Author Anaïs Nin said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” and “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
Today I want to say this. This woman totally rocked. With just these two sentences—one about the power of the individual and one about the power of community—she changed my world. She changed me by saying something that I didn’t know—or that I’d lost along the way—and by inviting me to remember how amazing we humans can be.
As writers, we worry about all sorts of strange things. We worry about not having enough time to write and that we’re spending far too much time on our writing. We worry about internal and external critics and national and family politics. We worry about our own over-education and also our own remarkable cluelessness in any given moment. We worry about the state of our planet, country, neighborhood, and desk. We worry about how prolific we are on any given day and month and year. Some days I think this makes us unique. Most days I suspect this just makes us human.
Today I want to say this.
It’s not the worry that lasts. (And I expect Anaïs Nin—who once wrote erotica for $1/page so she could afford to eat—would agree with me.)
What lasts is this.
We change the world.
We change the world with just two sentences. We change things as both a lens on the world and as friends and neighbors within it. I think that totally rocks.
We are more powerful than we can remember alone. How cool is that?
This weekend I received another “Do better at marketing!” email from yet another lovely author talking about why self promotion is hard and how to make it easier. This author is far more successful than me from a book-sales perspective: thousands of people buy his books. I sold 10 last month and that was a great month for me. So I fell down the expert marketing advice rabbit hole. Again…
City Slicker Marketing
The advice centered on identifying your one WHY. Why do you get up in the morning? Why do you do this writing every day thing? According to him (and also, according to my husband, almost everyone else out there selling marketing ideas for a living), all you really need — to have more others show up for you and help promote your work — is yourself (a leader in something, he assumes), a tribe, and your one big WHY. Is anyone else out there tired of hearing the word tribe roll off the lips of white men selling marketing strategies or is it just me? Grrrr. But I digress…
Like most other artists I know, I am interested in having others help me with promotion. If I had just a little more help I could devote even more time to writing. Plus, the book promotion I’ve been trying this month isn’t working as well, or quickly, as I’d hoped. So although what this man was saying is way outside who I am and what I believe, I decided to play along, humor him, and work on identifying my Lori’s One Big Why. I devoted a whole day to this question: “Why do I get out of bed in the morning and write things that eventually become books?” Now that I see it in writing, it appears to be the exact same question Billy Crystal was asked to answer for himself in the movie City Slickers 25 years ago.
It goes against my nature to want to answer this question as an individual. I want to do this as a group with people and critters I love and live and work with! Would be far less constraining to have many reasons! But very grumpily, I spent 8 consecutive hours on this question: 12 hours if you count Daniel’s hours after I dragged him into my frustration-insight-more frustration spiral with me. After 12 hours, I/we came to several important conclusions:
- Lori shouldn’t bother spending too much time trying to force herself into a question/box created by another successful author. Listening to a distant expert — especially one asking me to think from a lone-individual perspective — frustrates the crap out of me.
- Lori should listen just a tiny little bit. As hard as this is to admit, I didn’t actually waste any time on this exercise. I learned a ton about myself, including the fact that I think the idea of One Big WHY is a terrible idea for me. I’m thrilled for you if it works for you. It’s just not me.
- I am creating my own me/us-centered marketing approach. Because following the advice of others in this area doesn’t work well for me. If forced to give advice, mine would be this. Invent your own just-for-you model. Never stop experimenting with it. Share it with others doing the same. Work with those whose presence fills you with energy. When energy lags, move. If you’re reading this, I expect you already know this. I’m no expert. We are peers.
Behold the Large and Funky Why Matrix
This is what I came up with answering the question about why I get up in the morning and write…
Despite my deep grouchiness throughout the entire process, I re-learned that:
- where and how are far more interesting to me than why. Most days. I like to dance among being lost, finding my way, and capturing a few “how this worked for me” clues in writing that could serve others (and me, later, when I forget what I learned). I want a larger-than-individual-me WHY to show up eventually, near the ends of things, where it’s as much of a surprise to me as it is to others. So we can all look at each other and go “Oh! So that was why!” It’s way more fun.
- everything I write is a surprise, and a learning experience, for me. That’s a primary reason I love writing, why I self-publish, and why I write almost every day now. This is also why I write imaginative or creative non-fiction and poetry instead of fiction. If I wrote fiction, I’d need to know the end–the bigger why–before others do. Far more fun to have someone I adore show up and tell me that A Travel Guide for Transitions is a book entirely about finding and owning your identity. What? Really? Cool. I need to read it!
