Moments of Being

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

- Virginia Woolf

On Getting to Work

I’m writing this from a friend’s borrowed apartment in New York City.  Sun streams in through the east-facing windows.  The air-conditioner hums.  Outside, a bus sighs — that’s how it has always sounded to me, like a long, exhausted exhale — four floors below, on Columbus Avenue.  I have a few hours until my lunch date.  I’m showered.  Caffeinated.  Alone.  And… why is it so hard to get to work?  The world out there is noisy, but the world inside my head is even noisier.  I could blame over-stimulation from all the travel, teaching, and public speaking.  I could blame my husband or my kid.  I could blame my in box, flooding with things I need to take care of, or feel guilty for not taking care of.

Or I could blame myself.  That’s what I tend to do.  It’s what most of us usually do, isn’t it?  Out comes the whip.  We’re lazy, stuck, worthless.  Our ideas are shallow, uninteresting, tepid.  What’s our problem?  Why can’t we just crank out pages like some literary version of a well-oiled machine?

I’ll tell you why not.  Because this writing thing is hard.  It always feels good to have written, but it rarely feels good to sit down to write.  If I were to describe my own physical process, it’s like a nearly-unbearable tension within me slowly begins to rise.  A welling up of so many thoughts and feelings that it feels I might explode.  And yet, at the same time, there is the seeming impossibility of finding the words, of knowing what’s next, of getting it right.  Shoulders tense.  Jaw tightens.  Eyes sting.  Breath becomes shallow.  Mind buzzes in circles endlessly.  The page is a solid wall at which I must run, full tilt, and only by running, only by hurling myself straight at it might it crumble and give way.  But it appears so solid!  So unforgiving!  Sometime I bang against it, and limp away, bruised and bloody.  Other times, it turns out the wall was just a mirage.  But there’s only one way to find out.

So.  How to begin?  Improbably enough, we must begin with kindness.  What do we need right now?  What do you need?  Another cup of coffee?  A few moments of meditation?  A deep, cleansing breath?  A shot of courage?  A reminder that everyone who is sitting alone in her room, right at this very moment, is on some continuum of this very same process?  We are all alone.  And we are also all in this together.

On your marks.  Get set.  Go.

 

 

On the Last Two Steps

Right around New Year’s, when the world seems replete with actionable plans – you know, seven steps to greater happiness, ten steps to a new you, and so forth – I found myself musing about whether there are indeed identifiable steps, or any steps at all, that lead to the creation of a new piece of work. Are there steps that lead the writer to the page? Steps that we can take, teetering one after the next, that will somehow get us into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding?

I’m sorry to say that after all my musing I was unable to come up with a game plan, for myself or anyone else. Honestly, I never really thought I would, because every writer’s path to the page is unique and fraught in its own special way. However, I did land on one idea, which has to do with the second to the last step – the penultimate step – to beginning a new piece of work.

Are you ready for it?

Despair.

Yes, you read that right. I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve had quite a lot of it at this point, and what I can identify in my own process, when I am between books, it that I have to reach a total nadir, a writhing-on-the-floor, no holds barred, messy, deeply uncomfortable, godawful, pressured, horrible state before I can begin. No, I’ll take that further. It is precisely the depths themselves that act as a launching point. When I find myself – finally, inexorably – trapped in that impossible place, I am finally liberated. Liberated from my perfectionism, my resistance, my inner censor. Liberated from my fear, my self-consciousness, my ambition, my desire. All that’s left, in my despair, is an empty husk. And from that empty husk issues forth this question:

What do you have to lose?

When we land in the place beyond fear which is, if you’ll excuse me, a fuck-it-all place where courage is beside the point, this is the final step that hurls us at the page. A dear friend, a wonderful writer whose father is also an eminent writer – a national treasure – told me that when she was a child, her father used to drive her to school during the years in which he was wrestling with what later became his magnum opus. On some mornings, he’d pull the car over to the side of the road and she’d watch as he’d bash his head against the steering wheel. I asked her if it felt scary, and she told me it didn’t. It was just her dad, trying to get to work. I know the feeling of that pressure building up. Bash, bash, bash! I’ve certainly screamed in my car at the top of my lungs – though I’ve managed never to do it in front of my son. A writer in that state of struggle is a bit mad. My head sometimes feels like an overripe melon, rotting, ready to explode.

