Maybe God will finally do that, or maybe that’s the One who placed the desire there to begin with. Either way, the prayer has not really changed much, for I have learned and relearned: by myself I can do nothing of real importance or significance, but when I’m driven to the page by that unnamed voice, something clear and clean and beautiful emerges into the light of ordinary day. In that moment, the ordinariness, the stories, the simple truths of life become what they have always been, but unseen: they become sacred. My response to this can only be awe, wonder, and gratefulness.


#16 About Writing Your Memoir

06/21/2017

Angelou quote.png
I always tell people, “Everyone should do this.” But with the caveat that you probably should not do it until you’re at least 50 years old, because you might not be able to handle it.

It’s no small deal. Telling your truth honestly and earnestly means time-travel, not just remembering. Being a disembodied observer looking down impartially like a sacred voyeur. You will see things you never saw– about your life, yourself, and the people along your path– truths and revelations you could not have seen with your younger eyes.

This will be painful. It will also be healing. Old wounds you didn’t realize you had will open right before your eyes, and bleed and leak other nasty stuff you never realized was in there. That’s the bad news. The good news is, you will see other things too, that you didn’t notice before: the beauty of yourself and other “imperfect” souls in your story. I promise you, you’ll be astonished, and quite possibly overcome with love and respect for that stumbling, blundering, courageous innocent that you really were.

Emotional wounds,  big and small, are like abscesses, scarred over with guilt and denial. When opened again in a clean place with a good light, they have the opportunity to drain their poisons and finally heal. We all have old wounds, many from our earliest years on earth, because they go with the life-path. A big part of the adventure of life is about managing them, rather than just allowing them to manage you. This takes a mature observer, an experienced blunderer, a sympathetic listener.  This is the heart of my book.

Writing a memoir forces us to re-open the time again, to look at ourselves and others in our story with mercy and compassion that puts whatever regret or guilt we have been carrying into a truer perspective. We can honestly forgive, and be forgiven.


#15 Why We Write

05/01/2017

I believe absolutely that life is inherently and necessarily about adventures, starting out innocent, blundering along, and discovering things. Learning about life, one way or another, is what it’s all about, and we write because we are inwardly compelled to share.

Going off to college in Austin Texas was an adventure that took me out of the shelter of home to another city and an infinitely more exciting and joyful way of life. When I quit school and got married, I went on another adventure, not so joyful, to a cold and lonely East Coast. Life changed completely, irrevocably, when I gave up my life to support his.

When I got divorced, I took my life back. That was the biggest leap of faith, and the most terrifying: to set out alone into unknown territory. I had stepped off the precipice into the abyss, with nothing but an utterly groundless faith and hope that there might be something else for me out there. There was. First the West Bank hippie-ghetto of Minneapolis opened up a different world and a different way of living and believing in Life with a capital L. Five years and lots of adventurws later, I came to California– a new state, a new time zone, and another new life.

All this was jammed full with learning experiences, far beyond anything I could have imagined or ever would have planned. Some were wonderful, some were terribly painful and wounding. But I survived them, and I am, as they say, “still here to tell the tale”

I know for sure that the most valuable thing I learned was that the nature and function of life, the reason we came here at all, is to venture out beyond our beginnings, beyond our safe-zone, and discover. To seek and find our own unique adventures and bring back the stories to share. If it had not been for the blundering rocky path I’ve traveled, I would not have this book to write.

Think about this the next time you stub your toe on the lifepath. At the next rejection form-letter. You are out here in the cosmos for a reason, and no matter what happens, you always fail forward. Nothing can take you backward. No mateer where you find yourself right now, whatever genre you write, your treasure-trove of Life-Experience Resources is growing. Be aware of it. It gives you something more  to say that matters. You’re on your way, your own way. Write on.


#14 Dear Beta Readers

03/10/2017

First of all, thank you for participating in this pre-publication First Read, and helping me to write the best book I can. Some of you have known me at some period in my life. It’s going to be a task for you to step back from that, and read the stories as abstractly as possible, as a group of characters you’ve never met. That’s the way you can help me most, in the writing process.

As you read, or after a chapter, just notice things like “what was my impression of this chapter? What stood out for me? What seems strong? Weak? Too fast or slow? Confusing? Unrealistic? Vivid?.” Was there enough of __(fill in the blank)__ or too much? Those are the things I need to know, that if spotted and corrected, will make the book clearer and better at saying what I really want to say, in a way that is understandable, not phony, not preachy, not fancy, and as genuinely as I can.

In writing the stories, I found it enormously helpful to think of the protagonist/ storyteller as simply a character in a book. Not me. That changed both my perspective and my perception surprisingly. When I stepped back and looked at this funny little girl from a distance, as someone I was observing like a character in a movie, I saw things about her that I never could have seen when I was her.

So if you are one of my friends, don’t take Victoria with you into chapter one, dump her at the gate and leave her out of it. She is someone else, who came much later. The first time you meet Vickie, see her as somebody you have never met before. And in your comments and suggestions, please refer to this character as “the little girl” or “the storyteller.” That will really help you keep a fresh unbiased perspective. For example, write “she was…” Not “you were…” Other than that, just enjoy a free book.

Congratulations, you are now a Developmental Editor. Professional ones make big bucks for this. So please know how much I value and appreciate your participation in my creative process. This will surely bring you lovely Karma. I’ll be blogging more here about the beta reader experience, so y’all come back.


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