Tuesday, January 31, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 31: Be Strong—Don't Give Up Searching

Last but not least, a post by the monk himself. How could I host the event 31 Writers, 31 Lessons on a blog titled Lessons from the Monk I Married and not include him? So here he is—please welcome my husband, former Korean Buddhist monk and current Yogi, Seong Yoon Lee, or simply Yoon:

I clearly remember the day when I heard the sound of a gong while I was in an evening chanting ceremony in a remote temple in Korea. It was not just the sound of a bell, it was the sound of awakening for me.

I thought that if I became a monk someday, I'd come back to this temple. Two years later, I came back and became a monk. Through many years of sincere practice and everyday life in the monastery, I have learned so much. Of course, it had its own challenges, joys, frustrations—the same as mundane life. I know things are always changing, but I never thought I'd come back to mundane life.

But the winds carried me in a different direction. Sometimes we need a different direction for our growth. I faced many struggles, emotions and fear about this change, but I learned something that I want to share with you here.

My master in the temple told me that I had to finish my degree in Buddhism, so I decided to come back to my college and study there. In my free time, I also studied English and Japanese at a foreign language institute nearby.

That's where I met my wife.

I never expected this would happen, but as we got to know each other, I found that we had a deep connection to one another. It was not easy for me and it was also not easy for her to come all the way here—to this point where we are now. I was a Buddhist monk and she was an English teacher. But also, I am just a human who feels different emotions in me. I don't want to tell all the stories here. You can read all about those in her wonderful book, coming soon, called Lessons from the Monk I Married.

Ultimately, I decided I wanted to be with my wife because of the deep connection and love I felt for her. I had to leave the monastery and start all over again. I also had to face my fears in that process:

How can I make money?
How can I pay bills?
What will other people think of me?

I struggled with all of these questions and had to face each one of them.

Shortly after I decided to leave the monastery, I moved in to Kathy's apartment. However, she had plans to meet her family in New York. These plans had been set months before. After she was gone, I was all alone in her apartment. There was nothing but miso and cabbage in the refrigerator, so that's what I ate. Perhaps this was her test for me. Could I survive on my own without the temple and without her help?

Somehow I needed to make money. But what kind of work can an ex-monk do? I didn't know what I had to do. I looked in the local newspaper and found a position posted for a sushi waiter. I had an interview and got the job. They needed people, also I needed money. But I didn't survive very long there. I moved too slowly and messed up on many orders which resulted in yelling sessions from the manager. I had become his servant. In his eyes, I was just a stupid server who was good for nothing but fetching cigarettes for him.

So I quit. I was back to nothing again. But I started to think about my training and all that I had learned. I had been trained in yoga and meditation in the monastery. I knew I had so much to share about this. So I put up some posters around the apartment building, and before long people were coming to practice—both Korean and foreigners alike were coming. By the time Kathy returned from New York, her apartment was full of people practicing yoga.

So it became my career. I became a yoga teacher. I operated two yoga schools in Korea and am now the owner of Yoon's Yoga Bliss near Seattle. I have met so many wonderful people through this yoga adventure. I found a life where I am able to share all that I am. I learned how we become authentic and at the same time universal. Through creative energy and love, we become the embodiment of who we are, and that authenticity also continues to evolve through our own searching.

So don't be afraid of the different winds that come to your life—even the unpleasant winds. Life is an adventure. Sometimes we find treasures and sometimes things fall completely apart. If things aren't working the way you want them to work, maybe the universe wants to offer you something better, but you can't see that right now.

Be strong. Don't give up searching and you will find those treasures that are beautiful and priceless.

Seong Yoon Lee studied Buddhism at Donguk University in Korea. He was trained as a monk in the Chogye order at Songgwang Temple. He met his wife in 1996 and later they married in 2003. He owned and operated two yoga schools in South Korea, one in Seoul and one in a nearby suburb. He has taught yoga to hundreds of students and his yoga school and unique approach to yoga were featured on a major television network in Korea in a documentary about stress. He currently lives in Seattle with his wife and is the owner of Yoon's Yoga Bliss near Seattle.

Monday, January 30, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 30: Spice Your Writing with the Details of Life

A writer is always writing, even when a writer isn’t writing.

I taught English for a time in Thailand. This was ten years ago, and I did no writing at all then—or so I thought at the time.

Instead, I jotted down notes, at night under mosquito netting, sometimes by flashlight or candlelight, while the mosquito coils gave off their pungent smell. I saved the scraps and notes and carried them across the Pacific Ocean with me back to the U.S. My notes sat packed away for days, weeks, months, years, but eventually I dumped them out on the floor and started sifting through them.

I discovered recipes I’d forgotten I had jotted down, including a Burmese dish I loved made of peanuts, parsley, cilantro, carrots, roasted red peppers, garlic and lime juice. Another recipe I found consisted of bean paste fried into thin, crispy shells, stirred with onions, vinegar, and oil.

Writing is a lot like cooking. Someday, we will stir the ingredients together and create something delicious for others to taste. But today, even if your life doesn’t allow you to create that five-course novel you’re planning, you can still be collecting the most amazing spices and ingredients and even experimenting with them in a poem, or story, or blog. You never know how one little tidbit you set aside today might season tomorrow’s dish. It doesn’t matter if you write fiction or non-fiction—they both need salt and pepper.

When I taught English in a Thai village I learned from the villagers to dip un-ripened mango slices into a mixture of salt, sugar, and red pepper flakes. I learned to season my noodle soup with lime juice and vinegar and basil leaves, red pepper flakes and fish sauce and sugar. Thai food is a marvelous explosion of hot, sour, salty and sweet, all balanced together perfectly in the same dish. So notice the spice of your daily life—a salty conversation, a sour scene, a hot character, a sweet thought. Jot these savory morsels down and someday maybe you can throw them together in perfect balance and create a sumptuous feast for others to enjoy. Below are some "morsels" I jotted down during my trip in Thailand:

Some of my students were Burmese refugees who had left their turbulent country behind and were on their way to other countries. They paused on the border for a brief time—it was just a pit stop. But they were hungry to learn English because that was the language of most of the countries they were headed to. Late at night, they played softly on guitars under the stars. One student was only a teenager when he fled to the Cambodian-Thai border, where he found gems to sell in Thai markets.

“One night some drug addicts pound on my hut and shout at me, demand my money,” he explained. “Then they broke in and stabbed me. I was bleeding and I ran into the jungle. After that, I find some of my people here.”

He fell silent and strummed pensively on his guitar. Then he began to sing.

“What’s this song about?” I asked him.

“I miss my—“ he paused and I assumed he was searching for the word “girlfriend” or “lover” or “fiancée.”

“I miss my nation-state,” he finished.

Another student, on his way to a new life, lay in a hammock dialing through a short-wave radio. Under the nearly full moon, he was trying hard to learn the meaning, from Voice of America, of bugaboo.

“Because he has a bugaboo about getting fired, he’s a workaholic.”

“Oh!” he exclaimed, when the Burmese translation of gung-ho was given.

A little later, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out from the radio, and was then translated into Burmese.

“I have a dream!” someone burst out in the night, trying out the phrase on his tongue.

Lynne Walker has worked as a journalist and teacher, among other things. Her book Strange Sky is now available on Kindle on Amazon. She is also working on the book The Mystery of Garabandal, coming soon. You can find Lynne's work, sprinkled with just the right spice of life, over on her blog called Strange Islands. She is also a contributor on the blog Writers Rising.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 29: Anyone Can Learn To Live a Creative Life

Before my research on wholeheartedness (and before the 2007 breakdown spiritual awakening), I was completely disconnected from my creativity. My disconnection took the form of judgment, resentment, and fear:

"A-R-T - how nice. I have a J-O-B - I'm doing real work."

"I'm not the creative type."

"Spending time creating is self-indulgent."

Behind all of these emotions was disconnection. I had the creativity scars that many of us have; the ones that come from not being able to draw a still life in middle school and being told that I better stick with writing and reading.

Today, I'm reconnected with my creativity and it's transforming every part of my life. Creativity brings me joy, helps me stay more grateful, calms me down, and inspires me. It helps me keep my perfectionism in check and has become a powerful way to connect with my family.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, I summarize what I learned from the world of Wholehearted living and loving:

1. “I’m not very creative” doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. Unused creativity doesn’t just disappear. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.

