Many of us long to return to that original love that we once had for our art. As we get older, our excitement and delight that is often eclipsed by over-thinking, comparing, worrying, procrastinating and countless other forms of resistance.
Writing is always going to be challenging work, but it is possible to completely revolutionize your process by re-thinking your relationship to your work & learning a few quick and easy techniques that can help dissolve your blocks and make your writing/creative process way more joyful and productive.
Check out these two mindful writing workshops I am offering in September:
SATURDAY SEPT. 20 1-4: Introduction to Mindful Writing
Drawing from literature, contemporary psychology and Buddhist texts, this class will explore how:
The concept of “no self” can revolutionize our relationship to writing.
Simple mindfulness meditations and techniques can calm fear and neutralize negative self-talk and perfectionism
Mindful writing can give our writing and our lives a deeper sense of purpose and pleasure
SATURDAY SEPT. 27 1-4: Maintaining your Mindful Writing Practice
Using simple 3-minute breath and yoga techniques, this workshop will give writers valuable tools to:
Maintain a mindful writing process by shifting focus from thinking to breathing
Create purpose and momentum in the artistic process
Generate creative energy and increase mental clarity and intuition
Quickly overcome creative blocks
$35 per class or $60 for both
4949 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90027
Sign up or Just Show Up!
For more information contact:
If you ever feel like this man when you sit down to write, mindful writing workshops can help.
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.”
― Walt Whitman
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?”
―D.H. Lawrence Women in Love
He said that people who loved [animals] to excess were capable of the worst cruelties toward human beings. He said that dogs were not loyal but servile, that cats were opportunists and traitors, that peacocks were heralds of death, that macaws were simply decorative annoyances, that rabbits fomented greed, that monkeys carried the fever of lust, and that roosters were damned because they had been complicit in the three denials of Christ.
―Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Time of Cholera
When I consider that the nobler animal have been exterminated here – the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, dear, the beaver, the turkey and so forth and so forth, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country… Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature I am conversing with? As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all it’s warriors…I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.
―Henry David Thoreau The Journal 1837-1861
Animals never worry about Heaven or Hell. neither do I. maybe that’s why we get along.
― Charles Bukowski The Last Night of the Earth Poems
The first thing I saw as I passed through customs in Dulles airport was a story on the news of a 7-foot white shark attacking a guy in Manhattan Beach. As everybody on earth probably knows by now, the young shark hooked by an angler had reacted in a frenzy of fear and understandable confusion chomped some swimmer on the side. Over and over the clip played of the victim talking about how close he’d been to the shark, how he’d “looked him right in the eye.” I felt bad for the man’s wounds, but I sensed yet another summer of Fox-style news stories of shark attacks and jellyfish hysteria, and all I wanted to do was go back to South Africa.
Let me begin by saying no photographs do that country justice which is another way of saying my camera battery died and the photos I did manage to get are pretty much shit—gill slits, a broad back retreating under a wave, although my lovely travel companions have promised to share their stills and footage. While I lament my lack of images, in all fairness, I don’t think anyone got satisfactory footage of the resurrection either, and seeing the sharks was seeing God in action.
As we rode out to sea from Simonstown on the Fallows’ boat, I sat with my fellow shark traveler Janet Sullivan, from Quincy, Mass. and we watched the water, I asked, “Do you ever have shark dreams?” Janet like many of the other amazing women I befriended on this trip, is no casual shark enthusiast. She sports a tattoo of a great white (In fact, it’s the well-fed one on the FREE HUGS sticker I sold at February’s Jaws benefit).
Janet said she did dream of sharks sometimes.
“What do they do in the dreams?”
She considered this for a moment.
“They’re just there.” I understood. That’s how the sharks often appeared in my dreams and that’s how they appeared underwater. Gliding. Silent. Complete. And pretty much indifferent to the people in the cage.
Feeling profound, I asked, “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Janet said she did.
Haven’t we all been fish at some stage? Was it far-fetched to imagine that some of us had been large, predatory fish?
How else to explain this strange affinity?
As we sped toward Seal Island, the calls of all the Cape fur pinnipeds sounded like sheep from some windy seaside pasture. Janet kept noticing that all the clouds in the early morning sky looked like sharks: dorsal fins dissolving into the morning light, arched wisps like failed breaches.
