Set Your Story Free: Find Your Temple

When I wrote my memoir, I lived in a brownstone condo in a part of St. Paul known as Cathedral Hill. I could have written in any number of inspiring locations---Nina's Coffee Shop above Garrison Keillor's book store; one of the many coffee shops on the iconic Grand Avenue; even in front of the bay window in the living room. I wrote in bed.

My bed was tucked between the wall and my dresser, and if I leaned against my pillows I felt like I was tucked into my own little hideout. I liked it, especially if it was dark outside and I turned off the overhead light and wrote by the glow of my bedside lamp.

One of many places I've written.

Perhaps it seems odd to hide while you write since the end goal is often publication. But I wasn't thinking about publishing. I was thinking about the way I needed to write 200 pages to earn my MFA, and as much as I wanted to write something innocuous I could only seem to write about my divorce.

On one hand I wanted to. Thanks to the previous divorce memoirs I'd read, I'd gone into the whole thing with the idea that it was a decision, not a prolonged transition where everything you know about life ceases to exist. I wanted to put a story of survival into the world that showed that transition---the agony, courage, beauty and power of the process itself.

But what would my ex think about it? What would my parents think when they read about some of my late-night choices in bars? How could I ask them to read it when writing about my own marriage seemed to involve writing about theirs?

The only way I could write was to hide from those fears in a dark, safe place. That happened to be in bed---the same place I did my morning pages and my practice writing. It was, in fact, because of all that practice writing that I even knew I had a safe place to write.

Sometimes when I encourage students and aspiring writers to practice write, they resist. They prefer to get things right on the first try, thank you very much. They don't like to write by hand. It feels like a waste of time.

But when your writing takes you to personal places---your story of divorce, for example, or the loss of a loved one---it gets personal fast. Suddenly, you need a way to feel insulated from fear and judgment so that you can simply get the writing done.

I think of it as the writer's temple. It's not elaborate or decked out in trendy decor. It's usually right there in front of you. Your bed. An armchair in the living room. Your couch. It's the place you go when the writing gets real. It's the place you go when you realize that first drafts aren't going to cut it and you have to dig deep. It's where you end up when you realize that you meant it when you said you were going to write your story, and you're in the thick of it now and there's no going back.

Where will your writer's temple be?








Find Your Inner Compass: Believe in Magic (For Real)

Last week, I invited you to pay attention to your reactions (and not your judgments) as writing ideas and opportunities came across your path---in other words, I asked you to feel for the moments before your hyper-critical brain kicked in, when your insides lit up because an idea resonated with you. I swore up and down that my best writing opportunities have come this way, and it's true. Yet even if you believe me, there's probably a little (or not so little) voice in your mind resisting. Saying, "Oh yeah? How do I know it's going to work?" Well, here's my answer: ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- A few weeks ago, I went for a walk at Hartman Rocks, a place where most Crested Buttians go for early season mountain biking. I had only an hour between meetings, so I hiked and decided that at each junction in the trail, I'd turn whichever direction felt best. No map. No worries.

(Not always sage advice, actually, when it comes to Hartman's. There are a lot of junctions and not many landmarks. So I guess I'm not advising you to hike without a map so much as I'm encouraging you to walk without a destination. Good? Good.)

Anyway, I took a right at the second junction because everything looked really green that way (a rarity at Hartman's, which is desert and sage brush).  I was smiling and listening to my iPod when a bush ten feet up the trail rustled and out wandered a porcupine.

I know porcupines as animals that my dog likes to tree and once sent a quill right through her wrist. She limped for months.


But this porcupine looked...cute. His quills were lit up by the sun so that they almost glowed, and I could see his body underneath. He waddled, too, a movement somewhere between a duck and a tiny bear.

The porcupine didn't pay any attention to me, just wandered off the trail and into a patch of greens Somehow, I'd come to think of him as my porcupine. One more animal I'd asked to see, and the universe delivered.

Yep, I know how that sounds. But just like I've been trying to listen to my essential self, I've been trying to bring that type of awareness to the world around me. And the more I do, the more I find the things I seek. Writing ideas, yes, but animals, too. I live in the mountains, after all, and I typically miss out on them because I hike with a hyper-active little black dog. I've been wishing to see more of them, and sure enough I have.

In the last month, a coyote ran across the road in front of my car, and I've seen bears three times. One of them walked up to my from my door (ten feet away from coming inside, no joke). I biked 15 feet away from a pair of elk, have seen more marmots than I can count, and watched a porcupine graze.

It's. Been. Awesome.

People who believe in a collective consciousness (in Australia they call it the Everywhen) would say that I asked for these encounters, and the Everywhen delivered them. I find myself becoming more and more receptive to that idea, but even when it's a mental stretch, I've found an interpretation that works for me---and my writing.