2. The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.

3. If we want to make meaning, we need to make art. Cook, write, draw, doodle, paint, scrapbook, take pictures, collage, knit, rebuild an engine, sculpt, dance, decorate, act, sing—it doesn’t matter. As long as we’re creating, we’re cultivating meaning.

I'm so grateful for what I've learned and for all of you who are creating and sharing your work with the world.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Brené spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy, and is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness. She poses the questions:

How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?

Brené is a nationally renowned speaker and has won numerous teaching awards, including the College’s Outstanding Faculty Award. Her groundbreaking work has been featured on PBS, NPR and CNN. Her recent TED Talk on vulnerability struck a nerve with audiences across the globe and has become one of the most shared talks featured on TED.com with more than 2 million views.

Brené is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, 2010), I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power (Gotham, 2007).

Brené’s current research focuses on authentic leadership and wholeheartedness in families, schools, and organizations.

Brené lives in Houston with her husband, Steve, and their two young children, Ellen and Charlie.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 28: No Form of Success Comes without Rejection

On a recent interview, a kind young man asked me, “So, what’s it like never to be rejected anymore?” I laughed so hard that I couldn’t answer. Of course, I still get rejected all the time. Being an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author doesn’t mean you get to avoid rejection. It only means that different people reject you.

What I have learned is that no form of success comes without rejection, whether it is the rejection slip from your dream agent or the cute boy who falls in love with your best friend. When I was growing up, I spent some time thinking about what success truly was. I moved from Hong Kong to New York and worked in a Chinatown sweatshop with my family when I was only five years old. For a long time, success meant simply escaping that ruthless, draining life of manual labor. Then when I was lucky enough to study at Harvard, the world opened up to me. Suddenly, I had access to some of the brightest minds in the world. I began to realize that success might mean more than simply escaping. It might mean contributing too. That was when I made the decision to become a writer.

All along my path, I slipped and fell and got up again. When my family and I worked as hard and as fast as we could in the sweatshop, the factory owner cut our wages so that we couldn’t earn any extra money. At school, I was the awkward, badly-dressed Chinese girl and on top of everything, I was a brain too. Few girls wanted to be my friends. The boy I liked didn’t know I was alive. My first teacher didn’t care that I didn’t speak a word of English and gave me a zero on every test. There were times when I felt rejected on every front.

As I became older, I learned English and became better assimilated. I was lucky enough to have a gift for school and achieved some success there, but with every step that I took, I faced new challenges and the possibility of rejection again. Do I hate rejection? Absolutely. If I could, I would incinerate every rejection letter I received. I want to curse and scream and stomp my feet like a three-year-old.

Then I take a deep breath. I tell myself that we all need to follow our own paths, whatever they are. I remember that I am worthwhile, even if I have just been rejected by this person or institution. I bear in mind that the world is big, and I will have another chance. This allows me to go on when I get rejected. I’ve seen that every person who succeeds in some way – whether it’s professionally or privately – has faced rejection many, many times and overcome it.

In fact, rejection lets me know that I’m continuing to challenge myself. If I only did things that came easily, I would stay in the safety of my comfort zone. That’s not enough for a full and satisfying life. So when it comes to rejection, I say: bring it on.


Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia.

Her debut novel Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010) became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 15 countries and chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, an Orange New Writers title, an Indie Next Pick, a Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award nominee and the winner of Best Cultural Book in Book Bloggers Appreciation Week 2010. It was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. The novel was a Blue Ribbon Pick for numerous book clubs, including Book of the Month, Doubleday and Literary Guild. Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons.

Learn more about Jean here:

www.jeankwok.com

www.facebook.com/pages/Jean-Kwok/213583280524

Friday, January 27, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 27: Saying No Doesn't Mean Desertion

I discovered, as 2011 came to a close, that my life was spiraling out of control and the only person to blame was me. I caused this mess through this undefined desire to feel needed. The busier my life, the more people needed me. Seems obvious? My world became cluttered by time commitments and life went from being joyful to being a burden.

This burst of frenetic activity spiraled out of control after a brutal 2011 where my identity as an educator of at-risk students was ripped away. How to fill the hours now void of a job caused me to say yes to everything. The result? Three jobs, none particularly engaging, along with starring roles as mom and significant other. On a good night, I flopped into a chair exhausted by 10:00pm only to rise again a few hours later. Over and over this pattern repeated. My frantic choices to be needed overwhelmed me while what I really wanted to focus upon in my life became background noise.

Poor decisions led me down a dark path where I no longer could enjoy the waning years of time with my son before he leaves the nest; to love the man in my life and to make a global difference through ending poverty disappeared into the abyss of pleasing everyone else and their priorities. I also lost time to self-nurture through reading, yoga and writing. My passion for writing, the anticipation of my first book, and the writing groups and workshops I ran became a chore. I knew this was not what I wanted.

January 2012 marked a change in mindset and the need for a wake-up and a total housecleaning of the mess I had made. My heart was in the right place, I realized, but the path I sprinted down de-energized me. I needed a new path and with it, some new skills. Biggest among the behaviors requiring change: the ability to say no without fear of being deserted or disliked.

I reviewed everything on my calendar and identified items as either delete, delegate or diminish. Once that step was accomplished, I began reaching out to those whom my decisions impacted with a “soft no”. The process started with me: I had to release the guilt of saying “no” to someone or to another commitment. Learning to give a “soft no” when I needed to decline an activity by showing support and concern, while still expressing that I could not devote the time needed to another project, were well received. My friends appreciated the honesty and didn’t bury me with guilt or forget to invite me to lattes. I also moved from being the “do-er” to a “consultant” as I transitioned out of activities. I help people now when they have questions versus doing the work myself. What a difference this mind shift made.

Simplify and shed. Gone were the volunteer activities where I had lingered for too long and the book clubs with people I saw only once a month. Gone were unrewarding bible studies leaving my spiritual life focused now in one meaningful direction. I’ve learned to do without in many cases. But I’ve also reignited passions that fell by the wayside in my quest to be needed.

I enlisted help from two amazing women, the double Donna duo, who challenge me every time I open my mouth to say, “I’d help”. They are holding me accountable as I make this life transformation I need. Without them, I surely would slip back into old patterns of “yes, I can”.

The result of my housecleaning? I have more time to write and have rekindled excitement for my first book. My son tolerates me hanging out in his room with him. I relish the singular job that I have and am striving to be exceptional in this role, but am not trying to climb the ladder right now. I don’t feel guilty for saying no. Well, most of the time. Life simplified by a two letter word. NO. And people still like me.

Cheryl Stahle, whose work regularly appears on www.yourbestwritinggroup.com, focuses on memoir writing and coaching people on how to craft their life stories. She frequently guest blogs as well as writes Cheryl’s Chatter about life as a single mom thrust into a mid-life career change while putting the finishing touches on her first book.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 26: Making Mistakes is an Education Everyone Can Learn From

In our last lesson, we learned about the importance of being honest. Well, author Amy Ferris is someone who is extremely honest and does not hide from her mistakes. In fact, she believes they are what helped get to where she is today:

I can't make your mistakes for you.”

I was fifteen, fifteen and a half, maybe, almost sixteen years old, and I was leaving home.

I had dropped out of High School. Jewish Girls from Middle Class families didn't drop out of high school. They had nervous breakdowns, or went on all day shopping sprees at Roosevelt Field, or would cut school and go to the park and make out with various boys, or go to the “one” movie theater and watch a movie over and over and over again, because in those days you could, you could sit in a movie theater, stay all day and you could also smoke cigarettes...

I was at a stage in my life where breathing felt like a chore. I was so miserable and unhappy and I felt so alone in the world. I was running with a bad crowd, and stealing dollars, lots and lots of dollars from my dad’s wallet and mom’s purse and drawers -- here and there, lots of here and there -- and buying hash and marijuana, and coke and lying about that, acting out all sorts of self-loathing behavior. I will spare you with the details, but suffice it to say that there was a time in my life where being bad and feeling bad just blended together into plain old BIG BAD BAD.

And so I quit high school, and decided to tag along to a commune with my friend who I made out with in the back seat of the car where we kissed so long and so hard our lips cracked and bled but I wasn’t his girlfriend and he wasn't my boyfriend.