When we anchored, no extreme adrenaline junkie chum-fest ensued. The Apex crew “called” the sharks by throwing out simple baited lines, seal decoys and with the thrumming vibrations of hands drummed on the side of the boat. Three people in the cage at a time. Snorkels. Wetsuits. No scuba bubbles, as they tend to drive away the sharks. When someone on board called “To your left!” or “To your right!” or somewhat eerily, “Behind you!” we descended beneath the water and breathed and looked.
I remember a strange, but very real sensation in the cage that my legs were gone.
I remember thinking how lonely the long line with the fish head on the end looked as it spun in the silent green water.
But I didn’t really feel afraid.
The first day, the sharks materialized in a green mist, only appearing gray when they came closer to the cage–the great papery slits of the gills puffing slightly, the dark intelligent eye, looking without much interest to the frantic figures in the cage. After so many dreams, movies, documentaries, pictures, after the weight of expectation, of epiphany, here was the animal I’d known only in dreams for forty some odd years. And they had silently appeared as they had in Janet’s dreams and so many times in mine–beautiful, silent, slow. They were simply there.
Of course long before I descended in the cage , I’d already screamed like a teenage girl at her first rock show, when the sharks breaching. It’s not easy to tell a swimming seal from a dark wave, but Chris and Monique Fallows are such expert naturalists that they can easily separate a young seal from a bobbing swell, or an explosion of water from an errant wave breaking over distant rocks. “Two o’clock! 150 meters!” The call goes out, the boat turns. If the birds have descended to the ring of white turbulent water, it means a kill, if not, the seal has usually gotten away and the shark has likely disappeared too. We often arrived just in time to see a sharp flash of tail and fin in a wake, or if we were lucky a blinding white belly as the shark breached, often with the snap of red jaws–all over in an instant.
There’s nothing like a morning spent watching seal predations to make one appreciate the particularly weird human position in the animal kingdom.
Watching the breaches, it’s hard not to call out as if it’s a sporting match, although we all feel bad for the young seals, it’s also terribly primal and exciting and it’s hard to not want the chase to continue, to see the lightning quick desperate acrobatics of the sharks. In one particularly gory breach, the shark surfaced sideways, blood pouring from its jaws, then promptly disappeared the turbulent surface. Two seabirds descended, each taking the end of some sort of long thin entrails in their beaks and flying away, as if engaged in some sort of morbid taffy pull.
When we cruised next to the rushing water of Seal island and saw the pups playing in the water that cascaded off the rocks, diving and surfacing, safe from “the ring of death” where the sharks cruise, it was impossible not to feel as if we were passing by some harsh, but enchanted isle of frolicking whimsical sea-children. We were stunned into a magical silence punctuated by “Awwws.”
I can’t yet properly describe what happened to me in South Africa, but I felt different when I stood on the Cape of Good Hope. Even more than the wild zebra browsing through the verdant scrub along the beach, was the new feeling I had looking at the water.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked at the ocean in this sort of trance. I remember standing once at San Simeon near Hearst Castle, looking past the hauled out bodies of the seals to the craggy rocks and thinking, “They’re out there.” In dreams I’d pull over to the side of the road and stare at the dark water through binoculars. Somehow in the dark I could still see and I could tell the fins from the swells.
I took many a real-life drive up the California coast, stopping at infamous beaches with NO SWIMMING signs, or hoping that if I looked long enough at the horizon, something would rise up. Always with longing and gnawing and a bit of metaphysical tension.
Yet as Janet and I stood at Cape Point, after the first day of breaching and the diving, as our lovely guide Alistair took our photograph at that intersection of oceans, I felt different. There had been no obvious communion between the sharks and me, no shattering tribal epiphany. I had come half way around the world to see them, and the sharks barely noticed I was there.
But something inside me had shifted just the same.
Every so often I have to re-experience David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Address. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it, so I pulled it out of the mothballs today and read it to my late afternoon English 101. They really loved it. I even heard a few exclamations of “Aww, that was good!” or “I feel like crying.”
I wish that someone had taught me early on (at age 15 or so), what David Foster Wallace tried to tell the students of Kenyon College in 2005: in order to stay sane in the face of all the heartbreak and misery that life brings, we must exercise control over “how and what we think.” We must cultivate discipline and awareness, so as not to be a slave to our thoughts. The class talked about the forces in the world that prevent us from keeping this truth “upfront in daily consciousness.” We talked about advertisements, movies, social media, cell phones that all increase our self-obsession, isolation and craving.
