Holding Space for Yourself

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In teaching, one of the things I try to do is hold space. In my private prompts classes, we close our eyes and take some deep breaths and get quiet, letting the workweek fall away, the effort that went into getting the kids off the school, the traffic we drove through to reach our destination, all the little niggling energy that we carry with us to the next place. My studio, where I teach my private classes, has, overtime, taken on a lot of creative energy from my work there, and the work of others. The space supports our creative endeavors, and the work of holding space is made easier by this concentrated energy. But the energy in my public classes is also concentrated, and held collectively.

The class I teach regularly, for free and open to the public is called Prompt Writing. I teach it in a book store, and here I have a different ritual for opening the space. I ask each person to say their name, and give one or two sentences about their writing practice, and in this way we settle into each other.

I then introduce myself and tell the class what we’re going to do, I give the prompt and we write. There are rules for responding to others’ writing when it’s read out loud, and they are rules I believe in, so I try to enforce them gently, but firmly, and consistently. I do not waver from these rules.

The rules are meant to create a safe space for writers. It’s important. This is what is meant by holding space. Holding space is holding safe space, and there are lots of different ways to do it, and lots of different ways to not do it, or to undo it.

Competition is anti-safe-space holding. Overly critical thinking and analyses also. Hierarchy. Self-promotion. Comparison. Trying to fix something for someone, be it their writing or their life. Sometimes asking digging, probing questions can make a person feel challenged and defended instead of heard.

Recently I have been thinking about how powerful this is, and how I might try the same techniques for myself. In other words, when I am feeling low and anxious, perhaps I could recognize that I need something that’s not being provided and try to provide it. I might try to hold space for myself.

I don’t think it would be any different than holding space for others. The first step would be to get quiet, and the second step would be to create a safe environment for myself. One without competition, without over-thinking, without hierarchy, without self-promotion, without comparison, without trying to fix it, without digging at myself. In fact, when I need to hold space for myself, it’s always because I have let these things in. It’s natural that they should creep in. We live in a world of low thoughts. The trick is to see it, and to say no to it, and to open the space for yourself again.

The Easy Way is Hard Enough

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I have an obsession with hand-built houses. To feed my obsession I look at pictures in books with a magnifying glass, and in doing so I become curious about the people who live in these houses. I look closely at their knickknacks, the pictures hanging on the walls, the shampoo they use, and especially the books on their shelves. I am a voyeur. All writers are voyeurs.

I don’t believe that writers are born with special spy genes, or eavesdropping genes, but that early on in our lives, for some reason, we learned to observe. For me honing the skill of observation came from being terribly shy and lacking confidence. Later it was honed further through writing.

One day, looking through my magnifying glass at a picture of a woodworking shop, I read a sign on the wall that said, “The Easy Way is Hard Enough.”

That’s writing, I thought. That’s my writing philosophy. Why fill a room with six characters who stand around invisibly witnessing an important interaction between two characters? Why have a character go to bed, and then get up, and go back to bed, and then get up, and then finally do the thing that needs to be done to advance to story? Keep it simple. The easy way is hard enough.

My first novel, LIFE WITHOUT WATER, grew from my first short story, written for the first writing class I’d taken since high school. The assignment was simple: Write a short story. I had no idea what to write about and I only had a week to do it in. Time ticked by as I stabbed and stabbed at that story. Three days in I was at my kitchen table stabbing some more. I decided to take a walk to clear my mind, and ended up in a used bookstore where I found a small paperback about communes in the sixties. I flipped through the center section of black and white pictures: bearded men chopping wood, naked gardeners, dirty children, a kitchen filled with pans of rising bread dough, a woman outside a shack sawing a board for some repair. I came of age in the sixties. This was my era. These were my people. I knew about these wild reclaimed places with the slippery driveways and the crummy insulation and the snakes in the walls. I’d reclaimed a few myself, and suffered through a few winters, and thrown a lot of wood into a woodstove. While I no longer lived this lifestyle, I still loved these places. I still drove out into the country some times, just to find and visit an old abandoned house.

I purchased the book and decided to write about the reunion of a commune, which quickly became far more than I could handle. All those people who’d once shared an old house had dispersed, abandoned the lifestyle, become what they’d become and had their own stories to tell. Too many stories. The noise of that many characters became too loud and unfocused. And so I decided to write from the point of view of one child who’d grown up on a commune.