My dad drove me to the airport so I could fly across the country and live on a commune with a boy who wasn't my boyfriend because he, this boy, "Didn't love me like that."

My dad left me at the gate -- while my knapsack was making it’s way to the plane by way of the conveyor belt - my pheasant skirt dragging on the floor, my hair curly and unruly. He handed me a couple of hundred dollars and said, “Please, our secret,” and I smiled and kissed him and hugged him so tight I could feel his heart breaking, “I can’t make your mistakes for you,” he whispered in my ear, and then he turned and walked away.

And the mistakes piled up one after another, year, after year after year.

There was the pregnancy. The one where I behaved like a needy, desperate young woman, using that pregnancy as a weapon: to try and get the man to love me, to want me. To want me, and the baby.

Why don't we abort you and keep the baby?” He finally said.

I sat alone in the abortion clinic. Where another man – a middle-aged, short, heavy-set bespectacled man - said, "I will help you. Come with me.” And a half an hour later I was in a room with about ten other girls who had just had abortions and I can tell you right now with complete conviction that none of us felt good about what had just happened, none of us. And I would go so far as to bet none of us ended up with – or stayed with - the guy we had sex with, who got us pregnant.

Because none of us in that room, on that day, quite understood or believed at that stage in our lives how vital, and necessary it was to love the whole of ourselves, to honor our whole self. I was young and lonely and had absolutely no self-worth whatsoever. Self-esteem was so out of reach I would have fallen down if I tried to grab hold of it. I was desperately searching and hoping for love. That mistake – the desperation of wanting to be loved, later in life became a deep mission, the desire to become a woman of unlimited self-esteem. Wouldn’t trade that mistake for the world.

Then there was the boyfriend, the horrible, bad boyfriend. The one who I knew from the get go, from the moment I met him, that he was not right for me. He. Was. Not. Right. For. Me. I knew it, and I didn’t pay attention to my own instincts. The voice that said, “nah, don’t, he’s not good for you, this doesn’t feel right, don’t do this.” I did not pay attention to that voice. Nor did I did pay enough attention to his anger and his mood swings and his need to be right all the time, and his violent streak and the hole that remained punched in the wall, or the way that he humiliated me in public, or the very first time he threatened me, with his big hard hands wrapped around my throat.

His hands wrapped so hard he was choking me, “I could kill you” he said in a hushed scary voice.

I sat in my car in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A few of my personal belongings scattered on the back seat, along with a black and blue mark stretching from my jaw-line to my clavicle, as I replayed the entire five years over and over and over and over again wishing more than anything I had paid attention to that voice – my voice - telling me DON’T, don’t do this. Why didn’t I listen? What didn’t I trust about myself, my own voice, why did I constantly turn down the volume?

That mistake - not paying attention to my own voice, my own life, later in life led me to a deep rooted passion, the desire for all women to speak up, to speak their truth, to be heard. Oh, no, I wouldn’t trade that mistake for anything.

And then there are the mistakes that bring us shame, the ones that make us weep in the dark, the ones that keep us at arms length. The ones that we marry. The ones that we try desperately to hide, the ones that have prescription numbers, the ones that are hidden away in cartons. The ones that we forgot. The ones that are thrown up in our face over and over and over again. The ones that come back to haunt us. The ones that feel so unbearable we think we’ll die. The ones that get you down on your knees. The ones you die with. The ones that make you feel not worthy, or deserving. The ones that keep us invisible.

A different airport.

A different city.

A different time.

My dad and I were sitting together at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Waiting, waiting, waiting at the gate for a plane to arrive from Atlanta, Georgia. We were sitting for hours. We had arrived at the airport very early, and the plane was four hours late. There were delays and headwinds, and storms, and all the god-awful pacing back and forth, back and forth, and checking his watch every five minutes - this was my dad’s all-time favorite past time, worrying, and then – finally – after circling the airport for another hour, the plane landed. Safely. Finally. Finally. And then my father exhaled, this big gigantic huge exhale. The kind of exhale that makes you wonder, how did they hold that in for so long? And then a few minutes later, along with other weary passengers – his carry-on baggage in one hand, and his “camera” hat in the other -- my husband got off the plane, and as he walked toward us, I remember thinking: What if – what if - my father had never said to me, I can’t make your mistakes for you?

All those mistakes, all those god awful, embarrassing, shameful, secretive mistakes that brought me closer to another person, that I swore I would never ever repeat, the ones that seemed to pop up every which where, the ones I couldn’t seem to live without – all those mistakes led me here.

Amy Ferris is an author, screenwriter, playwright and editor. She is co-editor (along with Hollye Dexter) of a new anthology, DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM (Seal Press, Fall 2012). Amy wrote the films, Funny Valentines (Julie Dash, Director), and Mr. Wonderful (Anthony Minghella, Director). Funny Valentines was nominated for numerous awards, including Best screenplay. Amy has contributed to many anthologies, He Said What?, The Drinking Diaries, The Buddha Next Door, and Exit Laughing to name a few. She co-created and co-edited the very first "all women's issue" of Living Buddhism Magazine in 2000. Amy's memoir, Marrying George Clooney: Confessions From A Midlife Crisis (Seal Press) is heading Off-Broadway, opening March 1st at CAP21 Theater Company in New York City (Krista Lyons, Ken Ferris & Amy Ferris co-authored the play).

Amy dropped out of High School, and never looked back. Well, maybe once or twice.

She lives in Pennsylvania with her gorgeous husband Ken, and their two cats, Bella & Lotus.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 25: Above All Else, Be Honest

Let me start this little essay about honesty by being honest—I’m not really a writer. Yes, I recently co-authored a book about my life, but the truth is that I spent nearly three decades in the advertising business. I’m an advertising sales executive by trade. But I can say that I am a storyteller, in the way that all of us are storytellers. We go through life forming and sharing stories about our adventures and setbacks, as a way to feel like a part of the human experience. And what I’ve learned, through my life and my book, is that the best stories are the ones that are ruthlessly honest.

This would be my advice to anyone who wants to write—above all else, be honest. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction: the events and emotions in your story must ring true, and must come from an honest place inside of you. Before you can create a story that really connects with readers and makes them feel invested in it, you must resolve to share your deepest fears and desires with the world. You must dredge up your most secret disappointments and most private dreams, and you must be prepared to mine them for your writing. That is not an easy thing to do—it’s much easier to stay on the surface and avoid confronting certain unpleasant emotions. But in my experience as a reader and a co-author, what makes a story special are the moments in that story where someone feels a jolt of recognition and says, “Yes! That’s true! That’s happened to me! I have felt like that but I’ve never had the words to describe it.”

I had to make this decision to be honest before I began my book. The story I tell in An Invisible Thread is the story of how, when I was a 36-year-old single woman in Manhattan in 1986, I met a homeless 11-year-old panhandler named Maurice, and took him to lunch at McDonalds. The book describes how we wound up meeting every Monday for the next four years, and hundreds of times after that, and how we’ve been great friends for 25 years—and how that friendship profoundly changed our lives. But the book also tells the story of my difficult childhood, and of my painful divorce from a man I believed was the love of my life. I had to make a decision to tell the full and true story of why our marriage fell apart—and of how the marriage adversely affected my relationship with Maurice. I could have kept some of the more painful moments I endured out of the book, but I believed that for the story to work, it had to be completely honest. I believed that readers would be able to tell if I was holding back or presenting an incomplete version of events.

Believe me, reaching this decision was not easy—I had to consider the feelings of my brother and sisters, and of other living people who played a role in the story. But I concluded there was no reason to write the book if I wasn’t going to tell my true and full story—if I wasn’t going to pour my real sorrows, regrets, joys and emotions into the writing. I resolved that my book would be honest if nothing else, and I hoped that by being honest I would be able to connect with and inspire readers who experienced similar emotions in their lives.

And that is just what’s happened. Since An Invisible Thread came out last November, I’ve received hundreds of letters from readers telling me how they were moved and inspired by the book, and how my story brought them to tears or touched them in the heart. Those letters have been profoundly rewarding for me. They prove that the payoff for writing honestly is a genuine connection with readers, and that, in the end, is the goal of any writer in any genre. And that is why my advice to anyone who wants to write is simple—explore your real emotions, tap into your real fears and dreams, and resolve to be ruthlessly honest with every word you write.