But here’s the thing: there seems to be no other way. We don’t choose this life. This life chooses us. And so from the ocean floor of that despair, we tense our legs, we spring from our haunches, we squeeze our eyes shut and scissor up through the depths with all our might. We don’t think about whether we have enough time or oxygen. We hope there’s light above us. We break through the surface, gasping. We’ve survived the worst part. From the deepest recesses of where we have found ourselves, we have begun.

On Slowness

These days it seems I have forgotten what it is to slow down.  Isn’t this true of many of us?  It’s so easy, in this ridiculously fast-paced, high intensity, noisy, noisy world we live in, to lose all sense of stillness.  Stillness, slowness, being of course the life’s blood of the writer.  My life can look, from a distance, like it is replete with stillness.  Take this moment, for example.  It’s almost five o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t left the house, except to take the dogs out.  I’ve never gotten dressed.  I’ve gone from  yoga clothes (not that I did yoga) to a bathrobe.  I’ve puttered around in an efficient manner, making my favorite new loaf of bread, and my favorite green juice.  I’ve hung out with my teenaged son, who is home from school and ever-so-slightly bored.  I booked a trip to Chicago to visit my ninety-year-old aunt in a few weeks.  You might even say I’ve done a pretty good impersonation of stillness.  But in between all this, I either answered or sent — I’m actually going to count right now — I answered or sent fifty-one emails.  I looked up dozens of articles online that caught my attention on Twitter.  I tweeted twice, retweeted six times.  I favorited quite a few tweets.  By the way, the spell check on my computer doesn’t even recognize these as words – retweet, favorited – but here I am, using them.  To decompress, I took a bath.  Hence the bathrobe.  But mostly, I’ve spent most of the day trapped in my head, thoughts bouncing one into the next like so many marbles dropped from a paper bag onto a hard floor.

What next? The thoughts all whisper, an endless drone.  What next, what next, what next? 

Yesterday, while driving the country roads near my house (yesterday being a day I did actually leave home) I listened to a beautiful audiobook by Pema Chodron, which contained these words: Trying to find the moment when one thought becomes another is like trying to find the moment when boiling water turns into steam. When the mind is noisy, when the speed of life seems to be a river and myself the unmanned raft, this is just how my thoughts appear: random, formless, useless, inaccessible.

What next?

This past weekend I taught a workshop at Kripalu with the yogi and scholar Stephen Cope.  Titled Writing Through the Chakras, the workshop was – if I do say so myself – quite extraordinary.  Most everyone who came left feeling blissed-out.  Steve led the yoga, and I led the writing, and we moved the eighty students in that great hall from states of repose and receptivity (slowness!) directly into the experience of moving the pen across the page.

I have become a master of helping writers get out of their own way.  But the momentary irony is that I have been so busy doing this that I have lost the ability to get out of my own.

What next?

Someone wiser than I would counsel me that I can’t possibly know right now.  That I need to take some time.  Since October, I have appeared on Oprah, been to San Francisco twice, Seattle twice, Aspen, Florida three times, New Orleans.  I have given speeches in front of thousands of people, or hundreds, or a few dozen.  I have taught private workshops, small retreats, big retreats, on both sides of the Atlantic.  Someone out there reading this is going to think that this is a humble brag.  But it’s not.  It’s just a fact of my life that I’m trying to learn how to make jive with the rest of my life, which is that of a solitary, introverted writer who needs to the time and space and wherewithal to once again discover the world anew.  To breathe, to think, to walk, to remain in my bathrobe, to take baths.  To shut off the email.  To take a holiday from the Internet.  To stop considering who the world is telling me I am (to the degree the world cares, which is to say, perhaps a hairsbreadth more than a rat’s ass) and instead, consider that somewhere deep in the recesses of my being,  stories are growing in the dark.