- I have many, many whys for getting out of bed and writing every day. When pressed to do so by my own fears, I am able to narrow them down to 34 big WHYs (and feeding the cats and my husband made that list), but I flat out refuse to go fewer than that. To narrow further might mean I could sell more books faster, but it would make my life less interesting, which would make my books less interesting and the people I draw to me less interesting. The trade off isn’t worth it. As I get older, I keep finding new, deeper, and more surprising and interesting WHYs (and people), not fewer. These are gifts beyond measure and marketing.
- my community (aka, tribe) is comprised of groups, people, animals, bugs, birds, rocks, and trees who show up more deeply curious to learn than as experts with a message. Whether that’s by natural inclination, chance, luck, circumstance, experience, serendipity, tragedy, wild imaginings, or the grace of God. These are the people I want to spend time/my life with: the deeply curious. People in my core community not only don’t mind that I write books on all sorts of apparently unrelated subjects — finding work you love and creating soul-satisfying work space and revealing community and turning your home into a free coworking space and receiving the gifts of dementia care partnering and poetry and the experience of becoming an artist and the writing life (spoilers) and Lord knows what next — my people expect nothing less of me. We live deeply curious lives, and we stubbornly refuse to believe (or demonstrate) that human beings are anything less than surprising, curious creatures right at home in our surprising, curious worlds.
- I would rather grow slowly as an author, surrounded by the deeply curious, than grow quickly. And that’s what I’m actually already doing somehow. By hard work some days — by doing any work that allows me to keep my book writing routine — and by pure magic other days. The deeply curious insist on, and receive, both.
I Was Wrong: Words Are Never Wasted On Me
I learned this week that I’m not failing at self promotion and marketing like I suspected. I am growing slowly because I love hard work and magic, and I require both. And I consistently prioritize deep curiosity. And I love having 34 big WHYs and am disinterested in narrowing my focus to sell more books. I’m just not interested in doing promotion the way book marketing experts know/can prove it should be done. That would be dull as shit. Money is nice, but curiosity is better. Magic is better. Doing the work itself–getting to write each new day–is better. Surprise and delight and really cool humans showing up unexpectedly are better. So I’m apparently inventing a marketing approach (more likely, finding a very old one, Ms. Ego-Maniac) that requires a curiosity-led, imagination-rich life, plus hard work, serendipity, magic, and meandering to the point. I’m a member of the Bigger-Than-Me-Whys-Show-Up-At-the-End club. From an individual perspective, it’s slower than the model marketing experts sell. It’s more How to Become Successful in 100 Long, Fascinating, Surprise-Filled, Well-Lived Years than How to Sell More Books in 6 Months. But I stand by it. I am devoting my whole life to this approach, entirely surrounded by others experimenting with variations on the deeply curious or life rocks! themes. This isn’t a marketing approach. It’s a curiosity + community-centered life approach.
So yep, expert marketing advice is wasted on me. Yet together we played with that advice, went deeper into it, changing it, and pulling it into our own life approach. Words, it seems, are never wasted on us. We do love them so.
And reimagination! Love it. One of the many magic powers of the deeply curious. 🙂
After reading yet another repetitive, tired article this morning about increasing my productivity as a writer, I made a vow. As of 10 a.m., December 3rd, 2015, I will never again click on a link promising to teach me about increasing my productivity as a writer. I feel more productive already.
Worrying about productivity is a task for mindless cogs in a machine. We are not mindless cogs. We are writers. Creators. We don’t live other people’s stories. We create our own. Productive is just an adjective in deft fingers: useful only when we choose it to appear within our stories as needed. It’s nothing more than that.
1. Goals shmoals.
I wander the beach now, at times going shoeless, even in winter, to feel sand beneath my feet. I talk to deer and rabbits and birds as I walk through the woods. I chat with strangers in shops and at the dog park and with my neighbors on the street. I retreat quietly, for long chunks of time, to observe and reflect. I support my family and neighbors struggling with disconnection, heartbreak, violence, and disease. I create coworking spaces: playing with other writers and artists and humans doing other cool things. I love crafting books, poems, and essays. I love trying new things, with new people. Who I am naturally makes me a productive writer. Why did I think otherwise?