(A few hours later, when I sat down to write this, I thought of putting some sort of music or radio news report or something on in the background. For “company” which is how my mother once described how television. But I’m glad I didn’t. The light is nearly gone The traffic sounds like some ocean hum. I am easing into the night. I can feel my hands typing these words. I’m aware of the lengthening shadows.)
After class I gathered all of my messy papers and binders and walked out of the building. I saw an older man in a nice shirt and tie with a backpack. I knew he was a teacher, not a returning student. He looked at me and I smiled. I didn’t think my smile was particularly serious or constipated. But he said with a kind of empathetic resignation, “Another day, huh?”
I don’t know why it made me happy and reflective. I wanted to laugh. Like we were those two dogs in the Warner Brothers cartoon punching the factory time clock. And I thought it was so poignant and sort of tragic that each day of our lives no matter how dull or difficult is still “a day” and I thought how many of them I have wanted simply to end. It seems like something of a sin–not the depression so much as the mindlessness.
A few months ago, I wanted to rescue a few sentences from my diaries and burn them. I stopped keeping diaries because I got sick of all the clutter of old ledgers and notebooks and I just can’t imagine keeping one online. But I went to Skylight Books tonight and bought this blank sketchbook covered with lions that looked like lions from an old 60s kid’s book. I used to feel like I’d redeemed even the most “blah” day if I could write about it in a journal. It felt like I slowed time down a little, rescued something miraculous (and there always is) from the banal progression. Maybe keeping a diary was one way of keeping “the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
About a year ago I had a dream about David Foster Wallace. We were having a wonderfully deep conversation. Like me, DFW was obsessed with shark attacks and loved the humor of P.G.Wodehouse. In the dream we had so much to talk about, at least I thought we did, until he said not unkindly but abruptly, “Well, I’ve got to go take a shower now.” I stood outside the bathroom door in disbelief. Maybe he just wanted me to leave. But then I heard the water.He really did need to take a shower.
The next day I sort of felt close to DFW–after all we’d shared a dream. So I went to Skylight Books and bought his biography “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.” D.T. Max writes about howWallace’s high school tennis team traveled around the state for tournaments. Once they were going to a Van Halen concert, but “ditched Wallace who was in the hotel room taking one of the long showers he was famous for” (10).
A couple days later, still high on this synchronicity (if that’s what you’d call it), I walked by the bookstore again. In the corner of the window I saw a little shark–almost like origami, haphazardly leaning against one of the Jeeves books by P.G. Wodehouse. In a window usually organized by theme (fire, Los Angeles, etc.) Jeeves and the shark seemed a bizarre and random pairing. But they made perfect sense to me.
There’s been a whole lot of hoopla lately about trigger warnings, those cautions about potentially traumatizing content (sexual abuse, colonialism, racism, etc.) in books or movies or on websites. Now that UCSB students have asked their professors to include trigger warnings on their syllabi.
What I find baffling about this is that for the “hypersensitive” among us, the entire world is a trigger. Advertisements, trees, the sound of church bells, the font on a candy wrapper, the particular way the sun slants on a garden wall, the sound of dead pine needles underfoot, the sound of gum ball machines, thrift store smells.Depression-prone people tend to fall easily down memory holes. They let a single melancholic moment metastasize into morose delectation. Songs are the most irresistible and potent memory spells ever conjured. Vanished pleasures, deep sorrows–even the most banal or obnoxious song can evoke a soul-altering tragedy. Case in point: Bread.
Today I was waiting for my spin class to start. As the previous class wiped down their bikes, I could hear the earnest opening of “Everything I Own,” Bread’s 1972 hit, except I guess it was NSYNC’s version. This song, like the way-more-wrenching Nilsson tear-jerker “Without You,” always reminds me of the death of my 19-year-old sister Julie in 1973. I was really young then and Top 40 helped me mourn. Love songs became larger–encompassing other forms of grief and loss. Although Julie died over 40 years ago, music always makes her loss more present than any photograph or letter. The memories aren’t just visual or aural, but physical, as if all the places and states of being live quite literally inside my body. The rising “I would give ee-very-thing I own,” makes me see again the rolling green fields around our house, the aching feeling of listening to Top 40 in the car while the New England landscape rolled by, and thinking of the childish bargains I would make if only I could have Julie back again, or re-living the last time I saw Julie when my parents drove her to the hospital and all the things that I didn’t or couldn’t say to her.