On Collaborating With Chance

Anyone who has heard me speak or been in one of my recent classes  knows that I have a new literary crush, the amazing writer Rebecca Solnit.  I have been reading Solnit’s work slowly, savoring her sentences, the nimbleness and depth of her mind, the generosity of her spirit, her disciplined eloquence.  This particular morning, I am staying in a friend’s New York City apartment, lying in an enormous bed from which, through a picture window, I can see all of Central Park spread out thirty floors beneath me. Fifth Avenue and Central Park West line either side of this vast, improbable expanse of green, buildings small as Lego’s.  I skipped yoga class this morning and instead, in this gloriously empty apartment, communed with Solnit.  Here is a passage that inspired me — as she does, often — to dig deep into my own consciousness:

“Edgar Allen Poe declared, ‘All experience, in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.’  Poe is consciously juxtaposing the word ‘calculate,’ which implies a cold counting up of the facts or measurements, with ‘the unforeseen,’ that which cannot be measured or counted, only anticipated.  How do you calculate upon the unforeseen?  It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit  to calculation, to plan, to control.  To calculate upon the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”

This passage stunned me, absolutely took my breath away.  It speaks so succinctly to everything I have come to understand about how to live — how to attempt to navigate the great tapestry of this human condition, this glorious, catastrophic existence.  How to ride the wave with an open heart and an open mind, holding the awareness that it is the wave carrying us, not the other way around.  We are at the mercy of its whims.  But when we know this, we relax.  Our fists unclench.  Our lungs expand.  When we release to this idea — when we collaborate with chance — we are more likely to stay upright, to maintain our balance, come what may.

My life has lately been taking me in directions I never could have imagined, and this has happened by my releasing myself, in Solnit’s words, to the essential mysteries of the world.  None of this has been according to plan, or by design.  I have traveled an enormous amount in these last years, speaking about Still Writing and Devotion, teaching at retreats around the world.  I spent an hour being interviewed by Oprah.  I gave a lecture in New York last month in front of thousands — something I could never have imagined just a few years ago, when I was crippled by stage fright.  Over the past three years, I have watched as my husband took a massive risk — an all-or-nothing roll of the dice — by putting his career as a Hollywood screenwriter on ice in order to make an independent film.  Something deep in my gut told me that he was doing exactly the right thing, just what he needed to do, even though it was scary.  Even though there were many nights I laid awake at three o’clock in the morning, staring at the ceiling, imaging myself as a bag lady.  That movie — three years in the making — is opening this weekend in New York City.  Our collaboration with chance.

I am well aware that this collaboration with chance is, at this precise moment, one of good fortune.  That there will be those who think, well that’s easy for her to say.  But I also know that this collaboration with chance has brought with it, over the course of my life, grief and fear and pain.  And, without a doubt, it will again.  One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that risk actually means risk.  Real risk.  Not pseudo-risk with a safety net.  This is — all of it — a high wire act.  There are many moments, daily, hourly, where the willingness to fail, to fall, is the only way to move forward.  But move forward, we must.  From the window, I see tens of thousands of abodes.  Cyclists and runners in the park.  Glorious, teeming humanity.  Bravely, skillfully, with grace and fortitude, calculating on the unforeseen.

 

 

On the Long Haul

I’ve never been a particularly patient person.  Yet I’ve spent my life engaged in work that requires tremendous patience.  Writing a book is not an activity well-suited to those who need immediate gratification — or perhaps even gratification at all.  Writing a book demands blind faith, decent habits, tenacity, endurance, the ability to withstand indignity and rejection, and the discipline of sitting down every day whether you feel  like it or not.  Above all, writing a book requires patience.  A book is a lot like life.  You never know what’s around the corner.  You never know when it’s going to up and change on you.  You can’t predict the outcome.  Trying to control it is hopeless and counter-intuitive.  Holding back is a mistake.  It takes a long time.  There are no promises.  The world, the world owes you nothing.  And yet your only hope is to fling yourself heedlessly, wholeheartedly, into the unknown –– hoping, praying, that you will emerge with something true.

I’m writing this from a window seat on a flight from San Francisco to New York.  I’ve been flying so much for the past six months since Still Writing was published that  I feel like the George Clooney character from “Up in the Air,” moving through security checkpoints with almost military precision.  I’ve been out in the world and it has been exciting and fun.  It hasn’t demanded of me any of the qualities I’ve honed over a lifetime of writing books.  I haven’t needed to summon blind faith, decent habits, tenacity, endurance, or patience.  No.  It has been a time for other traits.  I’ve called upon the part of myself that is capable of being an extrovert, a social creature, an intrepid soul who goes out into the world, instead of hiding in a hotel room; who researches yoga studios and shows up for classes in strange cities in an attempt to keep myself centered while on the road.  This may not sound like much, but for me – a creature whose natural habitat is silence and solitude – believe me, it is.  I’ve enjoyed tremendously the dinners in other cities with friends old and new, the public appearances, the teaching.  It’s been fun to put on nice clothes and lipstick, instead of my usual uniform of yoga clothes or a bathrobe (or both).  But I have been homesick, underneath it all, and this homesickness – a low, thrumming back beat to the travel and the appearances – is not simply for my husband, my kid, my dogs, my own bed.  It is homesickness for myself.