2. There is no such thing as writer’s block.
I write all the time. I write to learn. To heal. To play. To mourn. To support my world and my family. To communicate. To kill time. To pay bills. To flirt. To dream. Like a drunken bumble bee lingering among wildflowers at dusk, I write for the pure delight of it. When I can’t write, that’s not writer’s block. It’s writer’s intuition: a gift saying “There is actually something else more important to be done first.” I’ve learned to listen to it. Even when what I’d really rather do is kick it in the teeth.
The “block” might be saying that you really need to eat something. That you need to move or exercise. To work on another project for a while. Or it might be saying something bigger. You need to ask for help. You need to sell your house. Or change who you’re spending your time with right now. Maybe your next door neighbor needs help, or your sister needs a pep talk, and you need to be not writing tonight so that you’re available to notice. Or maybe you yourself need to rest. I’ve learned that if I trust the block/intuition on this one, that I don’t need to get sick to make deep rest finally happen. This fall my parents needed me to drive their car across the country for them and help set up a new home for them here near us. I couldn’t write for a few days before and most of the time while this was happening. That was a good thing. The “block” always gives me time to examine and drop my ridiculous expectations and assumptions about myself, writing, and the world so that I can return to them fresher, as something closer to the real me, instead of showing up completely exhausted and pissed off. If you must believe in the block, focus on learning to trust the block.
3. Everything I do counts as writing.
Just because others can’t see this, or don’t agree, that doesn’t make it less true for me. When I’m taking a walk, I’m pre-writing. When I’m grocery shopping or cooking, I’m feeding a writer. When I’m napping and dreaming, I’m receiving writing ideas from the universe. When I’m listening to music or attending a play or binge-watching Netflix or cleaning the cat box or noticing the sound that boots on a snow-covered sidewalk make, I am a writer. Absorbing. Listening. Learning. Imagining. When I sit in a sunbeam, I’m writing. When I mend, trade, or shop for clothes, and do laundry, I am clothing a writer. When I walk in the pouring rain, without my coat on, or I sit on the ground instead of a chair, or I offer sincere and loud direct reply to an eagle’s cry, I am a poet, poeting. I am writing every single moment of my life now. Only those who have the option to return for another life here get to be more productive than I am.
4. Procrastination is trustworthy.
What writers lack in self-confidence we more than make up for in intuition. Our intuition is rock solid even when it lands us way off course and lost in the wilderness. Especially when it lands us way off course and lost. I’ve learned to ignore people, including myself at times, who say otherwise. My procrastinating self knows that I literally have better things to be doing than the work I’m struggling to do. That struggling itself is the sign. And if that means I need to go watch silly cat videos or lurk on Facebook for a while or bake a cake from scratch for no reason, then so be it. Procrastination is a flashing sign that it’s time for a break, a shift, a move, a change, a rest. Big or small. Your call.
5. I don’t actually need to be more productive. I need to be more fully present.
Spend 5 minutes and write down everything you’ve done this year to make life better on planet earth. Be generous with yourself: pretend that it’s your best friend writing the list on your behalf. I wrote and published three books this year: one about turning your home into a free community coworking space, one for other dementia caregivers about becoming your own respite center, and one for others interested in the process of becoming a poet and an artist. I wrote two mini-books containing tips for working in and hosting an informal coworking space. I also wrote essays and poetry, and blogged them, receiving thanks and feedback, regularly. I wrote offline entirely, just something for myself, almost every week. I taught others about creativity and writing and publishing. I took on temporary writing and editing gigs to help pay the bills. I also supported family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and the birth of a new baby, supported friends through their many struggles and joined them in their joys, prepared a home for sale and sold it, joined a memory and brain wellness center’s board at a local hospital, started a new coworking space, made new friends, drove a car across the country, helped set up a new home for my folks, took care of my neighbors’ dogs and cats, canned pickles and jams and applesauce and tomatoes for the winter, took care of my spouse and home and pets, started a small business with my husband, and gathered neighbor-offered art supplies and well wishes for the new family that bought our Seattle home.
What ridiculous, nonsensical part of me thinks that I still need to be more productive to be of value? The part of me that needs to shut the hell up.
Productivity as a goal — as handed to me by the industrial world, my own fears, and all others foolishly attempting to turn wonderfully messy humans into less messy machine-type automatons — makes no sense here in my real world. Here, productivity has more to do with getting better at noticing our already amazing world and the journey of trying to leave it a speck more amazing than we found it. Here productivity is a natural outcome of being alive and fully present in the world together. Becoming more fully present requires a whole lot of things that on the surface appear to be the opposite of productive in the large-scale industrial sense (which I now officially recognize as Ridiculous City in my story). Things like wandering the wilderness alone, helping neighbors, talking to animals, daydreaming, sitting on the ground, and doing nothing are what make me, and those I touch, so productive.