Waiting to go into spin class I felt startled by the song, but not ambushed by childhood trauma. Maybe if I was already depressed about something else, I would have been more vulnerable. Maybe if it had been Bread and not NSYNC, I would have meandered down the familiar, beautiful, wrenching path toward that deep sadness that is always there. Julie’s death can always be conjured if I so choose along with a million other sadnesses, losses, anxieties, unresolved obsessions. “The shit,” my first therapist said, “is always there.”
I know that all trauma is not created equal. The earnest, eerie refrain of nostalgia isn’t the horror of the combat vet with PTSD. Once triggered, certain traumas are immediately physical and terrifying. But even so aren’t we all ultimately responsible for our own healing whether it’s finding a shrink or a meditation practice or writing or love? The world will never cater to our particular wounds or losses. Shouldn’t a blanket warning about potentially upsetting book or movie be enough?
I used to be very vulnerable to memory. If a sad song played, I had to relive whatever it summoned. I had to feel the agony of lost love, death, lost time. It wasn’t so much a decision, as what David Foster Wallace might have called a “default setting.” Not being pulled in the direction of every thought, memory, song was something I had to learn. Unless I really want or need to remember, to renew a memory for fear of losing it or unless I am writing something and need to remember deeply, I find “catch and release” a nice motto to live by.
When I checked Songfacts for more information about “Everything I Own,” I learned that David Gates wrote the song not about a lost lover, but about the death of his father. I also noticed that beneath the usual trivia about chart positions and things like that, a few people had posted their own personal memories of the song, many of which seem pretty traumatic. Alcoholism. Sexual Abuse. A lost sister. For many the “you” in the song is God. For these people this song has become a memory about not just about the trauma itself, but a reminder of their own survival, a way of creating perspective, marking time.
I feel curmudgeonly. I want to write something about today’s kids needing to “toughen up.” Life is often brutal and the best literature is often unsparing about this truth. If Nabokov or Baldwin or Achebe or Fitzgerald evoke trauma and pain, think about what they actually might be saying about racism or pedophilia. Maybe they aren’t so much triggers of trauma as catalysts for deeper understanding. If a Bread song could initiate a contemplative exploration of childhood grief and loss, just imagine the power of Virginia Woolf.
The flu + youtube= a melancholy meditation on pop culture
When did sagging, bulbous bologna become happy baloney:
slang sung by children peeling sweaty circles from the lunch bag’s caress
Who in the schoolyard knew of crazed pigs chewing each other’s tails off?
Who had heard that the runts were slammed to death against the slaughterhouse floor?
Or that a pig that met such a fate was known by another childhood name: Thumper.
We loved the oblivion of mayonnaise.
We learned to laugh off those surreal familiars: leg, shoulder, breast, wing
as we forgot our longing for an ecstatic father
who ate Golden Grahams in a tent
or drank Nescafe from a transparent globe.
I trace the inception of pre-adolescent dread
to my inability to reconcile disco and earthiness,
transparent lip gloss and false ferns
I blame the crackling aftermath,
the lingering shot of the silent game board
or cake mix in lengthening shadow.
That tension between ultra-sheer understatement
and memory yarn,
the shame of instant milk.
What does the rise of fascism, class struggle or the brutality of capitalism have to do with the marauding great white in JAWS? Although I don’t always agree with Zizek, I do like his take on my favorite film….
Lately I’ve been thinking about how certain books become inseparable from the places we are when we read them.
When I think of Keats, I remember sitting on a train speeding through the green blur of Long Island, and a deep blue collected poems from the 1920s with toast-colored pages that fell apart as I read it. First his name flaked off the spine, then the covers dangled by a few desiccated threads. I kept trying to glue the little book together, tape it and make it whole. But each time I tried, I thought of Keats’ epitaph, still my favorite of all time:
Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Peanuts. Mad. “Lennon Remembers.” “The JAWS Log.” All the beloved books of childhood I read while reclining on a scratchy green couch with an errant spring that used to burrow into my spine. I kept having to shift my body to get comfortable, to stay in the book. In those moments when I briefly surfaced from the page, I noticed how having read seemed to have changed the world slightly. I could see a new sharpness in old things, in furniture and wallpaper. I noticed how the old colored bottles on the fireplace, the colonial figurines, seemed to become more “themselves” somehow, to assert their thing-ness with greater authority.