My inner life is an inaccessible landscape when I’m not writing, a foreign and unfamiliar place.  It doesn’t feel dangerous so much as remote.  I don’t know any other way to get there.  The pen lights the way for me – it has always been my only source of illumination.  But the further away I drift from the page, the harder it is to get back.  Ultimately, writer is someone who writes, as someone wiser than I once said.  And a writer who writes is one who has found a way to give herself permission.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve wanted to do everything I’ve done in these past months.  Since October I have been to Los Angeles twice, San Francisco twice, Seattle twice, Florida twice, New Orleans, Aspen, Boston, Philadelphia, and Italy.  If I were to count up, I probably have done fifty, maybe sixty events for Still Writing.  I’ve had a blast.  My book needed me, and I have ushered it into the world.  And I’m not going to stop – not entirely.  between now and the end of the summer, I will have gone to Nantucket, Palm Springs, Taos and Provincetown.  But I am slowing down.  It’s time.  Time to close the door.  To begin to cultivate the patience and blind faith once more.  Time to be fearless and reckless, to pick up that pen and watch the light stream out of it.  Here, it will point the way.  Here, remember?  This is who you are.  

 

On Letting Go

I’m writing this in a hotel room in New York City.  Morning sun casts a glow across the bed.  My little laptop is nestled into a pillow.  Around me, silence, and at least for the moment, I can feel myself slowing down.  The pace, the pace of the past months has been a bit like the weather here on the East Coast: relentless, unpredictable, surprising.  And as is the case when the pace of our lives moves faster than we’re able to understand, I have been out of touch with my inner life.  Last night, I took myself to a yoga class taught be a wonderful teacher with whom I’ve become friends,, but have never practiced with.  In a cavernous room, on my mat, amidst strangers, I felt space open up inside me that has been inaccessible for a while.  It’s hard to define this space.  We all need to find it.  Sometimes we touch upon it — and when we do, it’s like pressing upon a tender spot, a bruise, a discomfort, but one that is somehow welcome and necessary.  And if we don’t allow ourselves to feel…well, we know what happens, don’t we?  Whether in slow motion or at warp speed, we end up in trouble.  Disconnected.  We are distanced from our very hearts, from the true nature of our minds.  From the place where we are most ourselves.

Notice I say we.

Notice that I am veering away from the “I” even as I lie here in the hotel bed.  Because tears spring to my eyes as I write these words.  As the space opens up.  As I inhale and feel my lungs fill, exhale and let it all go.  I have been holding on so tightly.  It has felt, to me, like the only way.  This has been a time of uncertainty in so many ways.  Questions have swirled around me.  Will Still Writing find its readers?  Will people still be reading books ten years from now?  Will my husband’s film find a distributor?  Will my son move to a different school next year?  Will that be the right decision?  In the absence of having answers to any of these question, I clenched my jaw, balled my fists, and forged forward, a warrior.  I woke up in the middle of the night, teeth grinding.  I hit the ground running each morning and never looked up until the day’s chores and responsibilities were finished.  Nights, I searched for ways to hit the off switch and silence the anxious chatter in my head.  Even as I write this, I want to delete it.  I don’t want to tell the truth about the way I have been living on the inside, even while, on the outside, I have been traveling, teaching, speaking, and — dare I say it? — helping people.  Of course, it’s easier to help others than to help oneself.

I know this much: the answer is found in the breath.  The answer is found in living in the questions.  The answer is that there is no answer.  There is only ordinary life, which is full of stumbling blocks and unexpected grace.  Full of weather.  As the sun casts my bed aglow, I feel the space that has begun to open inside me, and fight the urge to grasp that too, to make it stay.  Today, my little book on writing is finding its way in the world.  My husband’s movie will open next month.  My son will go to a new school next year.  Today, tears are springing to my eyes because I feel the grace inherent in letting go.  In trusting the free fall we call life.  In the fleeting awareness that this dive is all we have, and that the truest measure of grace is in stretching arms wide open, and pushing off the ledge.