Namely, there are a lot of porcupines where I live. There are also a lot of bears, coyote, elk and even mountain lions (I did wish to see one of those, but as soon as I did the person next to me started talking about how truly large they are. I was content to let that one go). In other words, there are so many wild animals out there that of course I can hope and expect to see them. I just can't get hung up on how, when, where or with whom I'll see them. All I can do is put myself out there.

The same is true for writing. There are a lot of ideas out there that would make good stories. There are a lot of places that want to publish those stories. There are even a lot of ways to get paid as a writer. But if we get hung up on one way of doing it, just because it worked for someone else, we're going to miss everything else. I recently heard it this way (another one from Martha Beck...): "Focused creation creates unintentional blindness."

That one flies in the face of our culture, doesn't it? Where we're taught to stay focused and put the ol' nose to the grind stone? But I love the freedom in that statement.

If we open ourselves up and pay attention, we'll suddenly see that the possibilities are limitless. We'll write some of those stories, and we'll get published in some of those magazines though not all. We'll even get paid. Of course, not every assignment is going to walk right up to our front door like that bear. And sometimes we'll feel confused or unclear about what comes next or how to "make things happen".

But when everything falls into place, it's going to feel like magic. So close to magic that we just might believe in it. And why not? It's a whole lot more fun than overwhelm.

*  *  *

Like where this is going but not sure how to start practicing it? Consider one-on-one coaching to free your inner writer. You'll learn to work with yourself instead of against yourself and find freedom in your writing.

Find Your Inner Compass: Learn to Listen

  In Shirking the Shoulds, we played around with the idea of letting go of The Shoulds— beliefs we hold about how we're supposed to do things. But that begs the question: If we don't do things the way we're "supposed to", how do we do them? I believe we learn to trust our instincts---something you're going to love or resist, and decide I've gone off my rocker into "woo woo-ey" territory:


I used to tell myself a lie: Writers are poor.

I thumbed this idea like a worry stone. I thought about it on the way to work. Driving down valley to grocery shop. Wishing I could book a nice hotel when my boyfriend and I wanted to rock climb in January without camping in snow.

That one thought created a stress that infiltrated my body, showing up in outward pressure in my chest and the sensation of something lodged in my throat. And then one day, my friend Dina asked me a question.

"Are writers poor?"

She was training to be a life coach, and had offered some of her practice hours to me. We sat outside her house at a metal table, and I remember the way the sun cast the shadow of the table's pattern across my legs. I had never asked that question before.

I assumed it was true because moving from Minnesota to Colorado, and from marketing to writing, had reduced my paycheck by a third. But under Dina's careful questioning I realized that I didn't make more money because I didn't know how to ask for it. My mind ran circles when I determined my rates, even informed by competitive analyses. I didn't TRUST in the value of my work.

Luckily, Dina gave me a new way to approach it.



"How do you feel when you ask for too little money?" Dina asked.

I told her I felt like crap, but Dina meant in my body. Actual physical sensations.

I told her about my throat and my chest.

"That's your body talking to you," she explained.


Dina went on to explain that we have two parts---the part of ourselves that's deeply versed in society's logic (everything we learned from our parents, our friends, at church, at school and at work about how we should behave), and the part of ourselves that knows when all that logic is a load of hogwash.

Dina called them the socialized self and the essential self, and said the essential self knows what we need at all times. We're just good at overriding it because we're so well versed in the logic of society.

That idea resonated with me right away.



I think of my essential self as the five-year-old me who hid behind a tree on the way to kindergarten. I wanted to learn new things and make new friends, but I didn't want to be bullied by the teacher because I didn't know how to tie my shoes. She wouldn't teach me, wouldn't let anyone else tie my shoes, and let me walk around with my laces dragging. Some part of me knew I didn't need to be treated like that, but I didn't know how to tell my mom. (Luckily, WonderMom discovered velcro shoes shortly after she discovered that I'd ditched kindergarten).

Portaging in the BWCAW

Just like I didn't know how to tell my mom about my teacher, the essential self doesn't have words. It talks to us by compelling us to hide behind trees or sending signals through our bodies---another way to think about it is that gut feeling you get when something is really great or really bad.

When we're following The Shoulds, we override those gut feelings. We cover them up, gird our loins, and do whatever it is we're "supposed" to do.

Luckily, we can practice trusting our instincts by tuning into our bodies when we make decisions. Dina invited me to do that when I set my rates. Instead of running a comparison between my services and other writers', she suggested tuning into whether I felt closed in my throat or open and free.

If that sounds too easy, let me be the first to tell you that as soon as I started doing that, I started making more money. It was gradual, but I proved to myself that writers did not have to be poor.



The first step to listening to your body is to practice feeling it. An easy way to do that comes from this adaptation of an Eckhart Tolle exercise, and if you're feeling uncomfortable with the idea of essential and socialized selves, this is a place to start:

Find a comfortable place and take a seat. Sit tall but not rigid, and close your eyes. Mentally scan your body and see if you have any tension or sensations anywhere. Don't judge or assign value, just observe.