Laura Schroff is the co-author of An Invisible Thread, a memoir about hope and friendship that has been on the New York Times bestseller list for ten straight weeks. She lives in New York City with her feisty poodles Coco and Emma, and she dotes on her many nieces and nephews. Laura invites readers to share their own Invisible Thread stories on her website, www.invisiblethread.com.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 24: Spend Time in the Presence of Animals

The squirrel sat on his hind legs and held a piece of bread in his front paws. Cautiously, hurriedly, and determinedly he nibbled at the bread, his eyes darting around constantly, ready to scamper away at the slightest hint of trouble. I stood silently and watched him from the balcony door. I smiled. When he gulped down the last few crumbs, I felt fulfilled, content, a lot like I do when I have just eaten a delicious meal.

It didn’t take long for me to be drawn into the world of the squirrel. I silently observed his movements, and marvelled at his alertness and resolve to procure food even though it meant exposing himself to possible harm. A deep feeling of compassion for the squirrel surged from within my consciousness. All my other thoughts were silenced, for a while. It was like a meditation of sorts.

Animals and birds have the potential to bring out the best in us, and spending time in their presence can put us in touch with a part of ourselves that we often tend to ignore. When I approach them in silence, respectfully not intrusively, as a guest in their world, I find that I am able to communicate with them at the level of feeling. It doesn’t matter what type of animal or bird it is. I have felt the same surge of compassion when I watched swans glide over still waters, when I observed a turtle clumsily swim to the shore, and when I stopped in my tracks and silently watched a pig rummage through mud and dirt!

I’ve seen them in zoos as well, but few zoos are able to re-create the rich natural environments that these animals and birds were meant to thrive in. In most zoos I’ve visited, the energy that emanates from these animals is one of resignation – meek acceptance of their imprisonment. The very act of caging a creature is disrespectful to the life energy that flows within it. By disrespecting the life force in another being, we ultimately disrespect the life force within ourselves. We wonder then, why we are never at peace with ourselves. Loving ourselves has much to do with loving those around us, and that includes birds and animals.

Have you ever wondered why children are so fascinated by animals? Why does every child have a collection of ducks, bears, mice, and dogs in their toy box? When a child walks past a stray dog, the child will invariably point to the dog and say “doggie,” even as the parents will, more often than not, pull the child along and make a comment about how the dog will bite you if you don’t keep walking. Children are born with an instinctive love for animals. Yet, few parents allow their children to express this love. As children grow, they are taught to fear animals as beasts or look upon them merely as pieces of food. In many countries, the only ducks that children get to see are the dead ones hanging in the windows of meat shops.

As I write this piece, I look out the window. A beautiful brown bird with yellow lined eyes is sitting on the ledge chirping with energy and enthusiasm. Have you ever seen a depressed bird?

Each morning, I’m greeted by my pet dog with a joy and fervour that a human cannot possibly match every single day! Sometimes, she’s all over me and ready to play ball first thing in the morning.

On other days, she’s gentler; she puts her head on my knee and nudges me until I hold her head in my hands and stroke the back of her ears. While I’m massaging her head, she closes her eyes in pure bliss, and that bliss rubs off on me as well! I think she knows the energy that I need for the day – active and extroverted or gentle and soothing, and she greets me accordingly.

More often than not, animals reflect back to us the feeling that we put out towards them. When we approach them with fear, we see aggression or a fear response back from them. When we approach them with love, we’re rewarded with more love, sometimes a lot more than our fragile hearts can handle.

Sai Ganesh Nagpal lives in India. He is a Writer, Musician, Trainer, and English Teacher and enjoys exploring creative expression in different roles. Born in Dubai, U.A.E, Sai began music lessons at the age of four and recorded his first albums of Vedic Chants and Indian devotional music when he was sixteen. He studied Fine Arts at the Maharishi University of Management in the US where he also taught Sanskrit to students from different countries. After graduation, he moved to New Delhi, India, where he has since been a Writer for online educational programs in schools, colleges, and companies. Sai is also a certified Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. You can find him at http://www.sai-waves.blogspot.com.

Monday, January 23, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 23: It Takes Patience to be a Writer and a Mother

Patience is a popular lesson here. Author Allan Lokos wrote an entire book on this subject (Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living) and shared his thoughts in Lesson 5. Now, Hemmie Martin, a writer in England, is here to give us her insights on the patience one needs to be not just a writer, but also a mother. Please welcome Hemmie Martin:

Patience is like a spider on a web – it waits patiently for an insect to connect with its sticky threads, and it holds firm in the tussle of the battering winds. An old Ethiopian proverb states, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” The strength gained from patience cannot be underestimated.

As a mother of two teenage girls, my patience can at times be tested, and sometimes I fail. But when I fail, I’m awash with unhappiness, and vow to be a calm ocean whenever I’m next tested. I have to be a role model of inner calm and serenity when the world offers only thorns.

The same patience is required when submitting to agents or publishers. I would send off my submission packages and wait for an email or the thud of the post on the doormat. Sailing the highs of an agent wishing to see more, to the lows of rejection, required an inner strength that sometimes evaded me.

The buzz of finally being accepted by a publisher still continues to reverberate around my soul, although the anxiety of failing has now rooted itself somewhere inside me. The publisher warns of lulls in sales from time to time, and I know that I’ll require my inner strength and patience to kick in at that point.

Just like a mother, I’m letting my ‘baby’ be seen by the world. Will they perceive her as ugly or will they cherish her as I do?

I have shown my daughters that patience and persistence has aided my move into the publishing world, and that hard work does eventually pay off. They are beautiful and intelligent, and if they can master inner peace, patience and strength, then they are part way to leading a fulfilling and wondrous life.

Hemmie Martin spent most of her professional life as a Community Nurse for people with learning disabilities, a Family Planning Nurse, and a Forensic Nurse working with young offenders. She spent six years living in the south of France, and currently lives in Essex with her husband, two teenage daughters, one house rabbit, and two guinea pigs.

Follow Hemmie on her website, Facebook & Twitter.

Her new novel, The Divine Pumpkin, a drama-fiction, will be published this May 2012. The novel takes us through tragedy and romance and gives us a deep look into the makeup of people and the reasons why they often do what they do.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 22: Trust Your Voice

We heard from Leo Babauta about finding your voice in Lesson 14, but once you find it, you need to trust it! This is easier said than done and I know I definitely struggle with this one at times. Judith Van Praag, a fellow Seattle writer, talks about how she finally arrived at the decision to fully trust her own voice, and to follow it:

We're told to follow our heart, yet to use our head. That sounds like prudent advice and applicable in many situations. But too often rationality mums gut feelings and smothers our true self. Does your heart speak to you? Let its voice be heard.

I'm telling myself the above as an 84,000-word manuscript beckons. This work in process, titled Forgiveness, awaits revision, editing, and being sent into the world. Another month or so and I'll be looking for beta readers who'll give me feedback. More critical than your average reader or especially fans (such as a loving spouse or best friend) they'll offer me an honest review. Those who read like writers will comment on theme, premise, characters, plot, structure, style, grammar and voice.

This won't be the first time. During the writing and development of an earlier book, I shared sections with my critique group. I wrote and rewrote, edited, re-envisioned and edited once again. Only after I'd finished the sixth version did I deem the text worthy to be printed as a whole and read by trustworthy beta readers. I cradled each of my babies in a box and sent them off. How would my story be perceived? As a writer and artist I've learned that every single person will see something else in a creation.

We all have our own perspective, each and every one of us has a life experience that's unique and colors our perception. In critiquing one another's work and receiving critique, we have to remember that. What's true for us is not necessarily true for the other. With that in mind we focus on craft, not values.

My five beta readers were brave to take on the hefty load I laid in their laps. Creative Acts of Healing: after a baby dies with its in your face subtitle, isn't poolside literature, although one of them did read most of the book while soaking in her bathtub. While they hadn't suffered a similar loss, Creative Acts of Healing made them remember their own, or others' sorrows. I was and am grateful for their conscientious approach. I understand how difficult it must have been to look at this material in an objective manner, to not let personal feelings take over. In going over her notes one of my readers said there was a certain instant where she didn't believe me (or the narrator, as we writers call the main character, even if we're writing a memoir). Now this is a big deal. You want your readers to trust you.

The phrase my reader objected to was: "She will not want us to become embittered."