On a Delicate Balance

I have not been writing.  There, I’ve said it.  I have been traveling the country talking about Still Writing, but I have not been writing.  Because writing a book and promoting a book are two entirely different things.  Because my new book needs me.  It’s a baby I’ve given birth to, and abandoning it to make its own way in this noisy world would be akin to leaving an infant on the changing table, tiny legs flailing in the air.  I am devoting my time and energy to traveling, teaching, speaking and reading.  And please don’t get me wrong: I love meeting my readers.  I love teaching retreats like these.  I’m just back from AWP in Seattle where I spent time with the most warm and receptive people, generous people.  One reader handed me a gift –– no card, no name, no nothing –– just a beautiful soap dish and bar of fragrant soap, to thank me for my books.  I could have wept.  It is meaningful beyond measure to see my words find their mark.  To know that these decades of work are cumulative, that I am mining veins that are like tributaries, finding their way to others.

But I’m not writing.  And when I’m not writing, I’m not well.  The world is leached of color.  My brain is fuzzy.  My heart, overfull, hurting.  Sentences wind around and around me –– unwritten –– and form a sticky, uncomfortable web.  These unwritten sentences don’t wait.  They are alive, and like any living thing, untended, they wither and decay.  They calcify, then turn to dust.  They will not appear again –– not in this precise way.  Each day that I don’t capture them, they are gone forever.

As I write these words, I am on my chaise for a few days reprieve between trips.  This weekend I will be in Palm Beach.  Next weekend, Fort Lauderdale, with Brooklyn in between.  Then New Orleans.  Then Italy.  Then San Francisco.  Then LA.  Please understand that I am not complaining.  I am blessed, enormously fortunate to have these opportunities.  I will meet my readers, see old friends, forge new relationships, have new experiences.  This is a great gift.  But there are only two modes for a writer.  We are either in the cave, where we do our work in the darkness, or we are out of the cave, blinking like night creatures exposed to the light of day.  Certainly there are writers who stay in the cave, who don’t promote their books, perhaps those who simply can’t, because of their own temperaments, or those who have reached a point at which they don’t need to.  And there are other writers who abandon the cave entirely, and spend all their time spinning, spinning, moving around the world, going from event to event talking about work they wrote years, sometimes decades, ago.  But for those of us –– myself among them –– who move out of our dark and solitary natural habitats and into the fast-paced, populated, bright and beautiful world, and back again, we need always to remember who we are beneath it all.

Writing is how I come to know myself.  The blank page is my mirror, my teacher, my salvation.  When I return to it –– and I can feel that time coming –– it will be at a point when I have nurtured STILL WRITING along so that it has found its way.   I will take a deep breath and grab hold of the first words of a sentence as if it is a lifeline.  Because it is, in fact, a lifeline.  For me, for all of us.  I will recede into the darkness, hoping to emerge one day with whatever new treasures I find there.

On What Disturbs, Then Nourishes

Lately I’ve been moving at a rapid clip.  My bags are no sooner  unpacked, it seems, then once again I’m pulling them from the closet, and completing my flight’s online check-in.  My desk is littered with lists.  .  My toiletries are in a plastic bag filled with sample sizes.  I’m reading more on screens — lots of downloaded sample chapters.  Little bite-sized pieces of literature.  My dogs are confused.  They hang their heads when they hear the zip of a suitcase.  My husband and I compare calendars, hoping we might be in the same place at the same time.  It’s all good.  That’s what I keep saying, and in fact, it’s true.  It is all good.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t challenging.  Or complex.  Or difficult to navigate while staying true to my deepest self.

As I write these words, I am once again stretched out on my chaise, in my office at home.  My dogs are sleeping near me.  The house is quiet.  This is my natural habitat, that place where I come to know what’s happening in my heart and mind.  We all have such a place, if only we are able to identify it for ourselves.  For some of us, we become reacquainted with ourselves in nature.  For others, it’s during meditation or yoga.  Others find it in music.  In silence.  In community.  But when we stray too far from whatever it is that allows us to know what’s going on, we risk losing our center.  I think of it as a pilot light, always burning inside of me.  It’s there –– just as the breath is there –– but if I ignore it, it can’t catch hold.  It can’t set aflame any ideas or insights or emotional truths.  It just dims and sputters.