Now, set one elbow on your knee, a table or some other surface so you can raise your hand into the air. Your hand should be touching nothing but air.

With your eyes still closed, ask yourself, "How do I know my hand is real?" Notice any sensations or cues that tell you your hand is real even though you can't see it.

When you're finished allow your hand to return to a resting position. Take a deep breath and exhale. Mentally scan your body. Does it feel different?

When I do this, I feel a tingling in my hand, and a pulsing sensation. Afterward, my whole body feels more relaxed. You might have sensed something different---a buzzing, or a breeze on your hand. Whatever it was, in that moment you were in your body and out of your mind. You were practicing what Life Coach Martha Beck calls wordlessness.



Life Coach Martha Beck (who trained Dina, and whose memoirs I very much recommend) has developed a process of listening to your body as a tool---she calls it the Body Compass. This is what Dina taught me, and in it's most basic form it goes like this:

Think of a time that wasn't that great. In fact, it kind of sucked. You don't have to dwell on it, but remember it and see what sensations arise in your body. (I get that closed throat feeling). Once you identify those sensations, give the overall feeling a nickname. I call mine "Closed" but have a client who calls hers "Reggy", a nickname for rigid.

Now, take a deep breath. Shake off the bad memories.

Sit comfortably and remember a time that was great. Go through the same process: see what sensations come up in your body. I get a swelling and an openness in my throat. Give that feeling a name.

This gives you a way to check in with yourself when you're making decisions about your writing. Say you get offered an assignment, and the publisher wants to pay you $25. Check in with your body---which way does it feel when you think about trading your work for $25? Let that influence your negotiation.

Trusting our own wisdom takes practice, but over time it will help you find a sense of freedom and you'll see the results in your writing. You'll learn to tell the difference between fear masquerading as wisdom (as one wise WritingStrides reader put it), and your true instincts.

Read Post #3 in the Find Your Inner Compass series: Find Your Own Way

Write better—Trust in the unknown

  This morning I received an email from one of my students. She got a call from her mother while she was driving to work, and the ensuing conversation gave her the perfect ending to one of her essays.

"I just had to share this with you," she said.

I LOVE getting emails like this, just as much as I love hearing from students because they're jazzed about a book they're reading for class and can't put it down.

These emails tell me that my students are growing as writers. Learning that writing is about more than typing on a computer or putting pen to paper. As I wrote last week, part of the writing process happens away from the page. Endings appear to us while we're driving. Whole scenes play out in our minds while we're cooking dinner.

But we have to be open to this kind of inspiration. We have to be willing to believe that when we walk away from our work, an ending will come in its own time. Learning to trust that part of the process (and delight in it) is essential to letting your writing evolve authentically.



A friend and I have been talking about this idea of trust a lot lately, in a slightly different context. She's building her career as a life coach, and I'm finding my way as a writing coach and freelance writer. We get together for wine and brie & crackers, and talk about whether we know what we're doing. It's not the coaching that stumps us, it's figuring out how to let people we know we exist.

A spring bloom.

Both of us have been reacting against the models we see around us. All those experts who lure you in with free things and then deliver trainings without much substance and blog posts that get a million hits even though they're unreadable. They're all starting to feel like "Get Rich Quick" schemes, and that's not what we're after.

We're looking to connect with people. To build genuine and authentic connections that help all of us grow and learn. We both know that when we relax and let things evolve naturally, that happens more often. We just have to let go of the formulas we see around us.


Last week, my friend suggested that it begins with trust. Being able to say, "I trust that..." and follow it up with whatever outcome we're seeking. We don't need to know how things will unfold, we just need to set our intentions and trust in the outcome.

Can I just tell you? I'm a confident person, and that word "trust" came slow as molasses to me. I could say, "I want." I could say, "My intention is..." But to simply say, "I trust..." I felt a little stuck. And then I realized that I know this to be true about writing already.

I trust that my novel will unfold as long as I write a little bit most days. I trust that when I take my time on a pitch and wait until I have the right pieces of information and inspiration, it will get picked up by a magazine. So why not apply that same core belief to life?



-5This is a writing blog, of course, so I'm going to suggest you try it with your writing goals. Pick one that you absolutely believe in but don't quite know how it's going to come to be--writing that memoir, say, or starting that blog. Pick up your pen and write "I trust..."



Maybe you'll write:

I trust that I will establish a popular food blog that women follow for valuable and life changing information.

I trust that I will write a brilliant memoir about my childhood experience with cancer that will give other children and families a sense of hope.

I trust that I will be a sought-after freelance writer who gets to travel for my work.

Whatever you write, be bold. Use words like brilliant. Trust in your trust and see what happens.

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