This was my first lesson in “The Easy Way is Hard Enough.”

I don’t always know my journey as a writer. I don’t always know my journey as a teacher. I don’t always know my journey as a human being. But I do know journeys, and I have found that “The Easy Way is Hard Enough” is good philosophy for nearly every undertaking – from writing to teaching to cooking a meal to life itself.

The Burning Times

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Years ago, when I first started teaching writing, a woman signed up for my class at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the N.C. mountains because her doctor told her that if she didn’t do something for herself soon, she’d die. She wasn’t looking for a writing class. She didn’t think of writing at all. She was just looking to do something for herself, doctor’s orders, and she ended up in my group. I will call her Gladys.

In this class we wrote from prompts, and read back to each other, and received each others’ writing by recalling what we liked. We weren’t trying to create anything specific – no novels or poems or essays, although we ended up with parts of all of those things. The purpose, though, was to get used to writing as a way of expressing ourselves, and to get comfortable telling stories.

As the week went on, the class became a community, and we became important to each other, and we all found out more about each other. We found out about Gladys’s alcoholic husband. Her demanding adult children. The dishes in the sink and the laundry on the floor. The smack across her face. The black eye she covered with makeup.

We didn’t try to fix these things for her. We didn’t offer advice or even comfort. We didn’t judge in any way. We just responded to the writing, as we did with each person’s work. Write, read, receive, let go, repeat. By doing this we held space for Gladys to speak her truth. That was all.

Gladys wrote the scenes of her life that week. The scenes spooled from her pen and stitched themselves into story. Her story. It may have been the first time she ever told her story, even to herself. Stories are about pattern, and as Gladys wrote she saw the pattern of her life without the distractions of daily drama her situation kept her in.

After that week Gladys went home and left her husband. She rented a small apartment and lived alone. She wrote me a few times about how peaceful her life was now. She thanked me. What had I done? Had I broken up a marriage? No, of course not. I’d only held space with a group of writers for a person to hear her own thoughts. In the burning times, the times when women were being prosecuted as witches and killed, this might have been considered the work of a witch.

Powerful women, smart women, women with property, women who healed others with herbs and deep knowledge, women who were not married, women who lived outside the “norm” were accused of practicing witchcraft. The accused was often tested physically for witchcraft by various means. Some women were put in a chair and dunked in water. If she was a witch, she wouldn’t drown. If she was a normal human being, which she was, she would drown. Another test was called needling, a woman’s skin was pricked and pricked and pricked and pricked with a needle, all over her body, because somewhere on a witch was a bit of flesh that would not bleed. And if she bled, which she did, she was not a witch. And likely dead.

Isn’t it interesting how the tests for witch always leave a woman dead. And isn’t it interesting how Gladys was told she was at death’s door if she didn’t do something for herself.

I think that before the writing class, Gladys’s life was the equivalent to being needled. She was pricked and pricked and pricked and pricked by an abusive husband. Pricked too by a society that didn’t care about her as a human being. Likely pricked by things she’d learned and absorbed as a child, about how a woman needs to make sacrifices, stand by her man, have dinner on the table at a certain time, etc. etc. etc. Thankfully Gladys had someone in her life, a doctor, who could see beyond immediate medical needs into the soul of a woman who needed, simply, to do something for herself. And thankfully the thing she chose to do was attend my writing class. And thankfully, even though I was new to teaching, I was able to create an environment where, for one week, Gladys could be with her story. She could tell it and have it received. As the week went on she began to understand the concept of emotional safety, and she began to see that she didn’t have that at home.

At the end of the week Gladys wrote a piece about coming down off the mountain and ending her marriage. We responded to it as we had responded to everything else. Without judgement. None of us knew if Gladys would leave her husband or not, but we could see that the week had affected her, and that she was stronger for it. The space we provided for writing gave her space to trust herself.

This is the alchemy of writing. In my work as a teacher, I’ve witnessed this alchemy again and again, women and men coming back to themselves, hearing themselves, hearing each other, becoming stronger. I’ve seen the tough and guarded made vulnerable. I’ve seen the meek and voiceless start to speak up for themselves. I’ve seen barriers break down and humanity show through. I’ve seen tears burst forth from my writing prompts, not because my prompts are so great, but because the process and the safe space I create in my workshops allow people to reach deep inside themselves and bring forth their truth. Be it fiction, memoir, poetry, essay – writing is always about truth. Art is always about relationship to self.