6. Receive the world lightly and embrace the consequences of doing so.
Your heroes. Your most respected mentors and teachers. Your friends and family. Your partner. Your manager. Your editor. Your boss. Your client. All your former selves. None of these people know that perfect combination of what makes you more or less productive today, right now. Receive the bits that work for you today. Let the other bits go. Lightly, gracefully, when possible, like a tree letting go of leaves. I now move away from me-specific energy drains, as kindly as possible, and move toward energy-creating-for-me people/ideas/things whenever I can. I’ve had to say “No, that doesn’t work for me.” and “This isn’t working for me anymore.” and “I can’t do things the way you do them.” and “I can’t do this the way I used to do it.” to countless deeply respected mentors, teachers, family members, and personal heroes. People who I trust 100 percent. I’ve had to say “No more!” to all my former selves too. As a novice. As a struggling writer. As a person not making enough money to live on or one who really needed the money someone was offering me for a job I didn’t want to do anymore. As a still mostly clueless (even at age 25, then 35, then 45) human. Even when I had no idea what actually would work in the moment.
For me, receiving the world lightly, gracefully, involves regularly listening to and then visibly using the voice that says “This works for me right now. This doesn’t.” It also involves regularly accepting, and eventually embracing, the consequences of this privilege: 1) allowing everyone around me to do the same, 2) connecting more deeply to others in any given moment, and 3) moving away from people regularly, when the moment isn’t quite right for connection, even away from people I love. It’s about learning to trust our collective intuition. About learning to see and trust mentors-of-the-moment as they change. Some days they’re living people. Sometimes they’re long-dead people. Often they are small groups of trusted others. Sometimes they’re dogs, cats, trees, ocean waves, rain, wind, sunshine, books, poems, songs, paintings, or birds. Some days they are the me I’m saying goodbye to.
7. Prioritize whatever keeps you awake and present in the moment. As you notice valuable results, share them.
I’m learning to honor and embrace those things that keep me aware and present: whenever and wherever they show up. Writing and making/drinking tea consistently do this for me now, so I start my day with them at the moment. Then the dog shows up to play or go for a walk, so I shift and listen to/play with the dog. Then I’m hungry, so I shift to listening to my body. Then a neighbor knocks at the door, so I give her my full attention. After that, I really want to write again. Yet after too many days of writing alone my mind begins to wander. So I follow my desire for human interaction and go to the movies with neighbors, work on a project with friends, or go work in a coworking space where I am surrounded by writers and connect to become re-energized for my own work. Yesterday two dogs came into the coworking space and wanted to play. So I played instead of finishing my work on deadline. I created better work as a result. This is what being aware in the present moment feels like. Enough at ease with disruption, most days, that you are aware that you have a variety of options anytime disruptions happen, including the option of welcoming them and running with them. Those disruptions that push us out of our comfort zones are among the best to welcome and run with, IMO. To me, they are life’s hand-crafted, person-specific, just-in-time training. And if you ignore them, they just keep on coming in ever-louder ways.
For me, this individual prioritizing of what keeps us conscious and present (and willingness to drop individual plans and expectations for disruptions and concede that often the universe or currently present collective has a better idea) is the primary difference between being a creator most of the time and being a consumer most of the time. The fully conscious part is the tricky part. To remain conscious, awake, and aware, I have to be willing to prioritize whatever keeps me conscious, awake, and aware again and again. What keeps me present is different than it is for others. For me at the moment it’s living on the edge of the ocean. Walking in the woods and on the beach. Chatting with strangers. Helping neighbors. Creating coworking spaces with friends. Giving and receiving honest opinions on things with people who appear to have little in common with me. Engaging with others to reveal hidden community and connections. Playing with dogs and cats and friends. Figuring out how to communicate with my mom who has Alzheimer’s disease and a dad who is a far-beyond-exhausted caregiver. Very light business planning (aka, co-imagination check-in meetings). These things keep me present and paying attention today.
This makes it possible for me to spontaneously say “Enough! Right here is a place for me to be writing instead of reading. Creating instead of consuming. Right here my procrastinating is pointing me to what I actually should be doing today.”