"Too Buddha-like," she said, "Impossible."

My reader could not believe that I (the narrator) would be able to say such a thing to my husband while holding our lifeless Ariane Eira in my arms. At that very moment I made the mistake I still regret. I stifled the voice from within and deleted that line.

One of the biggest no-no's in writing fiction after life is to insist on the supposed truth, saying: "But that is how it happened." For what really happened usually doesn't have enough drama, or on the contrary is over the top. In writing non-fiction however, this may accentuate the essence of the experience. That we chose not to become embittered by our loss, has saved my husband and my relationship and in the long run our happiness. Looking at the manuscript of Forgiveness, I vow I will make sure I won't be seduced by another person's beliefs. I will let my heart speak.

How about you?

Judith Van Praag, originally from the Netherlands, makes her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and pooch. Her background lies in multicultural theater, but in the 1990's the balance tipped over to studio + literary arts.

In 1999 she published Creative Acts of Healing: after a baby dies. From 2000-2002 she wrote a column about grief for a Dutch Parental magazine and from 2004-2006 she covered Arts & Culture for the International Examiner in Seattle. She remains a regular contributor to the latter.

Judith wrote the storybook for three of Luly Yang's Runway Fashion Shows, and was Ms. Yang's speech writer.

Since the opening of the Seattle Central Library in 2004, she has presented architectural tours of this landmark designed by her countryman Rem Koolhaas.

Momentarily Judith is working on "The Counterfeit", a screenplay based on "Forgiveness", her novel about art, love and redemption in a cold country. Next in line is a memoir about growing up on a nut farm and coming out halfway sane.

You can find her contact information, link to blog and more at DutchessAbroad.com and Google+

Saturday, January 21, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 21: The Power of Attention is Always Available

It is such an amazing honor to have a guest blog post by Sharon Salzberg, a person whom I have admired for many years, appear here! In fact, years ago, I went to see Sharon at East/West Bookshop in Seattle. I had just read her book Lovingkindness and was so inspired by her words there. I never expected, years later, that Sharon would not only appear on my blog, but also agree to write a blurb for my new book, Lessons from the Monk I Married! This excerpt is from her newest book called Real Happiness. Here she is to talk about the power of attention, please welcome Sharon Salzberg:

"My experience is what I agree to attend to,” the pioneering psychologist William James wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. “Only those items I notice shape my mind.” At its most basic level, attention—what we allow ourselves to notice—literally determines how we experience and navigate the world. The ability to summon and sustain attention is what allows us to job hunt, juggle, learn math, make pancakes, aim a cue and pocket the eight ball, protect our kids, and perform surgery. It lets us be discerning in our dealings with the world, responsive in our intimate relationships, and honest when we examine our own feelings and motives. Attention determines our degree of intimacy with our ordinary experiences and contours our entire sense of connection to life.

The content and quality of our lives depend on our level of awareness—a fact we are often not aware of. You may have heard the old story, usually attributed to a Native American elder, meant to illuminate the power of attention. A grandfather (occasionally it’s a grandmother) imparting a life lesson to his grandson tells him, “I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, fearful, envious, resentful, deceitful. The other wolf is loving, compassionate, generous, truthful, and serene.” The grandson asks which wolf will win the fight. The grandfather answers, “The one I feed.”

But that’s only part of the picture. True, whatever gets our attention flourishes, so if we lavish attention on the negative and inconsequential, they can overwhelm the positive and the meaningful. But if we do the opposite, refusing to deal with or acknowledge what’s difficult and painful, pretending it doesn’t exist, then our world is out of whack. Whatever doesn’t get our attention withers—or retreats below conscious awareness, where it may still affect our lives. In a perverse way, ignoring the painful and the difficult is just another way of feeding the wolf.

Meditation teaches us to open our attention to all of human experience and all parts of ourselves. I’m sure you know the feeling of having your attention fractured by job and family, the enticement of electronic diversions, or the chatter of your mind—that morning’s spat with your mate replaying in your head, a litany of worries about the future or regrets about the past, a nervous endless-loop recitation of the day’s to-do list. Parts of that mental soundtrack may be old tapes that were instilled in childhood and have been playing so long we’ve nearly tuned them out of conscious awareness.

These might be unkind pronouncements about the kind of person we are or preconceptions and assumptions about how the world works (for example: Good girls don’t act like that, men/women can’t be trusted, you’ve got to look out for number one).We may no longer even notice the messages we’re sending ourselves, just the anxiety that lingers in their wake. These habitual responses are often the result of a lifetime’s conditioning—the earliest lessons from our parents and our culture, both explicit teaching and nonverbal cues. This diffusion of attention can be mildly discomfiting, creating a vague sense of being uncentered or never quite there. It can be disheartening, leaving you exhausted from being dragged around by your jumpy, scattered thoughts; it can be downright dangerous (think of what can happen to distracted drivers).

We can be lethally asleep at the wheel in other ways, too, neglecting relationships or failing to notice and act on what’s really important to us. We miss a great deal because our attention is distracted or because we’re so sure that we already know what’s going on that we don’t even look for new, important information. Meditation teaches us to focus and to pay clear attention to our experiences and responses as they arise, and to observe them without judging them. That allows us to detect harmful habits of mind that were previously invisible to us.

For example, we may sometimes base our actions on unexamined ideas (I don’t deserve love, you just can’t reason with people, I’m not capable of dealing with tough situations) that keep us stuck in unproductive patterns. Once we notice these reflexive responses and how they undermine our ability to pay attention to the present moment, then we can make better, more informed choices. And we can respond to others more compassionately and authentically, in a more creative way.

Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She has been a student of meditation since 1971, guiding meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. Sharon's latest book is the New York Times Best Seller, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, published by Workman Publishing. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and is also the author of several other books including The Force of Kindness (2005), Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (2002), and Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995). For more information about Sharon, please visit: www.SharonSalzberg.com.


Friday, January 20, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 20: Breakups Provide an Opportunity for Spiritual Growth

Alice Grist, a modern-day spiritual writer in the UK, is here to talk about the blessings of breakups and how they are important for our own growth. Please leave a comment here for a chance to win a free copy of her most recent book, The High Heeled Guide to Spiritual Living.

Relationships are a minefield of potential open and closed doors. Yet within this minefield there is massive room for learning. Heartache goes hand in hand with the evolution of you as a spiritually enlightened being. So whilst rejection or love-life confusion may sting like hell, in the long term it can be spiritually very good for you.

I feel your pain, honestly I do. How can rejection by the love of your life ever, ever be meaningful? How can that passing fling have been so ‘passing’ instead of the permanent love nest you hoped it would transform into? Why did that gorgeous fellow sweet talk you into bed with magnificent promises only to go cold and factual the following week? Whilst I cannot answer on behalf of these errant ex-partners I can say that the answer does not lie with them.

Before I met my husband I have been known to rant and rave into the ear of a willing girlfriend, for months, or years, about some poor chap who had the gall to reject me, not return a phone call or blatantly dump me. In true female form I would of course blame myself, then him, then myself again. He would be a bastard and I was the innocent love fool. It is hilarious really. What I did not recognize was that the guy does not hold the answers. Not the answers I really needed anyway.

Spiritual lessons come through people, all people, even the really nasty ones. Just because a love affair was ‘not meant to be’ does not mean it was not meant to be whilst it lasted. We attract people to us to help us to grow and learn. So if a relationship did not work out how you expected it to, then instead of wondering what the other person is thinking, try to see what it means for you. Think of yourself and what you can garner from the remnants of that love. Consider what you have learned about your self, about your behavior, about ways of being that you might want to avoid in the future. Indeed consider the good and the bad and be sure to take this on-board for your future love growth.

I believe that some of our more dramatic relationship disasters were planned before coming into this life. They are fantastic ways to promote your growth as a soul. You may have asked a fellow friendly soul to be born as a guy or gal you were going to hook up with, and you may have planned that he or she dumps you out of the blue, or kisses your best friend. The reasons for this may be multiple.

Perhaps you rejected that soul in a previous life and to amend your karma you are asked for the situation to be reversed. Maybe you just needed to feel real heartbreak. Or perhaps you just wanted to fall deeply in love briefly, and then move on to something more significant, perhaps your purpose in this life is to do something else entirely. Maybe that soul will inspire you to great things. Maybe your ex is simply a stepping-stone on your way to a more suited lover in your future. Heartbreak at any age does not mean a lifetime of singledom. It might mean a wiser choice at an older age and a better understanding of who and what you can tolerate in a relationship scenario.