A couple of weeks ago, I led a remarkable retreat with a small group of spectacular women writers, and invited a very dear friend of mine who is a great yoga teacher to join us.  She led us in two very beautiful asana practices, and at the start of one of these practices, she read  “The Winter of Listening by the poet David Whyte.

No one but me by the fire / my hands burning / red in the palms while / the night wind carries / everything away outside. /  All this petty worry / while the great cloak of the sky grows dark / and intense / round every living thing. 

What is precious / inside us does not care / to be known /by the mind / in ways that diminish its presence. /  What we strive for / in perfection / is not what turns us / into the lit angel / we desire, / what disturbs and then nourishes us has everything we need.

What disturbs and then nourishes us has everything we need. 

The truth of these words penetrated me on that blustery winter afternoon as the great cloak of the sky grew dark around me.  Whatever I know, whatever I have learned, whatever glimmers of wisdom I have gained in my life, has come from what has disturbed and then nourished me.  Think of the way a wound heals, that tender, shiny new skin knitting itself together, protecting, yes, but also signaling: something happened here.  If we are fortunate enough to live long and full lives, we are covered with these scars, these disturbances.  What we do with them is our choice.  What disturbs does not have everything we need.  Only what disturbs then nourishes.  If we take in the difficulty, turn it over in our minds, feel the facets in our hearts, find the stillness to grow and understand –– well, then we are making something profound out of our experience.

And if we are artists, this is the way we make art.

On Living Out Loud

One of the many reasons that writers lead strange, out-of-step lives is that to do our work requires solitude, silence and contemplation, and to promote our work requires that we step out into the world, to whatever degree we are able.  These two aspects — the doing and the promoting — are not easily reconcilable.  In fact, they clash in so many ways that it can drive a writer crazy.  (And I do mean crazy.)  If you run into a writer in the midst of a book tour,  you will encounter a shell-shocked creature, thin-skinned, nervous, anxious about how it’s going, lonely for home, unused to the sound of her own voice.  This writer has stepped out from her dark cave — that shadowy, hallowed place where she created her work — and now she is squinting, shading her eyes from the sunlight.  She’s happy to be out in the open air, but at the same time, her nerves are jangled.  She wrote the book.  She poured her whole self into it.  Isn’t that enough?

It most decidedly is not enough.  Writers today have relationships with our readers that go far beyond the pages of our books.  To be able to connect with readers is an enormous privilege.  But here’s where it gets complicated.  Now, if we aren’t careful, we can bring that sense of being in public right into our very own writing rooms.  We can sit at our desks and feel like we’re living out loud.  Facebook!  Instagram!  Twitter!  Amazon customer reviews!  Goodreads!  If we so desire — or even if we don’t desire, not at all, but cannot help ourselves — with a single click we can try and convict ourselves in the court of public opinion.  A writer might be sitting at her desk, about to get to work, and with a swift self-Google, she can find someone, perhaps many someones, who just isn’t that into her.  She can fling open the door to her inner sanctum and let all the noise and opinion of the world pour in.

I am one of those writers who has an online presence.  I have not built it strategically, or even consciously.  It has evolved over time, and I quite enjoy it.  I’m on Facebook, and Twitter, and even recently joined Instagram.  I have kept this blog. up for a long time now –– even though I don’t post very often.  I usually wait until I  have something to say.   Since the publication of Still Writing I have done dozens of online interviews, even one in which I interviewed myself.  I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago that stirred up some controversy, in which I openly addressed a reader who was nasty to me on Facebook.  Before the piece was published, my husband made me promise that I wouldn’t read the online comments.  There were a lot of them, and do you know what?

I didn’t.  Not because I wasn’t interested.  Not because I didn’t care.  But because I knew that there would be bruising, painful comments and that reading them would be like falling down a rabbit hole.  The toxic comments –– amidst all the others –– would stick to my bones, while the supportive comments would wash over me like water.  Like most of us, I am all-too-ready to think the worst of myself.  To censor myself.  This soft underbelly is the place from which I write, and I must at all costs protect it.