For me, today, this was it: writing an article that had absolutely nothing to do with what I planned to do on a subject that I never intended to write about, ever.
Damn it feels good be human.
I want to tell you about grief. No, I don’t.
I want to tell you about me – the woman emerging from the ocean in winter, naked.
The wife you loved and knew died in my arms yesterday.
You’ll be living with me now: Wife 2.0. Lucky man.
First the good news.
I couldn’t care less where you leave your socks and shoes.
Don’t care when or if you ever do your dishes.
I think weeds are lost, misunderstood yard angels.
That sand on the floor should be sculpted into intricate art installations
at least as often as it is mindlessly swept away.
I enjoy wearing the same cozy sweater for days on end while I create
I don’t like doing laundry. Stains are more misunderstood angels
ideal brooch locations.
Crap. Maybe that was the bad news. Let me try again.
First the good news.
When you can’t find me
I might be on the beach looking at rocks
on my hands and knees
tumbling words in my poet’s mind like the most devoted lapidarist.
Words are cool. Rocks contain words for those who look.
Most days you’ll find me at my writing desk.
Epic tales in pajamas. Poems everywhere.
When life really sucks
you might find me reading strange books, watching strange TV
last month I watched all 153 episodes of Gilmore Girls on Netflix,
in rapid succession, to mend my heart when my extended family shattered.
I feel no shame. No guilt.
All my experience is gift. All of it.
Rory and Lorelai were there when grief burned my branches bare.
Silly, imperfect help is plenty.
You won’t catch this wife judging your taste in entertainment.
Our hearts know who and what they need to heal.
I offer one tip.
Don’t worry about me. Don’t.
Some days I may appear lost and alone.
That’s part of me. A part I love. Being lost and alone rocks most days.
I am an explorer. I take my time.
I move through The Museum of Modern Loss with wonder
Whoa. What? Huh. Wow.
pain and grief are just T-Rex bones in the rotunda.
Vulnerabilities are just strengths that I widened to
reveal, revel in, more of me.
When my skin gets too small I move toward them
crack myself open to step through new. Whole.
Doesn’t make me a chicken. Or a dinosaur.
When I need rest, I take it (see Gilmore Girls, above).
Or I get a wrist guard. Or I ask for help.
This wife asks for help when she needs it. Let me ask.
Ok, that was two tips. Now the bad news.
You’re married to an artist.
Living a textbook case for use of the expression “Man up.”
Artists pull forth new worlds. Find comfort in chaos.
Stand still at the heart of hell to burn, listen, record for remembrance. Chase fireflies.
Our hands our heads our hearts all equals
This makes us absentminded some days. Messy most.
My train even more choo choo – tough to – follow that thought
Fully engage your heart to hear me now. And your funny bone.
And your home-keeping skills. And your improv skills.
An artist will not try to engage parts of you for you. That’s on you.
I am engaged with myself.
Shit. Maybe that was the good news. You tell me.
Grieve her in your way, as you must. You knew her well, that woman
the one inclined to weep over shoes, rage about dirty dishes.
The gifts of rage and weeping will not be wasted on dust and cutlery in this house.
Fuck it, honey, the dishes will keep.
Today we dance.
find the space
outside the race
where mind goes empty
go there every day
No matter what
if only for a moment
Can you feel the earth? Her spinning rhythm?
Feel your strong and calloused feet
moving toward water like water
carrying her own back to family
Notice your own arrival at the place
with empty vessel
The dipping into water
The scooping up of another world
Notice your own return
with glowing face
supported on strong back and shoulders
dripping abundant life
for beloved others
balanced on your small frame
You hold within you now
the strength of a thousand oceans
relax and feel the beat
in those perfect
for Alice Walker
Do you know
in our hardest moments
in quiet attic battlefields
sit with you
to weep with joy?
Do you know
at our most afraid
carrying hearts so tender
because your actions
faith in ourselves?
Do you know
as yet another person
loses sight of humanity
taking precious life
taking almost everything that matters
again and again and, fuck, not again,
until I want to rip the American
and, this month, the Earthling badge
off my burning human uniform
hurl them into dark forgiving space
submerge my inner being in deep quiet waters,
do you know I turn to you?
When I lose the will to continue
When I feel helpless and certain
that there is nothing I can do.
In that moment
I again find you.
Thank you for showing up every day
to answer your question
my question now too.
What does a poet do?