I believe that the more we feel during a lifetime, and the better we react to our own emotions the more progressed as souls we become. So whilst the broken heart may make little sense right now, it is likely that you are stronger as a human as a result and in turn will be a tougher, more knowledgeable soul. The possibilities are huge, and exciting, and every horrid little incident has something to be gleaned from it.

Relationships of all kinds mess you up—on one level. On another level they are an opening into a better understanding of yourself and other people. It depends how you take your medicine. Taking a positive attitude toward relationship disasters enables us to move on and learn the spiritual lessons that all relationships have for us. All human beings are messengers, whatever clothing and guise they come to us in, be it saint or sinner. All people, without exception, carry important life lessons for us. Yes it is difficult to comprehend those life lessons when all you can think about is how much you miss snuggling into a certain person’s neck, or how cute the little wrinkles around their eyes were when they smiled. Facts are facts, if a door has closed, do not stand staring at it for the rest of your life; think about why it closed, what have you learned about yourself and about relationships? What about this situation can make you a better human being and a more successful and well-rounded soul?

If you can, then I recommend that you project unconditional love to the person who hurt you and then walk away, physically, emotionally and mentally. A break up should not mean the end of loving their soul, even if you never want to see them again, so do them and yourself a favor and send a little loving sugar over the energy vibrations to them. It will do no harm. After that you may want to project a little sugar onto yourself. Work at getting happy again and finding a way to assimilate this loss into your lifelong spiritual learning.

Human life was never supposed to be easy, we are here to learn. One huge and fast way to learn about pain and emotion is through our relationship heartaches. Love is a rip-roaring, soul wrenching occurrence that when handled correctly can fast track and deepen your spiritual wisdom.

Alice Grist is the author of two books. The High Heeled Guide to Enlightenment, her first book , charts Alice's journey from party girl to sassy spiritual woman. Alice's second book is Prediction Magazine Award Nominated, The High Heeled Guide to Spiritual Living (July 2011). THHGTSL is a guide to living spiritually through the ups and downs of modern existence. Both books are published by O-Books / Soul Rocks and have attracted much reader and reviewer acclaim. Alice Grist is the Publisher of new John Hunt Publishing Imprint - Soul Rocks Books. Soul Rocks publishes soulful and spiritual books with sass and edge. Alice is the founder and managing editor of Soul-Cafe.net, an online network and magazine for soulful and spiritual living. On Soul-Cafe, Alice regularly interviews and features the spiritual advice and writings of experts and authors. Soul-Cafe provides a safe, happy space for all spiritual seekers. Alice is a frequent contributor to many magazines and online lifestyle sites, often writing about spirituality in her own quirky, accessible and fierce style. She writes a regular column - Alice's World of Woo for Haunted Magazine. She is a frequent guest on many TV and radio shows. Alice can also be found on You Tube posting under Alicebiddie.

Website: http://www.alicegrist.co.uk, Twitter: @AliceGrist, Facebook Page: Alice Grist Soul-cafe, Social Network: http://www.soul-cafe.net

Thursday, January 19, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 19: If You Want to Write Well, Try Eating Well

I have been a professional writer for the past 25 years. My particular field and expertise resides in a subject called Medical Intuition—the gift of insight pertaining to the physical body.

To date, I have had the pleasure of helping thousands of people—one of them is Louise Hay, founder of Hay House Publishing in California. You never know what will prompt you to be a writer and when you are a writer, you never know who you are going to meet! The cosmic two-by-four, that led me to the writing process, was illness—a serious illness. In 1983, at the age of 39, I had the early warning signs of Multiple Sclerosis which called for a complete over-haul of my diet and lifestyle.

In the process I became completely well and the muse was invoked. I had to write my story and thanks to a chance meeting with Louise Hay, I became a Hay House author in 1999. Writing takes strength, discipline, energy and mental clarity.

My background is almost 30 years in Environmental Medicine, the human being in relationship to the environment: All foods, substances and their effect on the body. I see many people who lack energy, crave starch and sugar and subsequently don’t have mental clarity. If you are a writer and you really want to feel “switched on,” I highly recommend changing the diet—the diet of what you eat and the diet of the mind, your thoughts. Wheat and flour-based products cause fatigue and joint inflammation. Sugar, corn and caffeine will rob your energy, and bring on that edgy feeling.

Feed your brain with organic and pesticide free products, choose lots of green vegetables, and use alternative grains like quinoa, millet and varieties of rice. Within a number of days you’ll feel a boost of energy and the desire to tackle writing projects.

When I am in the middle of a book project, I get up early, walk 2 miles along the ocean, return home and eat a breakfast of protein and vegetables. I write until 1pm, take a quick lunch break with a big green salad topped with salmon, tuna, or hard-boiled egg. Then I write until 5pm when I take a break for a swim in the ocean or pool. Then I continue writing until 10pm. I drink lots of water and my favorite – white peony tea. I rarely have sweets or alcohol as I know I will lose energy. When I write, I am very focused. I feel the pressure of a deadline (mostly self-imposed) and I keep going until the project is complete. I write to help. Years ago I gave up writing fashion, because in my mind it was not inherently helpful. I have found that being a member of the International Women’s Writing Guild has been useful. At 45 dollars per year, it is the best bargain for women writers. I have spoken several times at the Guild’s “Big Apple” conferences in New York City. Being a published author is a privilege. Everyone has a story—write yours!

Caroline Sutherland is the author of The Body Knows. To read more about her go to www.carolinesutherland.com

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 18: Let Go of Being Perfect and JUST WRITE

I feel like I've been friends with Heather Conroy from Australia all my life, but I've only known her on the net. We've both had dreams that we've met. Perhaps we will one day. I WILL get myself to Australia—too many beautiful places and people to see there! Heather is top on my list! Here she is to talk about the Pareto principle ( In case you are wondering what that is, I didn't know either, but now find it a fascinating concept!):

I’ve always found writing hard. It’s not news that writers face a lot of obstacles. What I found surprising when I really started to write a few years ago is that I am my biggest obstacle. Which is why I am delighted to report that I have tackled and conquered a very self destructive and difficult writing issue in 2011. I did this by drawing on principles pioneered early last century by an Italian economist.

To get over myself and just write I have tried a number of strategies. I’ve tried writing every day to limber up. I’ve tried just showing up and assuming the position with hands on the keyboard in the hope that something will happen. I’ve also set a timer and tried to free-write for 20 minute bursts. This is supposed to trick your brain. Sometimes I’d write on a white computer screen in white font, so I couldn’t see what I was writing (also brain trickery). I admit it was therapeutic and fun to write about my state of mind as I sat frozen and unable to write. In fact, I found it possible to join these snippets together and shape them into something resembling writing. Many of these patch-worked paragraphs now appear on my blog. There was also a lot of sighing, and getting up for a coffee and never coming back. One strategy I tried revealed my biggest obstacle to writing in all its glory. Let me explain.

I don’t remember who, but some kind, well meaning, and helpful person suggested at some point that I write a letter to the wisest person I know to very briefly state my issue. I suspect that the goal of this was clarity, and that they secretly hoped that I would discover that I am the wisest person I know. The only problem was that I felt overwhelmed by too many options and I was stuck before I started the letter.

For instance His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people sprang instantly to mind. I suppose it was something about his understanding of the universal human want to avoid suffering and to be supremely happy that I hooked into. To be honest, I wasn’t happy that the Dalai Lama lacked direct experience with my type of problem. What I needed was an expert. I ran through the skills and abilities that this person must possess to earn my letter (and yes, I’m not making this up). On and on I went through all my options. Figuratively, I drew up a pros and cons list for each potential candidate. A nagging thought as I pondered each one’s merits and then rejected them was that there must be someone wiser, someone more appropriate….And there it is in a nutshell. My issue. The one where I am on a quest for perfection, for daily I deal with a huge amount of information and my quest is to find the very right piece of research to support my claims. This sea of literature is vast and I am but one tiny navigating sailor. The thought that there is always something better ahead is a real breeze stopper and I am left bobbing around, suspended, dwelling in the future, thinking about its completion, where it’s going and watching and waiting and polishing up my sentences. All this runs counter to what needs to be done which is to just work smart with what I have right now. And then ship it.