I get to spend my days –– when I’m writing –– shaping chaos (the chaos of  imagination, the chaos of memory, the chaos of history) into stories.  I feel lucky to be able to do this, even when it’s agonizing, which it is, much of the time.  As I sit here writing, snow is falling outside my window, my dogs are on the floor beneath my chaise, my third cappuccino of the day is by my side.  I move pieces around on the page, or in my head, or both — to see how one might make music, might make a greater kind of sense, when juxtaposed with another.  When I am able to do this, time falls away.  I am at my most miserable only when I fail  in the attempt– meaning, when I don’t get to the page at all, which is the only true failure.

The only way I can make this attempt, every day, is to be sure the voice I am most listening to is my own.  Other voices are wise, some are cavalier, some are malicious, others are kind.  But I cannot lick my finger, then stick it up to see which way the wind is blowing.  My inner sanctum needs to be precisely that.  So that when I emerge –– when I blink and squint in the light of day –– I know exactly who I am, honed and chiseled in the darkness.

 

 

On Vulnerability

I know how things look right now.  If you go on my Facebook page, or catch a glimpse of me on Twitter, or sit in a crowded bookstore audience where I’m giving a reading, or attend one of my weekend retreats, you might make certain assumptions about me and my life.  You might assume, successful author.  You might assume, has it made.  You therefore might make the leap to: she must feel great.  Or even, as in the title of a book and blog I like a lot, I Want To Be Her.

“We love to hate Dani Shapiro,” a radio host recently told me.  “You have a perfect life.”

Let me pose a question.  Do any of us have perfect lives?  Or do we carefully curate our public personas, keeping our true selves safe, hidden from view?  Of course, we show only what we want the world to see.  In my case, if you were to go on my Facebook page, you would see an author who apparently never has a bad hair day, who happily travels from city to city, occasionally posting announcements about readings, or appearances, or good news about her book, her family, her life.  She’ll post a trailer of her husband’s new film, but won’t write about the years of struggle, the sleepless nights, the financial upheaval, of making that film.  She’ll post a photo of herself on Oprah, or giving a big reading, but she won’t post a photo from the day before, where only ten people showed up in a bookstore.  She’ll put a selfie up on Instagram (is there anything less revealing of self than a selfie?) but only from a good angle, in a place she wants to be seen.

But true vulnerability is an art.  It is the art of allowing oneself to be seen.  Without putting up our guard.  Without pretense.  Without all the masks we don in order to get through our days.  Vulnerability also requires vigilance.  Some days it’s easier than others to simply be our true selves.  When I went on Oprah, all I hoped to do — my single task for that hour — was to be myself.  I wanted to shed all of my defenses and engage in the most genuine conversation I possibly could.  The stakes were high –– by which I don’t mean the public stakes.  I mean that my own sense of truth was on the line.  Could I enter an arena with lights that bright and still just be me?

I trained for that hour as if it were a marathon I was running.  Instead of getting media coaching, I meditated.  Instead of trying to get my sound bytes down, I opened my heart.  I learned a great deal from that experience, and something within me shifted.  I hope that shift is permanent — though I know better.  I know that growth is a process, that as we continue to live, we continue to adjust to new circumstances.  But within that shift, I have grown less comfortable, more wary, of the idea that how things look is how things are.  I mean, yes, sure, I’ve written eight books, my husband made a (beautiful) film, oh, and our kid is photogenic and fabulous (sorry, proud mama moment).  All that is true.  Here is what is also true.  I had nightmares last night — real ones.  I am sitting in a dark hotel room at the crack of dawn in the yoga clothes I slept in.  That weird dislocated feeling of being in an unfamiliar city (Seattle) is upon me.  I’m worried about the future.  About my health.  My husband’s health.  My kid and his happiness.  I’m worried that we need to repaint our house this spring, and we’re going to need to re-shingle the roof.  I worry about what’s next.  That whatever I do next won’t be good enough.  I obsess about aging.  I know some people just don’t like me and that makes me feel weird.  And then, underneath all this, the stuff of nightmares.  My sad, dead father.  My angry, dead mother.  The paucity of relatives.  The feeling that often visits me of a profound loneliness.

All of this is true.  All of these selves make up one self.  The successes, the failures, the losses, the joy, the grief.  The triumphs and the fears.  These are what I want to bring with me everywhere I go — not just some of the time, but all of the time.  So that when I get up there and speak my truth, it isn’t a version of the truth, or just what is smooth, easy, and palatable, but rather, that it begins to touch what it means to be human in all of our complexity, in all our fallibility.  That ultimately, it has to be enough to say: this is me.