And frankly, if bringing people to writing, bring people to themselves, is the work of witch then I accept it. Even in these burning times.

Weaving a Blue Horse

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This weekend I tried to weave an image of a horse on my small tapestry lap loom. It had been a long time since I’d tried to shape a horse with yarn across tightly stretched warp, and it wasn’t coming easily. I unwove my horse three times.

Unweaving is simply undoing what you’ve done. Instead of going over and under the warp threads to build, you go over and under to take down what’s there. It’s not unpleasant. It’s the same motion as weaving. But no matter what I did, my horse kept looking like a rabbit. I found the rabbit imagery interesting and thought I might try a leaping bunny at some point, but what I wanted was a horse. A blue horse.

Tapestry weaving is simple. Warp and weft, and only two sheds (the space opened between the warps). But it can get frustrating when your image does not progress after having woven and unwoven and woven again so many times. Writing stories can also be frustrating. To use a weaving metaphor, you need to weave a lot of plot and character and setting and what-all-else threads into the story. In weaving this is called the weft. In tapestry weaving it creates what you can see, and the warp, the strings held tight on the loom, become the invisible foundation. In writing warp and weft are the same, both the picture (reader’s experience) you’re building and the foundation of the picture you’re building.

One thing I’ve noticed in both writing and in weaving tapestry is that there is a lot of forgiveness in the medium. You really can fix things that come out wrong. You can unweave, revise, rewrite, patch, or splice in a new warp thread. A lot of beginning artists don’t know this. They look at a finished tapestry or read a published book and feel awed by it, as well they should. It’s important though to realize that things rarely come out perfectly in the beginning.

I could say that the miracle in making art is that sometimes things do come out perfectly the first time around, but I think there are deeper miracles.  Three to be exact, three miraculous gifts every artist is given, a sort of holy trinity of the creative process. This holy trinity is something on which you can build your creative life.

Miracle #1 – We get second, third, fourth, fifth, and endless chances to make it right.

Miracle #2 – What we create will never look like our original vision, and we should rejoice in this.

Miracle #3 –  Often our “mistakes” end up not being mistakes at all. “Mistakes” can be our guides, not guides that tell us what not to do, but guides that show us what we did not know we could do. A “mistake” can send a writer or artist down a path they’d not consciously set out on, but that becomes the backbone of their creation. (A reason for rejoicing in both miracle numbers 1 and 2)

That blue horse I was weaving? After unweaving it for the third time, I set my loom on the couch and went about my day. Each time I walked by I looked at it. I squinted my eyes. I took the long view. I related to it. And I studied the two weavings I’d done previously that had horses in them. I looked closely. How did I do that? I really couldn’t remember exactly, but that night, while watching TV I took my loom back into my lap and I wove a horse. He’s not perfect, but I’ve got some ideas on how to give him a nip and a tuck to make him prettier.

The process for weaving my blue horse was similar to my process for writing. Sometimes I have to back away before I can go forward. Sometimes I need just a nip and a tuck to fix something. Sometimes I need a big overhaul. Sometimes I want a horse but it really should be a bunny. I think if my weaving had come out bunny-like a fourth time I would have accepted it as a bunny, and it would have been fine. As it happened, I did finally end up with a horse.

Every time though, no matter how I feel about it, my art was guiding me. Your art will guide you, too. Trust that.

Fast Food / Slow Food

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I arrived early for a lunch date at a local mall, so I do what I usually do when I have a moment of downtime. I read. I always have a book with me to read in places where I might have to wait. I have read in lines at post offices, waiting for service at a restaurant, while getting an oil change, or having a recall fixed on my car. On this day I read on a bench in a mall.

A woman came up to me and asked me what I was reading. I showed her the title, thinking she’d drift off. I was reading after all. But instead of leaving she settled on the bench beside me and said, “I used to read. I read all the time. I read a lot, but I just can’t anymore. All the political stuff that’s going on. All the trouble in the world. I just can’t read anymore. I’ve tried and tried but the world just keeps getting worse and worse off.”

She sounded angry. She nearly spat her words out, as though to blame someone else for her inability to focus on a book. It was something she used to do, but no longer could.

“You should read,” I said. “It will help the world.”

“I can’t,” she said. “How can you?”

“I have to read,” I told her. “I have to read no matter what’s going on.”

“But, how can you focus?” she asked.