So it is right about the last week of January 2011 that I stumble on something that gets me sailing again. It is erroneously referred to as the Pareto principle because in its purest form it is a mathematical formula created in 1906 by an Italian economist who used it to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in a country where twenty percent of people own 80 percent of the wealth. Since the 1940s it has changed and morphed into the 80/20 rule and became a universal principle that acknowledges that 20 percent of effort is always responsible for 80 percent of the results.

I translate it to my writing by working out how many hours I expect it will take me to complete a particular project. For example a thesis chapter might take me 100 hours to complete. I then apply the 80/20 rule where 80% of the quality of this chapter is achieved with 20% of the effort. The other 20% of the quality is hard won (think sailing, rough seas, storms, navigating off course) and requires 80% of the effort. So I give myself 20 hours of focused effort and I then ship my chapter off to my supervisor. What surprises me is that it comes back to me swiftly with minimal changes required. I have used 20% of my energy and time to produce something that is good enough. The other 80 hours of time and energy that would take my good enough chapter to perfection I then use to ship off another piece of writing.

What I have learned to do this year is to just quieten the chatter that tells me that what I produce must be perfect. That voice is carried away by the strong winds that fill my sails and move me forward. I have shipped many pieces of writing this year with this guiding principle. I call it Pareto efficiency because efficiency refers to the ability to accomplish a task with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.

As Anne Lamott writes of perfectionism: “ It is a mean, frozen form of idealism…” and I am persevering in my efforts to get over it by leaving a recirculating flow immediately behind my moving boat.

Heather Conroy lives in Perth, Australia with her family. She is about to complete a combined Masters/PhD in Clinical Psychology from Murdoch University. She is a writer over on my other blog called Writers Rising, a collaborative blog I created from writers a few years ago. (Unfortunately, I have neglected that blog a bit, but always feel inspired when I visit. I hope to puff wind back into its sails this year with a batch of new writers and more frequent posts!) I have greatly enjoyed all my interactions with Heather and can't wait to meet her someday!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 17: Find Love Within


My co-worker, Maret, has gone through an amazing life transformation. I have been in complete awe of her this past year. She completely embodies a person who is living her truth, but it didn't come easily. Here she is to tell you about it:
I feel like a new woman today, one year after the man who I’d been with for 11 years told me out of the blue that he didn’t love me anymore. I feel like the weight of this first year on my own has lifted and I can focus on my beautiful present and amazing future. I want to release all the pain and anger and just let what happened fade into memory now. I’ve analyzed, brainstormed, reflected and expressed what went wrong and why what happened between my ex and me needed to happen for me to become the woman I am supposed to be. So now I can release all that, let it go and give it to the cosmos and to God and really be present now to enjoy and appreciate all that I have.
I was reminded of this feeling of being a new woman in a dance class at the gym today, because one year ago next week, I went to the same dance class and caught a glimpse of how I would feel and what my life might be like in this new life filled with love and not fear. It’s hard to describe in words, but the feeling I had in that glimpse was so powerful that it kept me going this past year, especially during the very difficult times. I reflect on why I may have felt that way so soon after my ex told me how he truly felt about me, and I realize now that it was empowerment and control over my life and my love that I felt that day after dance class one year ago. I caught a glimpse of how it feels to not be trapped in a love that is one-sided and can’t possibly give you what you truly need and desire, to not be dependent on someone else’s love or feel scared that they might not love you as much as you love them, that they might leave you but you’re too afraid to even talk about these real fears at the risk that they may come true.
It’s empowerment to not depend on a man to make me feel loved. It’s control to no longer believe that I won’t exist without this person’s love or that I cannot be happy or fulfilled in life without this person’s love. I now know with my heart, my big, beautiful, fragile, caring, tender, wide-open heart—or at least I’m learning—that I am worthy of love, of all the LOVE in the world, just for being me, just for being born, just for being my mother’s daughter, just for being one of Mother Nature’s and God’s children. I repeat: I AM WORTHY! I do not have to prove this to anyone or be afraid that this love will be taken away, because this LOVE resides inside me, and always will! God put this love in my heart when I was designed and created. I have just now discovered it and found the awe-inspiring, earth-shaking, powerful, wonderful, life-changing love inside ME! And I now know that through the process of getting my heart broken, I was able to find this love inside me. Sometimes you have to have your heart broken to find out that LOVE—true, beautiful, everlasting love—resides inside you, not outside.
What an incredibly powerful lesson to have learned this year and even more importantly to have realized and expressed, so that now I can truly appreciate the journey I’m on, where I’ve come from and where I am now. Wow! It’s an incredible feeling! Everything seems brighter or crisper or clearer in a way. To really believe or know in my heart that I will always be okay, that I will always survive, no matter what, is so inspiring. And to know that no loss of someone else’s love can take away the love inside me lets me finally rest in the faith I have been seeking this past year. This truly feels like I am discovering and recognizing faith, faith in the love that God designed for me, for each of us, that’s a part of our DNA, a part of our soul. NO ONE can take that from me!
Maret Kane studied and taught English abroad in Ecuador for 4 years where she fell in love with the culture & Spanish language. She now works with immigrants and refugees in a community college. In her free time, Maret enjoys walking on the beach with her boyfriend, Geovanny. She finds inspiration in dancing, whether at the gym in zumba or strengthening her core in pole dancing and hopes to belly dance more and try laughter yoga in 2012. Maret lives with her two rescued Siamese cats north of Seattle near beautiful Lake Washington.

Monday, January 16, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 16: It's Monday and You are Dying

According to Google, based on my race and gender’s life expectancy, I’m already more than halfway to the end of this road—and more than that if I smoked and didn’t look both ways before crossing the street. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the sort of thing I like to hear on a Monday morning.

Mondays are bad enough as it is. The most I can handle before my first cup of coffee is the weather report and sometimes not even that. More rain? I’m going back to bed. Unfortunately, pretending that I never Googled it doesn’t make it less true. I’ve been dying since the day I was born—and so have you.

So what exactly do you do on a day that takes you one day closer to the end? Do you slam your laptop shut, run out of your cubicle and start going through your bucket list? Do you pick your kids up early from school and have ice cream and pancakes for dinner?

Unless the world unanimously decided that mortgages were passé, electricity was free, and kids didn’t need an education, I’m betting that these are some things we probably wouldn’t do. Monday may take us closer to our final deadline, but it doesn’t change the fact that bills need to be paid tomorrow. It’s Tuesday, people, not the end of the world. We might be dying, but we still have to make dinner.

Still, even if my grocery list seems a tiny bit more urgent than my bucket list today (I’m out of cheese), the fact that this Monday is one day less from the one thousand eight hundred twenty five Mondays ahead of me, demands some amount of action. I’m starting with elevator buttons and caterpillars.

I will admit that I belong to the club of people who believe that pressing the elevator button just one more time will make it go faster. Today, I will allow the elevator and time to run its course. Today, I will not hurry my daughter on our walk to school. I will not tug her hand or herd her past her striped caterpillars. I will stop, crouch next to her and share her stories about caterpillar kings and odd shaped rocks.

It’s Monday and today I will die slowly and well.

Samantha Sotto-Yambao is a writer from the Philippines, where she lives with her family. Her first novel, Before Ever After, a quirky, time-traveling romance, caught the attention of Random House in the United States, where she received a book deal. Her blog chronicles her whirlwind tour of this book in both the Philippines and the United States! For more information about Sam, visit her website at www.samanthasotto.com

Sunday, January 15, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 15: Turn on the Sound of Silence

Vania Wang has been living in a concrete hut without a toilet on the island archipelago of Vanuatu for about a year. She has mostly lived off cabbage and sweet potatoes and her online access is spotty, so she's learned to soak into the environment around her and really "hear" what it means to be silent. I had a chance to meet with Vania while she was home from the Peace Corps over the holidays. The first thing I noticed is that this dear friend of mine had become peaceful and simple. She was full of gratitude for very basic things—things that most of us take for granted. Here she is to talk about her experiences in Vanuatu, especially her experiences with silence. Please welcome Vania Wang:

Let me preface by saying that I’m a lover of cities. I am fueled by their energy and intellectually drawn towards these buzzing beehives of human community, innovation, and art. Growing up in Seattle and later attending the University of Washington, the sounds of a city were my daily soundscape. While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would often orchestrate this soundscape in my dreams, recreating the rumbling hum of wind speeding between skyscrapers, the murmur of people in coffeehouses and libraries, and the roar of busses as they careen down highways.