Baudelaire Selected Poems: First read summer 1985 Plum Island Massachusetts. I remember putting a star next to “The Albatross” in the table of contents. Sand in the pages. Book held against the blinding, magnetic sun. Every so often I’d stop reading and stare at the cover: two sea deities joined in salty, tentacled union in the midst of a crashing wave. I’d watch the calm, dark Atlantic. No sea gods. No crashing. No ecstasy. Just a guy with a mullet and a metal detector silhouetted at the surf’s edge.
So many times I loved a book so much I couldn’t bear to part with it. Equal parts passion and sloth. Okay, I told myself, you have to go for a walk. Bring the book if you have to, but you’re going outside. All the way up the mountain trail to the Hollywood sign, I held the fat paperback (The Collected Stories of John Cheever), but didn’t open it. Then finally, on the long way down, I couldn’t wait. I read as I walked down the trail. I knew I looked stupid, but I had no idea it would anger anyone. “Look at you,” the hiker said as he passed me, “you can’t even appreciate nature. Pathetic.” Was this true? Was reading while one walked a sign of moral weakness–a declaration: I need a constant filter, an intermediary to block or translate the world? I wondered about my innate inability to relate to nature on its own terms. Even though I grew up in the country, I still can’t identify many trees. The present always reminded me of the past. The actual seemed an echo of the fictional. New Hampshire was Narnia. When I smelled the lilacs, I loved them. When I found a cellar hole in the woods, I felt fascinated and afraid. But Frost’s line about the abandoned house that had become a “belilaced cellar hole” is more vivid to me now than either the smell of those flowers, or that dark empty place in the earth.
In 1986, I went with my father to Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts. Dad was interviewing William Douglas, a former Tufts anatomy professor who’d become obsessed with a prostitute named Robin Benedict and eventually bludgeoned her to death with a sledge-hammer in 1983. He threw her body in a dumpster in a Rhode Island shopping mall. My father was going to interview Douglas for the Boston Herald. In the news, the story sounded like a weird fable: “The Professor and the Prostitute.” The papers used words like “obsession” and I remember thinking it was so strange that Robin Benedict had been a graphic designer and a prostitute.
I brought a copy of “Dracula” to the prison with me. I remember watching my father disappear with a prison guard behind sliding metal doors. I had to sit in the waiting room with “Dracula.” I kept trying to concentrate on the book, but all I wanted was to watch my father ask a murderer a series of questions. I remember returning over and over to a description of a carriage on a rocky road and Lucy, pale and vampiric on her deathbed, but her pale face kept giving way to William Douglas, his big professor glasses, and how rodent-like and sweaty he looked in the newspaper photos. The contempt I felt for him as a teenager seemed an indictment of his ugliness as much as his evil. At 19, the silver-fanged monsters of imagination were more sympathetic to me—or at least more beautiful.
When the subconscious offers so much free material, it seems a shame to waste it. But not all dreams make the creative cut and become poems….
My mother asked where would you be if you could be anywhere?
I felt foolish. I couldn’t conjure a specific place.
I could only think: Water.
My brother was Frankenstein.
The victim had been found floating, his body contorted into some sort of obscene, folded position like a yogi.
The man and the woman claimed to be actors. They visited me at my bedside, in a room with a peaked roof and a large window.
“We’re playing Jason and Medea,” the woman explained.
“But what attracted you to the Greeks?” I asked.
“Well, they’re just so weird,” she said, and began to talk about historic personages and gods as they were interchangeable.
“The Gods weren’t always so weird,” she said.
Each time I stopped to think about what she’d said, I’d look out the window where water was always rising. No lawn, no grassy border, no bank separated my house from the water that filled the windowpanes. The water looked wild, full of lines and patterns that formed and disappeared into one another. Instead of feeling scared, I felt comforted as if somehow I was rising and dissolving too.
Decayed. Abandoned. Immortal
There is something inside me that has made me new and set me free
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