I was tempted to tell her that I wasn’t focusing right now. That I had been, but then I was interrupted by a stranger, a stranger in need it seemed like.

“I sit down, and I open the book, and I read. That’s how I focus.”

“But the world,” she said. “All this terrible stuff going on. I’m so upset.”

“There’s plenty of time to be upset, and for now, if you have a roof over your head and food in your belly, you can make time to read. You need it,” I added, hoping I didn’t sound too insulting, hoping it wasn’t like screaming RELAX at someone who clearly couldn’t relax.

She stood up. “Enjoy your book,” she said stiffly, and left.

I’ve thought about that woman a lot. I felt a little judged, as though by insisting on reading instead of joining her in a stress-fest, I’d abandoned all that is good in the world. In fact, I felt I was embracing good in the world by insisting on reading.

And that’s what you have to do. You have to insist on things. You have to insist on cooking at home and not hitting the drive-thru for fast food in the evenings. You have to insist on weekends and time with your family. You have to insist on brushing your teeth and bathing. And if you want to read, you have to insist on it. You have to make the effort. You have to procure books and turn off the television and give it some time.

What would our world be like if we insisted on good habits instead of falling into the trap of bad ones? I know it’s not easy. The energy of the commercial world, the world that is so in your face all the time, is against you. The woman in the mall was right about that. She felt it. She felt crazed with it all, as most people do. She blamed the current political scene, but how much of this was already in place? How many hours are most people working just to pay their bills? How stressed are people as they drop their kids off here and there and try to make it to the office on time? How stressed are they when they get that memo from the idiot at work who dropped the ball on some project and now they have to work late to cover him, and themselves?

The commercial world, the world of buy/sell, the world of fast lanes and fast foods is totally against you doing anything worthwhile. It’s good for business to have you stressed out to the max. If you’re stressed out to the max, you’re unlikely to do something subversive like make art, or read.

I don’t know what the answers are to the world’s problems. I don’t know how to tell you to pay your bills and keep your head above water. I don’t know how to tell you to stay sane. But I do know this: Taking time and slowing down helps. Read a book. And when you’re done read another one. Reading novels actually reduces stress. It also increases empathy and helps you focus. If you’re feeling fractured and splintered and stressed, read. Please. And I don’t mean Facebook posts and Tweets and news stories. I mean novels and memoirs. Read stories. As Muriel Rukeyser once said, “The world is made up of stories, not atoms.”

Unplug and read a book. I don’t tell you this because I am an author and want you to buy my book. I tell you this because, like the woman in the mall, I see that the world is in a big fat mess, and as a human being, I think one of the strongest most important things I can do is slow down. Not give in to the super stress. Not let it take away from me the things I hold dear, and reading is one of those things. I read fiction and memoir. And I listen to people as much as I can, even if they interrupt my reading.

How Not to Write a Novel

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The title says it all. I could just leave this space blank. The way to not write a novel is to not write. Or the way to not write a novel is to start and then stop writing. The way to not write a novel is to not dedicate yourself to it, to not develop the habit of writing, to expect it to be perfect first time around, beginning to end. If you get that far.

For me the way to not write a novel also includes talking about it. I don’t talk about my specific projects except to other writers, and even then I am selective. I tried once talking about a work-in-progess. I wanted to seem as though I was confident, and knew what I was doing with this novel, so I spoke about it publicly. I gave a brief summary that didn’t reveal very much. I mentioned the setting. I said the characters’ names. They didn’t like it. That’s all I can say. The story left me. It did not want to be paraded about. It wanted a private, intimate relationship with me. It wanted a partnership. It was not ready for relationship with anyone else. That’s what publication is for.

I know all this makes me sound like a nutcase. That’s okay. I am a bit of a nutcase. I believe in things we don’t know. I believe in working intuitively. It’s not always comfortable, and it doesn’t give me confidence, but that’s the point. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just doing it. It’s very hard to understand that for many writers, it’s a blind grope into a story. It’s stepping off a cliff. Sometimes we are caught by our characters, and sometimes we are allowed to crash to the bottom of story the canyon. But that’s the process. Always there’s a point of stepping out into the unknown, be it the stage of plotting a novel, if plotting’s your thing, or the stage of writing it for someone like me, who flies by the seat of her pants. Novels are unknown until they are written. And even then, throughout the process, they reveal themselves slowly, sometimes reluctantly. You have to keep showing up. You have to be committed.

 

It’s easy to not write a novel.