All these sounds are indicative of a community constantly in motion. In order to slake the chaos of a large and diverse population that is always changing, barriers are erected to categorize and organize those who dwell there, both in the form of physical structures and micro-communities. And since city-dwellers are in perpetual flux, their walls serve a second purpose of easing the human discomfort towards change and the unknown, where like-minded individuals would find their kin in a micro-community that suits them. Cities are simultaneously chaotic and controlled, large in population but small in the number of people you can know genuinely, and full with eccentric individuals who maintain their uniqueness while also falling into the flow of encompassing trends. I was living within these dichotomies during the first twenty-one years of my life. It was when I joined the Peace Corps that I started reflecting on the differences between city and village life, and the lessons that can be learned from the daily soundscapes of both environments.

It came as a bit of a surprise to others—and on some levels, myself—that I would want to spend two years living in a small village with no electricity and plumbing on the archipelago nation of Vanuatu. All the dichotomies of a city were erased and replaced by a community that is small in population with very little anonymity, doesn’t celebrate individuality and innovation, and is neither chaotic nor controlled. The sounds of a cityscape were suddenly gone and replaced by crowing roosters, soft thud of bare feet on a dirt path, and the rumbling waves of the Pacific. Take away all the churnings, whirrls, beeps, and vrooms, of post-industrial engineering and you get the sound of silence—a silence that isn’t vacuous and empty, but a silence that emphasizes the sounds of life and the deep rumble of the ocean and earth. This silence helped me appreciate aspects of life that are ignored in a technology-driven community, especially an integral part of life that is so often avoided and shunned: death.

In the west, death is often pushed into the background of our lives by medicines and treatments that desperately try to reverse its inevitability. And so death often comes as a crippling shock when it shouldn’t, and the living mourn heavily by clinging to the memories of the past and lamenting the disappearance of a desired future. The ebb from life to death is commonplace in daily rural life in Vanuatu. Poor health care and ignorance about the rudiments of hygiene and health knowledge contribute to frequent deaths in village communities. In many villages, the dead are mourned for five days only, after which their past life and deeds are put to rest into the memories of the living. But within these five days, an unearthly chorus of wails surrounds the dead in a cloak of sorrow, adding a heavy layer to the soundscape of a village. Everyone in the village participates in The Wailing, asked to join the cacophony of sadness with the family of the dead. These are five days when the family will do nothing but mourn, with the rest of the village joining them by supporting the family with food and comfort. But after the five days, the heavy layer of wailing is lifted and life goes on as usual. The death event is no longer acknowledged, and the dead is placed behind the living. Men and women go back to the gardens to work the crops for the weekly market. Smiles once again appear on faces. Life goes on.

The most valuable lesson from listening to and living within the sounds of silence is understanding impermanence at a deeper level. Even though they don’t have the modern conveniences of hot showers, modern medicine, and comprehensive education, ni-Vans intuitively understand life’s impermanence more than many developed communities. They are reminded of the changing nature of their environment every moment by their soundscape. The thud of a fallen papaya from an over-encumbered tree will soon become rotten but will later regrow to bear more tasty fruits. The frantic clucking of a dying chicken will fertilize the ground with which farmers will use to nurture their crops. The wails of family members for the dead will transform into namesakes for newborn children, allowing the memories of the deceased to continue in future generations. The ebb of life is resonant in the village. Every moment, things are rotting and regenerating, dying and birthing.

For those who live in cities, occasionally turn off your daily soundscape and turn on the sound of silence. Wander out to the wilderness to reconnect with the earth. Build and maintain a community of close friends and family, and try to reach out to different niches and micro-communities. Travel. You will find that the sound of silence isn’t foreign to human beings, and that it’s been with us since the beginning of existence. You will find that the sound of silence manifests impermanence. You will find that turning on the sound of silence will allow life’s challenges to become more manageable, because you realize that they certainly can’t last for eternity.

Vania Wang is a Seattle native who graduated from the University of Washington in 2010 with a degree in Microbiology. She now lives in Vanuatu and works as a Community Health Peace Corps Volunteer. She speaks English, Mandarin Chinese and Bislama. She blogs over at Serdendipitous Journeys Through the Wasted Heaven.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 14: Find Your Voice

I'm a fan of Leo Babauta's blog Zen Habits, which was rated as a Top 25 Blog by Time Magazine! I love his simplistic, no-nonsense approach to life. Here he is to talk about finding your voice. Please welcome Leo Babauta:

Creators of any kind must find their voice.

We are writers, musicians, designers, programmers, parents, builders of anything. But we are not truly expressing ourselves, and speaking the truth, until we’ve found our voice: the tone, style, tenor, pitch, personality we use to express ourselves.

Our voice is our essence, writ plain for the world to see.

A reader and fellow writer asked me how I found my voice. And I have no easy answer — I’m not even sure I can say I’ve fully found my voice yet. It’s a quest that doesn’t seem to end — not a Grail quest, really, but a constant retuning as the essence of who I am neverendingly changes.

But I feel I’ve found something that has the texture of truth, even if only a tactile approximation. I’ll share some of my thoughts, but keep in mind I don’t hold the answers firmly at all.

I’m learning, and I hope my learning helps yours. This is written for writers, but the ideas are the same for anyone who creates anything.

Write a lot. This is almost all I need to say, as nothing else matters without the constant practice of writing a lot. Write blog posts and letters, booklets and diatribes, letters to the editor and book reviews, love poems and short stories, novellas and manifestos. The sheer mass of your writing becomes the raw matter from which to chisel your voice.

Experiment boldly. Rip off the greats, and the goods as well. Mimick and make it your own. Try and err.

Learn to hear yourself. My writing voice is really the voice in my head. It’s not how I talk aloud, but how I talk to myself, in the noisy cavern of my skull. I listen to myself talk, inside, and that’s the voice I try to get down in writing.

Getting that voice from your head to the virtual paper — that’s the trick. It’s not easy, but again, do it often, and you’ll get proficient at it. It’s a rewiring of the synapses, so that your head-thoughts shoot down into your fingertips and come out as typing motions, as bits and pixels. Most people don’t do this enough to get good at it, and so there is low fidelity.

Find what feels true. You’ll write a lot, and most of it will be bullshit. You need the bullshit if you want to find the truth. Sort through the bullshit until you learn to recognize the truth, by feel, not by any logical criteria. The truth looks remarkably like bullshit.

Find clarity. Good writing, it’s been said often, is clear thinking. If your thinking is muddled, your writing will be. I’d recommend a self-taught course on logic, but really I’ve found it’s a matter of simplifying. Practice removing extraneous ideas and words until you have only what’s needed to express a simple thought.

Remove the noise. It’s a process of subtraction more than addition. Most people end up with too many words, because they never subtract. The noise gets in the way of your voice, so pare it down, trimming the noise from the bush until you’re left with truth. I subtract in my head, these days, but that’s from years of practice. After you write, edit, and remove the noise.

Most people also have too much noise in their lives to hear their own thinking. Too much is going on around them, and online, and they have no time for solitude. You can’t hear your thoughts, your voice, without solitude. Remove the noise in your life as well.

Use your voice. You don’t embark on a quest for your voice just for the sake of beauty — a noble pursuit, but it’s not enough.

You must use your voice. Use it to express yourself, to help others, to change the world.

I write of simplicity in a world that’s needlessly complicated.

I write of minimalism to stem the tide of consumerism.

I write of contentment because too many feel a lacking.

I write of veganism because my heart breaks at the cruelty of our food system.

I write of unschooling to show kids they need no teacher but themselves.

I write of anarchism in a world increasingly totalitarian, especially in the growing private sector.

This is how I use my voice. How will you use yours?

Leo Babauta is a simplicity blogger & author. He created Zen Habits, a Top 25 blog (according to TIME magazine) with 200,000 subscribers, mnmlist.com, and the best-selling books focus, The Power of Less, and Zen To Done.

Babauta is a former journalist of 18 years, a husband, father of six children, and in 2010 moved from Guam to San Francisco, where he leads a simple life.